Charles Edel is Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College. This interview is based on his new book, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic (Harvard University Press, September 2014).
JF: What led you to write Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?
CE: As a young research assistant at the Council on Foreign Relations, my boss handed me a small book that framed contemporary policy in terms of its historical evolution. My boss was Walter Russell Mead and the book he handed me was John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Comparing the grand strategies of John Quincy Adams, Franklin Roosevelt, and George W. Bush, Gaddis argued that Adams was the prime architect—the grand strategist—of American foreign policy in the 19th Century. This provocative claim intrigued me. But, was it correct? And, if so, did Adams’s strategy have any contemporary relevance?
As I started reading about Adams and U.S. strategy in the 19th century, it became clear that Gaddis was hardly alone in his praise of Adams. All surveys of American foreign policy seem to make John Quincy Adams the hero (or, if you’re a Jacksonian, the anti-hero). Samuel Flagg Bemis, the mid-century Pulitzer-prize winning biographer of Adams, thought that “more than any other one man he helped to shape the foundations of American foreign policy and the future of the United States.” In Bemis’s estimate, Adams stands behind only Lincoln in the annals of American history.
But the more I read, the more it seemed that while historians and statesman alike praised Adams, no one really understood him. This shouldn’t be that surprising. John Quincy Adams’s son said his father’s inner nature was “impenetrable.” His grandson wrote that he had a “nature so complex” that he was “an enigma to contemporaries.” The historian Leonard Richards, concluded that “despite the thousands of words written by Adams and about him, no one has discovered the formula that will fully explain him. He remains in many ways an enigma.”
Such a project would allow me to learn more about someone who was quietly one of the most important and influential Americans in our nation’s history while also exploring the growth and evolution of the United States as a world power. It seemed to me that an analysis of how Adams’s strategy evolved had the potential to tell a much larger story—that of the evolution of American strategic thought during the 19th Century.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?
CE: America’s rise from a confederation of revolutionary colonies to a continental power is often treated as inevitable, the natural result of resources and demographics rather than the product of a deliberate pursuit. My book argues, on the contrary, that there was an implicit grand strategy that shaped America’s rise and that John Quincy Adams served as a central architect of that strategy.
JF: Why do we need to read Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic?
CE: This book offers a historical approach for thinking about contemporary challenges, presents a new way to look at early American history, and finally, introduces readers to the endlessly fascinating life and career of John Quincy Adams.
The challenges that Adams grappled with are both timeless and extremely relevant. John Quincy Adams famously proclaimed “America goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” in a speech that has been quoted ever since to justify noninterference by the United States in the affairs of other nations. Adams was not warning future administrations away from helping aspiring democrats, but rather giving his successors a lesson in the necessary trade-offs foreign policy demands. Because the United States was then just a rising power on the world stage, Adams could afford to be neutral on events happening in the world that did not immediately affect the United States. Two centuries later, it is hard to imagine an American President having such a luxury. Yet Adams’s message speaks past 1821, anticipating the democratic upheavals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and suggesting how best to balance America’s impulse to promote change with its instinct to preserve order.
Additionally, Adams’s grand strategy helps explain the growth of the United States as a hemispheric and world power. Before Adams, the United States had an inchoate national strategy. Almost all of its leading statesmen believed that the country would one day become a powerful and moral force in the world, but they were not able to define the path and the actions that would be needed to achieve that vision. Therefore while Adams was neither the first, nor the only, national politician to promote an agenda for America’s rise, he was the only one who linked, prioritized, and sequenced his policies into a comprehensive grand strategy to harness the nation’s geographic, military, economic, and moral resources.
Beyond that, John Quincy Adams is simply a fascinating figure. He was one of the most accomplished individuals in all of American history—he served as the architect of the Monroe Doctrine, expanded the nation’s border to the Pacific ocean, offered one of the most progressive visions of government in American history, and in the final stage of his career lead the charge against slavery. Yet, his greatest successes were often followed by personal and political failures which left Adams hounded by feelings of insecurity an incompetence. My book, I think, helps explain what elements of Adams’s personality—accessible to us through one of the most thorough diaries in American history—explain these contradictions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CE: Thanks to my parents and some great teachers, I have always loved American history for the stories it tells us, for the questions it asks us to confront, and for the complexity it adds to our understanding of America.
My first job after college was teaching American history and law at a public high school in New York City. It was a chance to show adolescents—still forming their aspirations, still open to new ideas—how learning was relevant to the issues that affected their lives and the world around them. Each of the courses I taught explored the sources of the American idea and its projection into the world. But it was not until working at a foreign policy think tank that I began to think about how far the real and imagined reach of the U.S. is, and what domestic forces shape and influence its expansion.
As the historian knows better than most, we become who we are based on who we were. The study of history should not be undertaken merely to solve problems or review the past. History, at its best, engenders debate, discussion, and reflection on who we can become.
JF: What is your next project?
CE: John Quincy Adams dealt with a lot of foreign revolutions—the French and Haitian revolution of the 1790s, the Latin American revolutions of the 1810s and 1820s, and Greek revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s to name a few. He had to think through, and help navigate America’s response to those revolutions. In each instance, he sought to do so in a way that would both justify the general principle of revolution against tyrannical regimes without committing the United States to fighting in all such revolutions. That has proved to be perhaps the most persistent and intractable challenge in American foreign policy.
For my next project, I am exploring the idea of America’s response to foreign revolutions—in theory and in reality. A question that cuts across all of American history—from America’s ambiguous response to the French Revolution, to our ongoing struggle to define and deal with the Arab Spring—each successive foreign revolution has challenged the nation’s understanding of the legacy of its own birth, mission, and trajectory. At the practical level, the question of intervention—whether and to what extent—is often framed in terms of policy choices. On a more abstract level, this almost always becomes a debate over American mission. Comparing American reactions over time promises to yield some very interesting results.
Great work here Charles, thanks!
Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.