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…