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John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

John Quincy Adams was President of the United States from 1825-1829, but that's not what we want to talk about. In this lesson, we're going to look at Adams' years as Secretary of State, and see why the most important years of his career came under this office.

John Quincy Adams

From 1825 to 1829 John Quincy Adams was the president of the United States. For most presidents, these are the four years most significant years of their lives. However, John Quincy Adams' presidency was relatively…uneventful.

No, when we talk about John Quincy Adams' impact on American history, we go back a few years earlier. As president, he didn't do much, but as Secretary of State, Adams literally changed the world. He's considered to be amongst the most powerful Secretary of States in US history. Yep, when talking about John Quincy Adams, these are the years that mattered.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams
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Adams the Diplomat

Before becoming Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams was one of the nation's top diplomats. He was George Washington's ambassador to the Netherlands, John Adams' ambassador to Prussia, and James Madison's ambassador to Russia. He reported on Napoleon's imperial aggression, he negotiated the peace treaty at the end of the War of 1812, and he became an American ambassador to Great Britain after that. Few, if any, diplomats have had as great an influence on American foreign relations.

Adams as Secretary of State

With this impressive resume, it's not hard to see why President James Monroe appointed John Quincy Adams as his Secretary of State. From 1817 to 1825, Adams oversaw American foreign policy, and redefined our position in the world. His time in this office culminated in numerous changes, but there are three moments which stand out in particular.

The Adams-Onís Treaty

In 1818, General Andrew Jackson decided to invade Florida without the government's approval, as part of his mandate of pacifying Seminole raids on the US/Spanish Florida border. He ended up conquering the Spanish colonial capital of Pensacola before the US government could stop him.

As Secretary of State, Adams had the unenviable job of apologizing to Spain for the fact that a US general just invaded their empire. However, in what has been heralded as one of the smoothest diplomatic maneuvers in history, Adams both scolded Spain for letting the Seminoles use Florida as a base to attack the US, and played up Spain's concerns about the independence wars in Latin America. In the end, Adams convinced the Spanish ambassador Don Luis de Onís to sign the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. Spain ceded the entirety of Florida to the United States, and the US agreed to abandon any claims to Spanish Texas, and to not assist the Latin American revolutions in any way. With that, Adams secured that last part of the east coast for the growing American nation.

Recognizing the Republics

In the Adams-Onís Treaty, the US government promised to remain uninvolved in the Latin American revolutions. The American people, however, were more than willing to throw their ideological support behind these revolutions. After all, this was the continental spread of the American revolutionary ideology. Americans loved it, and Adams sensed that.

Once these nations began gaining independence around 1821, Adams pressured President Monroe to recognize them and receive their ambassadors. Adams was developing a vision of hemispheric ideological unity, which would soon come to reshape American foreign relations.

The Monroe Doctrine

By 1823, Britain was still reeling from wars with Napoleon, Spain had lost nearly all of its empire, and France was recovering from the fall of Napoleon. Adams worried that these nations would try to strengthen themselves by invading the brand-new and still-weak republics of Latin America. He believed that the US needed to do something about this, and drafted a speech for the president known as the Monroe Doctrine.

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