The Monroe Doctrine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The American continents, 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 powers.”

Summary Overview

Since its creation, the Monroe Doctrine has been one of the pivotal foreign policy statements by the US government. It has been used to shield Central and South America from European intervention and, with the addition of the Roosevelt Corollary in 1904, as the justification for American intervention into the affairs of countries in these areas. President James Monroe, having been persuaded by then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, announced the doctrine to deter Spain and France from trying to reacquire control of Spain’s former colonies in South America. In addition, Russia was expanding its territorial claims on the west coast of North America. The Monroe Doctrine was a unilateral American response to the international forces that seemed to be hemming in the United States. It has remained in force ever since it was announced in 1823 and is a foundation for American policy with other nations in the Western Hemisphere.

Defining Moment

Once Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the “New World” became widely known throughout Europe, the European push to acquire the lands and resources of the Western Hemisphere resulted in the colonization of the North and South American continents and the adjacent islands. In 1776, the first colonies proclaimed and secured their independence, creating the United States. Beginning with Haiti in 1804, independent nations began to emerge from former European colonies in Central and South America. By the early 1820s, virtually all of Spain’s mainland colonies had been successful in their revolutions. The United States recognized the new nations. Even though it was less than a decade after the end of the War of 1812, the relationship between the United States and Great Britain had warmed considerably. There was a strong common economic interest in trading with the nations that were emerging in Central and South America. However, at the same time, other changes were underway in Europe. After the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), many continental European countries and governments were trying to reconstitute themselves. Several countries assisted in the solidification of power by the Bourbon royal family in Spain and were advocating that Spain retake its former colonies.

In response to this, Great Britain contacted the United States to work together to thwart the Spanish and French plans. Britain’s desire to work against France and Spain stemmed from both political and economic interests. The British government proposed sending a joint message with the United States that colonization was not acceptable. The good relations evolving between the United States and Great Britain made President Monroe interested in the British proposition. He consulted his predecessors (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) who believed working with the British would be beneficial. However, Adams was strongly against making any joint statements with the British. Over the last few months of 1823, Adams swayed Monroe to the position that a unilateral statement would be best.

Thus, in his seventh State of the Union address to Congress, President Monroe included the passage that came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. The European powers were not impressed, as they knew that the United States did not have a strong military. However, Great Britain accepted President Monroe’s declaration and let the other European powers know of its support. Thus, for its first few decades, the Monroe Doctrine was actually enforced by the strength of the British navy. The result of Monroe’s pronouncement was that neither Spain nor any other European power tried to retake the newly independent countries.

Author Biography

James Monroe was born on April 28, 1858, to Spencer and Elizabeth Jones Monroe in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He graduated from Campbelltown Academy at age sixteen, the year his father died. He attended the College of William and Mary leaving school after a year to join the Third Virginia Regiment. As a planter owning more than twenty slaves, Monroe was automatically made an officer. During the Revolutionary War, he was wounded at the Battle of Trenton and then left the army in 1780.

Monroe believed that the legal profession would be the quickest way to financial success, so he studied law under Jefferson. After passing the bar in 1783, he remained in Virginia; however, he had to sell his family’s plantation to establish his legal practice. He married Elizabeth Kortright in 1786, and they had three children, two of whom survived to become adults.

During the 1780s Monroe served in Virginia’s House of Delegates and in three sessions of the Continental Congress. During the fight for Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution in 1788, Monroe was one of the swing voters, finally voting for the new system of government, accepting the promise that a Bill of Rights would be added immediately. He became a senator in 1790. After serving about three and a half years, Monroe resigned to become ambassador to France. Sympathetic to the French Revolution, Monroe was able to free all the Americans who had been jailed during the turmoil. After serving for three years, and having policy disagreements with President George Washington, he returned to the United States, where he once again became active in the Democratic-Republic political movement headed by Jefferson.

In 1799, Monroe was elected to the first of his four nonsequential terms as governor of Virginia. He then accepted a commission from President Jefferson to return to France to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. After completing that task in 1803, he was appointed ambassador to Great Britain. Returning to the United States in 1807, Monroe refused an offer to run against Jefferson’s handpicked successor, Madison, accepting instead the position of secretary of state. He served in that position until October, 1914, when he was appointed secretary of war. However, no one filled his state position, so he unofficially filled two cabinet posts until the end of the War of 1812 when he resigned from the secretary of war position and was reappointed to the State Department. In 1817, he became the fifth president of the United States with only token opposition, due to the rapid decline of the Federalist Party. For his 1820 reelection he had no opposition. Retiring from politics in 1825, he died on July 4, 1831.

Document Analysis

In his seventh State of the Union address, President Monroe spent an extensive amount of time focusing on foreign relations. After the usual patriotic and conciliatory statements that open any State of the Union address, Monroe transitioned directly to US relations with other countries and the changed situation in the Western Hemisphere. He sought to give Congress and the American people, “a precise knowledge of our relations with foreign powers.” While Monroe went well beyond simply stating the Monroe Doctrine, which is only about 15 percent of the speech, most of the speech did deal with related issues. Monroe understood that the 1820s were a pivotal time for the United States, during which the country could increase its political security and economic opportunities. Even though the Monroe Doctrine was not known by that name until the 1840s, the ideals set forth were immediately accepted by Americans. Monroe was the last president who is considered a Founding Father as well as the last president who had participated in the Revolutionary War. Because he had witnessed the birth of the nation and its initial steps toward true independence, Monroe knew that it was vital for the United States to claim a role for itself among the leading nations of the global community and also to help create a place in this system for the other new nations of Central and South America.

The first paragraph of the portion of the speech that is specifically considered the Monroe Doctrine can be found about one-fifth of the way through. After the greeting and introductory section of the speech, President Monroe specifically discussed portions of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Certain provisions of that treaty established commissions to deal with specific issues of long term importance. Monroe did not report that agreement had been reached on the three areas under discussion. However, it can be inferred that the fact that Great Britain and the United States were continuing to discuss these issues was mentioned by Monroe in order to indicate the close relationship that was beginning to develop between the two former adversaries. After that relationship was lifted, Monroe went on to mention problems with France over “several important subjects.” Again, this was a signal that although Monroe had favored France a decade or more earlier, this was no longer the case. Following the chastisement of France, Monroe moved into the situation with Russia, which is the opening paragraph of the Monroe Doctrine.

Although Central and South America were the main focus of the Monroe Doctrine, what was actually the most pressing issue in 1823 was the possible expansion of Russian colonial activities on the West Coast of North America. During the eighteenth century, the Russian Empire had pushed eastward from Siberia to the islands and mainland of what is now Alaska. The desire for valuable furs enticed the Russians first to trade with the native population and then to establish settlements in Alaska. As with other European incursions into North America, the relations between the natives and Russians were not always peaceful, but eventually an agreement was reached allowing for good relations. As fur prices fell, larger quantities were needed for any possible profit. This meant moving further south to areas where sea otters had not been overhunted. This foray took the Russians as far south as Fort Ross in California, where a permanent settlement was established in 1812. Thus, from that point north, the coastal region was being claimed by Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. These were the issues referred to in the first paragraph of the text.

President Monroe acknowledged that Russia had invited both the United States and Great Britain to bilateral talks regarding this territory. Thus, President Monroe looked forward to “discussions to which this interest has given rise and the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion.” The prospect of a treaty for a peaceful conclusion to Russian claims beyond their historic claim in Alaska was important for Monroe. Later in the doctrine, he stated that regarding existing colonies, the United States has “not interfered and shall not interfere.” As Russia had been in Alaska since before the United States existed, its claim to that territory was not covered by the doctrine. However, claims further south were less certain, thus the desire for a treaty. It took less than five months from the time President Monroe gave this speech for an agreement to be reached between Russia and the United States. Russia gave up all claims to territory below what is now the southern tip of Alaska’s panhandle. (This did not include Fort Ross in California because, even though the exact northern border of California had yet to be determined, Fort Ross was clearly in what had been Spanish and what became Mexican territory.) Within a year after signing the treaty with the United States, Russia signed virtually the same treaty with Great Britain, leaving the United States and Great Britain to work out who would control what became Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

The first paragraph of the Monroe Doctrine concluded with a statement that was the key to the rest of the document. It said, “the American continents, 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 powers.” This has been understood to be the fundamental position of the United States ever since the day it was proclaimed. Although technically slighted by the American refusal to issue a joint statement with them, the British did not respond negatively to Monroe’s statement. What was important to the British was that the new nations remain open to British trade and other economic interests. American merchants wanted similar opportunities, but the dominant concern for the United States was not to be pulled into the European conflicts that had unleashed massive destruction throughout that continent. President Washington had warned against getting entangled in European affairs, and if the restructured European powers were going to attempt to expand their holdings in the Western Hemisphere, US isolationist policy would be in jeopardy. Thus, President Monroe believed that a statement of US policy toward the new countries was necessary.

After the dramatic statement at the close of the first paragraph of what is considered the Monroe Doctrine, President Monroe then spent a considerable amount of time outlining the situation with specific nations and the ongoing trend in US foreign policy. He then dealt with a number of appropriations for the military, as well as actions taken by the military during the preceding year. President Monroe then spent just over 20 percent of his speech on domestic issues, including the post office, roads, a proposed canal from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River, and various harbor infrastructure upgrades. Next, he returned to foreign affairs, mentioning his support for those in Greece seeking to win their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The rest of the speech continued his presentation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe began by briefly describing part of the situation in Europe, and the errors that had been made in previous predictions. The Iberian Peninsula had been in turmoil since the invasion of Napoleon. The monarch had stepped aside for Napoleon, but the people, with British assistance, had continued to fight. In 1812, a liberal constitution was written, establishing a national assembly and limitations on any future monarch. When Ferdinand VI returned to the throne in 1814, he abolished the constitution. This led to a series of revolts, and in 1820, he was forced to accept the constitution. This was the “liberty and happiness” to which Monroe referred. However, “the results have been so far very different from what was then anticipated” was Monroe’s way of pointing to the restoration of a Spanish absolute monarchy by French forces, as authorized by the Holy Alliance, which consisted of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. (This political philosophy of these absolute monarchies was mentioned by Monroe through his statement, “political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America.”) Monroe indicated that, as regarded European wars, the United States has, “never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so.” The full restoration of the Spanish monarchy had occurred earlier in 1823. Ferdinand wanted not only to reestablish the old form of government but also to bring the empire back to its former glory. He was warned not to do this when Monroe stated that events in the Western Hemisphere “are of necessity more immediately connected” with the concerns of the United States.

In the next section, Monroe amplified his warning by stating that the United States would see as a threat to its security any attempts by European powers to pull former American colonies back into any country’s sphere of political and economic influence. He began this section by stating that the United States had good relations with the European countries, even though they had a different system of government. Thus, the United States was willing to cooperate with them and to allow them to continue to keep any existing colonies. However, by the time President Monroe announced this doctrine, all mainland Spanish and Portuguese colonies had declared their independence and were well on their way to achieving it. Monroe reminded Spain, and other European powers, that the United States had not participated in the wars of independence. However, once the new nations were established, the United States would not stand by and let any European power take actions “for the purpose of oppressing” the former colonies, nor would the United States stand by if Spain tried to make changes in its relationship with its former colonies that caused concerns for “their security.”

President Monroe went on to comment on the situation in Europe and what it said about the various nations. Using Spain and Portugal as examples, Monroe referred to the unsettled conditions in those countries. Portugal was in the midst of several changes, all stemming from the Napoleonic Wars. During those conflicts, the royal family had fled to Brazil and seemed quite content to rule from there. However, Portugal believed it was superior to Brazil and therefore demanded the royal family return to rule from Lisbon, with Brazil returned to colonial status. In 1821, the king returned as a constitutional monarch, and in 1822, his son declared Brazil independent. This left a void in Portugal’s government, as there was no heir for the crown, and resulted in ongoing struggles between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy and those who wanted one with absolute powers. Similarly, in Spain the turmoil and conflict continued between those who advocated for an absolute monarchy and those who desired a constitutional government. Monroe spoke of his beliefs regarding the inappropriateness of the Holy Alliance “to have interposed by force in the internal concerns of Spain.” Monroe questioned how far these countries were willing to go to try to change others.

Even with these concerns, however, Monroe stated that he still followed the foreign policy that “was adopted at an early stage of the wars,” the policy first advocated by President Washington. In addition, it was the American policy “to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us.” This meant that no matter how a government had come into power, or what political system was used by the government, the United States was willing to work with whatever government was ruling a country at that point in time. The United States would try to develop good relations with governments of all countries, accepting “just claims of every power” while allowing “injuries from none.” This was the norm for Europe, with whom the United States had its dealings when independence was achieved. However, in the last sentence of this section Monroe noted that things had changed; with other independent countries existing in North and South America. Monroe asserted, “in regard to those continents circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different.”

President Monroe closed the Monroe Doctrine with a warning to the Holy Alliance, as Spain had been wracked by wars and would not have had the power to try to regain its former colonies without assistance. Monroe asserted that the people of Central and South America would not freely choose to return to being colonies or return to being governed by European absolute monarchs. Thus, if the European powers tried to force their views on the former colonies, the United States could not view this “with indifference.” President Monroe believed that Spain “can never subdue them,” thus it would need assistance. He closed with the hope that the policy of noninterference that the United States tended to follow would be followed by all nations of the world.

Monroe closed his State of the Union address with references to the large increase in both the population and territory of the United States. He asserted that these increases not only made the nation stronger but also allowed the federal system to work more effectively. He believed that the United States was stronger and more unified than at any time in the past, which was a veiled warning to any European country that might want to support Spain’s thoughts of regaining its colonies. Throughout his speech to Congress, President Monroe made it clear that the United States was adamant in its views supporting the new nations of the Western Hemisphere and asserted that it had the power to carry out the Monroe Doctrine. Fortunately, it was a few decades before the country was tested as to its resolve and strength.

Essential Themes

There is one central theme in the Monroe Doctrine: the continents of North and South America, and the nearby islands, were no longer to be considered available for colonization or conquest by European powers. Underlying this was the almost continuous warfare that had been taking place in Europe ever since the beginning of Washington’s presidency. The United States had been drawn into the War of 1812, in part, because of the restrictions that Britain had placed on trade. As the United States wanted the opportunity to trade with the emerging nations of the Western Hemisphere, President Monroe wanted to be clear about American intentions. In addition, at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, conservative monarchies developed an alliance that pushed its agenda not only in its own countries but also in places such as Spain. The United States was willing to accept other forms of government in Europe but did not believe the former colonies wanted, or would accept, an absolute monarchy forced on them from the outside.

Leaders of the Latin American countries responded positively to Monroe’s statement, as they were in the midst of their last battles for full independence in South America. However, they recognized that this was a national policy for the United States and as such would be used in the interests of United States, not of the emerging nations. Secretary of State Adams advocated this policy to Monroe as a statement of total opposition to colonization. It seems that Monroe, and most others, did not hold views as extreme as Adams’s. In just over a decade, the policy spelled out in the Monroe Doctrine was used to keep Britain from developing strong ties with Texas, and within three decades, it was used to keep the British out of Hawaii, so that the United States could control that area. Theodore Roosevelt extended the policy even further by asserting that the Monroe Doctrine gave the United States the right, and the duty, to intervene when problems arose in Latin America. Although it has been interpreted differently down through the decades, the Monroe Doctrine has been one of the most enduring policies of the American government.

  • “American President: James Monroe (1758-1831).” Miller Center, University of Virginia. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2012.
  • Cunningham, Noble E. The Presidency of James Monroe. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1996. Print.
  • Office of the Historian. “Monroe Doctrine, 1823.” Office of the Historian. Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, US Department of State, n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2012.
  • ---. “Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, 1904.” Office of the Historian. Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, US Department of State, n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: Knopf, 1949. Print.
  • Borgens, Edward G. Background of the Monroe Doctrine. New York: Vantage, 2004. Print.
  • Hart, Gary. James Monroe. New York: Times Books, 2005. Print.
  • May, Ernest R. The Making of the Monroe Doctrine. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1975. Print.

Categories: History