In the fall of 2019, a group of historians and foreign-policy scholars founded the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Featuring thinkers such as Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Wertheim and funded by the unlikely duo of Charles Koch and George Soros, the organization named after John Quincy Adams calls for a restrained, noninterventionist U.S. foreign policy. Its stated mission is to “set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing” based on “diplomatic engagement and military restraint.” Its mantra is Adams’s pithy quotation that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” which Bacevich contends “has discomfited proponents of militarized liberation or benign hegemony or empire gussied up as social uplift ever since.”
According to documents published on its website, the Quincy Institute wants to “reduce U.S. military operations in the Taiwan Strait,” concede Chinese military dominance in the South China Sea, “significantly withdraw troops” from the Middle East, offer Iran billions of dollars of IMF loans “to fight the coronavirus pandemic,” slash American commitments to NATO, and reduce the military budget.
The recommendations on the Middle East and Iran are of particular note. For among the Quincy Institute’s coterie of experts are numerous figures who have been publicly antagonistic toward Israel and America’s close relations with the Jewish state. These include Lawrence Wilkerson, a bitter critic of “the Jewish lobby in America”; the indefatigable investigators of American Jews’ dual loyalties, Paul Pillar and Chas Freeman; and leading “Israel Lobby” conspiracy authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
Bear in mind, the institute is named after a man who in 1825 endorsed “the rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation.” That the anti-Zionist scholars of the Quincy Institute are at odds here with their organization’s namesake is not surprising. In fact, they misunderstand John Quincy Adams’s foreign-policy thinking in general. Bacevich laments, “During the 20th century, particularly its latter half, Americans abandoned the precepts that had guided policy makers back in Adams’s day…. Meddling—always in a worthy cause, of course—became fashionable.” To him, “Adams’s singular achievement, articulated in the Monroe Doctrine, was to position the United States for hemispheric hegemony, while still heeding Washington’s dictum to avoid ‘interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe.’” He has also praised Adams for “avoiding unnecessary trouble” and continuing an American grand strategy that “emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great-power rivalries abroad.” Wertheim adds that Adams “came to strongly oppose U.S. expansionism in the 1840s and 50s.”
An informed understanding of Adams’s thought and career not only reveals a man very different from the caricature drawn by noninterventionists, it also provides a set of principles for American foreign policy today. Adams was assertive, even hawkish, in pursuit of American interests, which included not only territorial expansion and security in the Western Hemisphere, but also other interests that spanned the globe. He recognized the key role that Asia and the Pacific would play in the American future, and he confronted great powers to position the United States for its role as a Pacific power. He was a shrewd and exacting judge of power, and as American strength increased, so did his ambitions for his country. Yet he was not a cold-blooded Machiavellian; from the outset, he believed that the U.S. had a special destiny in the world and that its foreign policy must be informed by this purpose.
ALMOST EXACTLY 200 years ago, on February 22, 1821, the Transcontinental Treaty went into effect. Adams declared this “the most important moment in my life.” When he had become secretary of state in 1817, the U.S. claim west of the Rocky Mountains was heavily disputed, and Florida, still a Spanish colony, contained hostile Native Americans, armed groups of runaway slaves, and roving mercenaries who threatened the southern border. After years of skirmishes and border raids, General Andrew Jackson invaded Florida in 1818, burning villages, executing two captured British citizens, and seizing Spanish forts and towns. The Spanish were enraged, and the American minister in London fretted that “war might have been produced by holding up a finger.”
Nearly every member of the Cabinet urged President Monroe to disavow Jackson and order a withdrawal—every member, that is, except John Quincy Adams. He recommended that the president stand firm, arguing that “if the question was dubious, it was better to err on the side of vigor than on the side of weakness.” After convincing Monroe, he informed the Spanish that although the American forces would partially withdraw, if “the necessities of self-defense should again compel the United States to take possession of the Spanish forts and places in Florida…another unconditional restoration of them must not be expected.” Madrid negotiated away Florida and, on Adams’s insistence, its claim to Oregon, too.
While Adams had addressed immediate U.S. concerns, he opposed U.S. support for the Latin American colonies revolting against Spain because he saw no American interests at stake. He said of such proposed colonies: “I had seen and yet see no prospect that they would establish free or liberal Institutions of Government.”
This context is crucial for understanding his most famous address, delivered on July 4, 1821. Adams proclaimed that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were “the only legitimate foundation of civil government.” However, he argued against intervening diplomatically or militarily on behalf of the Latin American revolutions because the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” He went on: “She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” Adams warned that “by once enlisting under other banners than her own,” the U.S. “might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” The foreign diplomats present did not pay much attention to this part of the speech, since they were more concerned by the finale: Adams encouraged subjects of foreign monarchs to follow the Declaration’s example, exclaiming, “Go thou and do likewise!”
Interpreting the speech as a blanket condemnation of “meddling” abroad is a mistake. Adams was willing to intervene in foreign conflicts and promote liberties in Latin America when it served American interests. In April 1823, for example, Adams instructed the American minister in Spain to inform his hosts that if Madrid mishandled its colony in Cuba, “the United States will be fully justified in supporting” an anticolonial uprising because the island was “an object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.” He ordered one diplomat to promote “a constitution emanating from the people and deliberately adopted by them” and advised another, saying, “among the usual objects of negotiation in treaties of commerce and navigation are the liberty of conscience and of religious worship.” Promoting freedom “by all the moral influence which we can exercise by our example, is among the duties which devolve upon us,” he wrote. And Joel Poinsett, Adams’s minister to Mexico, was so active in organizing liberal forces that poinsettismo became slang for American meddling.
After Latin American countries won their independence in the early 1820s, the “Holy Alliance” led by France and Russia threatened to help Madrid reconquer its colonies. Britain proposed an Anglo-American statement against this plan, but Adams thought it better “to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France than to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” Monroe authorized Adams to warn the Russians against any such adventurism and personally announced the anticolonial Monroe Doctrine in 1823. Adams also informed the Colombian government that if it were threatened by the Holy Alliance, “the United States could not undertake resistance to them by force of Arms, without a previous understanding” with Britain, but “this there is no reason to doubt could be obtained.” Austria’s Prince Klemens von Metternich sputtered that the Americans “have astonished Europe by a new act of revolt, more unprovoked, fully as audacious, and no less dangerous” than the American Revolution, and a French journal condemned the United States as a “dictator.”
During Adams’s own presidency, from 1825 to 1829, his active foreign policy became too much to bear for his political opponents. In 1825, President Adams wanted to send delegates to the Congress of Panama to discuss religious freedom and collective defense against the Holy Alliance. Detractors objected, worrying that the Latin Americans might push antislavery measures. Moreover, this seemed to be courting the kind of foreign entanglements that George Washington had warned against in his farewell address.
In his reply to critics, Adams addressed the true meaning of Washington’s farewell and how the country and its interests had changed. “I cannot overlook the reflection that the counsel of Washington in that instance, like all the counsels of wisdom, was rounded upon the circumstances in which our country and the world around us were situated at the time when it was given,” he said. “Compare our situation and the circumstances of that time with those of the present day, and what, from the very words of Washington then, would be his counsels to his countrymen now?” He then turned to the U.S.’s new strengths:
Reasoning upon this state of things from the sound and judicious principles of Washington, must we not say that the period which he predicted as then not far off has arrived; that America has a set of primary interests which have none or a remote relation to Europe; that the interference of Europe, therefore, in those concerns should be spontaneously withheld by her upon the same principles that we have never interfered with hers, and that if she should interfere, as she may, by measures which may have a great and dangerous recoil upon ourselves, we might be called in defense of our own altars and firesides to take an attitude which would cause our neutrality to be respected, and choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, should counsel. The acceptance of this invitation, therefore, far from conflicting with the counsel or the policy of Washington, is directly deducible from and conformable to it.
As on many other issues, Adams was far more hawkish than most of his contemporaries. The allies of his then-rival Andrew Jackson replied that Washington’s advice was “universal and immutable, acknowledging no distinction in time or place.” Adams understood the trajectory and implications of Washington’s arguments; it was his opponents who were the farewell-address fundamentalists.
WHILE BACEVICH concedes that Adams was in favor of “ruthless expansionism on this continent” and “hemispheric hegemony,” he maintains that “avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great-power rivalries abroad” were his other priorities.
How does this claim stand against the historical record?
Adams understood that the United States had global interests that required widespread deployments of military forces. By the time of his appointment as secretary of state, American naval forces had already engaged in combat not only in the Caribbean and waters bordering the United States, but as far abroad as the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Adams was an adamant supporter of the Second Barbary War against the “pirate states” on the African coast that seized ships for ransom, and he enthused, “Our naval campaign in the Mediterranean has been perhaps as splendid as anything that has occurred in our annals since our existence as a nation.” He later advocated a “permanent naval peace establishment…adaptable to that gigantic growth with which the nation is advancing in its career.”
He did not, contrary to Bacevich, hesitate to confront great powers, either. Adams thought Britain’s and France’s restrictions on American trade during the Napoleonic Wars “strike at the root of our independence.” He supported Jefferson’s anti-British embargo, even though it cost him his Senate seat, and, unlike many New Englanders, he supported his country during the War of 1812. After the war, he hoped that Americans would learn that “the most painful, perhaps the most profitable lesson of the war was the primary duty of the nation to place itself in a state of permanent preparation for self-defence.” Decades later, he defied New England public opinion and his fellow Whig Party members by siding with Jackson when a dispute with France over trade reparations from the wars brought the country to the brink of another war. Adams defended American global trade interests even when it was politically costly to do so.
Although he endeavored to remove European influence from the Americas, Adams realized that American interests stretched into the Pacific. One of his first acts as secretary of state was to dispatch a ship to assert American claims in Oregon, which was important to American trade with China but disputed by Britain, Russia, and Spain. When the British protested, Adams replied that “it would hardly be worth the while of Great Britain” to argue with him over Oregon, and he later told the Russians: “We should contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment” (emphasis in the original). The Russians dropped their claim. During his tenure at the State Department, the U.S. Navy formed the Pacific Squadron, and, as president, Adams argued that “a flourishing commerce and fishery extending to the islands of the Pacific and to China still require that the protecting power of the Union should be displayed under its flag as well upon the ocean as upon the land.” He sent ships to Hawaii to clear out pirates and remind the Europeans of American interests there and later worried that the Tyler administration’s racism would drive Hawaii into Britain’s sphere of influence.
Although the U.S. could not project much power in Asia during his lifetime, Adams supported Britain’s interventions to curb Chinese imperial pretensions. When Britain and China fought a war over China’s trade restrictions and the American public took China’s side, Adams denounced the Chinese empire because it “admits no obligation to hold commercial intercourse with others. It utterly denies the equality of other nations with itself, and even their independence.” He added, “It is time that this enormous outrage upon the rights of human nature, and upon the first principle of the rights of nations should cease.”
WERTHEIM and others mistakenly suppose that Adams opposed American expansion toward the end of his life. They cite Adams’s fear, confessed in 1844, that annexing Texas would be “the turning-point of a revolution which transforms the North American Confederation into a conquering and warlike nation,” with “a military government, a large army, a costly navy, distant colonies, and associate islands in every sea.”
Was the great man, a leading advocate for naval expansion and American claims in the Pacific, renouncing his life’s work? No. In fact, Adams reached for every argument and tool at hand to prevent slave owners from subverting the Constitution and installing “a Marshal’s truncheon for a sceptre.” This meant that where expansion could produce more free states, he was downright belligerent.
Adams had tried to slow slavery’s expansion since his time at the State Department. During the negotiations leading up the Transcontinental Treaty, he argued tenaciously for as much Spanish territory as he could get—except for Texas, which he let slip through his fingers. He told a senator from Illinois in 1820, “As an Eastern man, I should be disinclined to have either Texas or Florida without a restriction excluding slavery from them.” Monroe agreed, stating that “the further acquisition of territory, to the West and South, involves difficulties of an internal nature which menace the Union itself.” During the Texas war for independence, Adams opposed aiding the revolting slaveholders, and in 1838 he successfully filibustered Van Buren’s attempt to annex Texas. He led the opposition to the Mexican–American War, and the last words he spoke on the House floor in 1848 were to oppose a motion commending the war’s generals, many of whom were political cronies.
Where there were no slave interests, Adams was willing to fight even Great Britain, the then-global superpower. When an 1845 confrontation over Oregon saw Britain prepare for war, Adams was spoiling for a fight. Speaking to the House, he argued: “After negotiating for twenty years about this matter we may take possession of the subject matter of negotiation,” meaning Oregon. “Indeed, we may negotiate after we take possession, and this is the military way of doing business.” As precedent, he cited Frederick the Great’s invasion of Silesia, which had sparked the War of the Austrian Succession a century earlier. Adams buttressed his proposal with legal and historical arguments, but also with Psalm 2:8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Note the lack of limiting principle.
Just as Adams’s policies were “directly deducible from and conformable to” Washington’s counsels, Adams’s greatest disciple furthered his work. During his time as a senator from New York, William Seward urged his country to use its strengths to “command the empire of the seas, which alone is real empire.” He eagerly anticipated America’s “future progress” and commercial domination “through the Manillas and along the Indian coast, and beyond the Persian Gulf to the far-off, Mozambique.” He predicted that the United States would stretch from the tropics to the polar circle “and shall include even distant islands in either ocean.” After Abraham Lincoln made Seward secretary of state, the United States acquired Alaska and Midway Island; he wanted Hawaii too, but Congress balked. Adams’s true legacy is one of expansion, not retrenchment. And there is no finer summation of this legacy than Seward’s eulogy for the man:
John Quincy Adams “loved peace and ensued it.” He loved peace as a Christian, because war was at enmity with the spirit and precepts of a religion which he held to be divine. As a statesman and magistrate, he loved peace, because war was not merely injurious to national prosperity, but because, whether successful or adverse, it was subversive of liberty.… But he was no visionary and no enthusiast. He knew that as yet war was often inevitable—that pusillanimity provoked it, and that national honor was national property of the highest value; because it was the best national defense. He admitted only defensive war–but he did not narrowly define it. He held that to be a defensive war, which was waged to sustain what could not be surrendered or relinquished without compromising the independence, the just influence, or even the proper dignity of the State.
As for the Quincy Institute, it’s worth recalling something that Andrew Bacevich wrote back in 2012: “Call it a hallowed tradition. To invest their views with greater authority, big thinkers—especially those given to pontificating about the course of world history—appropriate bits of wisdom penned by brand-name sages. Nothing adds ballast to an otherwise frothy argument like a pithy quotation from John Quincy Adams or George F. Kennan or Reinhold Niebuhr.” In embracing this hallowed tradition, the Quincy Institute has cast aside an older and better one: John Quincy Adams’s foreign policy.
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