John Quincy Adams On Ukraine
America's glory is not dominion, but liberty
John Quincy Adams never wrote about Ukraine but he did offer timeless advice on foreign policy.
Arguably a major root of the crisis in the Ukraine occurred in 2008 when then President Bush “strongly supported” NATO membership for the Ukraine. Imagine Putin strongly supporting a Russian alliance with Mexico or Canada.
On the 4th of July, in 1821, then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the son of Founding Father John Adams, delivered an address on foreign policy. In that address, he advised America to not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” but instead to offer the hand “of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.”
Adams, who later became president, offered eloquent advice in 1821 that America be a shining example of freedom but not a “vindicator” of freedom:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
Adams’s advice has faded from memory. With our forgetting, has our own freedom eroded? Adams foresaw that meddling in the affairs of other countries would induce a troubling shift in America’s mindset from “liberty to force”:
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
Is the warning of John Quincy Adams relevant today? Adams concluded:
[America's] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.
To the question “What has America done for the benefit of mankind?” Adams had this answer:
Let our answer be this–America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights.
Today, a library built of local stones stands just a few feet from the Adams’s family home at Peacefield, just south of Boston. This was the first presidential library in the United States; it houses the 14,000 volumes that John and John Quincy Adams owned. These were books that they bought and read, books of ideas that engaged their minds. Today a presidential library means a place in which documents are stored—papers that document actions, many of which have eroded our liberties, and papers that explains why the man should be considered great for those actions nevertheless.
You may say the world is more complicated today. Yet, if Bush had followed the advise of Adams and Jefferson would we be in the midst of another foreign policy disaster to be handled by an infirm and easily angered President Biden? Minds and hearts at war are a dangerous thing. Leaders of principle and intellect are in dangerously short supply.
In coming days, we will be told President Biden is a champion of American values. Adams would disagree.
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