Study Guide

Monroe Doctrine Analysis

By James Monroe

  • Rhetoric

    Ethos

    Just like your Facebook Newsfeed, Monroe's speech uses a bit of all the forms of rhetoric. However, the impact of his statement relies on the listeners' belief in the power and purpose of the United States, so the main form of rhetoric is ethos.

    Monroe's words aren't personal—all the players in his speech are nations and continents. As president, he's clearly speaking on behalf of the United States. For instance:

    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 to do so. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. (9-10)

    Monroe connects the people he's speaking to and the United States as one entity ("our policy"), and paints a picture of the U.S. as taking the moral high ground in the past. The nation only fights when forced to.

    A lot of the Monroe Doctrine is based on the idea that the American form of government is superior to the old, crusty monarchies of Europe. That's why the U.S. wants to protect those new Latin American republics, which have followed the Americans' lead.

    He says that the European governments aren't interested in Latin America the way that the U.S. is:

    We owe it, therefore, to candor 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. (14)

    Again, everything is argued in terms of nations. His argument is that America's wishes should be respected because of how it has conducted itself in the past (friendly), and how it as a nation would perceive certain actions.

    Monroe repeatedly invokes the past and present behavior of the U.S. as a whole to argue that European countries should pay attention. He reminds the audience that:

    Our policy in regard to Europe…is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers. (21)

    Monroe continues to present America as the super cool, well-behaved gentlemen across the Atlantic who has nobly cultivated liberty and not tried to butt in on the Old World's business.

    Even at the end of this part of his speech, Monroe lays it on pretty thickly. Talking about how the Latin American republics would never adopt absolutism on their own, he says:

    It is still the true policy of the United States to leave the parties to themselves, in hope that other powers will pursue the same course… (26)

    In other words, "We're going to let the new kids follow their dreams, and we hope that other people will do the same (hint hint)."

    The strength of Monroe's arguments relies on the audience's belief in the United States as a strong country with strong (and correct) ideals. The president invokes patriotic belief that America's conduct has been better that the other guys', in order to gather support for his bold statement of independence. Without that belief in America's righteousness, no one would follow the Monroe Doctrine, because why would you care?

    Ergo (because you can never have too much Latin), the primary form of rhetoric in the Monroe Doctrine is ethos. Of course, there are elements of pathos and logos in there: pathos when he emphasizes the greatness of the U.S., whose freedom was won with a "loss of so much blood and treasure," (13) and logos because he presents arguments based on real past events to justify his argument.

    In the busy, complicated world in which we live, nothing is just one thing. We have hybrid cars, hybrid fruits, and hybrid forms of rhetoric.

    However, this text is definitely mostly using ethos.

  • Structure

    Speech

    The Monroe Doctrine as a text is a little unusual because it's only part of a speech. The full speech is much, much longer. The reason these paragraphs have been separated out as their own special thing is that they're historically a lot more significant than the rest of the speech.

    Of course, in history we try to not make too many value judgements, but let's be real—there's an entire section of the address focused on budget issues relating to the expansion of post roads. Did you know that the postmasters owed the government $26,548.64 in July of 1823? Well, now you do.

    No one really ever talks about how Monroe delivered his address to Congress, so the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine is mostly through the written form of the speech. Of course, that's true for any speech once it's been given, but the scene when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address is pretty well documented, even without video cameras.

    The fact that Monroe's message was a speech to Congress is important to remember, because it tells us who the intended audience was; that being said, in those days these types of speeches were generally also printed in newspapers, like we still do now with the State of the Union address and CNN.

    So, although the Monroe Doctrine comes from a speech, its influence, like The Odyssey or those poems we wrote for an ill-fated open mic night, has been mostly through the written version.

    How it Breaks Down

    We Can See Russia from Our House

    The opening section of what is now considered the Monroe Doctrine has to do with recent negotiations with Russia over the Pacific Northwest. Monroe uses this incident to segue to his first major statement: that the Americas are closed for further European colonization.

    Don't Mess with Us, Europe, and We Won't Mess with You

    The larger middle portion is the heart of the Monroe Doctrine. The president reminds his audience that the U.S. has stayed out of European business and claims that the United States has a much more vested interest in the western hemisphere than Europe does. Therefore, the U.S. won't bother current colonies, but if Europe tries to add any more, America will see it as a direct threat to its safety.

    Keep Your Power Struggles Over There

    Monroe reminds everyone that the U.S. doesn't take sides in European power struggles, like the recent one in Spain. America happily deals with whatever government happens to be in place at the time.

    However, it's a different story over in the American continents, where obviously these new republics don't want any of that monarchical mumbo-jumbo. So everyone should leave them to choose their own system (a.k.a. republic, like their big bro the U.S.).

  • Tone

    Diplomatic

    Although President Monroe is making some big foreign policy claims (without a lot of military strength to back them up) he doesn't treat the European nations like enemies. He uses a fair amount of respectful language to show that he (and therefore the U.S.) sees them as authorities. Some of it could also be seen as a tad passive-aggressive, but it's hard to tell without hearing how he delivered it.

    In the beginning, Monroe refers to the Russian leader as "His Imperial Majesty" (2). The U.S. is in the midst of trying to negotiate with Russia and convince them to give up some of the land they went ahead and claimed on the west coast. But the U.S. is all about "friendship" and its "great value," which can lead to the "best understanding" between the two governments (3). There's no angry ranting about Russian imperialism here.

    Throughout the text, Monroe tempers his comments about Europe to make the U.S. look like a positive political force. For example:

    The citizens of the United States cherish sentiments the most friendly in favor of the liberty and happiness of their fellow-men on that side of the Atlantic. (8)

    America totally wants the best for those guys in Europe, really.

    Even when talking about the most direct issues of the Monroe Doctrine, Monroe says:

    […] 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. (16).

    That's a lot of extra words to say that interference in Latin America would be considered hostile to the U.S., which he does say in more aggressive terms elsewhere.

    Phrases like "an unfriendly disposition," or "to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none," (21) take potentially hot topics and cool them down by maintaining dispassionate, diplomatic language that recognizes the power of Europe while also emphasizing America's determination.

    Confident

    The text is confident just by virtue of what it's trying to do. The new kid is making a speech to the popular crowd saying they won't let them mess with the even newer kids. Monroe didn't even have proper force to back up his points, so he's basically bluffing. However, when he makes his statements, he leaves no room to question his meaning.

    Look at some of the main tenets of the Monroe Doctrine. First, we have "the American continents […] are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers" (4).

    He's not asking, he's telling.

    Similarly: "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" (14). There's no wavering here. "Any" efforts will be seen as hostile, which means Monroe is telling these old, powerful nations that they can't make any moves in Latin America without risking retaliation.

    Even at the end, Monroe clearly disses monarchical governments. Adding colonies to a monarchical system wouldn't just endanger the U.S. "nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord" (23). He's pretty much just telling Europe that no one would choose to be like them if given the option.

    Bold move, sir.

  • Writing Style

    Wordy, Showy

    Monroe doesn't settle for one direct phrase when a long, multipart sentence will do.

    Take, for example, this declaration:

    We owe it, therefore, to candor 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. (14)

    Wait—what is he saying? America will see any European interference in the western hemisphere as hostile, and they want Europe to know that. There are definitely simpler ways to say it.

    Or, how about later, when he explains how the U.S. has remained neutral during European power struggles, because their policy has been,

    […] not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none. (21)

    Phew, say that ten times fast. Well, don't, we don't want you to injure yourself.

    The wordiness adds to the showiness of Monroe's writing style. Adding fancier words and more convoluted sentence structure elevates the language, making it sound more important. What sounds more impressive? "We'll interpret Europe re-taking Latin American countries as colonies as hostile," or: "[…] 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" (16).

    Be honest, we won't be offended.

    Insistent

    Monroe's elevated language feels insistent because he repeats some ideas multiple times, in slightly different ways. For instance: "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" (14), and right after, "we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them […] by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States" (16).

    He also repeats the fact that the U.S. has stayed neutral in European affairs. "In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part" (9), he says. Then, later, "With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere" (15) and "Our policy in regard to Europe […] nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers" (21).

    There's no shred of doubt: America is not involved in Europe's business.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Technically, the Monroe Doctrine is part of the "seventh annual message to Congress," its official title. The name Monroe Doctrine is much snappier, and refers only to the part that addresses the president's new, bold foreign policy stance. Keeping his name as part of the title ensures that the legacy of that stance is credited properly to Monroe, and forever ties his presidency to these ideas. The term "doctrine" was added decades later, and shows us how strongly later administrations wanted to adhere to this position.

    A doctrine isn't something you follow because it's convenient, or because you can't think of anything better to do. A doctrine is a mantra, a manifesto, or a strict set of principles. Calling these paragraphs a doctrine elevates them, from just some paragraphs in an address to Congress, to a set of ideas that had to be followed from then on.

    Calling this text the Monroe Doctrine tells us that this text is an apparently necessary set of principles, dictated by one Mr. Prez Monroe. The now-official title of this section of a speech turns them from an excerpt to a declaration.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    The first paragraph of the Monroe Doctrine takes the long way around to the first major statement of the text. Continuing from an earlier topic of the speech, Monroe spends several lines talking about how the U.S. has been in negotiations with Russia over how to handle territory in the Pacific Northwest.

    Because everyone wants a slice of that sweet, sweet Starbucks-and-Microsoft-laden Northwestern pie.

    Okay, so that's not the most engaging way to start an important historical text, but remember, the Monroe Doctrine starts about a third of the way into another, longer speech. Monroe didn't need to get his audience's attention at this point. And let's face it, if the president can't keep Congress' attention in the annual address to Congress, he's really got problems.

    The paragraph finishes, though, with the first major tenet of the Monroe Doctrine: that the Americas are no longer available for further European colonization. Those lines about Russia serve as a launching point for this big statement. As Latin American countries broke free from Spain, and the U.S. started to expand westward, Monroe makes sure that the Old World can't re-take any of the land for themselves and expand their empires in the western hemisphere. Pretty big words from a former one of those colonies.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The final line of the Monroe Doctrine sort of sums up Monroe's arguments…in a somewhat passive-aggressive way.

    He says that the U.S. will leave the newly independent nations down south to determine their own governmental structure, and he hopes that other countries will do the same. It's the early 19th-century presidential address equivalent of leaving a note for your roomie that says, "Some of us have to get up early. Some of us don't have time to listen to 90s hip hop at 3 a.m."

    Anyway, the Monroe Doctrine ends with a firm statement that the United States intends to let the Latin American republics determine their own policies and governments, and wants to lead by example in doing so. The thinly veiled subtext, especially looking at the rest of the paragraph, is that these new countries have chosen, and will continue to choose, a republican system like the U.S. European countries shouldn't try to come in and re-institute the monarchical colonial systems that these places literally just rebelled to get away from.

    To sum up: follow the United States' example and let those new countries alone so they can choose the American way.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    The Monroe Doctrine might be a little tricky to get if you don't know the context and basic idea. (But hey: that's exactly why we're around.)

    Also, Monroe was not scared of long sentences, so he can be a wee bit difficult to follow. There are also a lot of references to particular events or circumstances that the contemporary audience would have understood (since they were, you know, living it), but which aren't as familiar to us now.

    He also throws in some words that you don't see much now, like "comport" and "felicity" just to give it that old-timey feel.

    All that being said, the Big Ideas in the Monroe Doc aren't hard to understand. The author strings a lot of phrases together, but individually they're fairly straightforward. The really key points are laid out nicely…and pretty eloquently. Bravo, Monroe.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    Revolutions in Mexico (1810), Venezuela (1811), and Argentina (1816) (16-17, 23-25)

    The Convention of 1824 (1, 3): Russia and the United States were disputing Russia's claims on the Pacific Northwest. The Czar had claimed the entire coast from Washington through Alaska in 1821, and it took several years for the two countries to come to an agreement. Negotiations were still going on when Monroe gave his address to Congress. 

    Spanish Civil War of 1820/Franco-Spanish War of 1823 (5-6, 18-19): Spain had been in a civil war since 1820 because a large group of people wanted liberal reforms from King Ferdinand VII after his restoration to the throne post-Napoleon. Eventually France came in and took over (again) until the king was allowed to return. 

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    James K. Polk, First Annual Message to Congress (December 2nd, 1845)

    Grover Cleveland, Message Regarding Venezuelan-British Dispute (December 17th, 1895): President Cleveland persuaded Britain to agree to mediation in a border dispute between Venezuela and British Guyana, threatening war if they didn't agree. 

    Theodore Roosevelt, Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (December 6th, 1905)

    John F. Kennedy, News Conference (August 29th, 1962): In response to a question from a reporter about what the Monroe Doctrine means to him, JFK reaffirms its original meaning and says the doctrine is why the U.S. has cut off trade with Cuba. His television address on the Cuban Missile Crisis evokes the Monroe Doctrine, but doesn't mention it by name.

    Pop Culture References

    J. B. Webster, "Get Out of Mexico!" (1866): This song, written in response to France putting Emperor Maximilian on the throne of Mexico, supports Mexican efforts (with U.S. help) to restore President Benito Juárez to his position. It includes the fun lyric "Now, political tradition, / Since the time of James Monroe, / Had prevented interference / In affairs of Mexico." (Source)

    Not sure why Taylor Swift hasn't covered this one yet…

    New York Herald, "Uncle Sam: That's a Live Wire, Gentlemen!" (December 16th, 1902): This cartoon was drawn during the Venezuela crisis and shows Uncle Sam keeping Germany and Britain at a distance, over the "live wire" that is the Monroe Doctrine. 

  • Trivia

    This 1843 photo (well, daguerreotype) of John Quincy Adams is the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president. Way to be ahead of the curve, JQA, your father would have been proud. (Source)

    When James Monroe became president, he had to redecorate the newly rebuilt White House after it was burned in 1814. Having spent lots of time in France, he and his wife were big fans of French décor and did not shy away from importing lots of French goodies for their new digs. The Blue Room, which is still a major reception area for the visiting foreign dignitaries, retained his French theme. In fact, the room still contains a marble table Monroe bought, and a set of chairs were re-upholstered to match the fabric pattern they had in a portrait of Monroe. (Source)

    James Monroe dropped out of college to go fight in the Revolutionary War, and he was almost fatally wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton. He was promoted for heroism once he recovered, but there were so many officers, he couldn't get a job at the end of the war. So he became a lawyer. It just goes to show that even official heroes can struggle with unemployment. (Source)

    Although the U.S. and Britain agreed to joint access to the Oregon territory in the Rush-Bagot treaty, really the people most active in that area were Russian fur traders. They even had an outpost at Fort Ross, less than eighty miles from present-day San Francisco. At the time, this was totally fine with the U.S., because California was still part of Spain. Everyone was actually pretty happy to have an outpost there, and the Fort Ross Russians happily welcomed American travelers, even when there was an official ban on non-Russian ships. (Source)