Improvements in our national political institutions depend on improvements in civic virtue fostered by our social institutions, not the other way around.
George Washington served as the model citizen of the republic founded upon the defense of natural rights. One might add that Benjamin Franklin served as the model citizen-intellectual, which isn’t quite the same thing. John and Abigail Adams (themselves no mean models) educated their son, John Quincy, to become the worthy successor of the Founding generation of the new regime.
What does a man formed to defend natural rights look like? In John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit, the New Yorker writer James Traub gives us a carefully drawn portrait of a man “who did not aim to please, and . . . largely succeeded”—both in not-pleasing and in defending natural rights.
The Adamses began by refusing to treat their child as childish. Mrs. Adams kept little Johnny out of public school, where pointless “Jack and Jill” rhymes were taught, preferring to educate him at home with such helps as Charles Rollin’s Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians (1735). When their beloved family physician died at the hands of the British at Bunker Hill, mother and son wept together, before turning to the task of melting down the family pewter for bullets.
As for father John, he interspersed his activities at the Continental Congress with making reading recommendations, telling his 10-year-old son that Thucydides was just the thing for him. As Traub rightly observes: “ ‘The classics’ was not a subject, like geography or history, but rather a lens through which to examine and understand the life around you.”
A year later, Johnny accompanied Father on a diplomatic mission to Europe. After getting chased by a British ship and nearly capsizing in a storm on the way over, he received one of Mother’s characteristically bracing monitions: “Dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your Grave in the ocean you have crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a Graceless child.”
No such misfortune ensued. Upon his return to Massachusetts at age 18, his aunt Mary reported to Abigail, “He is formed for a Statesman.”
Smartened up and toughened up, Adams fils proved ready to think about, and act in, the crises that arose over the course of his lifetime—quite literally until his death on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 23, 1848. Traub helps his reader identify five such crises, all interrelated: The French Revolution; the Napoleonic Wars; conflicts leading up to and including the War of 1812 against the British Empire; the rise of New World republicanism in the face of Old World monarchism; and the consequences of sectional slavery under conditions of rapid continental expansion.
Adams’ first important intervention in public debate was the “Publicola” letters, a reply to Thomas Paine’s defense of the French Revolution. In 1791—that is, two years before the Jacobins took control of the French Republic and heads began to roll—the 24-year-old argued that the American Revolution was indeed justified on the basis of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, but that the same conditions did not prevail in France.
Against Paine, he argued that the mere existence of aristocracy or monarchy did not justify revolution but only a long train of abuses and usurpations committed by such regimes, as was the case in the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s. Further, even if the record of abuses was there, no people unused to local self-government should undertake a republican revolution because they would likely be guilty of excesses worse than the oppressions they had suffered.
By the time the Jacobins did take over, President Washington had appointed the now 27-year-old to be ambassador to the Low Countries; he arrived just as French troops rolled in. The Dutch had hoped, in vain, for help from Great Britain and the Hapsburgs. Their conquest by the French demonstrated the necessity of military self-defense rather than dependence on great-power protectors. It also demonstrated the poisonous factionalism that follows from such dependence upon foreigners, who play divide-and-rule politics in the lands they ostensibly protect. Traub suggests that Adams’ dispatches on these themes contributed to the thinking of President Washington and Alexander Hamilton as they prepared the President’s Farewell Address. The common thread: America’s need for political union, and for well-defended neutrality.
Generally, the French Revolution reinforced in Adams what he had learned from his beloved classics and also from such experiences as the Shays Rebellion of 1786-1787: that though democratization or equalization as a social phenomenon was a fact in non-slaveholding American states, and a strong trend in aristocratic Europe, in both cases it needed careful management. In the years following, the British aristocracy would prove better at governing this transition than the Continental aristocracies. In his preference for gradualism over violent revolution, and above all in his study of the phenomenon of democratization, Adams anticipated Alexis de Tocqueville, whom he was to meet many years later, during the latter’s journey through America.
The Napoleonic Wars that followed from the French Revolution saw Adams as our ambassador to Prussia under the administration of his father. The younger Adams saw what Tocqueville would so famously write about: that social democratization could as easily lead to despotism as to republicanism. Traub writes that Adams “viewed France as a revolutionary power bent on dominating the world” with a regime that combined atheism, social egalitarianism, and tyranny.
First under the three-man Directory regime, which attempted not merely to master Europe but to gain a foothold in North America by trying to purchase the vast Louisiana territory from Spain, and then under the Napoleonic regime, which succeeded in making the purchase, the French were up to no good. Adams rightly supposed that they planned to establish a military garrison at the strategic chokepoint of New Orleans, thereby controlling the Gulf of Mexico and extending French control up the Mississippi River. This would have enabled France to set the rules for American commerce out of the rich farmlands of the Midwest and conceivably to contain America behind the Alleghenies.
The plan died with the slave revolt in France’s colony on Santo Domingo, and although Adams called President Jefferson’s eventual purchase of Louisiana from France a “direct violation of the Constitution” (as Jefferson himself admitted to a Senate ally), he agreed that the safety of the public is the supreme law. Constitutions exist to secure natural rights, not the other way around.
The second diplomatic assignment Adams secured from his father, at the Russian court of Alexander at Saint Petersburg, coincided with another crucial moment in European affairs. Adams and the Czar each saw the other’s country as a needed counterweight to Napoleonic France, and in the end Alexander broke with Napoleon’s “Continental System,” provoking the war that led to France’s defeat.
Adams did everything he could to encourage Alexander in this, and although the Czar made his own calculations, the American was able to gain Russia’s help with U.S. commercial shipping on the Continent—that is, with the one kind of foreign relations that Washington and Adams had endorsed with respect to America’s dealings with the European powers, and the kind most at issue throughout the Napoleonic Wars.
As a consequence of those wars, British policy was to impress American sailors to serve in the Royal Navy and to interfere with American shipping to Britain’s enemies. Unable to match the Brits on the open seas, the Jefferson and Madison administrations adopted an embargo on British goods, which provoked the New Englanders to talk of nullifying federal law and even seceding from the Union. Secession would have served British and general European imperial interests by making North America more like Europe itself, and more like North America when the Indians ruled it: a congeries of dividable states vulnerable to rule from overseas. Fortunately, “the embargo gave way before the Union did,” as Southern senators saw that it wasn’t working.
That didn’t prevent the War of 1812, spurred by mutual U.S.-British underestimation. Adams was on the negotiating team that eventually produced the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war. The accord was reached, though, not because the American negotiators proved especially persuasive but (as is usually the case) because the military facts on the ground settled matters.
The British defeat at Baltimore chastened British overconfidence, as did continued political unrest in France, where the reinstated Bourbons had proved unpopular. This Second War of Independence, as many Americans called it, confirmed Adams’ conviction of the indispensability of constitutional union to the defense of natural rights, a conviction strengthened as he took charge of the State Department under President Monroe—just as his friend, Czar Alexander, unamused by France’s geopolitical proclivities, was organizing the Holy Alliance against godless republicanism.
Spain was part of that alliance, and the Spanish Empire was by far the largest in the New World. That empire and the regimes of the Americas were changing, and Secretary Adams’ conception of American geopolitical strategy changed accordingly. In the 1820s, Latin American nations began to throw off Spanish rule and launch republican regimes rather optimistically modeled on the United States. Adams’ response was caution. He preferred to delay formal recognition of the new republics so as not to provoke European and especially Holy Alliance intervention in the Western hemisphere.
These were the circumstances behind his famous declamation that the United States did not go abroad to seek monsters to destroy but, while applauding republicanism in the defense of natural rights wherever it arose, vindicated only its own regime and the rights of its own people. Adams’ view had been formed as a counter to the policy of Senator Henry Clay, who advocated what amounted to a reverse-Holy Alliance of New World republics to guard against the Holy Alliance.
Against this, Adams questioned not whether Latin Americans were endowed with natural rights but rather whether they had yet developed the habits of mind and heart to sustain their newly designed republican institutions. After all, the English colonists had governed themselves locally for a long time, and even they, once they had formed their own country, had found themselves riven by factionalism nearly to the point of disunion. Latin Americans had enjoyed no such long experience in self-government.
Secretary Adams instead formulated what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Based on an understanding of the stark regime differences between the Old and New Worlds, the Holy Alliance states and young republics, the Monroe Doctrine said in effect: we won’t set out to destroy what we take to be foreign monsters if you Europeans don’t set out to destroy what you take to be foreign monsters over here. Traub observes perceptively that this “marked an end to the fundamental defensiveness of Washington’s message,” inasmuch as it implied a new, spheres-of-influence division between the two hemispheres. The Adams/Monroe policy, which was neither “idealistic” in what would come to be known as the Wilsonian sense, nor a specimen of amoral Realpolitik, guided the United States for the entire rest of the 19th century.
Adams attempted to extend this policy during his own presidential administration, which followed Monroe’s two terms. Simón Bolívar proposed a Pan-American Congress for discussing trade and other hemispheric issues, and Adams advocated accepting the invitation on the grounds that George Washington’s policy—like all policies, as distinguished from moral principles—addressed the circumstances of its time and place. Those circumstances had changed with the regime changes in Latin America. The United States was no longer an isolated republic surrounded by imperial monarchies.
But this position proved too hard to sustain for President Adams, who was in a rather weak political position domestically (Traub calls it “Adams’ Waterloo”). In addition to continued strong reverence among all Americans for all things George Washington had propounded, Southern members of Congress objected that Haiti might attend such a conference, and of course discourse with former slave rebels was for them a possibility too dangerous to countenance. Adams’ advocacy of U.S. participation in the international congress gave that great political operative, Martin Van Buren, a chance to form an alliance with General Andrew Jackson and Senator John C. Calhoun against Adams, making him a one-term President and establishing a new Democratic Party coalition that would dominate American politics for a generation.
This, in turn, precipitated the final crisis of Adams’ career, which we must also call his finest hours as a natural rights republican. Jefferson had understood expansion across the American continent as a new kind of imperialism: the “empire of liberty.” Unlike colonial empires, which subordinated the colonies to a distant, central government or “metropole,” the American empire would consist of territories intended for organization as equal states within the American federal republic—all of them guaranteed a republican regime under Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution.
Adams had supported U.S. territorial expansion to the Pacific as early as 1818, aiming to rid much of North America of Spanish and British imperial rule. However, from that time and for the next 30 years he would oppose the annexation of Texas. He did so because Texas would not enter the Union as fully republican but as a slave state—that is, a state (or worse, several states) dominated by plantation oligarchs.
Although siding with General Jackson in the latter’s drive to wrest Florida from Spain, which Adams regarded as too weak to control cross-border raids by the Seminole Indians, and also insisting on a clause in the eventual treaty with Spain in which the Spanish would cede their claims to territory in the far West, he considered Texas to be a different case.
More subtly, in discussing the matter with Senator Calhoun, he learned that Calhoun imagined the principle of human equality enunciated in the Declaration of Independence applied only to “white men.” Knowing (first-hand) that the Founders meant no such thing, Adams concluded that the institution of slavery had clouded the minds of slave-owners. No one expected a man like George III to hold the truths of the Declaration to be self-evident. It now transpired that the new generation of slave-owners (unlike the men Adams had known in his youth) no longer found those truths to be self-evident, either.
This made Adams begin to think that the Constitution and the Union it codified contained a fatal flaw: the three-fifths compromise, whereby slave states gained extra representation in Congress based not on their population of citizens but their slave populations. This had seemed a prudent compromise in 1787, for the sake of Union—that is, for the sake of defending natural rights republicanism against the divide-and-rule strategies of its powerful enemies. But by the time of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, Adams judged that the terms of the constitutional union had reinforced anti-republican, oligarchic ideas and sentiments in the South, which then used its disproportionate influence in Congress to extend slavery to the territories—as it had not even wanted to do in the Northwest Ordinance territories back in 1787.
Then-Secretary Adams made a startling, one might almost say prophetic, argument, which Traub wisely quotes in full, lest those unfamiliar with the record not believe it. In November 1820, this staunchest friend of the Union confided to his diary that the Union would and should one day dissolve. It should dissolve because the dissolution would prompt a slave rebellion in the South and a civil war between the Northern and Southern regimes. The republican, Northern states would win the war and then abolish slavery. This was the only way slavery would ever be abolished in the United States, given the entrenchment of oligarchy in the South.
When Adams recovered from his 1828 presidential election defeat at the hands of Jackson, he returned (so far uniquely among ex-Presidents) to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives in 1831, and dedicated the remainder of his life to attacking the plantation oligarchy—he called it the “slaveocracy”—of the South. By then, Southerners had begun to claim the right to nullify federal tariff laws, following the bad example of the New England Federalists of a generation earlier. On this, Adams supported President Jackson, who let it be known (quite believably, given his temperament) that he would deal harshly with any nullifiers who put their constitutional theory into practice. The eventual compromise on the tariff sacrificed Henry Clay’s “American System” of protective tariffs on manufactures, internal improvements, and the national bank, a price Adams judged too high.
But Adams saw another opportunity to play for much bigger moral and political stakes than the American System. Precisely because he could now envision disunion as a prelude to slavery-abolition followed by reunion, he could reach out to the new Abolitionist movement that had begun in the early 1830s. Without going to the extremes of William Lloyd Garrison, he could side with the Abolitionists on many of the major issues relevant to abolition: Texas annexation; the right to petition Congress on the slavery issue; the gag rule, which forbade discussion of slavery on the floor of the House; and the celebrated Amistad case of 1841, in which Adams represented slaves who had liberated themselves while on board a ship transporting them from Africa by killing the captain.
The domestic issue of slavery and disputes with the nation of Mexico were connected in ways that many today fail to realize. For not only did Texas’ annexation invite the extension of slavery, it did so under unusual conditions. Most American territorial gains had come at the expense of Indian nations and tribes, many of which themselves owned slaves. In contrast, although Mexico had a corrupt and none-too-republican regime, it had abolished slavery in 1829. It was the “Texians,” as they were called—the American settlers who had moved into the area and declared independence from Mexico in 1836—who had brought back slavery, which annexation by the United States would now vastly extend inside the Union.
Adams enjoyed better luck in his other anti-slavery campaigns. Traub gives a fine and sometimes funny account of the old man’s ironclad stubbornness, as he bedeviled his slavery-supporting House colleagues with every procedural trick in and out of the book to bring the slavery debate to the chamber. And of course in the Amistad case, he successfully argued the natural rights foundation of the Constitution in front of a Supreme Court dominated by Southern justices, including Roger Taney, who would later write the infamous majority opinion in Dred Scott. Throughout, this remarkable statesman and representative of the people publicly defended the Union while anticipating its eventual—temporary and salutary—demise.
By 1844, however, Adams decided to lay it on the line. At a meeting of black citizens in Pittsburgh, he said: “the day of your redemption . . . may come in peace or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or in blood, LET IT COME.”
It was one thing for someone like Garrison to say that. For a former President and sitting member of Congress to say it was quite another. Challenged to confirm or deny his statement by a Southern congressman, Adams didn’t even bother to stand up from his seat: “I say now, let it come. Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come! Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Perhaps for the first time, the slaveholders began to see what they might be up against.
A few months later, back in his native state, Adams addressed a group of young Whigs: “Young men of Boston: burnish your armor, prepare for the conflict, and I say to you, in the language of Galgacus to the ancient Britons, Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity.”
As many schoolboys of that time had been taught, the Scottish chieftain Galgacus rallied the Caledonians to fight Rome in A.D. 83, saying of his fellow Scots, “To all of us slavery is a thing unknown,” and of the Romans, “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the name empire. They make a desert and call it peace.”
John Quincy Adams had a worthy forefather—John Adams—and also a worthy posterity. His son, Charles Francis Adams, headed the Young Men’s Whig Club of Boston, and would later serve as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War. Thinking of his father and his son, asking his fellow citizens to think of theirs, Adams was reminding Massachusetts men that they had fought one empire and might soon fight another—not the republican empire of liberty founded by their forefathers, but an oligarchic, slave empire now extending into the deserts of the American Southwest.
After Adams died in 1848, during the Mexican War he had argued against, one of the pallbearers at his state funeral, John C. Calhoun, could have no idea that the spirit of Adams would rise and the regime of the South would suffer a lasting burial less than 20 years later. A member of the Committee of Arrangements charged with preparing the funeral was an obscure Illinois Congressman, Abraham Lincoln.