The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America

By Belohlavek, John M. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2012 | Go to article overview

The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America


Belohlavek, John M., The Journal of Southern History


The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America. By Jay Sexton. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. Pp. [xii], 290. $27.00, ISBN 978-0-8090-7191-3.)

Over the past century, scholars have written dozens of books and articles on the Monroe Doctrine, ranging from studies focused on diplomacy to ones emphasizing the cultural or political aspects of U.S.-Latin American relations. Yet another volume on this topic is welcome, particularly if it contains the synthetic clarity of Jay Sexton's The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America.

Sexton views James Monroe's declaration to Congress in December 1823 not as a firm "doctrine" but as an ambiguous, even fearful, statement asserting republican principles against the backdrop of a possible invasion of the Western Hemisphere by the Holy Alliance. Thus, the doctrine emphasized what "European powers could not do" in the region, rather than what the United States could do (p. 4). As the nineteenth century progressed, various American leaders, struggling against their own demons as well as real and imagined foreign threats, wrapped their schemes in the flag and the Monroe Doctrine to advance their agendas. Sexton paints an uncertain world in which the United States secured its independence, formed a nation, and developed an empire. Foreign and domestic enemies placed objects in the path of those goals, but the U.S. strategy of anticolonialism, unionism, and imperialism ultimately triumphed.

Concerns about competition for Latin American markets and U.S. national security initially prompted the doctrine and remained paramount. Great Britain posed the most powerful and enduring threat. Democrat James K. Polk cleverly used the British Lion as a foil against his skeptical domestic opponents. He "invented 'Monroe's doctrine' in late 1845" and "transformed the 1823 message from a cautious and reactive statement of national security requirements into a proactive call for territorial expansion" (p. 102). The strategy produced a successful war with Mexico and the cession of the American Southwest, but it destabilized both Mexican and U.S. politics in the process.

The civil war in Mexico and accompanying French intervention in the 1860s reinforced the notion of an Old World/New World struggle and the need for ongoing U.S. vigilance. …

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