09/20/2012 04:50 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

What the Founding Fathers Would Do About the Middle East

As hawks and doves in both parties debate American and/or NATO intervention in Syria and Iran, some Americans may wonder what the Founding Fathers would do if faced with a similar dilemma. In fact, they did and, like today's Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves squared off in the Senate and House of Representatives and left the President in a political vice as national elections approached.

As in North Africa and the Middle East today, revolutions raged across South America in the early 1800s, as a politically repressed, economically depressed population tried to overthrow cruel dictator-governors who ruled what were then Spanish provinces for an autocratic Spanish king. As Britain and France prepared to intervene, America's 19th-century war hawks--like today's neo-cons--urged America's fifth president James Monroe to go to war. Anglophiles urged him to join the British, while former President Thomas Jefferson, an inveterate Francophile, urged joining our old Revolutionary War ally France. Both sets of hawks saw military intervention in South America as a chance for the U.S. to carve out a piece of the ore-laden South American landscape for American industry.

Monroe's Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, however, disagreed. Arguably the greatest secretary of state in American history, Adams had served as American ambassador to six different countries, spoke six foreign languages (in addition to classical Latin and Greek), and had traveled across the face of Europe. Amidst the cries for American intervention overseas, Adams stood alone in the cabinet and, indeed, in the nation's capital, thundering against any American ties to England, France, or any other foreign nation. Like his father, former President John Adams, John Quincy Adams insisted that any ties to a foreign power represented a loss of American independence--symbolically if not materially, but probably both.

A champion of George Washington's policies, John Quincy Adams--later elected sixth President--called "the principle of neutrality in all foreign wars fundamental to the continuance of our liberties and of our Union." George Washington had been first to pronounce America's policy of neutrality, listing "the most ardent wishes of my heart...that we may avoid connecting ourselves with the politics of any nation." Washington urged the nation to remain "prepared for war, but never unsheathe sword except in self-defense."

And so, when the French navy attacked American cargo ships in 1798, President John Adams built a navy to sink French ships and force the French to sue for peace, but we did not occupy French islands in the Caribbean. And when the Barbary States (Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis) seized American cargo ships in the Mediterranean in 1802, President Jefferson sent the Navy to blockade North Africa and force its rulers to sue for peace. We did not leave an occupying army.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had studied Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and knew enough not to send occupying troops to South America. Adams sensed that revolutionary leaders there, as in the Arab world today, had unfurled pro-democracy banners to camouflage their own lust for absolute power. "So far as [South Americans] were contending for independence," he declared, "I wished well to their cause, but I have seen and yet see no prospect that they would establish free or liberal institutions of government. They are not likely to promote the spirit either of freedom or order by their example. They have not the first element of good or free government. Arbitrary power, military and ecclesiastical, was stamped upon their education, upon their habits, and upon their institutions." His words ring true today: the Arabs have not the first element of good or free government. Arbitrary power, military and ecclesiastical, was stamped upon their education, upon their habits, and upon their institutions, and their current uprisings are not likely to promote the spirit either of freedom or order. American intervention will do nothing to help promote that spirit. It failed in Vietnam, is failing in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and will fail in Syria and Iran.

Harlow Giles Unger is the author of more than twenty books, including eight biographies of the Founding Fathers and, most recently, the biography John Quincy Adams.

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