In December 1816, John Quincy Adams, the U.S. minister to Great Britain, responded to a request from Christopher Hughes, a young American, about how to prepare, and specifically about how to study, for a career in diplomacy. (Hughes had been one of the secretaries to the American Peace Commission in Ghent in 1814, where he had developed a good relationship with Adams.) Adams assumed as a matter of course that Hughes, a College of New Jersey (Princeton) graduate, was familiar with the classic texts—Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, and the like—in ancient Greek and Latin. He therefore offered a “[l]ist of authors in general, modern history, national law and diplomatic intercourse,” which “will more than suffice for eighteen months or two years, reading”:

Robertson’s History of Charles the Fifth and History of America;
Watson’s History of Phillip the second and Phillip the third;
Roscoe’s Life of Lorenzo de Medici and Leo the tenth;
Coxe’s History of the House of Austria;
Russell’s Letters on Ancient and Modern History;
Raynal’s History of the East and West Indies;
Edward’s History of the West Indies;
Brougham’s Colonial Policy;
Annual Register from 1758 to 1815;
Jenkinson’s or Chalmer’s collection of Treaties;
Smith’s Wealth of Nations;
Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws;
Grotius’ Rights of War and Peace with Barbeyrac’s Commentary;
Puffendorf, Law of Nature and Nations with Barbeyrac’s Commentary;
Vattel’s Law of Nations;
Marten’s Summary of the Modern Law of Nations;
Burlamaqui, Law of Nature and Nations;
Ward’s History of the Law of Nations

Adams explained further:

Many of them will prove by no means attractive. To Smith, Montesquieu, Grotius and Ward, I would recommend your particular attention for the development of the principles which are generally recognized in the intercourse of nations. Vattel is the author most commonly resorted to in practical diplomacy, and his work being written in a popular and easy style is among those that you will find the least tedious in reading. If your object were to form a diplomatic library, the list should be much larger, and would include many books in other languages than the English; several voluminous collections of treaties, particular as well as general histories of the European nations, and numerous dissertations and treatises upon special questions of national law. The enclosed list contains only books of a general nature and all published in Europe which I thought most conforming to your request. They will sufficiently absorb your time for two years.

But as you have a career before you, and do me the favor to consult my opinion, I would suggest to you the utility of preparing your mind for application when you return home to the history, the internal interests, and the external relations of our own country. In the history of the several colonial establishments united together by the war of our independence, you will find the source of the various and in some respects conflicting interests which it is the first duty of an American statesman to conciliate and unite. In the collections of American state papers and the Journals of Congress under the confederation you will find the best key to the interests and rights of our country in her internal administration and in her intercourse with foreign powers. But all the books upon these subjects are to be procured in America, and many of them are not to be found elsewhere.

It should be noted that Adams offered this advice before he reached the pinnacle of his own diplomatic career as secretary of state (1817–1825). But it is unlikely his advice would have changed. We offer here some additional reflections about the intellectual and practical foundations that Adams believed were necessary to serve as an American diplomat.

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In 1795, in his first overseas posting, as minister resident to the Netherlands during the Wars of the French Revolution, Adams looked about for role models. He admired particularly the way in which the Portuguese minister, the Chevalier d’Araujo, managed himself. D’Araujo had to walk an especially fine line; he had remained at his post in the French-occupied Netherlands even though his country was still at war with France. At one dinner in which French officials were present, he spoke skillfully on the arts and sciences while using the conversation to introduce political topics through references to the written works of men such as Rousseau and the Abbé Raynal. His clever discourse, Adams thought, was a kind of “armed neutrality”—d’Araujo said certain things which were calculated to be agreeable to a Frenchman, others which were not so. “Perhaps he wants to obtain the means of getting on foot a negotiation for peace between his country and Spain with France,” Adams speculated. “Perhaps he only means to observe as accurately as possible, and for that purpose aims at establishing a sort of familiarity with them.”

But when Adams told d’Araujo that he was studying memoirs of diplomats from decades or centuries before, the Portuguese Minister told him he was wasting his time. “Mr. d’Araujo says we must henceforth not look back to anything that has ever been done heretofore.” The French Revolution and the resulting conflicts had changed everything. Adams agreed that “[t]here is not, indeed, the same advantage in possessing the principles and experience of able negotiations, because the present state of opinions and of practice require a different theory.” But he bristled at the suggestion his studies over the past months had been useless. “At least it increases the knowledge of history, and gives lessons of analogy which have some use for application to every position of affairs among men.”

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Adams certainly believed it was necessary to master French, the dominant language of European diplomacy and society. He was fortunate in having learned French as a child, when he accompanied his father, John Adams, to Europe, and served for a time as his secretary. It was of course advisable to acquire the language of one’s particular residence, if possible. Adams had some acquaintance with Dutch from time spent in the Netherlands as a young man in the early 1780s, and quickly picked up sufficient facility to read Dutch when he came there officially in the mid-1790s. But reading, rather than speaking, the native language was the most important thing, because it revealed the true character of a people. An American diplomat should continue his education by studying the national literature, as well as continue to read the classics that transcended time and place.

Adams’s next assignment, as the first U.S. minister accredited to Prussia, provided opportunities to learn about the German culture and language, with which few Americans were familiar. “Berlin is said to be the Athens of Germany, both in Learning and Taste, abounding in Men of Science and Letters,” his father—who also happened to be president of the United States—wrote to him about his new posting. As to official matters, President Adams insisted that “the great characters and political Systems in the North of Europe, are not so well understood in your own Country as they ought to be.” The younger Adams took both matters to heart, learning German with considerable difficulty, and not always to his satisfaction, through a tutor. During lulls in diplomacy, he immersed himself in modern German literature—notably, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, Christoph Martin Wieland, Friedrich Schiller, and August von Kotzebue. At first Adams was unimpressed. The Germans seemed to fail to appreciate that the purpose of literature was to instill proper morals. As time went on, however, he began to have a greater appreciation:

The more access I obtain to German literature, the more I prize it. The flimsy prejudices of the French and English nations against the German language, have long blinded them to the excellencies of its literature, just as the Continental connoisseurs deny the excellence of English painting. Yet in both cases the power of nature and genius is rapidly breaking through the mists of prejudice.

He found himself particularly charmed by Wieland’s epic poem, Oberon. He took it upon himself to translate it for English-speaking audiences (as it turned out, his translation was not published for some years). He also wrote a series of letters that recorded his travels further into central Europe, which was published in America and England as Letters on Silesia.

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In 1799, he ran across a collection of essays that compared the American to the French Revolution, with preference decidedly going to the former. The author was Friedrich von Gentz, a Prussian civil servant and admirer of the English Constitution who had previously published a translation of Burke’s Reflections of the Revolution in France. Gentz had captured Adams’s basic sense of the matter: the American Revolution represented a sensible, moderate defense of well-established rights; the French Revolution was a flight into utopian fantasy. Thinking them a helpful guide for American diplomacy in this turbulent era, Adams immediately set out to translate the essays into English and sent them to his brother Thomas to arrange publication as a pamphlet in America. It was published in Philadelphia under the title The French and American Revolutions Compared.

Gentz later became a close associate of Klemens von Metternich and a blatant political and diplomatic reactionary, certainly beyond what even the tough-minded Adams would have advised. But that was ultimately a matter for the Europeans to determine, and Adams had already come to the conclusion that “Europe is dead.” American diplomats and citizens should learn what they could from whatever source—but not uncritically.

One source of supposed insight into politics and diplomacy that Adams roundly condemned was modern German philosophy, which he regarded as simply an epigone and popularizer of the most radical French thought. The head of this class, Adams decided, was “a certain professor Kant of Koningsberg, who passes for a prodigy of metaphysical depth, because he writes a jargon that no human being can understand.” Immanuel Kant, in Adams’s mind, resorted to esotericism and obfuscation simply in order to retain his academic post—and undoubtedly to avoid arrest. But for those well versed in the writings of the French revolutionaries there was no mistaking Kant’s object. Adams tried unsuccessfully to obtain and send to his father an English translation of Kant’s Project for a Perpetual Peace (as Adams rendered the title). Adams’s journal gave no indication that he had plowed through Kant’s principal philosophical works, such as his most famous text, Critique of Pure Reason. He based his opinion instead on the views of Kant’s “adepts” whom he encountered occasionally, and on French translations of shorter publications by and about the Prussian philosopher. Adams told his mother Abigail that through these sources he was only reinforced in his opinion that Kant espoused “theoretic madness” fully in line with the intellectual roots of the French Revolution.

The doctrine of the progressive improvement of mankind seems to be a favorite, and as I believe an original opinion of the modern philosophers—Price and Condorcet in their ideas of it have proved at least the weakness of the human mind in its present degree of illumination; but they have not ventured to announce the means by which this improvement is to be effected. This was reserved for the Prussian sage. The means are antagonism; the spirit of discord; the perpetual strife which the Creator has ordained to prevail for ever among men. In consequence of this system the warmest admirers of Kant, consider all the horrors of the present time as glorious steps towards the greatest perfection of the species, and they seriously maintain that although the same scenes of blood and desolation should continue one two or three centuries longer, they will be amply repaid by the supreme felicity which a yet later posterity will enjoy, as the purchase of all this misery. What such opinions will finally produce I will not undertake to say, but they promise no peaceful prospects for the present.

The bankruptcy of modern continental European philosophies and the violence they had caused were surely major factors in Adams’s recommendation to the aspiring diplomat Hughes of “the utility of preparing your mind for application when you return home to the history, the internal interests, and the external relations of our own country.” In his later years, Adams would himself write and speak extensively on these subjects, including major publications on the Constitution, James Madison, and James Monroe (he began a biography of his father, which was eventually completed by his own son, Charles Francis Adams). Adams kept coming back to one particular aspect of American history: the Declaration of Independence. In almost all of his writings on foreign relations, from his first major essays (signed Publicola) in his early 20s through his speeches of opposition to the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, the principles of the Declaration was his cornerstone. His most famous foreign policy pronouncement, made in his July 4, 1821 Oration, included the oft-quoted words: America

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.

That argument, which is far more complex than a mere epigram suggests, was made after Adams had read the text of the Declaration to an audience assembled in the chamber of the House of Representatives. It came at the end of a lengthy rebuttal of those, particularly in England, who claimed that the United States had contributed nothing to the greater cause of mankind. The greatest rebuttal, Adams argued, was the existence, text, and purpose of the document he had before him.