The Monroe Doctrine was the declaration by President James Monroe, in December 1823, that the United States would not tolerate a European nation colonizing an independent nation in North or South America. The United States warned it would consider any such intervention in the Western Hemisphere to be a hostile act.
Monroe’s statement, which was expressed in his annual address to Congress (the 19th century equivalent of the State of the Union Address) was prompted by a fear that Spain would try to take over its former colonies in South America, which had declared their independence.
While the Monroe Doctrine was directed toward a specific and timely problem, its sweeping nature ensured it would have enduring consequences. Indeed, over the course of decades it went from being a relatively obscure statement to becoming a cornerstone of American foreign policy.
Though the statement would carry President Monroe’s name, the author of the Monroe Doctrine was actually John Quincy Adams, a future president who was serving as Monroe’s secretary of state. And it was Adams who forcefully pushed for the doctrine to be openly declared.
The Reason For the Monroe Doctrine
During the War of 1812 the United States had reaffirmed its independence. And at the war’s end, in 1815, there were only two independent nations in the Western Hemisphere, the United States and Haiti, a former French colony.
That situation had changed dramatically by the early 1820s. The Spanish colonies in Latin America began fighting for their independence, and Spain’s American empire essentially collapsed.
Political leaders in the United States generally welcomed the independence of new nations in South America. But there was considerable skepticism that the new nations would remain independent and become democracies like the United States.
John Quincy Adams, an experienced diplomat and the son of the second president, John Adams, was serving as President Monroe’s secretary of state. And Adams did not want to become too involved with the newly independent nations while he was negotiating the Adams-Onis Treaty to obtain Florida from Spain.
A crisis developed in 1823 when France invaded Spain to prop up King Ferdinand VII, who had been forced to accept a liberal constitution. It was widely believed that France was also intending to assist Spain in retaking its colonies in South America.
The British government was alarmed at the idea of France and Spain joining forces. And the British foreign office asked the American ambassador what his government intended to do to block any American overtures by France and Spain.
John Quincy Adams and the Doctrine
The American ambassador in London sent dispatches proposing that the United States government cooperate with Britain in issuing a statement declaring disapproval of Spain returning to Latin America. President Monroe, unsure of how to proceed, asked for the advice of two former presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who were living in retirement on their Virginia estates. Both former presidents advised that forming an alliance with Britain on the issue would be a good idea.
Secretary of State Adams disagreed. At a cabinet meeting on November 7, 1823, he argued that the United States government should issue a unilateral statement.
Adams reportedly said, “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Great Britain and France, than to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”
Adams, who had spent years in Europe serving as a diplomat, was thinking in broader terms. He was not just concerned with Latin America, but was also looking in the other direction, to the west coast of North America.
The Russian government was claiming territory in the Pacific Northwest extending as far south as present day Oregon. And by by sending a forceful statement, Adams hoped to warn all nations that the United States would not stand for colonial powers encroaching on any part of North America.
Reaction to Monroe's Message to Congress
The Monroe Doctrine was expressed in several paragraphs deep within the message President Monroe delivered to Congress on December 2, 1823. And though buried within a long document heavy with details such as financial reports on various government departments, the statement on foreign policy was noticed.
In December 1823 newspapers in America published the text of the entire message as well as articles focusing on the forceful statement about foreign affairs.
The kernel of the doctrine — ”we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” — was discussed in the press. An article published on December 9, 1823 in a Massachusetts newspaper, the Salem Gazette, mocked Monroe’s statement as putting “the peace and prosperity of the nation at hazard.”
Other newspapers, however, applauded the apparent sophistication of the foreign policy statement. Another Massachusetts newspaper, the Haverhill Gazette, published a lengthy article on December 27, 1823, which analyzed the president’s message, praised it, and brushed aside criticisms.
Legacy of the Monroe Doctrine
After the initial reaction to Monroe’s message to Congress, the Monroe Doctrine was essentially forgotten for a number of years. No intervention in South America by Europeans powers ever happened. And, in reality, the threat of Britain’s Royal Navy probably did more to ensure that than Monroe’s foreign policy statement.
However, decades later, in December 1845, President James K. Polk affirmed the Monroe Doctrine in his annual message to Congress. Polk evoked the doctrine as a component of Manifest Destiny and the desire of the United States to extend from coast to coast.
In the latter half of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, the Monroe Doctrine was also cited by American political leaders as an expression of American dominance in the Western Hemisphere. The strategy of John Quincy Adams of crafting a statement that would send a message to the entire world proved to be effective for many decades.