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1823 One Hundred And Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2024
2min read

The Monroe Doctrine

On December 2, in his annual message to Congress, President James Monroe declared North and South America to be off-limits for any further European colonial expansion. “The American continents,” he said, “by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Those powers could keep the American colonies they still had, Monroe said, but any attempt to expand them, establish new ones, or retake old ones, anywhere in the hemisphere, would be considered an act of hostility toward the United States. The President called his principle the American System; in the 185Os it became better known as the Monroe Doctrine.

The doctrine had been inspired by the emergence of independent republics in the former Spanish colonies of Buenos Aires, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru after Spain’s devastation in the Napoleonic Wars. The United States had recognized the new nations, but European countries, clinging to the old order, were reluctant to follow suit. When a French army invaded Spain in April 1823, overthrew the constitutional government, and restored Ferdinand VII to the throne, observers on both sides of the Atlantic feared that France’s next step would be to retake Spain’s former colonies.

Britain, which dominated trade with Latin America, was just as concerned as the United States. In August it suggested a pact between the two countries to jointly resist incursions into the region. Most of the resistance would necessarily come from Britain, whose globe-spanning navy dwarfed the United States’s tiny fleet. Monroe was interested, but Secretary of State John Quincy Adams opposed making the United States “a cock-boat to Britain’s man-of-war.” In November the question became moot when news arrived that Britain had abandoned the proposal. Monroe and Adams surmised, correctly, that France had manifested a lack of interest in taking Latin America.

Thus Monroe could propound his doctrine with little fear it would be tested anytime soon. And a good thing too: At the time, the U.S. military was no match for the fighting forces of Europe. Having witnessed the British burning of Washington less than a decade before, Monroe knew the United States could still barely defend itself, let alone the rest of the hemisphere.

France was not the only source of concern. The Monroe Doctrine also addressed the United States’s first major issue in transpacific diplomacy. Back in 1799 Russia had established the Russian America Company to exploit natural resources from the Pacific Northwest. Most of its operations took place in Alaska, but in 1821 Czar Alexander claimed the American coast all the way down to fifty-one degrees north latitude, about 140 miles north of the present Canadian border, barred all foreign ships from the area, and declared a monopoly on hunting, fishing, and trading.

Much of that territory was also claimed by the United States and Britain, and although only a handful of Europeans lived there at the time, Monroe knew it would become increasingly significant in the long term. In the short term Russia’s rulers were known to have designs on California (which was then a part of Mexico) and a strong aversion to democracy. While the Monroe Doctrine was not a direct challenge to the czar, it did serve notice of the United States’s determination to check Russia’s expansionism. In 1825 Russia agreed to restrict its claims to the area north of 54°40'.

The Monroe Doctrine stands out today as the United States’s first confident assertion of its importance in global affairs. Latin Americans welcomed it as a blow for democracy against royalist Europe. Years later, however, the doctrine would grow far beyond Monroe’s intentions into the United States’s self-appointment as an all-powerful hemispheric police officer. In that form the Monroe Doctrine would be far less popular among our neighbors to the south.

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