Study Guide

Monroe Doctrine

By James Monroe

Monroe Doctrine Introduction

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The Monroe Doctrine: diamonds are a girl's best friend.

Oh, wait. That's the other Monroe.

We're talking about that second-best bombshell: James Monroe. Sure, he's not singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" (unless he was crooning to himself in the mirror, maybe), but he's probably better at making stirring speeches that change American foreign policy in major historic ways.

You know how people are always saying things like, "Why isn't the U.S. getting involved in that conflict?" Or, "Why is the U.S. getting involved in this conflict?" The Monroe Doctrine is why. Well, it's more complicated than that, of course, but this fragment of a speech really established the country's stance on getting involved in other people's business.

It may surprise you that the United States actually had a policy of isolationism until World War I, meaning the country was technically neutral for any conflict that didn't directly involve them. Between the War of 1812 and WWI, the ideas of the Monroe Doctrine became, in one form or another, the foundation of America's "only when it affects me" policy.

  

Don't Scratch My Back, I Won't Scratch Yours

The Monroe Doctrine, which is what it was called from the 1850s onward, was a part of President James Monroe's annual Address to Congress in 1823. This bad boy has four main ideas:

  1. The United States won't get involved in European conflicts.
  2. The United States will leave existing colonies alone.
  3. That being said, the U.S. is not okay with Europe trying to establish more colonies in the Western Hemisphere.
  4. If Europe does anything aggressive against countries in Central and South America, the U.S. will consider it aggressive against them, too. Mess with Latin America, you mess with the U.S.

Basically, you leave us alone, we'll leave you alone, and everyone can continue on in their happy fashion. Badda bing, badda boom.

Now this bold statement didn't come totally out of nowhere. A number of former Spanish colonies had gotten their independence in the early 1800s, and the U.S. heard rumors that other European countries were sniffing around for some new colonies. At this point, the United States was still kind of a baby country—or really, going through a very awkward and pimply adolescence. You know: figuring out who it was, what it wanted from life, hating its parents, etc.

After the War of 1812, anti-Europe sentiment was pretty high. Thinking about that, and the desire to show the world that the U.S. should be taken seriously, Monroe and his cabinet debated how to handle the potential European encroachment in the (not-so) New World. Ultimately, Monroe took the advice of his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, and refused an alliance with Britain to make a strong independent statement instead.

The Monroe Doctrine is definitely the most epic thing to come out of 1820s America. And it has some seriously long-lasting repercussions. Remember when the U.S. took over Texas? Monroe Doctrine. How about the time when Teddy Roosevelt sort of took over the Dominican Republic? Totally justified by the Monroe Doctrine. These few paragraphs in a speech to Congress had a huge impact on how the United States viewed its role in the Americas, and how it acted as a result.

What is Monroe Doctrine About and Why Should I Care?

It's A Small World After All

Two words: international relations.

And we're not just talking about the college major of everyone who wants to work in the U.N. someday. We're talking about the real-deal political dealings between global players. And in particular, we're talking about the U.S.'s involvement in these insanely important worldwide dealings.

The Monroe Doctrine marks the point when the United States began to act like the big brother that other countries didn't ask for and weren't really sure they wanted. You know, very protective, but also using the older sibling status to take some of the little siblings' stuff and claim it's rightfully theirs.

If you ever hear people talk about the U.S. being the policeman of the world, you can pretty much credit the Monroe Doctrine for making that happen. Sure, at the time Monroe was only talking about Latin America, but the main ideas were, shall we say, adapted to fit the needs of later generations.

Although the U.S. wasn't really strong enough to follow through with some of the claims of the Monroe Doctrine at the time it was given, it's hard to understate the legacy the speech had on U.S. foreign policy. It basically created U.S. foreign policy.

Throughout the 19th century, as the country grew stronger, the ideas of the Monroe Doctrine were consistently used as justification for U.S. expansion into the west. Now, you may be wondering: If the Doctrine is about other people not intervening in the Western Hemisphere, how was it used to justify the U.S….intervening in the Western Hemisphere?

Yup. That's the question.

The Ripple Effect

In 1845, President James K. Polk expanded the accepted meaning of the Monroe Doctrine when he spoke to Congress about the threat of European intervention in Texas and the western coast of North America. Polk basically increased the scale of the Monroe Doctrine to mean that the United States was to be in charge of the Western Hemisphere, which was a separate "sphere of influence" from Europe and the Old World.

This meant that the U.S. felt justified taking over areas that it decided needed some good old-fashioned American influence. For the rest of the century, the Monroe Doctrine was ideologically tied to the idea of Manifest Destiny and the expansion into the west, as well as a little something called the Spanish-American War.

Think we're overstating the influence of the Monroe Doctrine? Well, in 1904 President Teddy Roosevelt issued his own addition, called a corollary, to that very text. Known affectionately (not really) as the Roosevelt Corollary, Teddy was responding to a situation where the modern-day Dominican Republic was in big trouble for debts it owed to European investors. The Roosevelt Corollary argues that the United States should (reluctantly) act as an "international police power" (his words) if and when Latin American countries had serious issues. (Source)

The United States has continued to play a rousing game of International Policeman to varying degrees ever since (don't try that game at home, kids—it requires multiple fighter jets and a large auditorium), especially in the Western Hemisphere. Teddy Roosevelt specifically mentions the Monroe Doctrine in his corollary, so he was definitely building off of the original text's ideas—or at least, the later interpretation of them.

Never underestimate the power of an Address to Congress. Because that kind of thing—especially when it's given by a go-getter like James Monroe—can have a lasting impact on international relations.

Monroe Doctrine Resources

Websites

The Monroe Doctrine at the National Archives
You can see an actual handwritten version of the Monroe Doctrine, as well as a transcript and general information from the U.S. National Archives, right here.

The Monroe Doctrine and Related Texts at the Library of Congress
In addition to a general summary of the Monroe Doctrine, the Library of Congress provides links to other primary sources and useful (trustworthy) sites about the text.

Movie or TV Productions

1939 Short Film: "The Monroe Doctrine"
Apparently, there was a twenty-two minute film telling the story of the Monroe Doctrine made in 1939. Who knew? It was cleverly titled…The Monroe Doctrine.

Articles and Interviews

1863 Article about the French Takeover of Mexico
This admittedly lengthy article from the then-New York Ledger was published around the time that the French monarch decided to put a French emperor on the throne of Mexico. It's a fascinating look at how prevalent the Monroe Doctrine and its policies were later in the 19th century.

Long Echoes of War and Speech: Woodrow Wilson, World War I and American Idealism
Okay, so this article is actually about Woodrow Wilson, not James Monroe. The Monroe Doctrine comes up, though, because what the article is focusing on is Wilson having to shift away from America's traditional isolationist policy when WWI came around. The article nicely illustrates the bigger picture, to show you the Monroe Doctrine's effect for nearly a century, then how it had to change to work in world of the 20th century.

Interview with Historian Walter LeFeber (PBS)
LeFeber is discussing Teddy Roosevelt, but the first part of his response is all about how TR used and changed the Monroe Doctrine, and why that change was significant.

Video

The Monroe Doctrine—A Brief Explanation
A guy who calls himself HipHughes (good name, or best name?) explains the Monroe Doctrine pretty well in under two minutes.

Audio

A Reading of the Monroe Doctrine
In case you want to hear someone read the Monroe Doctrine aloud. (Sorry, it's not actually Monroe himself.)

Images

Published Version of the Monroe Doctrine (December 2nd, 1823)
Like we do today, Monroe's entire speech was published immediately in the newspapers. Here's what it looked like.

Samuel B. Morse, Portrait of James Monroe (1819)
This portrait of the president hangs in the Blue Room of the White House.

Philip Haas, Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams (1843)
Believe it or not, we have some photos of the man who was so influential in the ideas of the Monroe Doctrine.

Sidney Morse, Map from An Atlas of the United States (1823)
This map shows the geographic makeup of the U.S. at the time the Monroe Doctrine was given, including the recent additions of Missouri and Maine, as well as unincorporated territories like Oregon. He even labels known areas inhabited by Native American tribes, although you'll have to zoom in to read any of it.