John Quincy Adams: His Theory and Ideas

By George A. Lipsky | Go to book overview

15
The World of Nations

A man might profess to be perfectly independent, and to set at naught the opinions and wishes of others; but he could not get along without soon finding the inconvenience to himself of such a system. And so with nations. -- MEMOIRS, March 21, 1820

The area most congenial to Adams's talents, if not his temperament, was the diplomatic calling, statecraft on the international level. He brought to this field vast experience, the result of a conditioning in the art of diplomacy that began early and was most rare for a United States' citizen of his day, and an erudition that was extraordinary for the man of affairs even in the age of Jefferson and John Adams. It was the nation's good fortune that he possessed the capacity to observe widely and to develop a broad perspective from such observation. Of course, no analyst should overstress the uniqueness of any era's implications for the future. He must always remember that an eventful period results from forces and trends present in preceding periods that may have been outwardly calm. Nevertheless, Adams's diplomatic career coincided with a time of significant social upheaval in Europe to which America was forced to adjust. The assumptions underlying his policy, together with his view of policy, are of great importance, therefore, in relation to his whole social and political view.

Adams conceived of a nation as a "moral person" in a family of nations1 This moral person, in his view of the international law governing the subject, was possessed of external rights and obliga-

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1
Letter to Charles W. Upham, Washington, D. C., February 2, 1837, Tatum (ed.), "Ten Unpublished Letters of John Quincy Adams", 1796- 1837," p. 383.

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