Friday, August 9, 2013

Adams: On American Foreign Policy

John Adams was one of the most important figures in early American diplomacy. He served abroad as minister to Holland and Britain during the period of the confederation, and was unique  among American ministers in having made himself obnoxious in both Paris and London.  In the aftermath of the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris, signed in late 1782, Adams expatiated on the principles and assumptions that ought to guide American foreign policy. In a letter of March 20, 1783, he observed that “Gentlemen can never too often [be] requested to recollect” the debates that had arisen in congress when the French treaty was in contemplation 

The Nature of those Connections, which ought to be formed between America and Europe, will never be better understood than they were at that time. It was then said, there is a Ballance of Power in Europe. Nature has formed it. Practice and Habit had confirmed it, and it must exist forever. It may be disturbed for a time, by the accidental Removal of a Weight from one Scale to the other, but there will be a continual Effort to restore the Equilibrium.

In an earlier communication to Secretary Robert Livingston and congress (Feb 5, 1783), Adams recurred to the the assumptions and objectives that animated the debates over foreign policy in the first congress:

If there are in congress any of those gentlemen, with whom I had the honor to serve in the years 1775 and 1776, they may possibly remember, that in arguing in favor of sending ministers to Versailles, to propose a connection with that Court, I laid it down as a first principle, that we should calculate all our measures and foreign negotiations in such a manner, as to avoid a too great dependence upon any one power of Europe—to avoid all obligations and temptations to take any part in future European wars; that the business of America with Europe was commerce, not politics or war; and, above all, that it never could be our interest to ruin Great Britain, or injure or weaken her any further than should be necessary to support our independence, and our alliances, and that, as soon as Great Britain should be brought to a temper to acknowledge our sovereignty and our alliances, and consent that we should maintain the one, and fulfil the others, it would be our interest and duty to be her friends, as well as the friends of all the other powers of Europe, and enemies to none.

We are now happily arrived, through many tremendous tempests, at that period. Great Britain respects us as sovereign States, and respects all our political engagements with foreign nations; and as long as she continues in this temper of wisdom, it is our duty to respect her. We have accordingly made a treaty with her and mutually sworn to be friends. Through the whole period of our warfare and negotiations, I confess I have never lost sight of the principles and the system, with which I set out, which appeared to me to be the sentiments of congress with great unanimity; and I have no reason to believe that any change of opinion has taken place. . . .

From the same letter, Adams gives his “idea of the qualifications necessary for an American foreign minister in general, and particularly and above all to the Court of St. James.”

In the first place, he should have had an education in classical learning, and in the knowledge of general history, ancient and modern, and particularly the history of France, England, Holland, and America. He should be well versed in the principles of ethics, of the law of nature and nations, of legislation and government, of the civil Roman law, of the laws of England and the United States, of the public law of Europe, and in the letters, memoirs, and histories of those great men, who have heretofore shone in the diplomatic order, and conducted the affairs of nations, and the world. He should be of an age to possess a maturity of judgment, arising from experience in business. He should be active, attentive, and industrious; and above all, he should possess an upright heart and an independent spirit, and should be one who decidedly makes the interest of his country, not the policy of any other nation, nor his own private ambition or interest, or those of his family, friends, and connections, the rule of his conduct.

Adams is generally regarded as a realist, but he forecast improvement for humanity from the independence of America:
America will grow with astonishing Rapidity and England France and every other Nation in Europe will be the better for her prosperity. Peace which is her dear Delight will be her Wealth and Glory, for I cannot see the Seed of a War with any part of the World in future but with Great Britain, and such  States as may be weak enough, if any such there should be, to become her Allies."

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The first letter, John Adams to James Warren, March 20, 1783, is cited in James Hutson, John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution (Lexington, 1980), pp. 28-29; the letter to Livingston is in Volume 8 of The Works of John Adams, available at the On-Line Library of Liberty. The final letter, making peace our dear delight, is in The Papers of John Adams, 6:348.