LI recently wrote a review of Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Colossus, for the National Post. In the review, I gingerly tiptoed around one of the obvious flaws in the book – Ferguson knows little and cares less about American history. This is fine with me. Let each do the work he loves.
Ferguson has never made any bones about the fact that he wants to be the AJP Taylor of the Right. Unfortunately, he seems headed for being the Toynbee of the Right -- hot, donnish air spread over big and vacuous ideas. He is exploiting his serious status as a historian (a man who knows things) to build a shaky and unworthy career for himself as a pundit (a man who quotes men who know things). He should really try to refrain from drawing conclusions from American history until he has an undergraduate level familiarity with it. But there he is, again, in Slate, blithely going on about, of all things he doesn’t know about, John Quincy Adams.
Here, astonishingly, is what he says about JQA:
“The lineal antecedent of the Bush administration's current policy is revealed here to be John Quincy Adams, "the most influential American grand strategist of the nineteenth century." (Although Americans are generally wary of the hereditary principle, they do like it to apply in the realm of foreign policy.)
According to Gaddis, Adams' strategy—partly inspired by one of the first nasty "surprises" in American history, the torching of the White House by the British in 1814—had three distinctive components. It allowed for pre-emption, on which basis South Florida and Texas were annexed; unilateralism, hence the Monroe Doctrine instead of an Anglo-American condominium in Latin America; and American hegemony, which came a lot later, but which Adams and his contemporaries fondly imagined.”
This is, well, whacky, and only a man who draws his American history through the very narrow straw provided by books by foreign policy scholars would have written something that is both so weird (South Florida? Does Ferguson know where Florida is? He had the same problem in his book) and that so misstates Adams contribution to American’s expansionist policy. The misstatemeht is symptomatic of Ferguson's real disinterest with American history. Ferguson has never had much time for race as a historical category. Sure, he mentions it in Empire, but he much prefers to talk about markets. That, plus Ferguson's tendency to make lawyer like arguments -- he loves to weed through his facts -- show through in the way he does American history.
Historians get a feel for facts. For instance, even if an American historian knew little about Adams and Texas, he'd suspect the annexation story and the South Florida story for the same reason: Adams was prominently and famously anti-slavery. Annexation, in the pre-civil war days, was driven largely by the South - in search of new territories, and seeking to enlarge the sphere of slave economies. These things came together in Adams famous opposition to annexing Texas. Adams knew very well that the Texas revolt was caused in part by the fact that the Americans in Texas were bringing their slaves into a state in a nation that had abolished slavery. All of which adds up to what Adams really did – which was to prevent a pre-emptive annexation of Texas by Andrew Jackson. Actually, the last is a bit speculative, but the latest historian of the Texas revolution, H.W. Brands, in his book Lone Star Nation, makes a pretty good case for it. The speculative part is that Jackson was moving towards annexation. The part that isn’t speculation is that Adams clearly blocked the annexation of Texas to the U.S., and he did it because of slavery. An excerpt from Adam’s speech on the subject:
“Annexation, had been put off with a sort of Return Jonathan refusal. He had been told with Solemnity of face that there was a doubt of the Constitutional power of Congress and the President to accept the proposal and moreover that they could not think of it now because it would risk a war with Mexico, and violate the sacred Faith of Treaties. But Mr. Jefferson had shewn how a Constitutional Camel could be Swallowed for the sake of Louisiana by palates accustomed to strain at a gnat, and the Chairman of the late Committee of Foreign Affairs professed his readiness to swallow another for the sake of Texas. And as to the war with Mexico, one President had told Congress seven months before that it would be justifiable, and his successor, even while alleging this pretence of War and the Sacred Faith of Treaties, was about to tell Congress not only that he himself agreed with his Predecessor that War would have been justifiable the Winter before, but that...both Houses of Congress had been of the same opinion, and that it was now not only more justifiable but indispensable because the last magnanimous Appeal to the Justice and the fears of Mexico, heralded by a Courier from that Department of State, with the indulgence of one week for an answer, had totally failed.”
Notice, however, that Kagan, Ferguson's interlocutor, doesn't correct him. As AJP Taylor once said, foreign policy mandarins know little about their own country, and a little more about other countries -- which is a distinct limitation on their policy formulations.
That's surely the case here.
Now, one might say, in Ferguson's defense, that Adams did, after all, construct what is known as the Monroe doctrine. But this simply reinforces the point about how complicated the American expansionist idea was, and how even in practice it was even attended with sometimes crippling tensions. While Adams, like many Americans, probably did assume that the U.S. would, at some point, take over the whole of North America, in fact his career is about the gradual dissolution of this idea, rather than its triumph. Ignorant of the way dialectical tug in American history, Ferguson justs sees an analogy with the British Empire. If that analogy wasn't there, frankly, Ferguson wouldn't be interested.
Ferguson should get safely back to his field in pronto time. The next time he writes for Slate, they might match him with someone who knows something about American history.