The Early Republic and the Genesis of Prudent American Realism

In 2014 I had the privilege to co-author, with two of my Naval War College colleagues, a text on American foreign and defense policy, US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower. The essence of the book is captured by the subtitle.

As one reviewer wrote:

The central, unifying argument of the book is that the United States arrived at its global position as the result of neither a secret hegemonic plan nor a fit of absent-mindedness. Its rise to prominence was never the goal of its leaders, but neither was it an accident, as it has become fashionable to claim. Instead the authors suggest that U.S. power was incidental, a secondary result of its pursuit of interests, and probably one that was unavoidable given both the United States’ vast potential and external challenges. . . . The chapters make the case that, despite apparent partisan acrimony, a broad consensus has driven the evolution of U.S. foreign and defense policy since the end of the Second World War. Administrations change but fundamental interests do not.

Although the book does not employ the term, its thesis accords with my argument that the United States has been most successful when it has pursued a course of diplomatic and military action that I call “Prudent American Realism.” The key concept is prudence. According to Aristotle, prudence—deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means)—is the virtue most characteristic of the statesman, requiring him to be able to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the best means for achieving the ends, given existing circumstances. Although the starting point of US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy is the Cold War, this approach to foreign and defense policy is at least as old as George Washington’s Farewell Address.

Two significant books examine the security policy of the Early Republic: An Independent Empire: Diplomacy and War in the Making of the United States by Michael Kochin and Michael Taylor (2020); and Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic by Charles Edel (2015). The five decades following the Revolution constituted a very dangerous period in American history: The survival of the United States, much less its rise to great power, was not preordained. Independence did not mean security. Having thrown off direct British rule, the founding generation and their immediate successors had to consolidate power in North America while navigating the vagaries of European great power politics. Indeed, when examined in the context of the realities of the early republic rather than our own time, the melding of a string of rebellious British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard into today’s military superpower is remarkable, even miraculous.

Kochin and Taylor begin An Independent Empire with an account of the 1807 Pike Expedition intended to explore the southern part of the Louisiana Territory recently purchased from France. Unlike the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, Zebulon Pike’s foray was a comedy of errors. Pike got lost, wandered into Spanish territory, and ended up being arrested by Spanish authorities. 

Kochin and Taylor use Pike’s Expedition as a metaphor for the perils that the early republic faced.

In trying to conduct official business in alien, unforgiving environments, Pike was undermanned and under resourced, just as the early federal government struggled to impose order on the enormous American continent. On his travels, Pike was obliged to deal with Native American tribes both friendly and hostile, just as the federal government was forced to treat and fight with the Iroquois, the Western Confederacy, the Creeks, and the Seminoles to the east of the Mississippi River. Pike also struggled to avoid conflict with rival Empire, just as the United States sought to avoid open war with the British, French, and Spanish. The failure of the Pike expedition remains a salutary reminder of the uncertain prospects of the early Republic itself.

Obstacles to Security in the Early Republic

The obstacles to American security during the five decades following the War of Independence were both external and internal. The former included not only Spain, France, and Great Britain but the Indian tribes that blocked westward expansion in both the old Northwest, the territory lying north of the Ohio River, and the old Southwest. These tribes constituted a serious threat to the fledgling republic. That threat has been obscured by the “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” narrative portraying the North American Indians as the helpless victims of U.S. imperialism.

In fact, the native tribes were adept at playing the game of power geopolitics. Although they contended among themselves for land and advantage, they also allied with each other as well as the European powers when their interests dictated. For instance, during the French and Indian War, the Iroquois allied with the British and the Huron with the French. After the American Revolution, the British continued to use the various tribes in the Old Northwest to block American expansion.

In 1790 and 1791, an alliance of Miami and Shawnee inflicted a series of military reverses on American forces in the Northwest Territory, including St. Claire’s defeat in November of 1791, arguably the worst defeat of the U.S. Army by Native Americans in history. While the British were elated by the prospect of establishing an Indian barrier between the United States and Canada, St. Claire’s defeat represented a tipping point in the Indian Wars east of the Mississippi. Congress authorized the creation of The Legion of the United States, a combined arms force under the command of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, which decisively defeated the Indian alliance at Fallen Timbers in August of 1794.

But there were internal obstacles as well, the most serious of which were the forces that conspired against national unity. As Americans moved west, the interests of the frontiersmen diverged from those of easterners, as the national government was unable to provide for the security of the former. This led some westerners to seek union with Spain. Aaron Burr was implicated in one such scheme. The Senior Officer of the Army, James Wilkinson, was a double agent for the Spanish, leading Theodore Roosevelt to write that “in all our history, there is no more despicable character.”

John Quincy Adams: Prudent Policy in a Dangerous World

But the United States was able to overcome these obstacles to its security, eventually creating a national government strong enough to provide a unifying force. It did so by means of a prudent approach to foreign affairs, exemplified by John Quincy Adams, whom John Lewis Gaddis has called the most consequential American grand strategist of the early 19th century.

As Edel shows, Adams exemplified a prudent approach to grand strategy and foreign policy. This prudent approach can be traced to George Washington’s Farewell Address, which represents a prudential combination of interest and principle to be pursued unilaterally by the United States. For Adams, as for Washington, the key to success in foreign affairs was a strong federal union. 

As Adams wrote in 1811, the choice for the United States was between “an endless multitude of little insignificant clans and tribes at eternal war with one another for a rock, or a fish pond, the sport and fable of European masters and oppressors” or “a nation, coextensive with the North American continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact.”

Edel contends that Adams crafted a grand strategy intended to reduce security risks to the United States while vindicating republicanism as the form of government best suited to promote human progress and liberty. Without security, nascent republican principles would not survive in a world dominated by militarized empires. Without a moral component, America offered the world nothing better than the monarchies of the Old World.

Edel agrees with Kochin and Taylor that the rise of the American republic was not preordained. It was instead something deliberately pursued, but on a course that had to be adjusted from time to time. Edel fleshes out Gaddis’s claim in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience that Adams’s grand strategy comprised three principles: hegemony, unilateralism, and preemption. 

Hegemony was based on the idea that North America constituted the United States’ sphere of influence and that the country’s safety precluded any sharing of power on the North American continent.

Unilateralism, which accepts the need for international cooperation in the form of treaties but rejects alliances as an unnecessary limit on American action, has often been confused with isolationism. The Monroe Doctrine represents an example of the unilateralist principle. When it became clear in the early 1820s that the newly independent Latin American republics might not be able to defend their sovereignty against Spain—especially if Spain were assisted by the reactionary monarchies of France, Austria, and Russia—Great Britain suggested a joint Anglo-American statement opposing future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. While President James Monroe, along with former presidents Jefferson and Madison, liked the proposal, Adams sought to transform it into a unilateral statement, in order “to avow our principles explicitly” rather than “to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

Adams realized that the United States lacked the means to enforce the policy but recognized that Great Britain, with its navy, did have such means, and that its own interests in this instance would complement those of the United States even in the absence of a formal commitment. Thus the Monroe Doctrine permitted the United States to avoid the dangers illustrated by the French alliance of 1778—the obligation to align American long-term interests with those of another state, or to provide assistance when those interests were threatened.

Preemption justifies early steps to prevent an adverse outcome. As Kochin and Taylor observe, the early republic faced many threats, including a continuing European presence in North America (Great Britain in Canada, and Spain in Florida and Texas) and what we would today call “non-state actors” (marauding Indians and pirates) ready to raid lightly defended areas on the frontier. These threats were exacerbated by the weakness of what Adams called “derelict provinces” (today we would call them “failed states”), which provided sanctuary for hostile non-state actors and thus an excuse for further European intervention in the Americas.

In 1818, Florida provided an occasion to address such threats. After Creeks, Seminoles, and escaped slaves launched a series of attacks on Americans from sanctuaries in Spanish Florida, General Andrew Jackson, acting on the basis of questionable authority, invaded the Spanish Territory. Most of Monroe’s cabinet, especially the secretary of war, John Calhoun, called for Jackson’s head. Adams alone supported Jackson’s actions, contending that the United States should not apologize for Jackson’s preemptive expedition but should insist that Spain either garrison Florida with enough forces to prevent marauders from entering the United States or “cede to the United States a province . . . which is in fact a derelict, open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States, and serving no other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance to them.”

The result was the Adams–Onís Treaty, in which Spain recognized U.S. territorial claims to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest and transferred Florida to the United States. In return, the United States relinquished its claim to Texas as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

While Adams was a successful secretary of state, his sole term as president was a failure. Edel attributes this outcome to the interplay of Adams’ personal shortcomings, his political miscalculations, and structural shifts within the republic—most notably the rise of Jacksonian populist democracy, the reinvigoration of the party system, and the disruptive role of slavery within the American polity.

During the final chapter of his remarkable career—as a member of the House of Representatives—Adams emerged as a vociferous opponent of “the peculiar institution.” Up to this point, he had been focused on preserving, securing, expanding, and developing the nation. But the final component of Adams’s grand strategy required that the United States not only become a powerful nation but also a moral one. Edel writes that “to expand the republic, prevent it from territorial encroachment, develop its resources . . . Adams, like the Constitution’s framers, had been willing to stay silent about slavery. But ultimately, he realized that his and the United States’ mission was incomplete if it perpetuated and did not destroy slavery.”

Adams, writes Edel, was the first American statesman to articulate a grand strategy that integrated the political goals of the fledgling republic, set priorities among those goals, and developed a sequence of actions designed to achieve them. As a diplomat, Adams worked to inoculate the United States from Europe’s wars. As secretary of state, he pursued territorial expansion and continental hegemony. As president, he worked to develop domestic infrastructure, education, and commerce. As an anti-slavery member of Congress, he labored to reconcile the principles of the American founding, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, with American actions.

As Edel makes clear, these were all components of a long-term grand strategy designed to reduce security risks to the United States while vindicating republicanism as the form of government most likely to result in human progress and liberty. Kochin and Taylor validate the argument that the United States has been most successful when it has pursued the sort of grand strategy that Adams envisioned. Without such a grand strategy, the country would never have become a world power.

About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: John Adams and other politicians having dinner at President’s House in Philadelphia. iStock/Getty Images

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