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.



ADAMS DID not live to see the argument over slavery culminate in the cataclysm of civil war. No doubt the war’s outcome would have won his approval. As to whether he would have assessed the consequences of emancipation as “morally attractive,” we can only speculate. In the eyes of others, did purging America of its original sin render the country sinless? Or did it merely bring to the fore other sins that had accumulated?


This much we can say for certain: Adams’s belated insistence that U.S. diplomacy should have a moral component, with prudential considerations taking a backseat to moral (or ideological) imperatives—if that actually describes his reasoning and motivation—outlived him. If Edel is correct, then the neoconservatives and crusading internationalists of our own day number among his hero’s issue.

Whether on the left or the right, those keen to spread American values around the world assume that those values are universal and that activism—usually involving some form of military action—offers the best way to ensure their embrace by others. Anything less amounts to pusillanimity, appeasement or moral cowardice. As New York Times columnist David Brooks sputtered in a recent op-ed, “If America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for?”

For an authoritative answer to his question, Brooks might want to consult the preamble of the Constitution, which offers an admirably succinct statement of purpose—while containing no mention of democracy, universal or otherwise. “We the People,” it reads, aspire “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”—no more, no less. Well over two centuries later, those aspirations still await fulfillment. We may be closer, but we are surely not there yet.

Of course, as if anticipating Brooks’s question, Adams had himself once offered his own view of America’s purpose and its implications for foreign policy. This occurred on July 4, 1821, when in accordance with the custom of that era, Adams accepted an invitation from Congress to reflect on the significance of American independence. The secretary of state used the occasion to stake out a position that has discomfited proponents of militarized liberation or benign hegemony or empire gussied up as social uplift ever since.

America, Adams declared, in a vivid turn of phrase that many readers of this magazine probably know by heart, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” America was “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” The gendered language might strike us today as violating the canons of political correctness. Yet Adams attributed to the feminized nation very considerable wisdom and shrewdness. The dame was not stupid. Adams added:

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign Independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.

And then the kicker: “She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

During the twentieth century, particularly its latter half, Americans abandoned the precepts that had guided policy makers back in Adams’s day. For a nation grown accustomed to seeing itself as a superpower, the warning that Adams himself had voiced in 1821 lost its salience. Meddling—always in a worthy cause, of course—became fashionable.

By the 1990s, with policy makers no longer inhibited by the Cold War, engaging in distant wars of interest and intrigue had become a signature of U.S. policy. To invade Panama, bomb the Balkans, chase warlords in the Horn of Africa or fling cruise missiles about with abandon expressed America’s status as the world’s “indispensable nation.” Only during the first decade of the twenty-first century, largely as a consequence of the unhappy crusades in Iraq and Afghanistan, did many Americans begin to sense that something might be amiss.

Yet by this time, political elites had all but lost the ability to conceptualize a role for the United States that was not based on complacent assumptions of militarized “global leadership.” Extricating the United States from the various wars of avarice, envy and ambition in which it had become involved posed an intellectual problem for which Washington no longer possessed the necessary tools—as the Obama administration’s aimless drift and the predictability of Brooks’s op-eds amply illustrate.

Adams firmly believed, writes Edel, that “it was through the power of example, not the power of interference, that America’s mission would be fulfilled.” Adams did not confuse example with passivity. He saw it as a form of action, offering a way to use power without squandering it, to wield influence without forfeiting control or flexibility.

To posit the United States in the role of exemplar may not itself constitute a grand strategy. But it does provide a point of departure for reassessing grand strategy, at a time when such a reassessment is long past due. And for that alone, Adams deserves our lasting gratitude.


Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.