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John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) may have had an embattled presidency, but his tenure as the nation’s eighth secretary of state (1817–25) was marked by impressive achievements. Prior to his position at the State Department, Adams, who was fluent in several languages, had served abroad as an envoy to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom. His knowledge of international affairs was unparalleled in the early republic.
These remarks delivered to the House of Representatives on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence have been cited repeatedly as a reminder that the United States should resist the temptation to intervene abroad. Yet John Quincy Adams was no isolationist. He was a staunch advocate for international trade and supported America’s expansion in its disputes with Mexico and in Spanish-controlled Florida. And as we shall see (See The Monroe Doctrine), he firmly believed that the United States had a special role throughout the Americas. In the great ideological battles over the role the United States should play in supporting republican movements abroad, however, Adams urged his countrymen to embrace a rational understanding of the nation’s power and its resources, and balance that against its commitment to republican ideals. In other words, America’s efforts to export its ideals must take into account its capabilities.
Secretary Adams’ remarks were delivered in the midst of a revolution where Greece was fighting for independence from Turkish rule. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, Greek revolutionaries asked for American intervention. Many Americans, including Congressman Henry Clay (1777–1852), argued that the nation should help those who were fighting for the same principles that motivated the American war for independence. One Harvard professor proclaimed that the movement in Greece was an opportunity for the United States to fulfill its special obligation to assist in the “political regeneration of the world.” While Adams wished the Greek freedom fighters continued success, the extent of the assistance offered by the U.S. government remained minimal at best.
John Quincy Adams, An Address Delivered at the Request of a Committee of the Citizens of Washington for Celebrating the Anniversary of Independence at the City of Washington on the Fourth of July, 1821 (Cambridge, Hilliard and Metcalf, 1821), 31–32, 34, available at https://www.google.com/books/edition/An_Address_Delivered_at_the_Request_of_t/QjM5AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0.
… And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration,1 the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells,2 should find their hearts disposed to inquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama3 the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. 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 … She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….
… [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice….