Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered at Hillsdale College on the topic of Ben Judge and Patrick J. Garrity’s new collection, United and Independent: John Quincy Adams and American Foreign Policy (Encounter Books), on April 18, 2023.
Witnessing a war in Ukraine, a crisis along our southern border, and a (for now) cold war with China, many Americans are asking the same question: on what grounds will the United States send troops into combat? At no point in the twenty-first century has either party, or any of its members, put forward a clear answer. Luckily for us, John Quincy Adams did. The father of America’s early foreign policy was a prolific writer, and from these writings emerges a formula for employing military force. I call it the Adams Triangle. The top point of the Adams Triangle is national profit. The bottom two points are capability and public sentiment.
What does Adams mean by “national profit”? He does not mean “profit” in pure economic terms. Rather, he means the holistic gain to the nation minus the cost. As we will see, this definition subordinates economic considerations in the context of political and moral questions.
Let us begin with the definition of cost. Every military engagement has a cost. How should we define cost? Lives lost? Financial damage? John Quincy Adams has something to say about it. The following is from Adams writing to his brother, Thomas, about the state of Europe in 1801:
An army . . . is as necessary to every European power which has any hope of long existence as air to the motion of the lungs. . . . Now it is impossible that such armies should be levied, recruited, and maintained, without principles and measures of continual compulsion upon the people. Hence France in her republican state has continued to practice them under the name of conscription, and requisition, and loan, more than the most despotic of enemies. Hence England, a country justly renowned for its liberty, has always been obliged to adopt the system as her insular situation modifies it with regard to her—by the impressment of seamen for her navy. And if she has hitherto avoided the other part of it, requisition or the compulsive raising of stores, provisions, labor, etc., it has only been by draining the pockets of posterity and loading their shoulders with debts which will end in bankruptcy.
Every war, just or not, will require some tearing of the fabric of a free society. That tearing is acceptable if the gains are worthy. John Quincy Adams defines gain in two words: union and independence. Is a military engagement required to keep the nation together? Is a military engagement required so that America can continue to govern its own affairs? In short, when it comes to national profit, the question is, What presents a greater threat to union and independence? Action or inaction?
By maintaining union and independence, America and its people achieve a level of prosperity unimaginable under any despotism. That realization, John Quincy Adams says, is America’s greatest and continuing contribution to the world.
Now to the triangle’s second point, capability. Do we have the military and economic capability to achieve victory? How does Adams define victory? Simply put, victory is when union and independence are no longer in jeopardy. That is how to determine victory. This standard is also what determines military objectives and their duration.
Regarding the final point of the triangle, public sentiment, Lincoln said that with it nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed. Here is how Adams described its importance when sending the nation to war:
Our Constitution professedly rests upon the good sense and attachment of the people. This basis, weak as it may appear, has not yet been found to fail. To support it the aid of military force must indeed occasionally be called in, but ought not to be substituted as the permanent foundation in its stead. To make a foreign war the motive for keeping an army on foot, the evidence must be plain and unequivocal that it was inevitable, not only in its origin, but in its continuance. For if the people once discover (and you could not conceal it from them long) that you maintain the war for the army, while you tell them you maintain the army for the war, you lose their attachment forever, and their good sense will immediately side against you. Then your army will be the sole support you have. You will have effected in substance if not in forms a total revolution in government.
But one may ask, how do you know whether the American people approve of your actions? And what happens if Americans are clamoring for a war with negative national profit, or if they’re unsupportive of a military engagement required to maintain independence? Adams, Lincoln, the founders—they all have the same answer: welcome to statesmanship! It is the statesman’s job to know public sentiment, know how to shape it, and know what it will take to do so.
Now that we have outlined the Adams Triangle, let us consider three examples of John Quincy Adams applying these criteria during his career. The great historian Samuel Flagg Bemis said Adams had two great careers separated by his being the president of the United States. His first career concerned American foreign affairs, the second slavery. Within that first career in foreign affairs there are three stages: first, as an observer; second, as a participant; and finally, as a driver. Let us discuss one example from each of these stages.
We start in 1793. France and England were at war. Many Americans believed the United States should support France out of gratitude, and because through their own revolution the French had shown a commitment to democratic principles. But a twenty-five-year-old John Quincy Adams said we must stay neutral. Why? Because that was the only way to protect Americans and their property.
In time of war, the subjects of all belligerent powers are frequently disposed to violate the rights of neutral nations. . . . In such cases the individuals of the neutral nation, who suffer in consequence of such lawless proceedings, have no remedy but to call upon the sovereign of their own country to support them in their demand for satisfaction: Should any complaints arising from causes like this become a subject of negotiation, between the United States and either of the contending parties, it behooves us all, as we value our interests, or our reputation, that no occasion to retort a complaint that the neutrality was first violated on our part, should be given.
Had a threat to America’s independence, its ability to govern its own affairs, occurred? No, but Adams is saying that experience tells us such a threat could yet arise. And if it were to arise, would the nation be in a position to defend its independence? Adams argued that doing so would become much harder if we didn’t consider our position neutral from the outset. The doctrine is thus not just about putting the concept of American interests first. It is about putting Americans first.
The public’s sentiment towards engagement was largely positive (although not in all pockets of the country). But Adams made the case that the national profit is negative—there was no existing threat to American independence and the likelihood of that threat would only increase if we engaged.
What about capabilities? Was America capable of engaging on one side or the other?
Let us look . . . and see what would be the consequence of our making ourselves partisans of the contest. . . . We have a seacoast of twelve hundred miles everywhere open to invasion, and where is the power to protect it? We have a flourishing commerce, expanding to every part of the globe, and where will it turn when excluded from every market of the earth? We depend upon the returns of that commerce for many necessaries of life, and when those returns shall be cut off, where shall we look for the supply? We are in a great measure destitute of the defensive apparatus of war, and who will provide us with the arms and ammunition that will be indispensable? We feel severely at this moment, the burden of our public debt, and where are the funds to support us in the dreadful extremity to which our own madness and iniquity would reduce us? Not to mention the infallible destruction of our finances, and the national bankruptcy, which the friends of the system I am combating, would perhaps welcome as a blessing. . . . Our national existence may depend upon the event of our councils in the present crisis, and to advise us to engage voluntarily in the war, is to aim a dagger at the heart of the country.
Let us review the triangle. National profit? Negative. Capability? Negative. Public sentiment? Positive. National profit and public sentiment were therefore not aligned.
But what happens when there is a real threat to independence but no capability to respond? That is the question Adams answers in the next example.
In 1807, America again found itself caught between England and France. England began cutting off trade between the United States, France, Spain, and those countries’ colonies, leading to the seizure of hundreds of American ships and the impressment of American sailors. In response, the French issued decrees blockading the British Isles, which the French claimed gave them the right forcibly to keep commercial ships out of British ports. The British then issued an order declaring that American ships sailing to Europe would be seized unless they first stopped in Britain and paid taxes, which incidentally made those ships liable to seizure by the French.
What did President Jefferson do in response? He ordered an embargo: no American ships were to leave port, other than those intended for local voyages. Adams left all the details of that policy to Congress, specifically the United States Senate, where a forty-year-old John Quincy Adams was serving.
We should take a step back and consider Adams’s political position. He was a member of the party opposite the president, representing a state, Massachusetts, whose revenue came largely from international trade and whose people heavily favored Britain over France. So what did Senator Adams do?
He supported the embargo. Why? To answer that, let’s go to the triangle. Public sentiment for a war: in Massachusetts, it was positive, but this time in support of Britain against France. National profit: Adams believed there was a real threat, but that it came from Britain. So Adams believed there was a real threat that merited armed conflict. So why the embargo instead? Now we come to capability.
I have indeed been myself of opinion that the embargo must in its nature be a temporary expedient, and that preparations manifesting a determination of resistance against these outrageous violations of our neutral rights ought at least to have been made a subject of serious deliberation in Congress. I have believed and do still believe that our internal resources are competent to the establishment and maintenance of a naval force, public and private, if not fully adequate to the protection and defense of our commerce, at least sufficient to induce a retreat from these hostilities and to deter from a renewal of them, by either of the warring parties; and that a system to that effect might be formed, ultimately far more economical, and certainly more energetic than a three years embargo.
Our ships were in danger. The bad news was that America did not have the navy to protect them. The good news was that we did have the ability to build a navy. Therefore, we needed to buy time. Again, let us review the Triangle: National profit? Positive. Public sentiment? Positive. Capability? Negative. When you have this configuration of the triangle, Adams argues that you need to use diplomacy to get time on your side. An underlying assumption of Adams’s position is that time naturally favors the United States. Why does he believe that? Because of the natural strength of the American economy. This brings us back to what Adams says about American prosperity—as long as we defend the conditions necessary for American prosperity, time will be on our side.
Now, one could gather from these two examples that Adams only favored defensive military actions. That may be true, but Adams defines “defensive” more broadly than we may think. We see this in the final example.
The year was 1818. Seminole Indians in Florida, with the backing of British operatives, were conducting raids into Georgia. General Andrew Jackson moved his forces into Florida, a Spanish territory, and proceeded to capture and hold two Spanish forts. He also executed two British citizens who were captured while aiding the Seminoles.
Public sentiment was firmly opposed to Jackson’s actions, and President Monroe’s entire cabinet believed Jackson should have been censured and removed from command—except for John Quincy Adams, now secretary of state. Why? A foreign problem becomes our problem when a nation’s inability to govern its own affairs threatens our independence or union.
[Jackson] took possession . . . of Pensacola and of the fort of Barrancas, as he had done of St. Marks, not in a spirit of hostility to Spain, but as a necessary measure of self-defense; giving notice that they should be restored whenever Spain should place commanders and a force there able and willing to fulfil the engagements of Spain towards the United States, or of restraining by force the Florida Indians from hostilities against their citizens. The President of the United States, to give a signal manifestation of his confidence in the disposition of the king of Spain to perform with good faith this indispensable engagement, and to demonstrate to the world that neither the desire of conquest, nor hostility to Spain, had any influence in the councils of the United States, has directed the unconditional restoration, to any Spanish officer duly authorized to receive them, of Pensacola and the Barrancas, and that of St. Marks, to any Spanish force adequate to its defense against the attack of the savages. But the President will neither inflict punishment, nor pass a censure upon General Jackson, for that conduct, the motives for which were founded in the purest patriotism; of the necessity for which he had the most immediate and effectual means of forming a judgment; and the vindication of which is written in every page of the law of nations, as well as in the first law of nature—self-defense.
A foreign problem becomes our problem when another nation’s inability to govern its own affairs threatens our independence or union. And a foreign problem ceases to be our problem when it no longer threatens our independence or union. That is Adams’s argument for national profit. But he knew public sentiment in this situation needed shifting. So what did he do? He leaked to the press his letter to the Spanish explaining America’s position along with reports from the executed British citizens detailing their operations with the Seminoles, which included the massacre of women and children as well as American soldiers.
For the last time, let us review the triangle. National profit? Positive. Public sentiment? Negative. Capability? Positive. As in the first example, national profit and public sentiment are not aligned. Therefore, rhetorical statesmanship is required. And politics. Adams did not simply rely on the strength of his argument. He used a leak to create public pressure.
Over the last twenty years, we have heard foreign-policy intellectuals lament that Americans care more about domestic affairs than foreign. I do not think it is out of place to say that Adams would disagree with the premise of that statement. To him, foreign affairs is an extension of domestic affairs, so long as the twin pillars of American foreign policy are union and independence.