Thinking about Restraint with John Quincy Adams

In recent months, politicians as ideologically diverse as Donald Trump and Tulsi Gabbard have expressed skepticism about America’s robustly interventionist foreign policy. We may be seeing some shift in public support for America’s liberal use of its military forces around the globe in actions that do not seem clearly linked to America’s national security.

Scholars often view the Monroe Doctrine as a key catalyst in encouraging America’s recurring pattern of intervening in virtually every part of the globe. Created by John Quincy Adams, the Monroe Doctrine stated that the United States would act as if the Western Hemisphere was its area of exclusive influence and not tolerate the interference of European powers—most notably Spain and Great Britain—in the affairs of the United States or any of the newly formed republics throughout Latin America. The goal of the doctrine was to increase security and prosperity for the United States in the early- and mid-19th century when there were obvious European threats to America’s survival after the War of 1812.

By the end of the 19th century and the Spanish-American War, the “interests” of the United States went far beyond the stated goals and aspirations of the Monroe Doctrine. However, examining Adams’ writing while he was articulating and formulating the doctrine provides us with a fascinating picture of what he believed the doctrine required in practice. Rather than providing a license to meddle in the affairs of the neighbors, Monroe and Adams were trying to articulate a practical vision of American foreign policy consistent with the early roots of non-interventionist thinking that were evident at the Founding.

Adams served as Secretary of State under President James Monroe from 1817-1825, in the wake of the War of 1812 and in the geopolitical context of declining Spanish colonial power. When looking at Adams’ correspondence during this period, one is struck by how well thought out the Monroe Doctrine was philosophically. His original intent (to borrow a phrase from the legal world) of the Monroe Doctrine was more closely aligned with the spirit of George Washington’s Farewell Address. In that address, Washington articulated a vision of U.S. foreign policy that avoided “foreign entanglements” particularly with European powers. These principles are consistent with current support for non-intervention, free trade, and respect for the sovereignty of other independent nations throughout the world. Adams envisioned the U.S. military in a largely defensive posture focusing on the Western Hemisphere. That is very different from the meaning the Doctrine has come to embody—a strong commitment to American security interests in the Western Hemisphere and the right to intervene in the politics of these nations. Adams’ writing reminds us that non-intervention was a very important influence in early American foreign policy for practical and philosophical reasons.

In reading Adams’ diplomatic correspondence, one theme that stands out is the importance that “equal standing” had in political discourse of the early republic. “Equal standing” was the idea that nations could trade fairly and as equal partners, and stood in direct contrast to the colonial system that dominated the world at that time. In a colonial system, trade was typically limited to exchange between colonies and their colonial masters. The Americans wanted free trade with nations regardless of their colonial arrangements. We see this mentioned repeatedly in his work. This stands in stark contrast to the way we think about the Monroe Doctrine today particularly after years of constant U.S. intervention in conflicts throughout the world that had only indirect impact on U.S. security policy and virtually no effect on American trade policy.

For example, in writing a set of detailed instructions to the newly appointed American Ambassador to Russia, George Washington Campbell, John Quincy Adams reminds him that developing and maintaining commercial trade and relations is at the core of the United States’ interests. For America, all of our “commercial negotiations, actual or proposed, have been invariably animated by the principles of liberality and reciprocity.” This was in direct contrast to the “combinations for exclusive privileges or concession of monopoly” that were found between the European powers and their colonies. Adams gave two stated reasons why Americans strove for commercial relations based on equality. First, of course, was the profit trading on an equal footing and without onerous tariffs would generate. The second reason was the belief that Adams and some of his contemporaries shared about the causal link between fair commercial trade and peace. He argued that the Americans’ commitment to “liberty and equal rights” would naturally lead to a desire to build liberal trade institutions and avoid armed conflict. Even as President, Adams pursued policies that sought to both expand American access to foreign markets throughout the world in a reciprocal manner and engage with the governments rather than sending troops or warships.

The end of this letter to Campbell contains an interesting lesson, as well: Adams briefly discussed the recent upheaval in South America as several former Spanish colonies had broken from Spain and piqued the interest of Great Britain and the United States as potential sources of economic gain. Great Britain saw the newly independent nations as potential targets for their influence. For the United States, if these new nations were free of European interference, they represented potential trading partners who also would serve as examples for the cause of liberty, independence, and democratic governance. But, Adams was careful to emphasize that the United States would not get involved militarily and was only interested in promoting “the total independence, political and commercial, of the colonies.” Of course, it is likely American reticence about participating in war at least partially was the result of our relatively weak military at the time. This foreign policy based on the sovereignty and right of those new nations in the Western Hemisphere to pursue their independence from a colonial power and become economically and politically developed nations through trade and political engagement is much more consistent with the philosophical roots of the American Founding. In addition, it is consistent with contemporary arguments by advocates of liberty for a smaller United States military presence throughout the world.

These were not isolated views on Adams’ part: in a letter to Richard Anderson in which he discussed the recent revolutions in Latin America in detail, Adams once again emphasized the importance of neutrality, commerce, and equality in relations. He noted that the United States and Spain had maintained peaceful relations during this period, despite the tension in South and Central America. He observed that the United States had “national obligations prescribed to them to remain neutral” during these civil conflicts. However, once Colombia declared itself an independent republic, the United States was clearly in a different position. Adams noted that since Colombia approached the United States with an eye towards “negotiation of treaties of commerce and navigation founded upon the bases of reciprocal utility and perfect equality,” the United States was hardly in a position to decline this invitation, particularly since the Spanish were in no position to continue the civil conflict in that newly formed nation. As a former colony that had just fought a war of independence to achieve representative self-governance the United States had a duty to support the newly minted representative nations of South and Central America both for philosophical and practical reasons. A strong, politically stable, and economically vibrant Latin America would both enhance the long-term prospects for the United States and keep European colonial ambitions—particularly those of Great Britain—at bay. However, it also would provide more examples of successful self-governance and undermine support for non-representative regimes.

According to Adams, there were two reasons for recognizing these new sovereign nations. The first was political. He described the American “doctrine” of politics as based on “the principle of unalienable right. The European allies, therefore, have viewed the cause of the South Americans as rebellion against their lawful sovereign. We have considered it an assertion of natural right.” The second reason was the mutual economic gains derived from the principle of free trade and open, equal access to markets. He dismissed the European focus on “their monarchical and monopolizing contemplations” and instead lauded the Colombians for their promises of both opening their markets to free trade and promising to place foreign businesses and traders on equal legal and commercial standing. He acknowledged that the local businessmen would be at a slight advantage, but he described the American position as “placing the foreigner, in regard to all objects of navigation and commerce, upon a footing of equal favor with the native citizen; and to that end of abolishing all discriminating duties and charges whatsoever.”

Non-interventionism did not quickly fade from view after Washington gave his farewell address. It was an important part of American foreign policy with respect to Europe and the Americas for the better part of 50 years after the Founding. The circumstances changed very dramatically in the middle and later parts of the 19th century as the United States invaded Mexico and pursued a colonial war against the remnants of the Spanish Empire. But this should not obscure the fact that non-interventionism helped guide the U.S. out of the ugly outcome of the War of 1812 and retains a strong philosophical and practical appeal to this day. Any politician discussing reviving such a tradition need not be a Russian agent—instead he or she may simply be a student of a more prudent period of American political history.