In This Review

Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic
Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic
By Charles N. Edel
Harvard University Press, 2014, 432 pp

In this masterful and fluidly written book, Edel tells the story of John Quincy Adams and explores Adams’ pivotal contributions to the American tradition of grand strategy. Adams had three big strategic ideas. The first was neutrality. Informed by his education and early diplomatic experiences abroad, Adams saw that the United States was at once materially weak and ideologically threatening to European powers. To protect its fragile unity, the country had to steer clear of foreign entanglements. The second big idea was national defense. As secretary of state under President James Monroe, from 1817 to 1825, Adams supported territorial expansion and insisted that Washington unilaterally issue the Monroe Doctrine, which opposed any European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, rather than take that position as part of an alliance with the United Kingdom. This strategic posture overstated U.S. capabilities at the time, but also deftly preserved a free hand for further American expansion. Adams, however, was more than a calculating realist, and his third big idea was liberty. After serving as president from 1825 to 1829, Adams won election to the House of Representatives in 1831, where he opposed the expansion of slavery to new territories and anticipated a time when American ideals would merge with U.S. power to “unsettle all the ancient governments of Europe.” Today’s free Europe is the true legacy of Adams’ grand strategy. As Edel concedes, Adams’ personal and political inflexibility sometimes impeded his ideas, especially during his presidency. But the ideas endured.