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The Monroe Doctrine

James Monroe

James Monroe

BORN: April 28, 1758 at Westmoreland County, Virginia

FAMILY: Married Elizabeth Kotright on February 16, 1786

1 Son and 2 Daughters

RELIGION: Episcopalian

MILITARY SERVICE: Captain, Continental Army, American Revolutionary War*


POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic-Republican

HOME STATE: Virginia

POLITICAL OFFICES: Minister to France, Governor of Virginia, Senator, Secretary of State

NICKNAME: "The Last Cocked Hat"

DIED: July 4, 1831 (Age - 73)

BURIED: Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

"In this great nation there is but one order, that of the people."

"Monroe was so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not

be a spot on it."

Thomas Jefferson

*In Emanuel Leutze's famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River during the American

Revolution, the young soldier holding the flag behind General Washington is Captain James Monroe..

more on James Monroe

On New Year's Day, 1825, at the last of his annual White House receptions, President James Monroe made a pleasing impression upon a Virginia lady who shook his hand:

"He is tall and well formed. His dress plain and in the old style.... His manner was quiet and dignified. From the frank, honest expression of his eye ... I think he well deserves the encomium passed upon him by the great Jefferson, who said, 'Monroe was so honest that if you turned his soul inside out there would not be a spot on it.' "

Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1758, Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, fought with distinction in the Continental Army, and practiced law in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

As a youthful politician, he joined the anti-Federalists in the Virginia Convention which ratified the Constitution, and in 1790, an advocate of Jeffersonian policies, was elected United States Senator. As Minister to France in 1794-1796, he displayed strong sympathies for the French cause; later, with Robert R. Livingston, he helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.

His ambition and energy, together with the backing of President Madison, made him the Republican choice for the Presidency in 1816. With little Federalist opposition, he easily won re-election in 1820.

Monroe made unusually strong Cabinet choices, naming a Southerner, John C. Calhoun, as Secretary of War, and a northerner, John Quincy Adams, as Secretary of State. Only Henry Clay's refusal kept Monroe from adding an outstanding Westerner.

Early in his administration, Monroe undertook a goodwill tour. At Boston, his visit was hailed as the beginning of an "Era of Good Feelings." Unfortunately these "good feelings" did not endure, although Monroe, his popularity undiminished, followed nationalist policies.

Across the facade of nationalism, ugly sectional cracks appeared. A painful economic depression undoubtedly increased the dismay of the people of the Missouri Territory in 1819 when their application for admission to the Union as a slave state failed. An amended bill for gradually eliminating slavery in Missouri precipitated two years of bitter debate in Congress.

The Missouri Compromise bill resolved the struggle, pairing Missouri as a slave state with Maine, a free state, and barring slavery north and west of Missouri forever.

In foreign affairs Monroe proclaimed the fundamental policy that bears his name, responding to the threat that the more conservative governments in Europe might try to aid Spain in winning back her former Latin American colonies. Monroe did not begin formally to recognize the young sister republics until 1822, after ascertaining that Congress would vote appropriations for diplomatic missions. He and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wished to avoid trouble with Spain until it had ceded the Floridas, as was done in 1821.

Great Britain, with its powerful navy, also opposed reconquest of Latin America and suggested that the United States join in proclaiming "hands off." Ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison counseled Monroe to accept the offer, but Secretary Adams advised, "It would be more candid ... to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war."

Monroe accepted Adams's advice. Not only must Latin America be left alone, he warned, but also Russia must not encroach southward on the Pacific coast. ". . . the American continents," he stated, "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 Power." Some 20 years after Monroe died in 1831, this became known as the Monroe Doctrine.


The Monroe Doctrine

THE MONROE DOCTRINE was the fruition of early American policy. There had long been a deep-seated conviction on the part of the people of the United States that the opportunities of a hard-won freedom would be threatened by the ambitions of European powers and that the aims of the new nation could be achieved only by keeping clear of the toils of European politics and strife. It was this conviction of the necessity of maintaining an independent position, which led to the declaration of neutrality in 1793, despite the Treaty of Alliance with France, which had sprung from the exigencies of the Revolutionary struggle. The words of Washington's Farewell Address were more than a solemn admonition; they stated cherished principles. "The great rule of conduct for us," he said, "in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible . . .. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence therefore it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships, or enmities." The people of the United States had watched with deep sympathy the long struggle of their southern neighbors for independence. While Spain maintained a doubtful contest, it was regarded as a civil war, but when that contest became so desperate that Spanish viceroys, governors, and captains-general concluded treaties with the insurgents virtually acknowledging their independence, the United States unreservedly recognized the facts. The republic of Colombia was recognized in 1822, the Government of Buenos Aires and the States of Mexico and Chile early in 1823. The United States was the first to recognize the independent empire of Brazil in May 1824, not hesitating because of the political form of the Government, and this was followed by the recognition of the Federation of Central American States in August of the same year. Meanwhile, the Holy Alliance formed by the sovereigns of Austria, Russia and Prussia had sought to enforce the divine right of kings against the progress of liberal principles. Joined by France, they undertook "to put an end to the system of representative government" and after France had proceeded accordingly to restore the rule of Ferdinand VII. in Spain, it was proposed to direct their efforts to the overthrowing of the new Governments erected out of the old colonies of Spain in the western hemisphere.


This was the situation when, in Aug. 1823, George Canning, British foreign secretary, wrote to Richard Rush, American minister in London, suggesting a joint declaration in substance that the recovery of the colonies by Spain was hopeless; that neither Great Britain nor the United States was aiming at the possession of any portion of these colonies; and that they could not see with indifference any portion of them transferred to any other power. Great Britain, however, had not at that time recognized the new States in Spanish America. President Monroe sought the advice of Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson regarded the question as "the most momentous" which had arisen since that of Independence. "Our first and fundamental maxim," said he "should be, never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe. Our second, never to suffer Europe to intermeddle with cis-Atlantic affairs." Jefferson favored the acceptance of the British suggestion in some form and Madison took the same view. John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State, opposed a joint declaration. He wished to take the ground "of earnest remonstrance against the interference of the European powers by force with South America, but to disclaim all interference on our part with Europe; to make an American cause and adhere inflexibly to that." Upon the advice of Adams, and after mature deliberation by the president and his cabinet, it was decided to make a separate declaration on the sole responsibility of the United States, and his declaration was formulated in the president's message of Dec. 2, 1823.

Original Statement of the Doctrine - -The doctrine is set forth in two paragraphs of this message.

The first of these had a genesis distinct from the situation of the former colonies of Spain. It grew out of the question of Russian claims on the north-west coast of North America. The Russian emperor had issued a ukase in 1821 prohibiting citizens of other nations from navigating and fishing within 100 Italian miles of the north-west coast of North America from Bering straits to the 51st parallel of north latitude. Protests had followed. In July, 1823, Secretary Adams informed the Russian minister that the United States "should contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent, and that we should assume distinctly the principle that the American continents are no longer subjects for any new European colonial establishments." It was in connection with this situation that President Monroe, after adverting to the proposal of arranging the respective rights and interests on the north-west coast by amicable negotiations, declared in his message:"

In the discussions to which this interest has given rise, and in the arrangements by which they may terminate, the occasion has been judged proper for asserting as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

"The other paragraph of President Monroe's message bore upon the situation of the nations to the south of the United States, as follows: "In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defence. With the movements in this hemisphere we are, of necessity, more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. . . . We owe it, therefore, to candour, and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers, to declare that 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. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power, in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. . . . It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can any one believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition, in any form with indifference. "The message, so far as it related to the revolted Spanish colonies, had widespread approval in England. Three years later, Canning made his famous boast that he had "called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old." There was, indeed, general agreement between the sentiments of the Governments of Great Britain and the United States as to the Spanish colonies, but this was qualified, as Canning himself had pointed out, by the important difference that the United States had acknowledged the independence of the new Governments and the British Government had not. With the portion of President Monroe's message relating to future colonization, which lay outside the purview of Canning's suggestion, Canning was not in sympathy. This proposal was as new to the British Government as it was to France. The basis of the objection on the part of the United States to future colonization by European powers was found in the fact, as John Quincy Adams said later, when president, that "With the exception of the existing European colonies, which it was in no wise intended to disturb, the two continents consisted of several sovereign and independent nations, whose territories covered their whole surface. By this, their independent condition, the United States enjoyed the right of commercial intercourse with every part of their possessions. To attempt the establishment of a colony in those possessions would be to usurp to the exclusion of others a commercial intercourse which was the common possession of all." Manifestly, it was not intended to assert that there were no unoccupied lands, for there were vast regions of territory not actually settled by the subjects of civilized powers, but the declaration proceeded in the view "that the several American territorial sovereigns enjoyed by virtue of constructive occupation, exclusive rights of ownership and sovereignty which should be respected."

Later Extension or Modification

Not only did the statesmen of the United States fear the extension of European colonization, but they viewed with deep concern the possibility of the transfer of American territory from one European power to another, or the transfer of such territory from an American to a non-American power. In 1811, the Congress of the United States passed a resolution as to East Florida, stating that "considering the influence which the destiny of the territory adjoining the southern border of the United States may have upon their security, tranquillity, and commerce," the United States could not, "without serious inquietude, see any part of the said territory pass into the hands of any foreign power." The declarations in the messages of President Polk in 1845 and 1848 were so closely associated with the doctrine announced by Monroe that they may be deemed to fall within the same governing principle. With reference to the case of Yucatan, when the authorities of the country offered to transfer the dominion and sovereignty to the United States and at the same time made a similar offer to Great Britain and Spain, President Polk said: "Whilst it is not my purpose to recommend the adoption of any measure, with a view to the acquisition of the 'dominion and sovereignty' over Yucatan, yet, according to our established policy, we could not consent to a transfer of this 'dominion and sovereignty' to either Spain, Great Britain, or any other European power." President Polk's reference to the transfer of dominion and sovereignty evidently meant opposition to the acquisition of territorial control by any means and this position has frequently been reiterated by the Government of the United States. In 1912, the Senate of the United States adopted a resolution, apparently having immediate reference to Magdalena bay, "that when any harbor or other place in the American continents is so situated that the occupation thereof for naval or military purposes might threaten the communications or the safety of the United States, the Government of the United States could not see without grave concern the possession of such harbour or other place by any corporation or association which has such a relation to another Government, not American, as to give that Government practical power or control for naval or military purposes." It was explained in support of the resolution that it rested on the principle of self-defence and that it was "allied to the Monroe Doctrine, of course, but not necessarily dependent upon it or growing out of it. "Since the declaration of Monroe, the famous Doctrine has been modified in only two particulars. What was said with Europe exclusively in view, must be deemed applicable to all non-American powers; and the opposition to the extension of colonization was not dependent upon the particular method of securing territorial control, and, at least since Polk's time, may be deemed to embrace opposition to acquisition of additional territory through transfer of dominion or sovereignty. Neither of these modifications changes the doctrine in its essentials and it may thus be summarized as being opposed (1) to any non-American action encroaching upon the political independence of American States under any guise, and (2) to the acquisition in any manner of the control of additional territory in the western hemisphere by any non-American power.

The United States has been alert in opposition to what was believed to involve action of this character. Historic instances are those relating to the Mosquito coast in 1858-60, the French intervention in Mexico ending in 1867, the arbitral settlement of the controversy as to the boundary line between Venezuela and British Guiana in 1895-97, and the disposition of the claims of Germany, Great Britain and Italy against Venezuela in 1902-04.Character and Purport of the Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine is not a legislative pronouncement; it has been approved by action of Congress, but it does not rest upon congressional sanction. It is not defined by treaty, and it does not draw its force from any international agreement. It had, however, the implied endorsement of the treaty making power of the United States in the reservations to the two Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which provided: "Nothing contained in this convention shall be construed as to require the United States of America to depart from its traditional policy of not intruding upon, interfering with, or entangling itself in the political questions of policy or internal administration of any foreign State; nor shall anything contained in the said convention be construed to imply a relinquishment by the United States of America of its traditional attitude toward purely American questions." The doctrine is not like a constitutional provision deriving its authority from the fact that it is a part of the organic law transcending and limiting executive and legislative power. While it is not a part of international law, it rests, as Elihu Root has stated, "upon the right of self-protection and that right is recognized by international law." It was asserted at the time when the danger of foreign aggression was very real, when the new American States had not yet established a firm basis of independent national life and republican institutions were menaced by the threats of Old World powers. But despite changes in conditions it still remains, to be applied if necessary, as a principle of national security. Its significance lies in the fact that in its essentials as set forth by President Monroe and as forcibly asserted by responsible statesmen, it has been for 100 years, and continues to be, an integral part of national thought and purpose expressing a profound conviction which even the upheaval caused by the World War, and the participation of the United States in that struggle upon European soil, did not upset.

The doctrine, as has been stated authoritatively, does not imply or countenance, a policy of aggression. It does not infringe upon the independence and sovereignty of other American States. It does not attempt to establish a protectorate over Latin American States. The declaration that encroachment by non-American powers upon the independence of American States will be regarded as dangerous to the safety of the United States gives no justification for such encroachment on its part. In stating with extreme vigour the position of President Cleveland's administration in the correspondence with Great Britain relating to the Venezuela boundary, Secretary Olney recognized the limitations of the doctrine and his other statements should be read in the light of their context. He said: "The precise scope and limitations of this rule cannot be too clearly apprehended. It does not establish any general protectorate by the United States over other American states. It does not relieve any American state from its obligations as fixed by international law nor prevent any European power directly interested from enforcing such obligations or from inflicting merited punishment for the breach of them. It does not contemplate any interference in the internal affairs of any American state or in the relations between it and other American states. It does not justify any attempt on our part to change the established form of government of any American state or to prevent the people of such state from altering that form according to their own will and pleasure. The rule in question has but a single purpose and object. It is that no European power or combination of European powers shall forcibly deprive an American state of the right and power of self-government and of shaping for itself its own political fortunes and destinies." President Roosevelt in his annual message of 1901 thus referred to the doctrine: "It is in no wise intended as hostile to any nation in the Old World. Still less is it intended to give cover to any aggression by one New World power at the expense of any other. It is simply a step, and a long step, toward assuring the universal peace of the world by securing the possibility of permanent peace on this hemisphere." And in his annual message of 1906, President Roosevelt said: "In many parts of South America there has been much misunderstanding of the attitude and purposes of the United States toward the other American republics. An idea had become prevalent that our assertion of the Monroe Doctrine implied or carried with it an assumption of superiority and of a right to exercise some kind of protectorate over the countries to whose territory that doctrine applies. Nothing could be farther from the truth. "As the policy embodied in the Monroe Doctrine was distinctively the policy of the United States, the Government of the United States has reserved to itself its definition and application. President Wilson observed: "The Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed by the United States on her own authority. It always has been maintained, and always will be maintained, upon her own responsibility." But it has frequently been stated that the United States would welcome the adoption by the other American republics of a similar policy. President Wilson sought to give the principles of the doctrine a worldwide application. In his address to the Senate on Jan. 22, 1917, he said: "I am proposing, as it were, that the nations should with one accord adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world; that no nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or people, but that every people should be left free to determine its own polity, its own way of development, unhindered, unthreatened, unafraid, the little along with the great and powerful." The Covenant of the League of Nations refers to the doctrine in Article 21, which provides: "Nothing in this Covenant shall be deemed to affect the validity of international engagements, such as treaties of arbitration or regional understandings like the Monroe Doctrine, for securing the maintenance of peace." Many in the United States did not consider this statement to be an adequate or accurate description of the doctrine, and one of the reservations which the Senate of the United States adopted in its discussion of the Treaty of Versailles declared the Monroe Doctrine "to be wholly outside the jurisdiction of said League of Nations and entirely unaffected by any provision contained in said treaty of peace with Germany" and reserved to the United States the sole right to interpret the doctrine. The treaty failed of ratification, and this reservation may be regarded as an expression of the opinion held by the majority of the members of the Senate. In replying (Feb. 26, 1920) to a request of the minister of foreign affairs of Salvador for an interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine because of the bearing which such interpretation might have on the attitude of Salvador toward the Covenant, the acting secretary of State of the United States stated that the views of his Government were set forth in the address (Jan. 1916) of President Wilson before the Second Pan-American Scientific Congress. In the course of that address, President Wilson said that "the Monroe Doctrine demanded merely that European Governments should not attempt to extend their political systems to this side of the Atlantic." In Sept. 1928, the Council of the League of Nations, answering an inquiry of the Government of Costa Rica as to the interpretation placed by the League of Nations on the Monroe Doctrine, and the scope given to that doctrine when it was included in Article 21 of the Covenant, stated: "Article 20 stipulates that 'the Members of the League severally agree that this Covenant is accepted as abrogating all obligations or understandings, inter se which are inconsistent with the terms thereof. . . .' Article 21 gives the States parties to international engagements the guarantee that the validity of such of these engagements as secure the maintenance of peace would not be affected by accession to the Covenant of the League of Nations. In declaring that such engagements are not deemed incompatible with any of the provisions of the Covenant, the Article refers only to the relations of the Covenant with such engagements; it neither weakens nor limits any of the safeguards provided in the Covenant. . . . In regard to the scope of the engagements to which the Article relates, it is clear that it cannot have the effect of giving them a sanction or validity which they did not previously possess. It confines itself to referring to these engagements, such as they may exist, without attempting to define them: an attempt at definition being, in fact, liable to have the effect of restricting or enlarging their sphere of application. Such a task was not one for the authors of the Covenant; it only concerns the States having accepted inter se engagements of this kind. "The Monroe Doctrine does not attempt to define in any other respects than those above mentioned the policies of the United States with respect to the other American republics. The construction of the Panama Canal has not only established a new and convenient highway of commerce but has created new exigencies and new conditions of strategy and defence. It is the declared purpose of the United States to protect that highway. It is part of American policy not to yield to any foreign power the control of the Panama Canal, or the approaches to it, or the obtaining of any position, which would interfere with the right of protection on the part of the United States or would menace the freedom of its communications. This position is maintained equally with respect to American and non-American powers. The right asserted by the Government of the United States to afford protection to the lives and property of its nationals, when endangered in areas where governments have ceased properly to function, is maintained although there may be no prospect of non-American interference and no occasion for applying the Monroe Doctrine. Such interposition may have the actual and intended effect of avoiding the interposition of non-American powers and the consequent activities and developments at which the Monroe Doctrine was aimed, but the right of the United States to give appropriate protection to its nationals is regarded as quite distinct from the doctrine. The interest of the United States in the stability, the good order and the peace of its immediate neighbours, its efforts to promote amicable settlements of controversies, and its action under its treaties, may be based upon grounds independent of the Monroe Doctrine, although the success of such endeavors may have an indirect effect in making more remote the contingencies to which the doctrine would apply.