UnknownRecently, I had the opportunity to read and review historian Charles N. Edel’s excellent new book about John Quincy Adams, titled, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic.

The review will soon be published at the Center for International Maritime Security. Intrigued, however, I wanted to learn more. Last week, we had the opportunity to talk about his book, JQA’s life, the US Navy, and grand strategy in the 19th century. It turned out to be a wide-ranging and interesting discussion.

Why John Quincy Adams?

When I was working at the Council of Foreign Relations many years ago, my boss, Walter Russell Mead, talked incessantly about framing contemporary policy choices in terms of historical evolution. That is something that always resonated with me: that you need to understand the present in terms of the past. While I was working there, Walter handed me a short little book by John Lewis Gaddis called Surprise, Security, and the American Experience; it’s a terrific book, it’s a provocative book, and it makes the argument that at moments of profound insecurity Americans seek to come up with ways of exerting their influence and securing their environment. And in fact, moments of profound insecurity often lead to the conception of new grand strategies.

In this book Gaddis compares three such moments: The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the aftermath of the burning of Washington D.C. in 1814. The argument is that the grand strategy that follows these moments and the men who craft it (John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and G.W Bush) are in response to their environments. And the argument in this book is that John Quincy Adams conceptualizes the grand tragedy for America in the 19th century.

I was intrigued by this argument and, as Gaddis argues that Adams’s legacy influenced both Roosevelt and Bush, I wanted to find out if it was true. The more I started reading about Adams, the more it seemed that every historian of American history talked about John Quincy Adams as the central figure for American foreign policy in the 19th century. But they couldn’t agree why he was the central figure. What’s more his personality and character seem shrouded in a dense fog. His son and his grandson had no clue who he was – his son talked about him wearing an iron mask that was impenetrable. On the other hand, he left just about the largest written record of anyone in American history, as he kept a daily diary that spanned his entire life—and, indeed, almost all the critical events in antebellum America. So I thought: what an intriguing project. First, to understand if John Quincy Adams was a grand strategist, second, what was his grand strategy, and then third, how did it matter today?

Why does his father seem to overshadow him?

Nothing intrigues Americans quite so much as our founding. John Quincy is not critical to the founding moments in American history—he’s only a small boy at the time—whereas it would be hard to argue that anyone did as much for the cause of American independence as John Adams.
I also think John Adams mellowed in his old age to a certain degree: he resumes his correspondence with Jefferson; he has wonderful correspondence with his wife, Abigail Adams. John Quincy Adams doesn’t have a Jefferson, and the humanity is not there in the same extent it was with his father. The second thing is that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are very conscious that they are writing about their legacy, and for the future of the United States. While both Adams and Jefferson believe they are correct, they still acknowledge that each has something interesting to say. John Quincy goes in the opposite direction as he ages. He is not in a reconcilable mood. He becomes more partisan the older he gets. But he is also a different figure; not a warm and fuzzy figure as his father was, (though, to be fair, none of his contemporaries would ever accuse John Adams of being warm and fuzzy). John Quincy doesn’t mellow in age; he sharpens distinctly.

John Quincy himself discusses his own life as a failure. He doesn’t see the policies he set up as success, whereas John Adams is able to take some satisfaction from seeing some of his policies mature. Throughout his life, John Quincy Adams would feel that he did not accomplish as much as his father did.

Do you think he was satisfied with his life?

John Quincy Adams. Copy of 1843 Daguerreotype by Philip Haas.

John Quincy Adams. Copy of 1843 Daguerreotype by Philip Haas.

There seemed to be some moments of satisfaction. But at many points in his life he refers to himself as a Job like figure. In many ways, he sees his job as one of persistence and endurance. If he thinks about his policies, how his plans have gone awry, how others have distorted his policies, then he is rather less pleased with the result. But he’s not really someone who is satisfied – ever. Maybe that is the Puritan in him. At his state funeral they read a passage from the book of Job and a letter from his mother that was written when he was a young boy. And there was this wonderful quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Choose wisely and accordingly to his constitution, when, on leaving the presidency he went into Congress. He’s no literary old gentleman, but a bruiser and loves the melee. When they talk about his age and his venerableness and nearness to the grave, he knows better, he is like one of those old cardinals, who, as quick as he has chosen Pope, throws away his crutches and crookedness and is straight as a boy. He’s an old roué who cannot live on slops, but must have sulfuric acid in his tea.” Another great insight comes from a British foreign minister who said that, in diplomatic circles, Adams was like a bulldog among cocker spaniels. In other words, he was there to advocated tenaciously for the country’s national interests, not to express diplomatic niceties.

How does John Quincy Adams view the role of the US Navy during his Presidency?

He imbibes many of the ideas about the importance of a Navy from his father, who is credited with being the founder of the US Navy. John Quincy is taken as a young boy to Europe, where if they are captured on the high seas in the middle of the American Revolution, things aren’t going to end well for his father – and perhaps not well for him either. One could argue that such experiences imprint themselves on the young boy, causing Adams to understand from a very early age the importance of a Navy for the young Republic’s security.

The significance of a navy is further reinforced to John Quincy through his diplomatic career. He is dealing with a world, with an international system, dominated by an Anglo-French colonial and maritime rivalry. If America wanted to maintain its neutral commerce in the seas and be able to ignore both Britain and France’s objections, it would need the means to do so. Which, specifically, meant having a powerful Navy. John Quincy, of course, recognized that this was no easy task for the United States. He knew that his fellow citizens hated taxing themselves and would not, absenting a national emergency, do so at a level sufficient for defense of the nation. Adams asserted that America’s independence of action came not from its unique “representative democracy,” but rather from the “real power” of its “armed force.”

I should also add one other factor: he’s from New England. Fisheries, commerce, and maritime trade matter immensely. Now, he often doesn’t line up with where New England lines up – that is, he doesn’t defer always to the British when it conflicts with business interests of the New England states. But he thinks the United States not only needs to be a commercial state but also have the ability to defend its commercial interests. In his presidential address to Congress in 1825 he purposes the idea of a naval academy. While Annapolis was not founded until 1845, John Quincy Adams called for the establishment of a Naval Academy on par with West Point, the “formation of scientific and accomplished officers,” and a massive shipbuilding program two decades earlier.

General View of the Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, a wood engraving after a drawing by W. R. Miller

View of the Naval Academy in 1853, Annapolis, Maryland, a wood engraving after a drawing by W. R. Miller

As a historian what was one of the more interesting things you found out about the man?

It’s his diary. It is probably the greatest and most comprehensive diary in 19th century America. He starts it at the age of 12 and keeps it every day until he drops dead on the floor of congress in 1848. It’s in 51 manuscript volumes. He has a stroke in the last year of his life, and until that point his handwriting is immaculate. There are more than 14,000 pages that make up this diary. Every day he is recording who he met and what they talked about and what he thought about the meeting. It is a remarkable record of what Adams was thinking about and what he thought he was trying to accomplish. As a historian you always wonder if he was writing with me in mind – does he want me to discover this? And, of course, the answer is sometimes yes—as he seems to be writing as much for posterity as he is for himself. Which, of course, means one has to treat his words critically.

There are two passages I found most compelling. One I quote in the final pages of the book. In 1822 he is struggling with this question: Is morality the same for an individual as it is for a State? He has been raised to believe that it is. But he understands that these might not be the same things. What might be virtuous for a person might be too pure for the dealings of a state. He is neither the first nor the last American statesman to struggle with this question.

The second passage is the one I use to begin chapter five. The longest and most anguished entries in his entire diary all come between Jan-Nov 1820, when he is secretary of state, and everyone is talking about and debating slavery. And it is because the Missouri question has been brought up—a political question about whether or not the expansion of slavery into new territories can be regulated by the federal government. This is a remarkable debate; and, for most American politicians it is a terrifying debate: Jefferson himself in his old age thought this was an alarm bell that woke him up in the middle of the night and had him fearing for the future of his country. This question was brought up inside the cabinet. The President asks for feedback on the slavery question. Adams is opposed to slavery’s extension, but his is a minority position in the cabinet. He is the only person on the cabinet that is not a southerner. And while he is willing to advocate for his position in private, he does not take up this argument in public. He does, however, take some long walks around Washington with John Calhoun – and these are 5, 10, 15 page entries – in which Calhoun, a Southerner, tries to educate him about slavery. Adams captures all these discussions in his diary. These conversations blow his mind on how southerners think about this issue.

Did you relate to him when you were researching your book?

He is a model in so many ways. A deeply brilliant man. It’s hard not to be taken in by his words and also by his long term views and insights to the country. But, in his dealings with other people—his political enemies, but also his supporters, and often even his own family, he is not the most pleasant person to be around. Still, I think he is pretty great…not perfect, though, and I wouldn’t put him on a pedestal. But, yes, he is a magnificently interesting figure, and a compelling one.
You have a great quote in the book that refers to Adams inability to come up with practical results.

Was Adams a bad politician?

He’s not a bad politician. You can’t say that someone who ends up as President is a bad politician. He does tack, he does shift, and he is not a dummy about it. And yet on the other hand I think he suffers from what I call the “Adams syndrome.” If you are an Adams, you are the smartest person in the room, you have the longest term vision of anyone in the room, and you are so annoying about those two things that you alienate almost everyone, almost immediately, and lose control of your own policies. Adams’s ability to make compromises, particularly when he is President, is very low. He seems to be happier when he is in opposition.

One of the interesting anecdotes you have in the book, is Adams’s frustration with the piles of paperwork that he is drowning in during his time as Secretary of State. It sure seems that things never change. Could you elaborate on this?

I think it is an interesting anecdote. But what is more interesting is what he decides to do about it. He’s always pressed for time; there are always officer seekers, and the State Department seems to regularly lose important treaties—which often leaves him in rather awkward diplomatic predicaments. He begins to think about bureaucratic structures to reduce this chaos. He starts assigning different people different functions; setting out clear guidelines for how diplomatic correspondence is done; how instructions from Washington D.C. are set up. They really are the guidelines that are set out for the state department for the next 100 years.

The Stone Library was built by Charles Francis Adams in 1870. In the will of John Quincy Adams (Article 16, Dated: Jan. 18, 1847), he suggested a fireproof building where his books, manuscripts, and maps could be kept together.

The Stone Library was built by Charles Francis Adams in 1870. In the will of John Quincy Adams (Article 16, Dated: Jan. 18, 1847), he suggested a fireproof building where his books, manuscripts, and maps could be kept together.

Is this a man that needs to stay busy to keep his demons at bay?

Yes, absolutely. I think it is true and he himself said it was true. He said something to the effect of “regularity is what regulated him.” When you read Adams you realize this is someone who falls into the “blue devils” – as the 19th century term was used – more than one time in his life. He had a debilitating depression when he is just out of college and he is studying law. He has to withdraw from reading law and just go home and sit for a couple of months until he can function in a normal way again. And this depression returns when he is President. This is certainly not a good time to be depressed, as he himself recognizes. So I think that being active, super-hyper active, is something that helps him control his inner-self.

How do people misuse his famous line “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Adams was not warning future administrations away from helping aspiring democrats, but rather giving his successors a lesson in the necessary trade-offs foreign policy demands. This statement, however, is often invoked to advocate a position that the United States ought not to intervene in a particular situation. At the extreme end, it is used as an argument that America should always take an isolationist, aloof position in international affairs. Where I think we need to be more circumspect is that Adams himself did not say that America should never go abroad. He made this statement at a particular time and place in response to a unique set of circumstances.

Adams was trying to ensure the United States focused its resources at home and not offer European powers a pretext for intervening in the western hemisphere. Adams himself would be the first to note that changing circumstances, changing contexts, must necessarily mean changing policies. In multiple instances, Adams talks about how precedent should not become a policy straight-jacket; the nation needs to keep in mind the changing nature of American power and the shifting international environment. What made sense when the nation was a small power on the edge of the world, might not make as much sense to the nation’s ambitions when it has grown in size and security. Adams would demand that we assess rationally the foreign policy aims we seek and that we carefully consider the best use of the precious resources of the republic.

Adams was never shy about promoting American values, nor using military power when doing so would advance American interests. But, he was keenly aware of the relationship between America’s capabilities and its ambitious aims. That is, Americans, in Adams’s estimate wanted to support democratic revolutions abroad before they had even finished establishing their own. Adams saw the danger of U.S. missionary zeal outstripping American capabilities and thought this would leave the nation highly vulnerable.

Adams wanted to build American power at home before trying to wield American influence abroad. Those who quote Adams as advocating isolation in foreign affairs often miss the domestic corollary of his pronouncement. As America grew to power, Adams advocated using the nation’s resources for the good of its own citizens—making the nation a positive model of what republican government can do for its own citizens. Abstention in distant conflicts was intimately linked to a progressive vision of state power in the domestic context. Adams advocated for improvements in infrastructure, investments in higher education, funding for scientific research, and innovations in manufacturing and agriculture. The best way that America could spread its values would be by working to perfect the American experiment at home.

What other books on John Quincy Adams would you recommend?

There are different ways to approach John Quincy Adams. You can read his life as biography. Paul Nagel’s book, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life, focuses on his internal-self and is quite good, though it has less to say on his public career. Then, there are really good books on the various stages of his career. Mary Hargreaves has a great book on his presidency, and Leonard Richards’ book on his congressional career is also quite good. A short book that is pretty remarkable is called Policy Maker for the Union by James Lewis. If you are interested in the period and Adams’s effect on US policies, then I recommend Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience; a great, really short book. I also highly recommend Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation, which is a history of US international relations in the world from the founding until 1898. The other book that I find fascinating is Walter McDougal’s Promised Land, Crusader State, which looks at all US foreign policy in some 200 pages and poses John Quincy Adams as a central figure. Finally, Samuel Flagg Bemis is someone I have to mention. Bemis was the dean of American diplomatic historians, mid-century. He had a two volume history on John Quincy Adams, the first of which won the Pulitzer back in 1947. One more…Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. It’s a truly great book.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you, and thanks for the terrific questions. I enjoyed it.

Charles Edel serves an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, American political history, and the connections between foreign policy and domestic politics. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Yale University, and received a B.A. in Classical Civilization from Yale College. He worked at Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies as a Henry A. Luce Scholar. Previously, he served in various roles in the U.S. government as a political and counterterrorism analyst, worked as a research associate at the Council of Foreign Relations, and taught high school history in New York. A native of New York, and an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves, he is the author of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic. Currently, he is working on a project about the role of foreign revolutions in American history.





Posted by LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN in Books, History, Navy, Strategy


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