Few statesmen have so fully and thoughtfully dedicated their lives to their country as John Quincy Adams. In the course of his long life, he served as Ambassador to four European nations, United States Senator, Secretary of State, President, and the leading advocate against slavery in the House of Representatives. As a private citizen, he wrote poetry, history, essays on political theory, and maintained a diary which is one of America’s greatest literary treasures. In all of this time, Adams remained an ardent defender of American interests abroad – and a firm believer in a strong moral, economic, and political infrastructure at home. Unifying Adams’ illustrious career, was his dedication to the principle of improvement, both morally and nationally.
It should be noted from the outset that Adams understood improvement in a very different way than modern-day progressive liberals. To him, improvement meant a striving for virtue. What is interesting – even for his own time – is that Adams believed that not only individuals but also communities, nations, and humanity generally had an obligation to improve, and strive for virtuous perfection. Adams had no allusions that perfection is easy, or even possible. As he admitted, it is obviously true that the “human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.”[i] But Adams also thought that “there is in man a spirit, and the inspiration of the almighty” that calls us to be better than our nature.[ii] By this, he means that every human has an obligation to work to rise above our selfish instincts, and in pursuit of this impossible quest – discover goodness. As he summarized in a letter to his son George: “as I know that it is my nature to be imperfect, so I know that it is my duty to aim at perfection.”[iii]
Improvement at Home
This commitment to virtuous self-improvement meant that for Adams social reform began with the human heart, not with political institutions.[iv] However, he still placed great emphasis on political reform, to him only a rare, remarkable human could cultivate virtue without any help. Domestic improvement must be carried out by a commitment to improving the moral foundation of the nation, and eventually to furnish the economic needs of the people.
Adams thought that encouraging morality among the people was the province of illiberal social institutions such as reverence for tradition, tightly bound family existence, local community, and religion. These deeply communitarian institutions work to tie individuals to the broader culture and civilization to which they belong. Adams argues that through the cultivation of such ties people are brought outside of their selfish nature, and true self-restraint and freedom are made possible. Put another way, these parochial institutions taught men their duties to one another in addition to their political rights. This is best summarized by Adams’ declaration that “The sympathies of men begin with the relations of domestic life. They are rooted in the natural relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, of brother and sister; thence they spread through the social and moral propinquities of neighbor and friend, to the broader and more complicated relations of countryman and fellow-citizens.”[v]
It was Adams’ dedication to human improvement that made him such an ardent opponent of slavery. He argued that “it is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principles” denying slaves their ability to cultivate virtue and eroding the virtue of the free masters.[vi] In Adams’ view, this makes slavery inevitably illegitimate. Whatever the mandates of written law, the total subjection of one human at the feet of another violates the law of God.[vii]
As important as the ordered liberty of the private sphere remained for Adams, he thought that it was important humans not become too bound by these illiberal institutions. He believed that like most things in life these social institutions could just as easily undermine human virtue as promote it. He offered the medieval Church as the prime example of a well-meaning institution commandeered by the vices of fallen men. And so, society must be countered by a powerful government that could use its authority to encourage economic and intellectual improvement. This is not to say that Adams is an advocate for “big government” as many of us would conceptualize. Instead, Adams sought a balanced government.
This led Adams to be a strong opponent of the concept of untrammeled free trade, which he feared would encourage selfishness and vice. He contended that to create a national economic structure that would knit together the entire nation was the chief obligation of any patriotic American leader. Adams also advocated for the national government to commit itself to the building of roads, canals, a national university, and centers of science. In his eyes just as American citizens must cultivate virtue in themselves, so “their officials had a corresponding duty to facilitate improvement” both economic and cultural.[viii]
Human Improvement and Nationalism
For most of his career, Adams was one of the nation’s most ardent defenders of the American nation. His economic policy reflected this, and as president, his supporters were monikered “national republicans.” However, Adams’ nationalism is most apparent in his foreign policy. As an ambassador he shamelessly advocated for American economic and political interest, believing it to be the duty of each nation to first and foremost take care of its own citizens. As Secretary of State, he aggressively fought for the expansion of the United States into the west, and as the author of the Monroe Doctrine made clear that Europe was no longer to interfere in the affairs of the Western hemisphere. He even retroactively sanctioned General Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida because he thought it important for America to appear strong to the world.
Adams’ nationalism derived – like the rest of his thought – from his dedication to human improvement. Like family and local communities, the nation-state served an important role in drawing men away from their own selfishness. The nation gives us something bigger than ourselves that we can be a part of. Something we can fight and die for. While Adams admits that “The tie which binds us to our country is not more holy in the sight of God” than our common humanity, it is “more deeply seated in our nature.”[ix] Adams believes that by appealing to our imperfect tribal instinct we can become patriotic in a much healthier way.
However, it should be noted that Adams’ commitment to virtue made him dubious of untrammeled nationalism. He thought that even patriotism could devolve into a brutalist defense of one’s own when it became commandeered by selfish desire. Adams argued that this was best demonstrated by the plight of Native Americans whose stark national differences conflicted with the “self-interest” and national pride of American citizens, who were thus driven to oppress them in the cruelest manner possible.[x]
John Quincy Adams and Modern Conservatism
As a conservative thinker, John Quincy Adams has always been controversial. In his lifetime his opposition to slavery earned him the ire of figures such as John C. Calhoun and John Randolph of Roanoke. More recently he has been condemned by conservative intellectual Russell Kirk as an unfortunate ally to tradition who gave far too much ground to liberalism.
However, these criticisms are unfair. Adams believed in advancement, but he was no progressive. Throughout his career he proved himself to be a statesman and thinker deeply aware of the problems wrought by the Age of Enlightenment. More than any other figure in his lifetime he fought to preserve morality in the face of scientific materialism and individualistic democracy. This is not to say that Adams merely stood athwart history and yelled stop. He believed that serious opposition to the illnesses of modernity must have a positive vision of its own. His commitment to striving for virtue represents that vision. Adams understood that as difficult – perhaps impossible – sustained human improvement might be, to give up would be to surrender to the worst angels of our nature.
All of this offers a serious lesson for the conservative movement today. We must realize that opposing what is wrong in society is useless without an alternative and that there is no alternative better than a commitment to virtue. We must understand – as John Quincy Adams did – that the fight for improvement may not be easy but it should never be forsaken.
[i] May 6th 1827 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams.
[ii] May 6th 1827 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams.
[iii] John Quincy Adams to George Washington Adams, September 1811. It is this principle that makes his diary such a remarkable read. It is not only the chronicle of an unusually thoughtful statesmen, but the record of a man dedicating his life to being a better person than he is.
[iv] A fact which puts him in stark contrast to Marxist theory.
[v] An Address Celebrating the Declaration of Independence by John Quincy Adams, July 4th 1821
[vi] February 3rd, 1820 in The Diary of John Quincy Adams.
[vii] As he declared in a poem: “Who but shall learn that Freedom is the prize; Man still is bound to rescue or maintain; That Natures God commands the Slave to rise; And on the oppressor’s head to break his chain; Rolls, years of promise, rapidly roll around; Till not a Slave shall on this earth by found.” November 30th 1826 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams.
[viii] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought. Pg. 254
[ix] An Address Celebrating the Declaration of Independence by John Quincy Adams, July 4th 1821.
[x] December 23rd, 1827 in The Diary of John Quincy Adams. Adams thought that the solution to the problem of nationalism gone awry lay with reminding ourselves of the teaching of Christianity. That as important as moral rectitude is to a good life, and as fundamental as love of our own is to our nature, that at the end of the day our greatest calling is to love each other in spite of our differences. This is importantly different from the modern multi-cultural claim which is to love one another because of our differences. For instance, Adams would not have for a second thought that he ought to approve of heathen religious traditions or Godless deism. But he did think it was his duty to be charitable to such groups.