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Hands Off the Americas: The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine.

During our High School years, almost every American child ends up taking a course in American History. In that course we learn about what came to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine” first articulated by President James Monroe in his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress on December 2, 1823. This US foreign policy opposed European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. It held that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the United States. But what was the reason for this policy? Why would the early 19th century United States, a country with an isolationist foreign policy, suddenly create a policy that could lead to direct confrontation with the great powers of Europe and with Russia?

The Doctrine’s Principles

The essential principles of the Monroe Doctrine may be summarized in President Monroe’s own words:

1.) The Positive Principles:

(a) “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by and European powers”

(b) “The political system of the allied powers is essentially different . . .from that of America. . . . We should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of the hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

2.) The Negative Principles:

(a) “With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere.”

(b) “In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so.

The Doctrine’s Roots in the 18th Century

As early as 1783, the United States had adopted a policy of isolation, and announced its intention to keep out of Europe. At this time, the European Monarchies controlled far more territory in the Americas than did the United States. To the North, Britain was consolidating her power in Canada and held the principal strategic points in the Northwestern territories around the Great Lakes. To the south and west, the Spanish held the Floridas, across the Gulf Coast to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Additionally, both banks of the Mississippi and all of Central and South America, except for Brazil and the Guianas, was also in Spanish control. For a generation to come, the United States was the only independent country in the western hemisphere and of necessity, the foreign policy of the United States would be primarily focused on preserving our territorial integrity. As we have discussed in previous posts here on the Academy of Knowledge blog, the European powers began interfering in the affairs of the United States very early in our history, trying to draw the country into taking sides in the various conflicts between Great Britain, France, and Spain.

European Colonies in North America and Caribbean - 1800
European Colonies in North America and Caribbean - 1800

During Washington’s administration, a French agent, Edmond Charles Genet, attempted to draw the United States out of neutrality and into supporting the revolutionary government in France against the British in what became known as “The Citizen Genet Affair”. Genet’s instructions from the revolutionary government were clear:

  • He was to negotiate a new treaty of amity and commerce.

  • He was to prevent the arming of privateers and harboring of prizes other than French ones, in American ports.

  • He was to recruit American ship owners to raid against English ships and France’s other enemies.

  • He was to recruit disgruntled frontiersman into armed bands for the purpose of inciting revolution against the Spanish colonies of Florida and Louisiana.

Genet arrived in Charleston, SC and rather than travel at once to Philadelphia and present himself to Washington as diplomatic protocol required. Instead, Genet lingered in Charleston and within ten days of his arrival there, he had two privateers crewed, sent the French ship Embuscade toward Philadelphia on a raid against British ships, and started his anti-Spanish ventures in motion (eventually inciting French Canadians against England and Kentuckians against Spain. While Genet was eventually recalled to France at Washington’s request, his actions did not escape the notice of Britain or Spain, through their network of agents.

As a result of Genet’s abortive recruitment of frontiersmen to attack the Spanish colonies, Spain became concerned about American intentions and their involvement with Genet. The rapid growth of Kentucky and of the American settlements at the Illinois, and shipments of American corn down the Mississippi, combined with what the Spanish saw as the greedy ambition of the Americans, made them a menace to Mexico. Spain had a remedy, however, for it could strangle the American West by closing its only commercial outlet, the Mississippi.

Edmond-Charles Genêt
Edmond-Charles Genêt

On June 26, 1784, The Governor General in the Council of the Indies, and a councilor of state, wrote Governor Gálvez, the intendant of Louisiana, and to Spain's agent in Philadelphia, directing them respectively to announce in the colonies and to inform the US Congress of Spain's exclusive right to the navigation of the Mississippi and to warn the Americans that, if caught, they would be arrested and their property confiscated pending the settlement of the questions at issue between Spain and the United States. This situation was defused by the Treaty of San Lorenzo in October 1795.

Early 19th Century Origins

Effects of the Napoleonic Wars

Napoleonic War (1803-1815) destroyed the Spanish monarchy, creating an opportunity for the Spanish colonies in South America to gain independence as the Spanish empire in the Western Hemisphere disintegrated. After 1815, some Latin American countries such as Argentina, Peru, and Mexico declared their independence from Spain and formed republican governments similar to that in the United States. However, the European empires wanted to maintain control in these countries. They thought that giving people the right to choose their leader would destroy the power of the monarchy.

As a result, European countries, especially the Holy Alliance founded in 1815, and made up of Austria, Prussia and Russia, made plans to help Spain restore the old Spanish colonies in North America. They planned to help Spain by sending troops to fight against the colonies, making it a challenge for the colonies that had just gained independence to defend it. It appears that trust was not high among the members of the Alliance as Spanish concerns about Russian colonial aspirations prompted the authorities in New Spain to start the upper Las Californias Province settlement, with presidios (forts), pueblos (towns), and the California missions. Americans, meanwhile, worried South America would not be able to keep its independence from European countries and that we would end up with colonies of the European empires on our borders.

After the war of 1812, two other European nations, Russia and France, became Monroe's preoccupations.

Russian Colonial Desires

Apprehensions over Russia’s intentions on the Pacific Coast of North America had been growing for some time. In 1784, with encouragement from Empress Catherine the Great, explorers founded Russia's first permanent settlement in Alaska at Three Saints Bay. In 1799 the Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed in order to monopolize the fur trade on the Pacific coast, also serving as an imperialist vehicle for the Russification of Alaska Natives

View of Fort Ross in 1828
View of Fort Ross in 1828

Russian traders, moving south from Alaska in 1812, set up the outpost of Fortress Ross (Fort Ross) in what is today Sonoma County, CA near Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco Bay. The Fortress Ross colony included a sealing station on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. By 1818 Fortress Ross had a population of 128, consisting of 26 Russians and of 102 Native Americans. On October 4th, 1821, Czar Alexander I gave the RAC exclusive rights to coastal territory as far south as the fifty-first parallel, which runs through what is now British Columbia and issued a decree unilaterally declaring the expansion of their South-Western Pacific colony and forbidding foreign vessels to use water within 100 Italian miles of the coastline.

The United States and Great Britain were fiercely opposed to this action because some of the places claimed by Russia had long belonged to Great Britain and the United States. The Convention of 1818, resolving territorial disputes following the War of 1812, authorized a "joint occupancy" of the Pacific Northwest whereby the rights of both British subjects and American citizens to "occupy" and trade in the region were recognized. Great Britain considered this to be established law and thus refused to recognize the Russian claims. Meanwhile, Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams told Baron de Tuyll, Minister of Russia in Washington:

“We should contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent, and that we should assume distinctly the principle that the American continents are no longer subjects for any new European colonial establishments”

At the Congress of Troppau, held in October and November 1820, the Holy Alliance affirmed its right to ban any revolutionary movements in Europe. France then used Troppau's principle when joining with Spain to ban constitutional monarchy and restore Ferdinand VII's monarchy in April 1823. The United States took this as a warning message that the Spanish colonies in the Americas might be the next target of the Troppau doctrine. This action of France made the United States anxious, remembering the earlier French designs on the Louisiana Territory that had caused the United States to jump at the opportunity to purchase not just New Orleans but the entire Louisiana Territory when Napoleon offered it. Since France was one of the continental powers which was most interested in reestablishing colonies in North America, the Madison Administration could not ignore this threat.

Foreign Secretary George Caning
Foreign Secretary George Caning

British Secretary of Foreign Affairs, George Caning also saw the danger of French intervention in Spain and worried about the future of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. He did not want the colonies to reconnect their old relationship with Spain, mainly for economic reasons. The rise of trade relations with South American countries since their independence was the biggest reason for British attitudes against the reinstatement of Spanish control. It was because of this that Great Britain supported American recognition for the new American states. Concerned about Russia's territorial ambitions on the northwestern coast of North America and France in South and Central America, Canning proposed a joint statement by United States and Great Britain on the prohibition of further colonization in Latin America.

When Canning made his proposal, US Secretary of State John Adams was the strongest opponent. Adams argued and persuaded the Cabinet that the United States should adopt an independent policy. Adams was convinced that a separate US policy statement on blocking European intervention in South America could be as effective as the joint statement, while preserving the traditional American policy of not becoming involved in the affairs of Europe.

Before making the decision as to which path to follow, Monroe sent a letter asking for advice from two of his predecessors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In his letter to Thomas Jefferson, Monroe expressed his concern about the real British intentions on colonies in the Americas if the two countries entered into a joint statement.

“We would view an interference on the part of the European powers, and especially an attack on the Colonies, by them, as an attack on ourselves, presuming that if they succeeded with them, they would extend it to us.”

However, Jefferson’s response supported cooperation with the British (surprisingly considering how pro-French Jefferson had been). He said that Britain was the country that could hurt the United States more than anyone else but when Britain was on the US side, the United States did not need to be afraid of the world. Moreover, the United States should respect the friendly relationship outlined in the Treaty of Ghent and a joint struggle would be an opportunity for the United States and Britain to come together in a relationship.

Similarly, Madison also advocated for a joint statement with Britain. He said that although Britain's policy was based on different calculations than those of our government, the goal of their cooperation was close to the desired goal of the United States. With that cooperation, the United States would have nothing to fear from the rest of Europe. He believed that the threat of European powers’ intervention in the American continent had raised a challenge, requiring Monroe to take steps to prevent such movements. Latin America is close to the United States and if European countries occupied it, this would threaten America's interests and security.

From an economic perspective, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the desire to seek markets and supply raw materials for the development of the American industry was a factor for American policy. Latin American countries that had just recently become independent were one of the most important areas for expanding the economic reach of the United States.

President James Monroe
President James Monroe

In terms of political and military influence, Latin America could be part of the policy of expanding US influence outside the United States and improving our national security. With a strategic position to the south of the United States, the Latin American countries, separated from other areas by natural boundaries of the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, and isolated from Europe, the US would be a natural choice as a trading partner. If a European power were to recolonize these countries, and establish naval and military bases there, this would pose a direct threat to the security of the United States.

While President Monroe took all this advice into consideration, before becoming President in 1817, Monroe had held many important positions in the American administrations. He was a person with a deep understanding of Europe due to the various ministerial and diplomatic positions he had held and had worked with many of the "founding fathers" such as Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison. Therefore, Monroe inherited the ideas of American leaders, understanding the goals of the US policy. It was from this background that Monroe chose to develop his own doctrine.

Page of Monroe's Speach to Congress that Outlined the New Doctrine
Page of Monroe's Speach to Congress that Outlined the New Doctrine

Thus, on December 2, 1823, President Monroe delivered his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress, outlining the principles of the new American foreign policy for the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine was not pure isolationism but a treatise that divided the world into areas of influence and carved out a predominately US market in the western hemisphere.

Domestic and Foreign Reaction to the Doctrine.

From the beginning, the Monroe Doctrine received the accolade of American society. Monroe's statement was like an expression of nationalism, strength, and independence of a young but brave nation. But one that could stand up against the British Empire and other European colonists.

In Latin America, Monroe's doctrine was well received. Based upon this policy, Americans seemed to want to build a privileged relationship with the Caribbean and Central America. In Colombia, Monroe's statement was seen as an opportunity for the newly formed republic. Since independence of 1821, the Colombian government had feared the restoration of the Spanish throne of Ferdinand VII. Monroe’s message was quickly made public through Vice President Francisco de Paula Santander's la Gaceta de Colombia. Santander also sent a message to Secretary of State Adams expressing his joy in receiving the message, his appreciation for the doctrinal author and the US government. He even went as far as proposing a coalition between the United States and Colombia to uphold the principles of the Monroe Doctrine.

In Brazil, after declaring independence from Portugal on 26 May 1824, a special envoy was dispatched to receive independent recognition from the United States. On January 27, 1825, Brazil proposed an alliance between the United States and Brazil and invited other South American states to join. Rebello, a Brazilian envoy to the United States, said the suggestion came from the point in Monroe's statement that any European power interference with new states in the Americas would be confronted with the United States. He expressed concern that European countries would be planning to help Portugal seize again the lost Portuguese colony.

President Monroe's message received great deal of attention in England, France, Spain and Austria. In England, the first reports of Monroe's message appeared in the Times and the Courier in London on 26 and 27 December 1823. The Courier newspaper described Monroe's message as “a bold and manly notice to the Continental Powers.” In Parliament, however, the views of members regarding Monroe's statements were divided. Some said that the South American problem had been solved by the United States, while others expressed opposition to Monroe's claims, particularly regarding colonization by the northwestern coast of North America

Monroe's message was discussed with deep interest in France. As soon as they arrived in France, newspapers such as Le Constitutionnel, Journal des Debats and Le Courrier Française saw Monroe's message as a topic of discussion. The newspapers criticized the contradiction in Monroe's statement, one of which was the principle of non-interference and the policy toward the Northwest coast of the Americas.

In Spain, Monroe's message was received in January 1824. The content of the message, especially those related to the American view of the Spanish colonies in the Americas, attracted the attention of the Spanish government’s officials. They looked to collect information to explain Monroe's intentions toward states in the Americas recognized independently by Spanish authorities.

Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Prince of Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein
Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Prince of Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein

Among other countries, Austria showed the strongest opposition to Monroe's policy. Austria's Prince Metternich expressed anger at Monroe's claims. He saw this statement as a new act of American rebellion.

The Monroe doctrine was the first foreign policy doctrine adopted by America since the war of independence. The doctrine named fundamental pillars of United States foreign policy which would become the foundation American’s position in the problems of the world, especially in Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine played an important role in the history of US territorial expansion, becoming a basic principle of US foreign relations.

Thank you for joining us for today’s post exploring the reasons behind the Monroe Doctrine. Please join us again in two weeks as we begin the summer season by exploring an outdoor entertainment that began as a children's game but was adopted by adults in both England and North America.

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Belko, William S. "The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited: The Madison Administration, the West Florida Revolt, and the No Transfer Policy." The Florida Historical Quarterly Fall 2011: 157-192.

Bisset, Charles. The Attitude of the English Government Toward the Monroe Doctrine. Master's Thesis. Lawrence, KS: KU SchlorWorks, 1909.

Chandler, Charles Lyon. Inter-American Acquaintances. Sewanee, TN: The University Press, 1915.

Cornelis, Adriaenssens Thomas. The 1820s Revisited: the Monroe Doctrine through European Eyes. Master's Thesis. Gwangju, South Korea: Chonnam National University, 2018.

Lindsay, James M. "TWE Remembers: The Monroe Doctrine." 2 December 2010. Council on Foreign Relations. 1 May 2022.

Morison, S. E. "The Origin of the Monroe Doctrine." Economica February 1924: 27-51.

Schellenberg, T. R. "Jeffersonian Origins of the Monroe Doctrine." The Hispanic American

Review February 1934: 1-31.



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