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America is a nation born in revolution, and our first reaction when other people throw off repressive rule is to sympathize. Should we also help? Is America, as John Quincy Adams put it, “in search of monsters to destroy”?

The question weaves through American history, beginning with the French Revolution, up to today’s Arab Revolt. But the anti-colonial struggles of Latin America in the early 19th century brought it to our doorstep.

Spain’s New World empire was as old as Columbus and stretched from California to Patagonia, but in the early 19th century it was tottering to a fall. The Napoleonic Wars had sapped the Spanish monarchy and introduced revolutionary ideas to the Spanish-speaking world. By the administration of President James Monroe (1817-25) there were rebellions in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

Spain tried to hold on. Pablo Morillo, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, was sent to restore order. He did it with a heavy hand: In one rebel town his troops collected a basket of ears. Other countries meanwhile took an interest in Latin America’s travails. The reactionary powers of Europe made noises about helping Spain—or grabbing pieces for themselves. Britain wanted Latin America to be open for free trade; Spanish mercantilism had closed it off. And the United States wanted to fill out its North American footprint: General Andrew Jackson had invaded Florida, still a Spanish colony, in 1818, ostensibly in pursuit of Seminole Indian raiders, actually to seize it.

How would America handle the Latin American hornet’s nest? Henry Clay, speaker of the House, was a frontier politician who also had a knack for diplomacy. He had helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, and he would later serve as secretary of state. As speaker, he saw Spain’s colonies as peers and soul mates of the United States. In an 1818 speech to Congress, he personalized them as family: “Whenever I think of Spanish America, the image irresistibly forces itself upon my mind, of an elder brother, whose education has been neglected, whose person has been abused and maltreated.” But now, “I think I behold that brother rising, by the power and energy of his fine native genius, to the manly rank which nature, and nature’s God, intended for him.” Clay’s reference to “nature and nature’s God,” a quotation from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, was deliberate: Latin America’s revolutions, he believed, were like ours.

Clay assailed Morillo’s counterrevolutionary cruelty and recited a long list, much of it in the rebels’ own words, of Spanish war crimes. He did not want to intervene, largely because America couldn’t—we had a good, if small, navy, but no army to speak of. What he proposed instead was diplomatic recognition for the rebels.

Monroe’s secretary of state was John Quincy Adams, a friend of Clay’s (they had negotiated the Treaty of Ghent together). Adams agreed with Clay that Spanish power in the New World was finished. He had his own ideas, however, about how America should react.

Several considerations weighed on Adams’ mind. By 1819, he was concluding a long negotiation with Spain to settle the status of Florida and America’s western boundary. Spain ultimately agreed to cede Florida for $5 million dollars, and to let the United States extend all the way to the Pacific, north of California. Adams did not want to jeopardize these arrangements by recognizing anti-Spanish rebels prematurely.

He wanted a Latin America that was open to free trade as much as Britain did. But he did not want to join Britain in securing it. He believed the United States should speak and act for itself, not as “a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war,” as he later put it.

He did not, finally, think Latin America’s revolutions were at all like ours. “They have not the first elements of good or free government,” Adams lectured Clay in a private conversation. The new countries they set up would be both authoritarian and chaotic: “Arbitrary power, military and ecclesiastical, was stamped upon their education, upon their habits, and upon all their institutions. Civil dissension was infused into all their seminal principles.” No elder brother talk for him.

Adams spelled out his worldview publicly in a Fourth of July oration in Washington in 1821. (As a former Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, he knew how to give a big speech according to the high-flown standards of the day.) Like every Fourth of July speaker, Adams celebrated the Declaration of Independence; as secretary of state he had custody of the original, which he displayed to the crowd. He dwelled on the sins of Britain, past and present. He alluded to Latin America toward the end. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” America would not fight other people’s wars of liberation for them, certainly not in cahoots with Britain.

Adams’ 1821 speech is the backdrop for the more famous Monroe Doctrine. By 1823, President Monroe wanted a formal statement of the country’s Latin American policy. Adams drafted the language, which Monroe included in his seventh annual address to Congress. Monroe and Adams warned Europe against New World adventures, for two reasons. Latin Americans wouldn’t like it. “Our southern brethren, if left to themselves” would never welcome new European overlords. More important, neither would the United States. “We should consider any attempt” by European countries “to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” The Monroe Doctrine showed sympathy for our neighbors. It was grounded, however, in national self-interest and self-assertion. Adams had won the policy battle over Clay.

Behind the geopolitics of the Monroe administration lay a lot of ordinary politics. Both Clay and Adams wanted to succeed Monroe as president, and each needed to burnish his image. Clay hoped to boost himself by controlling foreign policy from the House; Adams sought to show that he was a feisty, all-American secretary of state.

Adams won the presidential election of 1824; for his secretary of state he turned to none other than Henry Clay. Politicians can find ways to work together, despite their differences. But Adams’ and Clay’s opposing principles—realism (Adams) vs. idealism (Clay)—march on through later American foreign policy debates.

Realism ruled during the 19th century; the great crusades of the 20th—World Wars I and II and the Cold War—owed more to idealism. After the exhaustion of the Iraq War, it looked as if America was ready for another dose of John Quincy Adams. But Barack Obama, for at least some weeks in the spring of 2011, looked as if he was walking a line between Adams and Clay. In his March speech explaining his decision to help enforce a no-fly zone over the Libyan rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi, President Obama cited humanitarianism and world opinion. “We were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence; an international mandate for action…and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.” To not act in such a situation, Obama concluded, “would have been a betrayal of who we are.” But “who we are,” in Obama’s words, depends on the state of the world, and who is asking.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here