Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

Strong from the Beginning

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

In his 2004 book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, John Lewis Gaddis called John Quincy Adams “the most influential American grand strategist of the 19th century.” Charles Edel, a professor at my former institution, the U.S. Naval War College, fleshes out Gaddis’s argument in this remarkable new work. Edel has written a book I wish I had written: a dual biography, of Adams and of the early American republic.

John Quincy Adams was one of the most remarkable men ever to engage in the public life of the republic. The son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy served as a diplomat, secretary of state under James Monroe, president from 1825 to 1829, and member of the House of Representatives from 1831 until his death in 1848.

Edel describes the arc of Adams’s career in tandem with the development of the United States. In his telling, the two are inseparable.

The conventional wisdom holds that the United States merely “muddled through” in foreign affairs until the period after World War II. It is true that the United States did not possess a national-security establishment worthy of the name until World War II. And, of course, today that establishment generates an endless succession of national-security documents purporting to explain the country’s defense policy, national-security strategy, and national military strategy.

Certainly such documents did not exist during the early republic. But Edel shows that the republic did in fact pursue a coherent grand strategy. Although he does not explicitly discuss it in his book, the fount of this grand strategy can be found in George Washington’s Farewell Address, which represents a prudential combination of interest and principle to be pursued unilaterally by the United States. For Washington, the key to success in foreign affairs was a strong federal union. 

This is exactly how Adams understood American grand strategy. The choice, he wrote in 1811, was between “an endless multitude of little insignificant clans and tribes at eternal war with one another for a rock, or a fish pond, the sport and fable of European masters and oppressors” or “a nation, coextensive with the North American continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact.”

Edel contends that Adams crafted a grand strategy intended to reduce security risks to the United States while vindicating republicanism as the form of government best suited to promote human progress and liberty. Without security, nascent republican principles would not survive in a world dominated by militarized empires. Without a moral component, America offered the world nothing better than the monarchies of the Old World.

Edel points out that the rise of the American republic was not preordained. It was instead something deliberately pursued, but on a course that had to be adjusted from time to time. Edel refers to Adams as a pragmatist, but the better term for his approach is not pragmatism but prudence. According to Aristotle, prudence — deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means) — is the virtue most characteristic of the statesman, requiring him to be able to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the best means for achieving the ends, given existing circumstances.

Edel fleshes out Gaddis’s claim in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience that Adams’s grand strategy comprised three principles: hegemony, unilateralism, and preemption. Hegemony was based on the idea that North America constituted the United States’ sphere of influence and that the country’s safety precluded any sharing of power on the North American continent.

Unilateralism, which accepts the need for international cooperation in the form of treaties but rejects alliances as an unnecessary limit on American action, has often been confused with isolationism. The Monroe Doctrine represents an example of the unilateralist principle. When it became clear in the early 1820s that the newly independent Latin American republics might not be able to defend their sovereignty against Spain — especially if it were assisted by the reactionary monarchies of France, Austria, and Russia — Great Britain suggested a joint Anglo-American statement opposing future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. While President James Monroe, along with former presidents Jefferson and Madison, liked the proposal, Adams sought to transform it into a unilateral statement, in order “to avow our principles explicitly” rather than “to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

#page#Adams realized that the United States lacked the means to enforce the policy but recognized that Great Britain, with its navy, did have such means, and that its own interests in this instance would complement those of the United States even in the absence of a formal commitment. Thus the Monroe Doctrine permitted the United States to avoid the dangers illustrated by the French alliance of 1778 — the obligation to align American long-term interests with those of another state, or to provide assistance when those interests were threatened.

Preemption justifies early steps to prevent an adverse outcome. The early republic faced many threats, including a continuing European presence in North America (Great Britain in Canada, and Spain in Florida and Texas) and what we would today call “non-state actors” (marauding Indians and pirates) ready to raid lightly defended areas on the frontier. These threats were exacerbated by the weakness of what Adams called “derelict provinces” (today we would call them “failed states”), which provided sanctuary for hostile non-state actors and thus an excuse for further European intervention in the Americas.

In 1818, Florida provided an occasion to address such threats. After Creeks, Seminoles, and escaped slaves launched a series of attacks on Americans from sanctuaries in Spanish Florida, General Andrew Jackson, acting on the basis of questionable authority, invaded. Alone among Monroe’s cabinet, Adams contended that the United States should not apologize for Jackson’s preemptive expedition but should insist that Spain either garrison Florida with enough forces to prevent marauders from entering the United States or “cede to the United States a province . . . which is in fact a derelict, open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States, and serving no other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance to them.”

The result was the Adams–Onís Treaty, in which Spain recognized U.S. territorial claims to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest and transferred Florida to the United States. In return, the United States relinquished its claim to Texas as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

While Adams was a successful secretary of state, his sole term as president was a failure. Edel attributes this outcome to the interplay of Adams’s personal shortcomings, his political miscalculations, and structural shifts within the republic — most notably the rise of Jacksonian populist democracy, the reinvigoration of the party system, and the disruptive role of slavery within the American polity.

During the final chapter of his remarkable career — as a member of the House of Representatives — Adams emerged as a vociferous opponent of “the peculiar institution.” Up to this point, he had been focused on preserving, securing, expanding, and developing the nation. But the final component of Adams’s grand strategy required that the United States be not only powerful but also moral. Edel writes that “to expand the republic, prevent it from territorial encroachment, develop its resources . . . Adams, like the Constitution’s framers, had been willing to stay silent about slavery. But ultimately, he realized that his and the United States’ mission was incomplete if it perpetuated and did not destroy slavery.”

Adams, writes Edel, was the first American statesman to articulate a grand strategy that integrated the political goals of the fledgling republic, set priorities among those goals, and developed a sequence of actions designed to achieve them. As a diplomat, Adams worked to inoculate the United States from Europe’s wars. As secretary of state, he pursued territorial expansion and continental hegemony. As president, he worked to develop domestic infrastructure, education, and commerce. As an anti-slavery member of Congress, he labored to reconcile the principles of the American founding, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, with American actions.

As Edel makes clear, these were all components of a long-term grand strategy designed to reduce security risks to the United States while vindicating republicanism as the form of government most likely to result in human progress and liberty. The United States has been most successful when it has pursued the sort of grand strategy that Adams envisioned. Charles Edel has written a book worthy of the author of that grand strategy.

– Mr. Owens is the editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He recently retired as a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.

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