NEW YORK — Searching the Internet for information on immigration in the United States, I came across President Grover Cleveland’s message to Congress on Dec. 18, 1893. In it he detailed his opposition to the annexation of Hawaii. At the start of that year, a self-styled Committee of Safety, led by foreign residents representing the interests of sugar planters, had overthrown Queen Lilioukalani’s government of Hawaii and hastily submitted a treaty of annexation to the U.S. Senate. European-style imperialist sentiments were sweeping the land. In “Grover Cleveland,” historian Henry Graff tells us that a popular jingle went, “. . . . Lilioukalani / Give us your little brown hanni.”

But Cleveland, who held “the imperishable ideal of the Declaration that all men have the right to self-government,” told Congress he was withdrawing the treaty submitted while his predecessor, Benjamin Harrison, was president. “If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial extension, or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own, ought to regulate our conduct,” he declared, “I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our Government and the behavior which the conscience of our people demands of their public servants.”

These noble sentiments immediately brought to mind the words of John Quincy Adams quoted in Helen Mears’ 1948 book, “Mirror for Americans: Japan.” On Independence Day, 1821, Adams, then secretary of state under President James Monroe and soon to formulate the Monroe Doctrine, spoke of America’s position in international relations. Emphasizing that the United States has never interfered “in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings,” Adams went on to say:

“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.” This is because “by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence . . . the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”

Adams “delivered the oration from the rostrum of the House of Representatives in which he faced the audience dressed in the robe of a university professor,” the historian Robert Remini notes in “John Quincy Adams.” From 1806 to 1809, Adams had been professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard.

I also discovered that President Millard Fillmore set forth a similar view — of all places in a letter he wrote to the Emperor of Japan in 1852. He averred, “The Constitution and laws of the United States forbid all interference with the religious or political concerns of other nations.”

We must, of course, remember that Adams was a strong “expansionist,” and Fillmore, who succeeded the hero of the Mexican War, was engaged in gunboat diplomacy, pure and simple. Fillmore began his letter, which Commodore Matthew Perry took to the Tokugawa government in 1853, by pointing out that his emissary was “an officer of the highest rank in the Navy of the United States, and commander of the squadron now visiting Your imperial majesty’s dominions.”

Yet these old ideals are worth remembering today, when interventionist sentiments seem to hold the upper hand in American politics. This is because one rationale that underlies the debate for American intervention is democracy. To cite the most recent example at hand, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman flatly states (Oct. 20), “Ousting Saddam is necessary for promoting the spread of democracy in the Middle East.” Although Friedman’s aim isn’t exactly to counsel bombing Iraq or any other Middle East country, the idea is starkly there: To promote democracy, the United States may remove the head of a sovereign state.

Behind that attitude is the belief that American democracy is the model. Otherwise, why should a scholar devote a whole book to a subject like “Japan’s dysfunctional democracy”? Why should American correspondents stationed in Japan delight in saying that Japanese democracy is below par? I don’t mean to suggest that democracy as it has been obtained in America isn’t criticized by its own citizens. It is. Among contemporary authors, Kevin Phillips, in “Wealth and Democracy,” traces the return of plutocracy and diagnoses the harm it has wrought on America’s democratic procedures. Robert Dahl, in “How Democratic is the American Constitution?,” examines the legal framework that most Americans regard as “sacred” and finds several essential components of it seriously wanting.

In this regard, I particularly remember a remarkable 1993 book, “Commager on Tocqueville.” Recalling that Thomas Jefferson said American independence was “an experiment,” Henry Steele Commager, a doyen of American historiography, set out to review some of the issues that the most famous foreign commentator on American democracy raised 150 years ago, and found the Frenchman to have been wrong in two major points. One of them is an area where, ironically, Alexis de Tocqueville was optimistic.

Democracy, Tocqueville predicted, will “provide for every individual therein the utmost well-being.” It hasn’t worked out that way in America. This country has taken care to guarantee “equal opportunity” for all; but it has at the same time insisted that individualism can overcome any resultant inequities. In consequence, among industrialized nations the United States ranks low in major social indicators. Phillips, Dahl, and now Paul Krugman in the New York Times Magazine (“For Richer,” Oct. 20) make the same point.

Tocqueville, though, had a poor opinion of “individualism” — a word that entered the English language when “Democracy in America” was translated into it. Individualism “at first only dams the spring of public virtues,” he said. But “in the long run it attacks and destroys all the others, too, and finally merges in egoism.” And egoism is “a vice as old as the world.” For Commager 150 years later, it was a “paradox”: Equality is incompatible with individualism.

American democracy has other problems, as Commager found in reviewing Tocqueville’s concerns. But which democracy doesn’t? The point is simply that democracy may not be something that should be evangelized as a gospel, like Christianity in its heyday, with gunboats and all. If America did so, Adams said, “she might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Why did Mears quote Adams? After Japan was defeated, Mears, a writer who had visited prewar Japan, was appointed to a U.S. commission to advise the Japanese government on labor relations and went to Japan. There she found Occupation policies so self-righteous and misguided that she wrote a whole book about it. Her indictment must have hit the bull’s eye. None other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied Powers, stepped in and proscribed the publication of a Japanese translation of her book.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.