In Search of John Quincy Adams

October 30, 2014 Topic: The PresidencyHistory Region: United States

In Search of John Quincy Adams

Charles N. Edel’s new book Nation Builder misreads the historical significance of America’s sixth president.

Charles N. Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 432 pp., $29.95.

 

THINK OF John Quincy Adams as the Elvis of American statecraft: creative genius, preeminent practitioner and enduring inspiration. Well, make that Elvis minus the charisma.

So Charles Edel argues in Nation Builder . Edel, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College, believes that Adams personally devised the “comprehensive grand strategy” that guided the United States for decades and “set the nation on a course to long-term security, stability, and prosperity.” The “detailed policy road map” that Adams developed sought “to harness the country’s geographic, military, economic, and moral resources,” with the ultimate aim of bringing “America to a position of preeminence in the world.”

The problem here starts with misplaced paternity. To credit Adams with fathering U.S. grand strategy is the equivalent of saying that Elvis invented rock and roll. Doing so ignores all the other worthies, predecessors and contemporaries alike who lent a hand. The King was as much product as he was pioneer. Meanwhile, what may rank as Adams’s most lasting contribution somehow escapes Edel’s notice altogether.

 

Raised by John and Abigail Adams—who never doubted that their oldest son was meant for greatness—John Quincy Adams lived an exceedingly consequential life, virtually all of it spent in service to antebellum America. He knew everyone from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. As a diplomat, he was the Ryan Crocker of his day, serving every president from George Washington to James Madison with quiet distinction. Next came elevation to the post of secretary of state, followed by a term as president and, finally, seventeen years as a member of the House of Representatives. Appropriately, he died in harness, after suffering a stroke while on the House floor.

The time that Adams spent as the nation’s chief diplomat under James Monroe marked the pinnacle of his illustrious career. Edel’s account sustains the common assessment that Adams was not only the right candidate for that job, but also that he was appointed to fill it at precisely the right time. Man and moment aligned perfectly.

By comparison, the four years Adams lived in the White House surely represent his professional low point. The qualities that made him such a superb secretary of state—subtlety, prudence and constancy—did not easily translate into the hurly-burly world of electoral politics filled with backslapping wheeler-dealers. So one of our most effective secretaries of state became one of our least effective chief executives. Edel’s description of Adams’s presidency as an “abject failure” seems about right.

Yet even when he was at the top of his game, Adams was adapting a playbook that was largely the handiwork of others. Although he kept a diary that eventually ran to almost seventeen thousand pages, Adams never got around to expressing his strategic vision in so many words. He never penned a “Long Telegram.” He never published an equivalent of George F. Kennan’s “X” article.

So by pasting together what Adams said on this occasion and did on that one, Edel infers that strategy. This is a bit like divining the philosophy of Homer by taking bits and pieces from episodes of The Simpsons —a clever enough trick but not to be taken too seriously. The same can be said of Edel’s efforts at divination. As he himself concedes at the outset, “The challenge to the historian is that Adams’s grand strategy for himself and for the country was far from explicit. . . . His strategy is something that must be inferred.” It is difficult to avoid the impression that rather than an explication of Adams’s thinking, this is an exercise in ventriloquism.

 

THE GRAND strategy that Edel credits Adams with devising consists of several elements, which share this common characteristic: they are as recognizable as a box of Cheerios and as familiar as a Budweiser commercial. Among the key elements are these. First, steer clear of foreign entanglements, especially any that might draw the young Republic into unneeded conflicts and create division at home. Second, exploit opportunities for expansion, both commercial and territorial. Third, invest in the infrastructure and institutions needed to promote internal development. The overarching aim was clear: to enhance American security, prosperity and power. The endgame: greatness.

For early America, this was indeed an ideal framework for policy, as events soon proved. Yet Adams hadn’t invented that framework. He had merely embraced it. To claim, as does Edel, that Adams “crafted a strategy of continental expansion and hegemony” is misleading and bogus.

If American grand strategy during this era actually had an author, it was George Washington. With its warning against “passionate attachments” and its “great rule of conduct,” Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 charted an appropriate path for a small nation entertaining big ambitions. “If we remain one people under an efficient government,” Washington wrote, “the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance.” Neutrality today pointed toward freedom of action tomorrow, holding the promise that in time the United States would be able to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”