Top Left Link Buttons
  • English

The Principles of John Quincy Adams

Prof. Cliff Kiracofe
Virginia Military Institute, Washington and Lee University

Prof. Cliff Kiracofe, who teaches history at the Virginia Military Institute and political science at Washington and Lee University, discussed “The Principles of John Quincy Adams,” who most succinctly defined the foreign policy of the republican American System

Dr. Clifford Kiracofe

Ladies and Gentlemen:

My remarks today focus on John Quincy Adams and traditional values in American Foreign Policy.

Before I go into some historical background, I want to make three main points:

1 Adams believed in a foreign policy of peace through diplomacy and international law and he believed in a policy of development through international cooperation and commerce.

2. Adams opposed intervention into the internal affairs of sovereign states.

3. Adams opposed imperialism.

In my brief remarks, I will present some historical background relating to US foreign policy and the international situation we found ourselves in at various points in the past. I will then sketch out John Quincy Adams’ experience in diplomacy and some key points. I will then comment on recent US foreign policy.

PART ONE: A traditional American perspective on our nation’s history would highlight the goals of sovereign independence and economic wellbeing as well as the dangers of encirclement, civil war, and division. In this regard allow me to make four points:

1. Our Colonial period, from 1609 to 1776, demonstrated that we were not at all “isolated” from world politics. In fact, it was a challenge to maintain our security given that we in our small colonies hugging the Atlantic Ocean were encircled by formidable imperial powers: France and Britain to our north and Spain (and later France) to our west and south. European politics, diplomacy, and war had a direct impact on our security and wellbeing. We have never been isolated from world politics.

2. The Seven Years War, from 1756 to 1763, in which the British Empire nullified French power to our north resulted in our increasing vulnerability to British imperial power by eliminating the potential French ally in Canada. Thus the road was cleared for an ever increasing imperial restriction of our rights and for the limitation of our economic and geographic potential. This was the cause of our American Revolution.

3. American success in the War of 1812 put a check on British designs to reverse the results of our Revolution. As a consequence, we were able to populate and develop our country to the point where we stood as the third industrial power in the world by 1850 behind the British Empire and the French Empire. However, for some years, reactionary circles in Britain and in France sought a way to break up the American Union and thereby nullify the economic threat the United States posed to these two empires.

4. Britain and France conspired in a design to “divide and rule” by separating the North from the South via the mechanism of a Civil War. The French placed Austrian archduke Maximilian on the throne in Mexico and the British, playing both sides, aided the Southern secessionists and also the extreme Northern Abolitionists. In one scenario, Texas would have become independent of both North and South and form a “buffer state” between the Southern Confederacy and Mexico. Another scenario would have incorporated Texas and other United States territory into a Greater Mexico. Owing to President Lincoln’s leadership and to the victory of the Union military forces, however, this design failed and our Union was preserved.

PART TWO: John Quincy Adams (1767-1848)

John Quincy Adams was the son of President John Adams. From an early age he was educated for a life of public service. He accompanied his father who was an American envoy to France (1778-1779) and to the Netherlands (1780-1782) thereby learning firsthand about international affairs and diplomacy. He also studied at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

With this experience under his belt, young Adams then accompanied Francis Dana to St. Petersburg and served for three years as a secretary to the mission. He was able to travel to Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. He learned French and Dutch and became familiar with German and other European languages. Returning home to the Boston area, he graduated from Harvard, then earned a Masters Degree from Harvard, then went on to study and practice law.

In 1793, President George Washington appointed young Adams, at age 26, as minister to the Netherlands. Next, President Washington in 1796 appointed him minister to Portugal. The when his father John Adams assumed the presidency in 1797, his father appointed him minister to Prussia thus moving him on to Berlin. He served there until 1801 and during his residence renewed the very liberal and progressive treaty of friendship and commerce with Prussia.

It is interesting to note that President George Washington, when drafting his timeless “Farewell Address” incorporated some ideas and passages from a letter from John Quincy Adams sent to his father as a young diplomat in the Netherlands.

The thrust of young Adams’ argument was that the United States must remain independent from European affairs and endless intrigue. President James Madison appointed John Quincy Adams in 1809 as our first minister to St. Petersburg where he served until 1814. He then was assigned to the negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812 between the British Empire and the United States. He was then sent to London as minister from 1815-1817.

Returning to the United States, President James Monroe appointed him Secretary of State, a cabinet position he held to 1825. During this time, Adams’ masterful diplomacy gained Florida and clarified Spanish holdings in the West and adjusted the boundary line with Canada. The great accomplishments were strategic and enabled the eventual filling out of our territory as a continental country reaching to the Pacific Ocean.

We all remember the “Monroe Doctrine” which called for the European powers to stay out of the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. Adams was responsible for drafting President Monroe’s doctrine. The intention of Monroe and Adams was to protect the Western Hemisphere from European imperialism at a time when South Americans were struggling toward independence and thereafter.

The strategic and diplomatic concept was that the Western Hemisphere forms a separate system, an inter-American system, which is separate from the endless dynastic and political broils of the European system of states. This inter-American system, separate from Europe, was to be a community of principle.

During the period of John Quincy Adams’ diplomatic service, a number of young Americans traveled to Europe to take up university studies which would equip them through higher education for public service in the United States.

I would point out that the locus of such studies was the University of Goettingen in Germany. There Professor Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren taught in the departments of philosophy and history. Prof. Heeren also held official positions as an Aulic Counsellor and privy counselor. Heeren’s work focused on a new interpretation of ancient history as well as an innovative interpretation of European history and the European states system which incorporated financial and economic considerations. Prof. Heeren’s works were translated into English by the American George Bancroft and became widely used in American colleges and universities.

PART THREE: Imperialism Grips the American Foreign Policy Elite

Does present-day American foreign policy resemble anything that John Quincy Adams and the Founding Fathers would have wanted and approved? Of course not. Washington today is caught up in the policy of imperialism launched in 1898 by the Spanish-American War.

As a result of that war, in national election of 1900, the main foreign policy issue was Imperialism which the Democratic Party opposed. Shortly thereafter, however, Democrats under Woodrow Wilson fell into the policy themselves. So we can say that we have had an imperial faction in both parties since 1898 and, of course, there has been resistance to this by what we can call a traditional faction believing that we should be a strong republic but not an empire.

I will make six points in this regard and then conclude my remarks:

1. After our Civil War, a different approach to the US was set into motion by the former colonial power, the British Empire. In the context of the rise of Germany, and the Anglo-German imperial rivalry, the British sought to enlist the support of the United States through elite circles susceptible to British influence of one sort or another.  At the same time, certain elite circles in the United States were encouraged to develop an imperial outlook favorable to London rather than maintain the traditional outlook of a strong and independent republic.

2. In the United States, the “imperial faction” in 1898 launched a wholly unnecessary war against Spain and thereby obtained the Philippines as a colony. The British quietly supported this action as London calculated it would cut against expanding German influence in the Pacific and would promote closer relations between the British Empire and the American Republic. Such relations would be useful in the coming European War which eventually broke out in 1914. The ascendancy and dominance of the American imperial faction followed the Spanish-American War of 1898. As I just mentioned, “Imperialism” as United States foreign policy became a national political issue during the national elections of 1900 when the Democrat Party challenged the Republican Party over its blatantly imperialist foreign policy. Those who opposed imperialism were labeled “isolationists” in the press controlled by the imperial faction.

3. The Democrat Party soon fell to the “imperial faction” under President Woodrow Wilson.  A significant shift in Democrat Party ideology occurred. With respect to foreign policy, this shift saw the influence of Wall Street, and the penetration British influence, on foreign policy in Democrat not to mention Republican circles. Use of so-called “soft power” was linked to the use of hard power in the Wilson era. Political, psychological, and economic warfare was undertaken behind the mask of “making the world safe for democracy.” Military force was used.

4. After the end of the Cold War caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States had a historic foreign policy and national strategy choice to make. The imperial faction proposed the vain, and unsustainable, policy to become the global hegemon in a so-called unipolar world they sought to create. Traditional patriotic circles proposed we peacefully coexist as a strong republic, and responsible great power, within an emerging multipolar world respecting sovereignty and international law.

5. The Bush Administration’s unnecessary and disastrous Iraq and Afghan wars will cost the United States an estimated 5 trillion dollars by 2020. The imperial faction learned nothing from the failure of its unnecessary and costly wars in Korea and in Vietnam. In fact, there is a marked continuity in policy and personnel from the old anti-communist “China Lobby” and Korean War to the Vietnam War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the present policy of “managing the rise of China”.

6. Nothing has changed under Obama. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.