Monroe Doctrine

On October 17, 1823, President James Monroe wrote a letter to his friend and Virginia neighbor Thomas Jefferson seeking advice on foreign policy. The issue at hand was whether to accept an offer from Great Britain to issue a joint declaration warning other powers such as Spain and France not to intervene in the affairs of Central and South America.

…shall we entangle ourselves at all, in European politicks, & wars, on the side of any power, against others…?

Letter, James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson Seeking Foreign Policy Advice, October 17, 1823. (Thomas Jefferson Papers). Manuscript Division

[James Monroe, fifth president of the United States]. From a painting by Gilbert Stuart; Pendleton’s Lithography, [1828?]. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

Both Jefferson and former president James Madison, whom Monroe also had consulted, recommended cooperation with Britain. However, Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, was more cautious, arguing instead for an independent denunciation of any further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to the potential threat from Spain and France, Adams was also concerned about Russian encroachments on the west coast of North America. “It would be more candid,” Adams warned Monroe at a November 7, 1823, cabinet meeting, “as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

J. Q. Adams. Engraving, from original painting by G.P.A. Healy; J.C. Tichenor, c1898. Prints & Photographs Division

Heeding Adams’s advice, Monroe chose to pursue a course independent of Great Britain. He outlined his policy, later known as the Monroe Doctrine, in an address to Congress on December 2, 1823. “We should consider any attempt [on the part of European nations],” Monroe declared, “to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” Monroe also stated, “that the American continents…are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Although the United States initially lacked the power or influence to uphold the Monroe Doctrine, it remained in force largely because it was consistent with Great Britain’s interest in maintaining access to Latin American markets.

As the United States gained military and economic strength, American leaders began to interpret the Monroe Doctrine as justification for U.S. involvement in Latin America. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, who had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Spanish-American War, added the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. In order to prevent European nations from involving themselves in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, the Roosevelt Corollary proclaimed that if a Latin American country failed to maintain internal order or pay its international debts, the United States had the exclusive right to intervene with military force to rectify the situation.

Keep off! The Monroe Doctrine must be respected. Lithograph by Victor; illustrated in Judge, February 15, 1896, p. 108-109. Prints & Photographs Division

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