Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"Bolder Attitude": James Monroe, the French Revolution, and the Making of the Monroe Doctrine

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"Bolder Attitude": James Monroe, the French Revolution, and the Making of the Monroe Doctrine

Article excerpt

John Quincy Adams pointed to the paper in front of him and warned the president that it would "serve as a summons to arms, to arms against all of Europe." President James Monroe listened, surely disappointed but perhaps not surprised by the reaction. His secretary of state did not understand. Monroe had, in one way or another, been "at arms" against European monarchism his entire life. The document Adams referred to, which would later become known as the Monroe Doctrine, was only Monroe's latest, and he hoped greatest, counterstrike against the European monarchies in defense of republicanism.1

It started for the president almost fifty years before when Monroe was nearly killed by a Hessian bullet at the battle of Trenton on the day after Christmas in 1776.2 The wound troubled the future president throughout his life, and the pain may even have reminded him of the struggle that November morning in 1823 as he and John Quincy Adams debated the language of the Monroe Doctrine.3 Adams, his most valued cabinet member, accused Monroe of "throwing down the gauntlet" against the monarchies of Europe.4 The proposed doctrine terrified the secretary of state. Eight years younger than the president, he had not served in the War of Independence, but it was more than that. John Quincy Adams had once shared his father's Federalist convictions. Unlike Monroe, he had not spent a lifetime defending the republican movement against European monarchists. It is difficult to exaggerate how important republicanism was to James Monroe. In his one major work of political philosophy, Monroe called the American Revolution the "most important epoch in the history of mankind" because it created a style of republican government "better calculated to secure to the people the blessings of liberty" than any that had come before.5 Because of his passion for republicanism, Monroe dedicated his life to promoting the cause.6

Monroe must have considered the course the republican cause had taken over the past half century as he listened to Quincy Adams rail against his first draft of the Monroe Doctrine. He might even have agreed with Adams's argument that the United States should remain "safe in their distance" from the "convulsions" of Europe if it had not been for the French Revolution. But events in France in 1789 seemed to auger a worldwide flowering of republicanism. Monroe believed deeply that it was therefore every American's duty to support France's Revolution in much the same way the French had the American version. He regretted their eventual failure to do so as a missed opportunity for both the country and the republican cause.7

It was this failure that Monroe hoped to correct with his Annual Message of 1823, which announced what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. Most historians argue that the importance of the doctrine lies in its dual role as a statement of American hegemony in the western hemisphere and isolation from Europe. Adams, with his strong record as a nationalist and isolationist, often receives the bulk of the credit for building this new pillar upon which so much of subsequent American foreign policy stands. Meanwhile, James Monroe's original goal for the doctrine remains largely forgotten.8 For Monroe, the doctrine announced to mankind that the United States would support the republican cause around the world. The idea was decades in the making-the culmination of a career dedicated to republicanism. Historians have stressed other concerns leading to the doctrine's creation, including the threat Russia posed to Oregon and the politicking before the election of 1824, when three members of Monroe's cabinet, John C. Calhoun, William H. Crawford, and John Quincy Adams, vied for the presidency. For Monroe, though, it was a chance to correct the mistakes of the past, both his and the country's. After all, as he told Thomas Jefferson in 1823, "the state of Europe, and our relation to it is pretty much the same, as it was, in the commencement of the French Revolution. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.