In the summer of 1821, Greek Revolutionaries rose up to fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire, and petitioned the United States to join in their struggle. John Quincy Adams, who was then Secretary of State, presented the following response to the U.S. Congress, outlining why America would not intervene.
“Let our answer be this — America… in the assembly of nations, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has… without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings.
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.
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 lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: but she would be no longer the ruler of her own soul…
Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”
From John Quincy Adams’s address to Congress, delivered on July 4th, 1821. (You can find a lengthy, illuminating discussion of this address in Fred Kaplan’s biography John Quincy Adams: American Visionary.)
As Secretary of State from 1817 to 1824, John Quincy Adams became one of America’s finest diplomats in what was a crucial, formative era in the young nation’s history. Serving in the cabinet of James Monroe, Adams was the chief architect of the famous Monroe Doctrine, which declared the United States would resist any European attempts to colonize the Americas, while also remaining unaligned and uninvolved in the internal affairs of European states and colonies.
In 1821, this doctrine was put to the test, as the Greek Revolution erupted along the northeastern corner of the Ottoman Empire. With European powers rushing to the side of the Greeks in their struggle against Turkish occupation, the revolutionaries petitioned the United States for assistance.
Adams looked with sympathy upon the Greek fight for independence. He viewed it as one battle in a larger struggle between Islam and the West, and along with President Monroe, held deep misgivings about the Ottoman Empire, especially in the wake of the Barbary Wars. Yet Adams refused to commit the United States to the struggle for Greece (which would last until 1832, three years after Adams himself would retire from the White House.)
In July 4th, 1821, Secretary Adams delivered a speech to Congress in which he answered the Greek revolutionaries’ request for aid and outlined the broader American approach to foreign policy. His words above are, in addition to very eloquent, a fine summary of the moral and economic merits of non-interventionism.
“We should go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” That’d look nice on a bumper sticker in ’16, don’t you think?