John Quincy Adams and Grand Strategy

On October 19, 2016, the FPI Center for Military and Diplomatic History hosted an event for the FPI Future Leaders featuring Dr. Charles N. Edel. A professor at the National War College who is currently on leave at the State Department Policy Planning Staff, Edel spoke about his experiences in the academic and policy worlds. He also discussed his book “Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic,” and the relevance of John Quincy Adams to modern grand strategy. FPI Intern Oliver Thomas summarizes key points presented by Dr. Edel during the event and in his book.

Following the War of 1812, the United States experienced a period of relative peace that held promises of economic growth and territorial expansion. At the fore of American grand strategy in the postwar period was John Quincy Adams. Over the course of his stints as Secretary of State and as president, Adams sought to prevent European expansion, facilitate American land acquisition, and halt the spread of slavery. His belief in republicanism as a preferable governing model to tyrannical, Old World monarchy encouraged to pursue international engagement. Building America’s reputation and global influence depended largely on the development of domestic infrastructure and institutions, and on the instilling of a sense of civic duty among citizens. As Adams would show, grand strategy is as much a product of personal, social, and moral development as it is of national interest.

Adams believed the U.S. government needed to invest in its military infrastructure and human capital while remaining neutral in foreign affairs. The United States had to build internally and safeguard its territory before it could secure its interests abroad. In the long run, Adams hoped that the U.S. could translate domestic ingenuity into international influence and defense capabilities.

Adams’s grand strategic vision unfolded over the course of his political career. As Secretary of State, he helped expand American territorial claims into Florida and the hinterlands. If the United States were to wield its power globally and uphold the tenets of the Monroe Doctrine, the country needed a solid grounding in the Western Hemisphere. As president, Adams focused American resources on educational reform, industry, and commerce. Though structural shifts in American politics frustrated the majority of his attempts to translate his ideas into legislation, he continued to emphasize the necessity of a coherent vision and the enumeration of clear steps to achieve it. Adams’s tactical flexibility and his strategic incisiveness stemmed from his unique comprehension of historical trends. He recognized that American republicanism would set a precedent for future governance, delegitimizing monarchal or absolutist rule.

This vision for American ascendance developed out of John Quincy’s upbringing. His father, John Adams, took him abroad and exposed him to international politics at a young age, sparking his international interests and ambitions. Throughout his career as a U.S. diplomat, John Quincy rubbed shoulders with numerous world leaders, scholars, and statesmen. His social network and time abroad subjected him to a diverse array of cultures, languages, philosophies, and governing systems. Adams’s broad, cosmopolitan experiences influenced his forward-thinking political philosophy, strong work ethic, and his desire to expand America’s role in improving the world.

The study of history lay at the heart of Adams’s tutelage. Using history as a practical tool, he believed that nations operated under universal laws and shared comparable strategic interests. For Adams, looking to examples of the past served as an insightful, predictive policy tool. Like many of his contemporaries, John Quincy delved into Ancient Greek and Roman history, comparing and analyzing the rise and fall of great states. Above all, Adams revered the work of Thucydides. Influenced by the Greek historian, Adams asserted that policy makers needed to understand recurring trends and apply historical knowledge to make better sense of the present. Witnessing a fragmented Europe, engaged in deep seated wars, Adams implored American leaders to combat internal division and strengthen the union. Adams pushed for a strong centralized government, as a means of protecting the fragile new republic from foreign threats.

Though the objectives of John Quincy Adams’s grand strategy would not be attained until the passing of a bloody Civil War twenty years after his death, his foreign policy thinking continues to influence American grand strategy today. The American experiment and Adams’s intellectual contribution remained part of a long process toward actualizing a robust U.S. influence and presence in the world. John Quincy Adams recognized that effective American power projection and democracy promotion depend on calculated efforts to prioritize imminent threats over the less pressing. Adams hoped that America would garner enough strength and domestic stability to act as a bastion for democracy, liberty, and open discourse abroad. His duty to the national vision transcended the boundaries of partisanship. Jacksonian opposition thwarted his plans to craft foreign policy across the aisle, but his quest to establish himself as a disinterested statesman underscores a laudable commitment to the United States’ future. Adams recognized the need to situate American interests and policy making within a larger, historical framework, one that invariably changes and requires adaptive measures to sustain America’s well-being.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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