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Professor Alan Henrikson

“My country, right or wrong!” John Quincy Adams could never join in the popular patriotic toast, he wrote his father, John, in 1816. “My toast would be, may our country always be successful, but whether successful or otherwise, always right.”

Minister to Russia, negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812, shaper of the Monroe Doctrine as secretary of state, eloquent foe of slavery as a congressman, and perhaps the only major figure in American history who knew both the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, John Quincy Adams is largely remembered today only as the younger half of the nation’s first father-son presidential duo.

Yet he was, in fact, one of America’s greatest statesmen, whose vision of the young republic and its place in the world is worth recalling today, says Alan Henrikson, the inaugural Lee E. Dirks Professor in Diplomatic History at the Fletcher School. “For many years I have taken my students to the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy to visit the Adams family’s ‘Old House,’” Henrikson says. “I want to give them a sense of a place where great ideas of American foreign policy have been formed.”

The Adams connection with his course is longstanding. Henrikson recalls years ago inviting a latter-day member of the illustrious family to speak to his students on the “Adams Tradition in American Diplomacy.” Charles Francis Adams IV was then head of Raytheon and chairman of the Fletcher School’s Board of Visitors. Adams IV described an occasion when he and his father—Charles Francis Adams III, secretary of the Navy in the Hoover administration—were walking together down Tremont Street in Boston. The older Adams was intending to go one way and the younger Adams another. As they parted, the father somewhat abruptly said to the son, “You have inherited a reputation for integrity. Don’t lose it.” He then turned and walked away.

“The importance of ‘integrity’ in diplomacy, as in interpersonal relations, can hardly be overestimated,” says Henrikson. The Adamses understood the concept of integrity as being not just moral but also intellectual, requiring not just rectitude, but consistency, he says. “It is also a definition of character. Countries, too, have character.”

In a speech on the Fourth of July in 1821 John Quincy Adams described the United States as “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” yet “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” America, he said, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” This was in keeping with what he saw as the anti-imperial precedent of the first half-century of the young republic.

Today, of course, “international circumstances have changed and so has American policy,” says Henrikson. “The power of the United States has greatly increased and U.S. interests have greatly expanded.” Whereas President Thomas Jefferson intervened against the Barbary Pirates to protect only Americans and their interests, the United Nations, of which the United States was a founding member, has affirmed a “responsibility to protect”—an obligation to defend the citizens of other countries when their own governments do not, as in Libya under Qaddafi, Henrikson says.

How to find that larger “integrity” in the foreign policy and conduct of the United States over time? This is a challenge facing the historian who sets out to reconcile past and present, Henrikson says.

The engagement with U.S. diplomatic history is a long and enduring tradition at the Fletcher School, says Henrikson. He notes the great interest in the field—and in the diplomacy of John Quincy Adams in particular—that is held by Lee Dirks, F57, the benefactor who endowed the professorship he now holds.

“For Lee, as for many other Fletcher graduates, the subject of U.S. diplomatic history, like American diplomacy itself, has been a lifelong source of enjoyment as well as a mirror for historical reflection,” Henrikson says. “His generosity in establishing the Lee E. Dirks Professorship in Diplomatic History will make it possible to continue sharing his interest and intellectual engagement with succeeding generations of Fletcher students.”