John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit, by James Traub (New York: Basic Books, 620 pp., $45.00). This well-written and highly readable biography, addressed to the general reader rather than to the academic historian, is nevertheless a substantial as well as a highly accessible work by a professor of foreign policy at New York University. Traub’s presentation is less “original” (after two centuries of historiography) than it is balanced, reasonable, and compelling. “Adams’ persistent argument for husbanding US diplomatic and military power,” Traub claims, “is his single most lasting contribution to the corpus of the nation’s governing principles.” This was owing, firstly, to his fear that America might become enmeshed in, and its republican existence threatened by, Continental animosities, quarrels, and wars; secondly, to his conviction that “the great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social compact.” This belief caused him to support the program of “internal improvements” with which the name of Henry Clay, his secretary of state, is so notably associated, and to oppose the Jeffersonians’ concept of a limited federal government. “Adams was thus the living link between a long-defunct Federalism and an emergent nationalism. He was . . . to use terminology Adams himself would not have recognized, a progressive conservative.” Owing to what Traub sees as political ineptitude, Adams’s vision of an active national government was deferred until the Whigs and the new Republican Party embraced it a generation later. Similarly, Adams did not live to see the abolition of slavery, a cause to which he was fervently committed, while forbearing to advocate a course of action to further it.
Thus he was forced into the strange, lonely position of storming the barricades of slavery while refusing to support abolitionism. It was a spectacle that casually mingled heroism, isolation, and pathos.
A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Power, by John A. Thompson (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 334 pp., $29.95). Attempting to explain the reasons for the growth of the United States’ historically unprecedented power in the world, Thompson considers several possibilities, among them the “sheer scale of the nation’s power—that is, its abundant possession of the capabilities or resources that can be used to influence other states”; her quest for security; her need to protect and enhance her economic interests; and her missionary spirit tracing as far back as the Puritans. Having found all of them insufficient, he concludes that
the satisfactions and gratifications of wielding power do seem at times to have given an expansionist thrust to U.S. policy, independent of any instrumental power or purpose. “Empire” is an inappropriate description of something as variable in its potency and as imprecisely defined geographically as America’s influence in world politics, but the role the United States has played has given rise to an “imperial” mentality.
Terreur dans l’Hexagone: Genèse du djihad française, by Gilles Kepel, with Antoine Jardin (Paris: Gallimard, 330 pp., €21.00). Terror in the Hexagon: The Genesis of the French Jihad (France’s shape is roughly hexagonal) is currently at the center of a heated controversy in France, where Professor Kepel’s thesis is being hotly disputed by his former friend and colleague, Olivier Roy, of the European University Institute in Florence. Roy, a man of the left, understands terror in Europe—France especially—as the spontaneous reaction of “marginalized” individuals to what they perceive as the evils of the West and of Westerners, and angrily rejects the argument of M. Kepel, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, that the current violence amounts to the latest of three waves of jihadism, following a generation of Muslim immigration and another of simmering political discontent produced by the immigrants’ failure, or refusal, to integrate themselves with the native culture. Roy speaks of “the Islamicization of radicalism,” while Kepel in his book describes the radicalization of Islam abroad and in France following the riots in the banlieues of Paris in 2005 that encouraged young Muslims to dissociate themselves from France. The proximate cause, he writes, was an “Appeal to Global Islamic Resistance” posted online that year by a Syrian-born engineer advocating “civil war in Europe,” promoted by the disaffected children of immigrants inspired by the tenets of Salafism. Unsurprisingly, French intellectual society and, especially, French officialdom prefer Roy’s interpretation to that of Kepel, who nevertheless presents a very strong case in this book for his thesis.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.