The United States began in revolt against empire, answering the call of Thomas Paine: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!”
“Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” Paine declared in Common Sense, his 48-page condemnation not just of King George III but of the whole business of colonialism.
We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of [people], perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.
Paine, surely the finest of the founders, was an internationalist who announced, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” He had great hopes for the United States, imagining that its revolutionary rejection of the British crown and the autocracy that extended from it would inspire people around the world to reject colonial overlords and pursue democratic self-governance.
Paine hoped that the American Revolution would be the beginning of many revolutions against kings and queens, potentates and czars. Indeed, he made it his personal mission to spread the gospel far beyond the borders of his adopted land.
At its best, however, the anti-imperial faith that manifested at the founding of the United States was twinned with a rejection of the impulse to interfere in the affairs of other lands and other peoples—even when there were causes that might have appealed to the revolutionary instinct.
This way of thinking was best explained on July 4, 1821, by then–Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, when the man who would eventually become the country’s sixth president appeared before Congress on the 45th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Speaking at a time when the struggle against colonialism was well recalled by living Americans—including his own father, John Adams, the nation’s second president, and former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—the veteran diplomat used his address to propose an approach to foreign policy that was at once visionary and restrained.
Adams’s speech from two centuries ago, though too little remembered and even less respected by his successors at the Department of State and the White House, remains the finest expression of the unique balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the unaffordable wages of empire. Long before Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers of deferring to a military-industrial complex, long before George McGovern issued his “Come Home America” call for an end to military adventurism, John Quincy Adams counseled that a career of empire should be rejected as un-American.
After reading aloud the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, he outlined a vision for how the United States could understand its role in a turbulent world:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her 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.
She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.
The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power.
She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
The genius of the American experiment, said Adams, was found in the revolutionary spirit of 1776, which rejected the corruptions of empire—the worst of which stem from the impulse to meddle in the affairs of other countries.
“Her glory is not dominion, but liberty,” Adams said of the United States. “Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace.”
“Tragically,” as the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft recognizes, “the circumstances that Adams warned about only too accurately describe the situation in which the United States finds itself today. Far too broad a cross section of the foreign policy establishment accepts perpetual war as a normal condition, willfully blind to the immense harm done as a consequence of recklessly conceived and ineptly conducted armed interventions.”
Since its 2019 founding, the institute has argued for “a fundamental reorientation of US foreign policy…to change the prevailing mindset that defines American leadership in military terms.”
That will not be easy to achieve. Yet it is appropriate on this July 4, and every day, for patriots to recall John Quincy Adams’s reminder that we should speak “the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights”—not of empire.