President Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine

During his state of the union address, U.S. president James Monroe outlined a doctrine of European nonintervention in Western Hemispheric affairs that would become a centerpiece of American foreign policy over the next two centuries.

Summary of Event

On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe delivered his annual message to the U.S. Congress. Although most of his remarks concerned domestic matters that were soon forgotten, his foreign policy declaration became the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. “The American Continents,” he declared, “by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by a European power.” The president then turned to European colonial policy in the New World: Monroe Doctrine (1823)
Monroe, James
[p]Monroe, James;Monroe Doctrine
Foreign policy, U.S.;Monroe Doctrine
[kw]President Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine (Dec. 2, 1823)
[kw]Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine, President (Dec. 2, 1823)
[kw]Articulates the Monroe Doctrine, President Monroe (Dec. 2, 1823)
[kw]Monroe Doctrine, President Monroe Articulates the (Dec. 2, 1823)
[kw]Doctrine, President Monroe Articulates the Monroe (Dec. 2, 1823)
Monroe Doctrine (1823)
Monroe, James
[p]Monroe, James;Monroe Doctrine
Foreign policy, U.S.;Monroe Doctrine
[g]United States;Dec. 2, 1823: President Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine[1240]
[g]Central America and the Caribbean;Dec. 2, 1823: President Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine[1240]
[g]South America;Dec. 2, 1823: President Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine[1240]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 2, 1823: President Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine[1240]
Adams, John Quincy
[p]Adams, John Quincy;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine]
Alexander I
[p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and North America[North America]
Castlereagh, Viscount
[p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and United States[United States]
Canning, George
[p]Canning, George;and United States[United States]
Polignac, Auguste-Jules-Armand-Marie de
Rush, Richard

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.

Cartoon published at the time of a border dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain’s Guiana colony that depicts Uncle Sam defending the Western Hemisphere against European imperialists. The original caption reads, “Keep off! The Monroe Doctrine must be respected.”

(Library of Congress)

Monroe’s message contained three main points outlining the new role of the United States as defender of the Western Hemisphere. First, he announced to Europe that the United States would oppose any attempt to take over any independent country in the Western Hemisphere (the no-transfer principle). Second, he promised that the United States itself would abstain from becoming involved in purely European quarrels (nonintervention). Third, Monroe insisted that European states not meddle in the affairs of the New World countries. In other words, Monroe declared that the United States would not take sides in European disputes, but in return, Europe would not be permitted to tamper with the internal and continental affairs of the Western Hemisphere.

Monroe’s bold message offered no immediate threat to such nations as Great Britain Great Britain;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] and France French Empire;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] because in 1823 the United States lacked the power to enforce its self-proclaimed role as protector of the Western Hemisphere. Fortunately for the United States, however, Great Britain desired just such a policy as Monroe suggested. The British Royal Navy Royal Navy;and Latin America[Latin America] , not Monroe’s declaration, would maintain the independence of Latin America Latin America;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] . It would not be until 1852 that anyone referred to Monroe’s declaration as the Monroe Doctrine, and it was not until the twentieth century that the United States was powerful enough to enforce international acceptance of the Monroe Doctrine.

Even so, Monroe’s words reflected the change in unfriendly relations between the United States and Great Britain that had led to the War of 1812. The explanation lies in the decisions made at the Congress of Vienna Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) in 1815. Napoleon had been defeated; Prussia, Russia, Austria, France, and Great Britain set out to turn the clock back, through establishing a Quintuple Alliance to undo the damage wrought by Napoleon’s ambition. The establishment of the alliance led to the Concert of Europe Concert of Europe , which sponsored four congresses between 1818 and 1822. The congresses created the modern system of conference diplomacy, although their various participants failed to agree on Europe’s future.

Autocratic reactionaries hampered the Quintuple Alliance’s effectiveness from the beginning. Czar Alexander Alexander I
[p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and North America[North America]
Russia;and North America[North America] I of Russia led the way, persuading the monarchs of Austria and Prussia to join him in the Holy Alliance, which dedicated itself to upholding autocratic rule. Great Britain chose not to join, but continued to be a member of the Quintuple Alliance. As a member of that alliance, Britain seemed to support a policy of reestablishing monarchy and opposing revolution. By refusing to join the Holy Alliance, however, the British avoided appearing as the bastion of the conservative reactionaries. When put to the test, Britain’s actions proved that it favored a system of monarchy and a European balance of power, but not systematic oppression of revolution in others parts of the world.

The “other parts of the world” in question were primarily the newly independent states of the Western Hemisphere—most of which had thrown off Spanish colonial rule. Spain demanded the return of its New World colonies. In 1820, when Prince Metternich, Metternich the Austrian architect of reaction, suggested that the Concert of Europe had a sacred duty to crush revolution, Britain protested. Metternich’s proposal would have meant sending an army to Latin America to overthrow the new republics. Britain distinguished between a European balance-of-power system, in which revolution would not be permitted, and a colonial empire in the New World where revolution would be allowed to occur. In addition, Spain had monopolized trade with its colonies; only as independent republics could the former colonies maintain a profitable trade with the British.

Czar Alexander Alexander I
[p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and North America[North America]
Russia;and North America[North America] also tried to extend his interests in North America. Through an imperial decree on September 14, 1821, Russia claimed territory on the northern Pacific coast, as far south as the fifty-first parallel—well into Oregon Oregon;Russian claims on Country—by insisting that all foreign ships must remain a substantial distance from the coast that far south. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams Adams, John Quincy
[p]Adams, John Quincy;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] vigorously opposed the Russian decree, citing the U.S. principle of noncolonization. Russia never enforced its decree.

Viscount Castlereagh Castlereagh, Viscount
[p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and United States[United States] , the British foreign secretary, decided that Spanish claims to its former colonies in the New World were less important to Great Britain’s interests than profitable trade with the newly independent nations. Accordingly, the British began devising an arrangement with the United States that would prevent European powers from taking new, or regaining old, colonies in the Western Hemisphere. In August, 1823, George Canning Canning, George
[p]Canning, George;and United States[United States] , Castlereagh’s successor, suggested to Richard Rush Rush, Richard , the U.S. minister to Great Britain, that the two countries jointly declare that they would oppose further colonization of the New World. Rush was reluctant to agree to such a bold move without consulting his own superior, Secretary of State Adams.

Meanwhile, Canning began a series of discussions with Prince Auguste-Jules-Armand-Marie de Polignac, Polignac, Auguste-Jules-Armand-Marie de the French ambassador in London, seeking some guarantee that France would not help Spain Spain;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] regain its lost colonies in the New World. On October 12, 1823, the ambassador gave Canning the specific assurances he wanted, in a document known as the Polignac Memorandum.

France’s promise to Great Britain—not the American Monroe Doctrine—ended any chance of Spain regaining its colonies in the New World. Unaware of the Polignac Memorandum, Adams Adams, John Quincy
[p]Adams, John Quincy;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] advised Monroe against a joint noncolonization declaration with the British. Instead, he suggested that the United States make a unilateral declaration opposing further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. The resulting declaration came in the president’s message to Congress in December, 1823.


Since 1823, President James Monroe’s message has gained much greater significance as the United States has grown militarily stronger. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), France French Empire;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] established a puppet government under the Austrian archduke Maximilian Maximilian in Mexico. Mexico;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] By invoking the Monroe Doctrine and threatening invasion in 1867, the United States ensured the collapse of Maximilian’s regime. In December, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] added a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, in which he stated that the United States would not interfere with Latin American nations that conducted their affairs with decency. Should they fail to do so, the United States would then intervene and exercise international police power to ensure the stability of the Western Hemisphere. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover Hoover, Herbert formally repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary by revealing the publication of a document known as the Clark Memorandum adjuring any right of the United States to intervene in Latin America. Henceforth, the Monroe Doctrine was to be applied only as originally intended—to protect Latin America from European intervention.

Since 1930, however, the United States has repeatedly found reasons for intervening in the affairs of other countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 1965, for example, President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. ordered U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic Dominican Republic to prevent a takeover of that country by a communist government, although the official justification for that action was the protection of U.S. citizens and property. The same justification was used by President Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald in 1983 to invade the tiny island nation of Grenada. Grenada In 1989, President George Bush Bush, George H. W. used hemispheric stability and his war on drugs to invade Panama Panama;U.S. invasion and capture Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who he declared was an international drug trafficker.

Further Reading

  • Alvarez, Alejandro. The Monroe Doctrine: Its Importance in the International Life of the States of the New World. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2003. A publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this substantial volume considers the impact of the Monroe Doctrine on the modern nations of the Western Hemisphere.
  • Bartlett, Christopher J. “Castlereagh, 1812-1822.” In The Makers of British Policy: From Pitt to Thatcher, edited by T. G. Otte. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Essay on the last decade of Castlereagh’s life, when he was British foreign secretary.
  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. The Latin American Policy of the United States: An Historical Interpretation. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Best account to date of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s role in forming the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Presidency of James Monroe. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996. Study of the most important policy issues with which Monroe dealt during his two-term presidency, with considerable attention to the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Donovan, Frank Robert. Mr. Monroe’s Message: The Story of the Monroe Doctrine. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963. A narrative history of the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine in the context of the domestic and international situation of the United States at the time.
  • Klimenko, Michael. Alexander I, Emperor of Russia: A Reappraisal. Tenafly, N.J.: Hermitage, 2002. Full biography of Czar Alexander I by a professor of Russian history.
  • May, Ernest R. The Making of the Monroe Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975. Stresses the domestic side of the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Rappaport, Armin, ed. The Monroe Doctrine. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. A solid history of the impact of the Monroe Doctrine on U.S. foreign policy through the early 1960’s, when the United States was attempting to intervene in Cuba.
  • Ronfedlt, David F. Rethinking the Monroe Doctrine. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, 1985. Discussion of the long-term implications of the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Smith, Gaddis. The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1945-1993. New York: Hill & Wang, 1994. Attack on abuses of the Monroe Doctrine by the United States since the end of World War II.

Second Peace of Paris

Great Britain Withdraws from the Concert of Europe

United States Acquires Oregon Territory

France Occupies Mexico

First Pan-American Congress

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