Wednesday, June 1, 2016
morally satisfying but strategically reckless....
When President Monroe and his cabinet members returned from their summer vacations and began meeting at the White House in late October (1817), they faced an urgent decision about the US role in the ongoing struggle between Spain and its South American possessions. The European powers supported Spain's colonial pretensions; King Ferdinand VII of Spain held out hopes that France or Great Britain might dispatch a force to reclaim the renegade provinces. The United States had not yet recognized any of the self-proclaimed republics. American foreign policy had never deviated from the strict neutrality first declared by President Washington. This was Europe's affair, even if it was in America's backyard. At the same time, the South American rebels consciously emulated the language of the American patriots, and many Americans viewed them as brothers-in-arms, as they had the French revolutionaries of 1789. How could the United States remain neutral between the despotism of monarchical Europe and the citizens of the self-proclaimed republics? Newspapers across the country set up a clamor for recognition.
At the first cabinet meeting Adams attended, on October 30, President Monroe distributed a series of questions about policy toward Spain. The first question was: "Has the executive power to acknowledge the independence of the new states whose independence in not recognized by the parents country and between which parties war exists?" Adams did not doubt that the executive had the power but was not prepared to abandon neutrality, which he saw as the great bulwark of American strength, simply to gratify the wishes of South American patriots or their American supporters. And he had no illusions about America's relative power: he feared that recognition might provoke European monarchs into sending an expeditionary force to crush New World republicanism or even to declare war against the United States. He complained in a letter to his father that, "as at the early stages of the French revolution, we have ardent spirits who are rushing into the conflict, without looking at the consequences."
Adams viewed the contest more dispassionately than did many Americans: Spain, he wrote, had been thoroughly brutal, but so had the insurgents, who "present to us the prospect of very troublesome and dangerous associates, and still more fearful allies." Adams' paramount goal was to strengthen America; siding with the Spanish colonies would be morally satisfying but strategically reckless. Adams thoroughly approved of the expedient the president had adopted earlier that year of sending a fact-finding commission to South America. The commissioners still hadn't left, and the president seemed to be in no hurry to send them.
-James Traub, John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit