12/23/2019

Thinking about Restraint with John Quincy Adams

These were not isolated views on Adams’ part: in a letter to Richard Anderson in which he discussed the recent revolutions in Latin America in detail, Adams once again emphasized the importance of neutrality, commerce, and equality in relations. He noted that the United States and Spain had maintained peaceful relations during this period, despite the tension in South and Central America. He observed that the United States had “national obligations prescribed to them to remain neutral” during these civil conflicts. However, once Colombia declared itself an independent republic, the United States was clearly in a different position. Adams noted that since Colombia approached the United States with an eye towards “negotiation of treaties of commerce and navigation founded upon the bases of reciprocal utility and perfect equality,” the United States was hardly in a position to decline this invitation, particularly since the Spanish were in no position to continue the civil conflict in that newly formed nation. As a former colony that had just fought a war of independence to achieve representative self-governance the United States had a duty to support the newly minted representative nations of South and Central America both for philosophical and practical reasons. A strong, politically stable, and economically vibrant Latin America would both enhance the long-term prospects for the United States and keep European colonial ambitions—particularly those of Great Britain—at bay. However, it also would provide more examples of successful self-governance and undermine support for non-representative regimes.

According to Adams, there were two reasons for recognizing these new sovereign nations. The first was political. He described the American “doctrine” of politics as based on “the principle of unalienable right. The European allies, therefore, have viewed the cause of the South Americans as rebellion against their lawful sovereign. We have considered it an assertion of natural right.” The second reason was the mutual economic gains derived from the principle of free trade and open, equal access to markets. He dismissed the European focus on “their monarchical and monopolizing contemplations” and instead lauded the Colombians for their promises of both opening their markets to free trade and promising to place foreign businesses and traders on equal legal and commercial standing. He acknowledged that the local businessmen would be at a slight advantage, but he described the American position as “placing the foreigner, in regard to all objects of navigation and commerce, upon a footing of equal favor with the native citizen; and to that end of abolishing all discriminating duties and charges whatsoever.”