The Monroe Doctrine: Meanings and Implications

By Gilderhus, Mark T. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Monroe Doctrine: Meanings and Implications

Gilderhus, Mark T., Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Monroe Doctrine as articulated before the U.S. Congress in 1823 established a rhetorical style associated many years later with similar pronouncements during the Cold War and after. Typically couched in the language of idealism and high principle, such affirmations of presidential purpose often purported to advance the cause of humankind, or at least a substantial portion thereof, by upholding values such as freedom, democracy, and peace. Such language sometimes served as a cover for less ennobling purposes connected with the defense of strategic and economic interests and usually contained some kind of threat to take countermeasures if other nations went beyond what the United States regarded as the appropriate bounds. The Monroe Doctrine also instituted a pattern by affirming defensive objectives.

Over the years, James Monroe's doctrine took on various meanings and implications, depending upon shifting policies and preferences, but nevertheless consistently served as a mainstay in the articulation of U.S. goals and purposes in the Western Hemisphere. Three stood out among them. Policy makers wanted to keep out the Europeans, to safeguard order and stability in areas of special concern, and to ensure open access to markets and resources. To be sure, the means of implementation varied from time to time, but the pursuit of these objectives remained much the same. Underlying them, another constant projected a sense of racist condescension. Usually viewed as unruly children in need of discipline and direction, according to a prevailing assumption among U.S. policy makers, Latin Americans could not function without paternalistic oversight and supervision.

The Monroe Doctrine emerged in response to the exigencies of European politics at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In efforts to put the world back together again, the Great Powers, that is, the Austrians, Prussians, Russians, and British, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1815 formed the Quadruple Alliance, an alignment committed to peace, order, and the status quo. Three years later, it turned into the Quintuple Alliance with the admission of France, a newly rehabilitated monarchy under the restored Bourbon kings.

For good reason in the aftermath of the French upheaval, European leaders feared the threat of revolution more than most things. Consequently at the Congress of Troppau in 1820, they agreed forcibly to put down insurrectionist activities whenever and wherever necessary. Soon after, in 1821, Austrian armies suppressed a series of revolts in Italy. A year later French forces took action against an uprising in Spain. The Europeans also supported the Ottoman Turks in efforts to snuff out a rebellion in Greece. Such actions caused John Quincy Adams, the U.S. secretary of state, to wonder whether the Great Powers also might harbor similar ambitions in the New World, possibly to reinstate the Spanish American empire.

The Latin American wars for independence inspired a great deal of interest among citizens of the United States. Indeed, many, such as Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky, regarded them as conscious attempts to emulate the American Revolution. As Clay observed in 1818, Latin American leaders such as Simon Bolivar and Joss de San Martin have "adopted our principles, copied our institutions and ... employed the very language and sentiments of our revolutionary papers." Such perceptions probably attributed too much importance to the U.S. example and not enough to indigenous circumstances, but nevertheless they indicated high levels of popular enthusiasm.

For U.S. leaders, in contrast, realpolitik governed official reactions. The negotiation of the 1819 Transcontinental Treaty with Spain leading to the acquisition of the Floridas preoccupied Secretary Adams. Premature recognition of the newly independent Latin American states might alienate Spanish leaders and ruin his diplomacy. While wishing Spanish Americans well, he put scant faith in their ability to establish "free or liberal institutions of government. …

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