In 1815 the United States emerged from the War of 1812 amid a burst of nationalism and a sense of deep satisfaction from having faced England. On the one hand, the war experience encouraged a pervading interest in the future of the North American continent and a pride of distinctness and separation from Europe's international politics. On the other hand, it perpetuated a popular sensitivity to events abroad that repeatedly reopened the realist-idealist debate in the United States. The immediate postwar challenge to U.S. sentiment was Latin America's struggle for independence from Spain. Determined to sever Europe's ties to the New World in what they believed would be a triumph for humanity, editors led by William Duane of Philadelphia's Aurora demanded U.S. guardianship of Latin American independence. In Congress, the powerful Henry Clay denounced the administration of James Monroe, with John Quincy Adams as secretary of state, for neglecting U.S. interests and the cause of liberty in Latin America. Adams was appalled at the widespread defiance of the official U.S. policy of neutrality. "There seems to me," he complained in June 1816, "too much of the warlike humor in the debates of Congress—propositions even to take up the cause of the South Americans…, as if they were talking of the expense of building a light house."
As the public pressure for involvement continued, Adams, in December 1817, reminded his father, John Adams, that Latin America had replaced the French Revolution as the great source of discord in the United States. "The republican spirit of our country…sympathizes with people struggling in a cause…. And now, as at the early stage of the French Revolution, we have ardent spirits who are for rushing into the conflict, without looking to the consequences." Monroe and Adams, against mounting public and congressional pressures, sustained the country's official neutrality until, in 1821, the striking victories of the revolutionary forces all but destroyed Spain's remaining authority in South America. In a special message to Congress on 8 March 1822, Monroe recognized the independence of Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico.
Already, a similar debate over the future of Greece had divided the Monroe administration as well as much of the country. The Greek revolution had gathered momentum until, by 1821, it posed an immediate threat to Turkey's Ottoman rule. Turkish sultan Mahmud II retaliated against the Greek revolutionaries with such violence that he aroused anti-Turkish sentiment throughout western Europe and the United States. American idealists took up the cause of the repressed Greeks even as Adams expressed his total disapproval of foreign crusades. In his famed speech of 4 July 1821, Adams declared that the United States "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Monroe expressed regret over Turkey's despotic rule in his annual message of December 1822. Then, in 1823, Edward Everett, professor of Greek at Harvard, championed Greece's independence in a long essay that appeared in the North American Review, a journal that he edited. Adams was not impressed and argued strongly against any U.S. meddling in the affairs of Greece and Turkey, especially since the country was not prepared financially or militarily to intervene.
In January 1824, Adams's allies in Congress disposed of the Greek issue. Among Everett's converts was Daniel Webster, then a U.S. representative from Massachusetts. In December 1823, Webster introduced a resolution into the House that provided for defraying the expense of an agent or commissioner to Greece, whenever the president might deem such an appointment expedient. On 19 January 1824, while discussing this apparently noncommittal text, Webster launched into an eloquent appeal to American humanitarian sentiment. The Greeks, he said, look to "the great Republic of the earth—and they ask us by our common faith, whether we can forget that they are struggling, as we once struggled, for what we now so happily enjoy?" He asked nothing of Congress. Previously, he acknowledged, "there was no making an impression on a nation but by bayonets, and subsidies, by fleets and armies; but…there is a force in public opinion which, in the long run, will outweigh all the physical force that can be brought to oppose it…. Let us direct the force, the vast moral force of this engine, to the aid of others."
In his reply on 24 January, Randolph challenged Webster's effort to commit the country abroad to what it could not accomplish, except at enormous cost to its own interests. How, Randolph wondered, would the United States operate effectively in a country as distant as Greece? "Do gentlemen seriously reflect," he asked, "on the work they have cut out for us? Why, sir, these projects of ambition surpass those of Bonaparte himself." Finally, Randolph attacked the resolution itself:
We are absolutely combatting shadows. The gentleman would have us to believe his resolution is all but nothing; yet again it is to prove omnipotent, and fills the whole globe with its influence. Either it is nothing, or it is something. If it is nothing, let us lay it on the table, and have done with it at once; but, if it is that something which it has been on the other hand represented to be, let us beware how we touch it. For my part, I would sooner put the shirt of Nessus on my back, than sanction these doctrines.
Such argumentation, much to Adams's delight, eliminated the issue of Greek independence from the nation's consideration.