The name John B. Adger is probably not familiar to most members of the Union community, which is a very understandable fact.
He was never a Secretary of State, held no patents for inventions and never directed award-winning films. But he did play a unique role in South Carolina during the 19th century.
Adger, the son of Huguenots, was born on Dec. 13, 1810, in Charleston, S.C. From an early age, Adger was surrounded by the Bible.
According to his autobiography, Adger distinctly remembers reading the New Testament to his grandmother while being told that he would one day become a preacher.
Adger was sent north to receive education, which was a common practice of 19th century families. He spent a year at Kinderhook Academy before enrolling at Union in 1825.
Adger noted, “the astute old President of Union College (Eliphalet Nott) was the father of many New York politicians. The famous William H. Seward, Secretary of State in 1861, was one of them.”
Adger then goes on to tell of his experience of meeting a young William Seward. Star-struck, the young Adger invited the visiting Seward on a carriage ride. He was thrilled to find out the young lawyer had accepted his offer.
Reflecting upon his many years after the encounter and the Civil War, Adger said, “I have often thought what a change there might have been in the history of the United States, if I had happened unfortunately to upset the buggy and broken Seward’s neck. Possibly there had been no ‘irrepressible conflict’ in our country between free and slave labor, and possibly no war between the States.”
While at Union, Adger profoundly connected with Christianity and the Presbyterian Church.
Adger spent the years after his graduation as a missionary to Armenia, where he translated the tales of the New Testament and the Psalms for the local people. In 1846, his missionary work was no longer welcomed when it was discovered that he owned slaves in Charleston.
Adger was from a school of thought that slavery benefited African Americans. He believed slavery allowed a mass group of “pagans” to be enlightened from the words of the Bible.
He wrote, “A grand civilizing and Christianizing school, providentially prepared to train thousands of negro slaves, brought hither from Africa by other people against our protest some two hundred years ago. Never was any statement more absurdly false than that slavery degraded the negroes of the South from a higher to a lower position.”
Long after emancipation, Adger held firm that another 100 years of slavery would be needed to complete this “education” of African Americans.
It appears though that while this racism persisted within Adger, he did try his best to enlighten these slaves, in his eyes.
Adger bought a church and had the principal seats set up specifically for slaves of South Carolina. While preaching the Bible to local slaves, Adger denounced the ideas of reopening the slave trade.
He did not want the moral gains made with the American slaves to be ruined by the importation of new Africans. To reintroduce the slave trade, Adger argued, would diminish the high moral ground of the South by focusing more on economics.
Adger spent the last years of his life teaching and writing his memoirs. He died in 1899, before completing his memoirs.
Adger presents to historians today a complex character who is difficult to understand. While he was a strong believer in high morals and helping African Americans, he used these same arguments in protecting slavery.