On July 4, 1821, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, delivered a now-famous address here in Washington, DC. I discuss the speech in my latest book, Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy, and it is featured in this “Liberty Chronicles” episode (dramatic reading starts around the 17 minute mark).
If you haven’t read the speech in its entirety, you might find it worthwhile. Some are familiar with Adams’s admonition that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The veteran diplomat and scholar George Kennan invoked that passage in an essay in Foreign Affairs, and it even serves as one of the founding principles for a new organization named after John Quincy. Others have scorned Adams’s sage advice as synonymous with “cowardice and dishonor,” arguing instead that America is made great by frequent monster-searching and destroying. That they cling to such beliefs despite the counterproductive military adventures of the last several decades suggests that no amount of pleading could convince them of Adams’s timeless wisdom.
But there’s so much more to the speech! To be sure, some elements are anachronistic, or just downright bizarre (e.g. Themistocles? fustian romance and lascivious lyrics!?). And Adams certainly wasn’t aiming for brevity. This kind of thing simply can’t be crammed into even a hundred 240-character tweets. But his words are important because they spell out so clearly a positive vision for America’s role in the world. He speaks eloquently of what America can accomplish, and what Americans are for, not merely what we’re against.
For example, if the philosophers and inventors “of the older world” ever asked, “What has America done for the benefit of mankind?” Adams had a ready answer.
America, he said:
has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to [other nations] 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.
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be….She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of 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…her practice.