Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic by Charles N. Edel (review)
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John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Early U.S. foreign policy

Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic. By Charles N. Edel. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 392. Cloth, $29.95.)

The John Quincy Adams revival is now in full voice. More than a half century ago, Samuel Flagg Bemis crafted his two-volume tribute to the New Englander. Thereafter, Adams’s broader legacy has largely been overshadowed by the intense debate over Andrew Jackson, whose polarizing presence divides academics today as it did the public in the antebellum era. While the controversy over ‘‘Old Hickory’’ has not abated, many scholars have turned to Adams as the intellectually redemptive alternative in the early republic; the political road not taken by the American voter. Wistfully poring over John Quincy’s voluminous diary, letters, writings, and speeches, they see a progressive visionary whose ideas of social justice and republicanism may have played out through the actions of an aggressive federal government. While continuing to credit Adams for the successful exercise of intelligence, timing, and power in the State Department, these scholars lament the failure of his presidency, a term doomed by the rise of sectionalism, slavery, and parochial self-interest. In a country that traditionally embraced a simple populist image and expression, the erudite and arrogant Adams did little to help foster his image or relate to the masses. The people chose the ploughman over the professor.

Works focusing on the celebration of Adams as a sympathetic and rational figure accelerated with Paul C. Nagel’s fine biography, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (New York, 1997). Shorter books by Lynn Hudson Parsons, James E. Lewis, and Robert Remini followed. Daniel Walker Howe dedicated his Pulitzer Prize winning volume, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York, 2007), to John Quincy Adams. More recently, David Waldstreicher edited an impressive compilation of essays on John and John Quincy, while Harlow Giles Unger and Fred Kaplan penned new biographies. In John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (New York, [End Page 491] 2014), Kaplan reveals a deep respect and admiration, if not affection, for John Quincy as a harbinger of the liberal society that emerged with a proactive government under the guiding hands of Lincoln, FDR, and Obama.

Accomplished historian Randall Woods is currently at work on his full biography of Adams, promising the portrayal of a brilliant, multidimensional, yet emotionally and psychologically conflicted individual.

Charles Edel now places his John Quincy within this growing scholarly framework. Edel focuses upon concepts and policy. He argues that Adams was the first American policymaker to develop a ‘‘grand strategy,’’ a comprehensive plan of action for the country that integrated means and ends. Such planning demanded the mental prowess to conceptualize disparate and sometimes far-reaching events and bring them into harmony towards a wider goal. Success required a flexible and adaptable mindset. The talented Adams possessed these qualities in abundance, along with a solid moral core that most particularly marked his tenure in Congress.

Edel does not intend a full biography; rather he gives us periods and situations in Adams’s life that reflect his vision. A man of quiet and steady ambition, he juxtaposed the evolution of his career in parallel with the nation. His parents primed him for the role of ‘‘disinterested public servant’’ he sought out, but never seeking preference or acclaim (50–51). John Quincy emerges as a rather sad figure, his personal life—including his romances—tempered by the goals and expectations established by John and especially Abigail. The outgoing, gregarious, fun-loving youth morphed into a cold, aloof, and rigid adult, as he pursued his career in law, academics, and diplomacy. He pursued his stints as foreign minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain with dogged determination, but apparently little joy. Through it all, he developed a foreign policy vision that involved keeping the Europeans at bay, while expanding America’s continental and commercial frontiers, and asserting hemispheric hegemony.

James Monroe selected Adams as a unity figure in his administration, and certainly healing internal divisions within the government and the...