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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Lesson from John Quincy Adams


I am reading James Traub’s new biography of John Quincy Adams.  It is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is how it illuminates a critical time in American history that is often overlooked.  It was a time when the American experiment was still delicate,  due both to  internal differences among the states and our increasingly important role with the colonial powers of England, France, and Spain as we defined our continental scope.
            Adams, who had served as our representative to France, Russia, and England as early as the 1790s and as Secretary of State under Monroe, had a unique perspective on the nation’s international affairs—one that is still important today.  Discussing the competition between Adams and Henry Clay in the Monroe administration, Traub writes:
For Adams, Clay’s views smacked of a dangerous unreality, a commitment to principle in the absence or history, politics, national habit, and character.  Like Burke, Adams reasoned from what men did, not from what they wished they did or imagined they might have done in an ideal setting.  A foreign policy based on a priori assumptions about the world rather than a rigorous understanding of men and nations was bound to overreach and lead to grief.

            It is a timely lesson for the 2016 Presidential campaign.  Both parties are being challenged by outsiders whose views can easily be said to smack of a “dangerous unreality.”  Republican Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign makes bold statements about bringing jobs home again, about building a wall to keep out immigrants, and about defeating international extremist terrorism.  However, he has no real plans, only what amounts, in the end, to a marketing campaign.  The Democrats have Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who campaigns for democratic socialist ideals—free education, universal health care, etc.—but with little explanation of how he will pursue his ideals or ensure that they are sustainable.
            Like them or not, these are candidates who lack the political skills to sustain their vision into reality.  Trump has no political leadership experience, and it is questionable whether his financial deal-making experience would have any value in statecraft.  Sanders has always operated as an outsider; it is difficult to know whether he could become a team-builder who could create the majority needed to fulfill his ideals.
            The lesson from John Quincy Adams is that we must be very cautious about giving power to people who propose to govern on “a priori assumptions about the world.”  We need leaders who are experienced in political leadership, not outsiders who have only their marketing skills or ideals to offer.