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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Framing an American Policy
by Johnson, Allen


The decline and fall of the Spanish Empire does not challenge the imagination like the decline and fall of that other Empire with which alone it can be compared, possibly because no Gibbon has chronicled its greatness. Yet its dissolution affected profoundly the history of three continents. While the Floridas were slipping from the grasp of Spain, the provinces to the south were wrenching themselves loose, with protestations which penetrated to European chancelries as well as to American legislative halls. To Czar Alexander and Prince Metternich, sponsors for the Holy Alliance and preservers of the peace of Europe, these declarations of independence contained the same insidious philosophy of revolution which they had pledged themselves everywhere to combat. To simple American minds, the familiar words liberty and independence in the mouths of South American patriots meant what they had to their own grandsires, struggling to throw off the shackles of British imperial control. Neither Europe nor America, however, knew the actual conditions in these newborn republics below the equator; and both governed their conduct by their prepossessions.

To the typically American mind of Henry Clay, now untrammeled by any sense of responsibility, for he was a free lance in the House of Representatives once more, the emancipation of South America was a thrilling and sublime spectacle--"the glorious spectacle of eighteen millions of people struggling to burst their chains and to be free." In a memorable speech in 1818 he had expressed the firm conviction that there could be but one outcome to this struggle. Independent these South American states would be. Equally clear to his mind was their political destiny. Whatever their forms of government, they would be animated by an American feeling and guided by an American policy. "They will obey the laws of the system of the new world, of which they will compose a part, in contradistinction to that of Europe." To this struggle and to this destiny the United States could not remain indifferent. He would not have the Administration depart from its policy of strict and impartial neutrality but he would urge the expediency--nay, the justice--of recognizing established governments in Spanish America. Such recognition was not a breach of neutrality, for it did not imply material aid in the wars of liberation but only the moral sympathy of a great free people for their southern brethren.

Contrasted with Clay's glowing enthusiasm, the attitude of the Administration, directed by the prudent Secretary of State, seemed cold, calculating, and rigidly conventional. For his part, Adams could see little resemblance between these revolutions in South America and that of 1776. Certainly it had never been disgraced by such acts of buccaneering and piracy as were of everyday occurrence in South American waters. The United States had contended for civil rights and then for independence; in South America civil rights had been ignored by all parties. He could discern neither unity of cause nor unity of effort in the confused history of recent struggles in South America; and until orderly government was achieved, with due regard to fundamental civil rights, he would not have the United States swerve in the slightest degree from the path of strict neutrality. Mr. Clay, he observed in his diary, had "mounted his South American great horse . . . to control or overthrow the executive."

President Monroe, however, was more impressionable, more responsive to popular opinion, and at this moment (as the presidential year approached) more desirous to placate the opposition. He agreed with Adams that the moment had not come when the United States alone might safely recognize the South American states, but he believed that concerted action by the United States and Great Britain might win recognition without wounding the sensibilities of Spain. The time was surely not far distant when Spain would welcome recognition as a relief from an impoverishing and hopeless war. Meanwhile the President coupled professions of neutrality and expressions of sympathy for the revolutionists in every message to Congress.

The temporizing policy of the Administration aroused Clay to another impassioned plea for those southern brethren whose hearts--despite all rebuffs from the Department of State--still turned toward the United States. "We should become the center of a system which would constitute the rallying point of human freedom against the despotism of the Old World . . . . Why not proceed to act on our own responsibility and recognize these governments as independent, instead of taking the lead of the Holy Alliance in a course which jeopardizes the happiness of unborn millions?" He deprecated this deference to foreign powers. "If Lord Castlereagh says we may recognize, we do; if not, we do not . . . . Our institutions now make us free; but how long shall we continue so, if we mold our opinions on those of Europe? Let us break these commercial and political fetters; let us no longer watch the nod of any European politician; let us become real and true Americans, and place ourselves at the head of the American system."

The question of recognition was thus thrust into the foreground of discussion at a most inopportune time. The Florida treaty had not yet been ratified, for reasons best known to His Majesty the King of Spain, and the new Spanish Minister, General Vives, had just arrived in the United States to ask for certain explanations. The Administration had every reason at this moment to wish to avoid further causes of irritation to Spanish pride. It is more than probable, indeed, that Clay was not unwilling to embarrass the President and his Secretary of State. He still nursed his personal grudge against the President and he did not disguise his hostility to the treaty. What aroused his resentment was the sacrifice of Texas for Florida. Florida would have fallen to the United States eventually like ripened fruit, he believed. Why, then, yield an incomparably richer and greater territory for that which was bound to become theirs whenever the American people wished to take it?

But what were the explanations which Vives demanded? Weary hours spent in conference with the wily Spaniard convinced Adams that the great obstacle to the ratification of the treaty by Spain had been the conviction that the United States was only waiting ratification to recognize the independence of the Spanish colonies. Bitterly did Adams regret the advances which he had made to Great Britain, at the instance of the President, and still more bitterly did he deplore those paragraphs in the President's messages which had expressed an all too ready sympathy with the aims of the insurgents. But regrets availed nothing and the Secretary of State had to put the best face possible on the policy of the Administration. He told Vives in unmistakable language that the United States could not subscribe to "new engagements as the price of obtaining the ratification of the old." Certainly the United States would not comply with the Spanish demand and pledge itself "to form no relations with the pretended governments of the revolted provinces of Spain." As for the royal grants which De Onis had agreed to call null and void, if His Majesty insisted upon their validity, perhaps the United States might acquiesce for an equivalent area west of the Sabine River. In some alarm Vives made haste to say that the King did not insist upon the confirmation of these grants. In the end he professed himself satisfied with Mr. Adams's explanations; he would send a messenger to report to His Majesty and to secure formal authorization to exchange ratifications.

Another long period of suspense followed. The Spanish Cortes did not advise the King to accept the treaty until October; the Senate did not reaffirm its ratification until the following February; and it was two years to a day after the signing of the treaty that Adams and Vives exchanged formal ratifications. Again Adams confided to the pages of his diary, so that posterity might read, the conviction that the hand of an Overruling Providence was visible in this, the most important event of his life.

If, as many thought, the Administration had delayed recognition of the South American republics in order not to offend Spanish feelings while the Florida treaty was under consideration, it had now no excuse for further hesitation; yet it was not until March 8, 1822, that President Monroe announced to Congress his belief that the time had come when those provinces of Spain which had declared their independence and were in the enjoyment of it should be formally recognized. On the 19th of June he received the accredited charge d'affaires of the Republic of Colombia.

The problem of recognition was not the only one which the impending dissolution of the Spanish colonial empire left to harass the Secretary of State. Just because Spain had such vast territorial pretensions and held so little by actual occupation on the North American continent, there was danger that these shadowy claims would pass into the hands of aggressive powers with the will and resources to aggrandize themselves. One day in January, 1821, while Adams was awaiting the outcome of his conferences with Vives, Stratford Canning, the British Minister, was announced at his office. Canning came to protest against what he understood was the decision of the United States to extend its settlements at the mouth of the Columbia River. Adams replied that he knew of no such determination; but he deemed it very probable that the settlements on the Pacific coast would be increased. Canning expressed rather ill-matured surprise at this statement, for he conceived that such a policy would be a palpable violation of the Convention of 1818. Without replying, Adams rose from his seat to procure a copy of the treaty and then read aloud the parts referring to the joint occupation of the Oregon country. A stormy colloquy followed in which both participants seem to have lost their tempers. Next day Canning returned to the attack, and Adams challenged the British claim to the mouth of the Columbia. "Why," exclaimed Canning, "do you not know that we have a claim?" "I do not know," said Adams, "what you claim nor what you do not claim. You claim India; you claim Africa; you claim--" "Perhaps," said Canning, "a piece of the moon." "No," replied Adams, "I have not heard that you claim exclusively any part of the moon; but there is not a spot on THIS habitable globe that I could affirm you do not claim; and there is none which you may not claim with as much color of right as you can have to Columbia River or its mouth."

With equal sang-froid, the Secretary of State met threatened aggression from another quarter. In September of this same year, the Czar issued a ukase claiming the Pacific coast as far south as the fifty-first parallel and declaring Bering Sea closed to the commerce of other nations. Adams promptly refused to recognize these pretensions and declared to Baron de Tuyll, the Russian Minister, "that we should contest the right of Russia to ANY territorial establishment on this continent, and that we should assume distinctly the principle that the American continents are no longer subjects for any new European colonial establishments."[*]

[* Before Adams retired from office, he had the satisfaction of concluding a treaty (1824) with Russia by which the Czar abandoned his claims to exclusive jurisdiction in Bering Sea and agreed to plant no colonies on the Pacific Coast south of 54 degrees 40 minutes.}

Not long after this interview Adams was notified by Baron Tuyll that the Czar, in conformity with the political principles of the allies, had determined in no case whatever to receive any agent from the Government of the Republic of Colombia or from any other government which owed its existence to the recent events in the New World. Adams's first impulse was to pen a reply that would show the inconsistency between these political principles and the unctuous professions of Christian duty which had resounded in the Holy Alliance; but the note which he drafted was, perhaps fortunately, not dispatched until it had been revised by President and Cabinet a month later, under stress of other circumstances.

At still another focal point the interests of the United States ran counter to the covetous desires of European powers. Cuba, the choicest of the provinces of Spain, still remained nominally loyal; but, should the hold of Spain upon this Pearl of the Antilles relax, every maritime power would swoop down upon it. The immediate danger, however, was not that revolution would here as elsewhere sever the province from Spain, leaving it helpless and incapable of self-support, but that France, after invading Spain and restoring the monarchy, would also intervene in the affairs of her provinces. The transfer of Cuba to France by the grateful King was a possibility which haunted the dreams of George Canning at Westminster as well as of John Quincy Adams at Washington. The British Foreign Minister attempted to secure a pledge from France that she would not acquire any Spanish-American territory either by conquest or by treaty, while the Secretary of State instructed the American Minister to Spain not to conceal from the Spanish Government "the repugnance of the United States to the transfer of the Island of Cuba by Spain to any other power." Canning was equally fearful lest the United States should occupy Cuba and he would have welcomed assurances that it had no designs upon the island. Had he known precisely the attitude of Adams, he would have been still more uneasy, for Adams was perfectly sure that Cuba belonged "by the laws of political as well as of physical gravitation" to the North American continent, though he was not for the present ready to assist the operation of political and physical laws.

Events were inevitably detaching Great Britain from the concert of Europe and putting her in opposition to the policy of intervention, both because of what it meant in Spain and what it might mean when applied to the New World. Knowing that the United States shared these latter apprehensions, George Canning conceived that the two countries might join in a declaration against any project by any European power for subjugating the colonies of South America either on behalf or in the name of Spain. He ventured to ask Richard Rush, American Minister at London, what his government would say to such a proposal. For his part he was quite willing to state publicly that he believed the recovery of the colonies by Spain to be hopeless; that recognition of their independence was only a question of proper time and circumstance; that Great Britain did not aim at the possession of any of them, though she could not be indifferent to their transfer to any other power. "If,"said Canning, "these opinions and feelings are, as I firmly believe them to be, common to your government with ours, why should we hesitate mutually to confide them to each other; and to declare them in the face of the world?"

Why, indeed? To Rush there occurred one good and sufficient answer, which, however, he could not make: he doubted the disinterestedness of Great Britain. He could only reply that he would not feel justified in assuming the responsibility for a joint declaration unless Great Britain would first unequivocally recognize the South American republics; and, when Canning balked at the suggestion, he could only repeat, in as conciliatory manner as possible, his reluctance to enter into any engagement. Not once only but three times Canning repeated his overtures, even urging Rush to write home for powers and instructions.

The dispatches of Rush seemed so important to President Monroe that he sent copies of them to Jefferson and Madison, with the query--which revealed his own attitude--whether the moment had not arrived when the United States might safely depart from its traditional policy and meet the proposal of the British Government. If there was one principle which ran consistently through the devious foreign policy of Jefferson and Madison, it was that of political isolation from Europe. "Our first and fundamental maxim," Jefferson wrote in reply, harking back to the old formulas, "should be never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe, our second never to suffer Europe to intermeddle with Cis-Atlantic affairs." He then continued in this wise:

"America, North and South, has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own. She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe. While the last is laboring to become the domicile of despotism, our endeavor should surely be, to make our hemisphere that of freedom. One nation, most of all, could disturb us in this pursuit; she now offers to lead, aid, and accompany us in it. By acceding to her proposition, we detach her from the band of despots, bring her mighty weight into the scale of free government and emancipate a continent at one stroke which might otherwise linger long in doubt and difficulty . . . . I am clearly of Mr. Canning's opinion, that it will prevent, instead of provoking war. With Great Britain withdrawn from their scale and shifted into that of our two continents, all Europe combined would not undertake such a war . . . . Nor is the occasion to be slighted which this proposition offers, of declaring our protest against the atrocious violations of the rights of nations, by the interference of any one in the internal affairs of another, so flagitiously begun by Buonaparte, and now continued by the equally lawless alliance, calling itself Holy."

Madison argued the case with more reserve but arrived at the same conclusion: "There ought not to be any backwardness therefore, I think, in meeting her [England] in the way she has proposed." The dispatches of Rush produced a very different effect, however, upon the Secretary of State, whose temperament fed upon suspicion and who now found plenty of food for thought both in what Rush said and in what he did not say. Obviously Canning was seeking a definite compact with the United States against the designs of the allies, not out of any altruistic motive but for selfish ends. Great Britain, Rush had written bluntly, had as little sympathy with popular rights as it had on the field of Lexington. It was bent on preventing France from making conquests, not on making South America free. Just so, Adams reasoned: Canning desires to secure from the United States a public pledge "ostensibly against the forcible interference of the Holy Alliance between Spain and South America; but really or especially against the acquisition to the United States themselves of any part of the Spanish-American possessions." By joining with Great Britain we would give her a "substantial and perhaps inconvenient pledge against ourselves, and really obtain nothing in return." He believed that it would be more candid and more dignified to decline Canning's overtures and to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France. For his part he did not wish the United States "to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war!"

Thus Adams argued in the sessions of the Cabinet, quite ignorant of the correspondence which had passed between the President and his mentors. Confident of his ability to handle the situation, he asked no more congenial task than to draft replies to Baron Tuyll and to Canning and instructions to the ministers at London, St. Petersburg, and Paris; but he impressed upon Monroe the necessity of making all these communications "part of a combined system of policy and adapted to each other." Not so easily, however, was the President detached from the influence of the two Virginia oracles. He took sharp exception to the letter which Adams drafted in reply to Baron Tuyll, saying that he desired to refrain from any expressions which would irritate the Czar; and thus turned what was to be an emphatic declaration of principles into what Adams called "the tamest of state papers."

The Secretary's draft of instructions to Rush had also to run the gauntlet of amendment by the President and his Cabinet; but it emerged substantially unaltered in content and purpose. Adams professed to find common ground with Great Britain, while pointing out with much subtlety that if she believed the recovery of the colonies by Spain was really hopeless, she was under moral obligation to recognize them as independent states and to favor only such an adjustment between them and the mother country as was consistent with the fact of independence. The United States was in perfect accord with the principles laid down by Mr. Canning: it desired none of the Spanish possessions for itself but it could not see with indifference any portion of them transferred to any other power. Nor could the United States see with indifference "any attempt by one or more powers of Europe to restore those new states to the crown of Spain, or to deprive them, in any manner whatever, of the freedom and independence which they have acquired." But, for accomplishing the purposes which the two governments had in common--and here the masterful Secretary of State had his own way--it was advisable that they should act separately, each making such representations to the continental allies as circumstances dictated.

Further communications from Baron Tuyll gave Adams the opportunity, which he had once lost, of enunciating the principles underlying American policy. In a masterly paper dated November 27, 1823, he adverted to the declaration of the allied monarchs that they would never compound with revolution but would forcibly interpose to guarantee the tranquillity of civilized states. In such declarations "the President," wrote Adams, "wishes to perceive sentiments, the application of which is limited, and intended in their results to be limited to the affairs of Europe . . . . The United States of America, and their government, could not see with indifference, the forcible interposition of any European Power, other than Spain, either to restore the dominion of Spain over her emancipated Colonies in America, or to establish Monarchical Governments in those Countries, or to transfer any of the possessions heretofore or yet subject to Spain in the American Hemisphere, to any other European Power."

But so little had the President even yet grasped the wide sweep of the policy which his Secretary of State was framing that, when he read to the Cabinet a first draft of his annual message, he expressed his pointed disapprobation of the invasion of Spain by France and urged an acknowledgment of Greece as an independent nation. This declaration was, as Adams remarked, a call to arms against all Europe. And once again he urged the President to refrain from any utterance which might be construed as a pretext for retaliation by the allies. If they meant to provoke a quarrel with the United States, the administration must meet it and not invite it. "If they intend now to interpose by force, we shall have as much as we can do to prevent them," said he, "without going to bid them defiance in the heart of Europe." "The ground I wish to take," he continued, "is that of earnest remonstrance against the interference of the European powers by force with South America, but to disclaim all interference on our part with Europe; to make an American cause and adhere inflexibly to that." In the end Adams had his way and the President revised the paragraphs dealing with foreign affairs so as to make them conform to Adams's desires.

No one who reads the message which President Monroe sent to Congress on December 2, 1823, can fail to observe that the paragraphs which have an enduring significance as declarations of policy are anticipated in the masterly state papers of the Secretary of State. Alluding to the differences with Russia in the Pacific Northwest, the President repeated the principle which Adams had stated to Baron Tuyll: "The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." And the vital principle of abstention from European affairs and of adherence to a distinctly American system, for which Adams had contended so stubbornly, found memorable expression in the following paragraph:

"In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparations for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted. We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies and dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States."

Later generations have read strange meanings into Monroe's message, and have elevated into a "doctrine" those declarations of policy which had only an immediate application. With the interpretations and applications of a later day, this book has nothing to do. Suffice it to say that President Monroe and his advisers accomplished their purposes; and the evidence that they were successful is contained in a letter which Richard Rush wrote to the Secretary of State, on December 27, 1823:

"But the most decisive blow to all despotick interference with the new States is that which it has received in the President's Message at the opening of Congress. It was looked for here with extraordinary interest at this juncture, and I have heard that the British packet which left New York the beginning of this month was instructed to wait for it and bring it over with all speed . . . . On its publicity in London . . . the credit of all the Spanish American securities immediately rose, and the question of the final and complete safety of the new States from all European coercion, is now considered as at rest."

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