The days leading up to the 233rd anniversary of American independence offered plenty of opportunities to consider how a country founded in opposition to empire and imperialism should respond to the democratic inclinations and repressions on display in distant (and not so distant) lands.
Citizens are risking their lives in Iran to challenge the apparent theft of a presidential election – displaying a determination that was absent in America after the Supreme Court helped George Bush abscond with a presidency in 2000.
Citizens are in the streets of Honduran cities to challenge the removal of an elected president in a classic military coup – of the sort that has not been seen since te bad old days when cold war meddling unsettled Latin America.
President Obama faces criticism for speaking up too loudly, and for not speaking up loudly enough.
He is urged to intervene, and he is blamed for intervening.
It’s a difficult balance to strike.
But history offers wise counsel.
On July 4, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (who four years later would sit as the nation’s 6th president) reported to the Congress and the American people on the role American was taking with regard to world affairs.
Adams’ statement remains the finest expression of the unique balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the unaffordable wages of empire.
Above all, Adams reminded Americans that, while they have a responsibility to speak up for democracy clearly and without apology, they have an equal responsibility to avoid entangling themselves in the turmoils of other lands. Echoing the warnings of George Washington and James Madison, the secretary of state warned that such entanglements would ultimately undermine liberty in the United States – as they would require of America economic and political compromises that were inconsistent with domestic democracy.
After reading aloud the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, Adams said of America:
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. (But) 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…
Addressing the great powers of old Europe, Adams implored: “Come, and inquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind! In the half century which has elapsed since the declaration of American independence, what have you done for the benefit of mankind?”
His answer, he explained, would not be a listing of accomplished men and women, of inventions and economic successes.
No, Adams announced. America’s genius was found in the revolutionary spirit of 1776, which embraced the promise of democracy while rejecting the corruptions of empire – the worst of which involve 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. This has been her declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”
Adams concluded his address by urging Americans to renew their acquaintance with the revolutionaries against colonial meddling and empire who founded the American experiment, to celebrate their example and to: “Go thou and do likewise!”
This is counsel that Barack Obama and his circle should take to heart on this 233rd Fourth of July.
As appealing or seemingly necessary as the impulse toward intervention and imperialism may be, America should remain “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but she must be “the champion and vindicator only of her own.”