Two hundred years ago, John Quincy Adams gave one of the most famous and most misunderstood speeches in American history. Speaking in the Capitol building to the citizens of Washington, D.C., the secretary of state commemorated the Declaration of Independence and attacked the legitimacy of autocracy and colonialism. Understandably, his contemporaries were struck by its belligerence. But so misunderstood is the speech that isolationists to this day use it to advocate against the kind of foreign policy Adams himself practiced.
When Adams argued that the Declaration of Independence was "the only legitimate foundation of civil government" and had "demolished at a stroke the lawfulness of all governments founded upon conquest," his audience understood that he was throwing down a gauntlet at the European monarchies struggling to contain the aftermath of the French Revolution.
As if to underscore this point, Adams ended the speech encouraging "each one of us, here assembled, our beloved country, Britannia ruler of the waves, and every individual among the sceptred lords of humankind" to follow the Declaration's example. Russian diplomat Pierre de Poletica reported to his home government that the speech was "an appeal to the nations of Europe to rise against their governments," lamenting that "it is a Secretary of State … who permits himself language like this on such a solemn occasion."
But isolationists have interpreted the speech as a call for restrained foreign policy because Adams remarked that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Today, this group of foreign policy thinkers cites it to support their arguments against democracy promotion and an expansive foreign policy.
With that line, Adams argued against diplomatically intervening in the Latin American wars for independence. After Napoleon invaded Spain and overthrew its monarchy, anticolonial insurrections had erupted across Spain's colonies in Latin America. These revolutionaries were immensely popular in the United States, and many Americans wanted to formally recognize their nascent governments as independent states.
Adams did not, since he was in the middle of negotiations to acquire Spanish territories in North America and doubted that the Latin Americans would create liberal democracies once they won their freedom. The United States opened formal relations with the new countries after the treaty with Spain had been ratified and Adams directed his diplomats to negotiate for religious freedom and promote constitutional governance in Latin America.
These measures caused concern in Europe, which was still wrestling with the fallout of the Napoleonic Wars. A group of absolute monarchs had formed a Holy Alliance to defend their countries from French aggression and their thrones from popular sovereignty. Earlier that year, the Holy Alliance had convened at Laibach and coordinated efforts to crush liberal movements in modern Italy.
Some members of Adams's audience worried that his strident denunciations of monarchy would disrupt an emerging détente with Great Britain. Poletica noted that "from one end to another" the speech was "a virulent diatribe against England." Adams, however, wrote to one critic that the speech was aimed not at Britain, but at "the Holy allies of Laybach and their subjects."
At a time when many Americans worry that the United States is overextended abroad, a foreign policy based strictly on not going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy" seems to offer an alluring alternative. Reducing American commitments abroad could remove obstacles to good relations with current adversaries such as Russia or China, and a withdrawal from the Middle East could make terrorist groups like al Qaeda focus their attacks on other, non-American targets. Many of these thinkers have coalesced in organizations, like the Quincy Institute, that have adopted this admonition as their motto.
The controversies over Adams's remarks demonstrate the core dilemma for this foreign policy. The Declaration of Independence and the success of the country it created are a formidable ideological threat to autocracies worldwide. By stating American principles forthrightly, Adams had antagonized the Holy Alliance, which comprised most of the major powers of Europe.
As Adams realized, the United States poses an existential threat to autocratic regimes, whether or not it wishes to do so. "The influence of our example has unsettled all the ancient governments of Europe," Adams wrote two years later. "It will overthrow them all without a single exception."
Mike Watson is the associate director of Hudson Institute's Center for the Future of Liberal Society.