Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic. By Charles N. Edel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 432 pp.
John Quincy Adams was, in many ways, his father's son--bright and thoughtful, hardworking and conscientious, moral and direct--and like his father, he embodied these qualities to a fault. He was also, like John Adams, a one-term president who nonetheless accomplished much in his long and active life. But as Charles Edel ably recounts in his astute study of the younger Adams, John Quincy's career was his own, with a broad understanding of the path the American nation trod and a much different trajectory than his father's in the autumn of his life.
Edel models John Quincy Adams as a political actor with a diverse background that spanned the years of the early republic and who "stood as the bridge between the founders' vision and Lincoln's nation" (p. 298). Although this observation is not a completely new one, he examines Adams in an unconventional way, using the notion of a grand strategy to frame his narrative. Edel defines a grand strategy as "a comprehensive and integrated plan of action" (p. 5), one that incorporates both vision and implementation. The grand strategy approach is a tricky one, as he readily admits, because it too often presupposes a level of foreknowledge that is not realistic. Edel argues that Adams remained true to his overall goals of "reducing security risks" and "vindicating republicanism" (p. 8), even when he failed to achieve his desired outcome.
For John Quincy Adams, increased national security meant neutrality in relations with Europe, greater defense and a better navy at home, and expansion of America territorially. For republicanism to succeed as the desired model for governing, Adams promoted economic growth, internal improvements, and, ultimately and fundamentally, strategies to attack and end slavery. Along the way, Adams was not consistent or always successful in what he proposed. His diplomatic and advisory capabilities were strong, but his executive leadership was sorely lacking, and he compromised at times for the sake of union or career.
Nation Builder begins with a discussion of the influence that his parents had on his development and then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of John Quincy's early years as a diplomat, first in George Washington's second term as minister to the Netherlands at the tender age of twenty-seven. He later served other...