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The Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine, declared by President James Monroe in 1823, warned European powers against future colonization or interference in the Americas. Despite the U.S. being a minor power, this bold statement shaped American foreign policy, promoting democracy and isolationism. Its enforcement relied heavily on the British Navy's power. 

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Video transcript

- On December 2, 1823, U.S. President James Monroe was giving his annual State of the Union Address to Congress when he threw in a couple of remarks about the United States' relationship with the powers of Europe. He said, "The American continents, "by the free and independent condition "which they have assumed and maintained, "are henceforth not to be considered as subjects "for future colonization by any European powers. "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. "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." So, basically, in one fell swoop, James Monroe told the crowned heads of Europe to stay out of the Americas. He said, "As far as I'm concerned, "the era of colonization is over." Stop giving us the side-eye. Stop looking at your maps and trying to decide where you might place a little colony next. No more European colonization in the Americas. What's more, don't interfere. The Americas are the United States' concern so we don't want the powers of Europe to meddle in any of the affairs of Latin America or South America. You can keep your system, and by system, Monroe meant monarchy, out of the Americas. This is the hemisphere of democracy. So, this is an incredibly bold statement. Let's not forget here that the United States is not exactly a world power in 1823. They could, at best, be said to be a minor power, even in the Americas. The United States is not a major world military power, it's not a major world Navy power. Let's remember that in this era, having a strong Navy was tantamount to being able to take over the world. They're kind of a second-rate nation in a second-rate part of the world. So, what was the response when the United States made this incredibly bold assertion that they would not permit any more colonization or interference in the Americas from Europe? Mmm... Crickets. Nobody really cared. To the established powers of Europe, the United States was no more than a little mosquito, buzzing around, maybe making a lot of noise, a bit annoying, but pretty easy to swat. No matter how much noise the United States made, the only thing that mattered to the great powers of the world was whether or not the United States could enforce the Monroe Doctrine, which with such a weak military presence, they certainly could not. Nevertheless, the Monroe Doctrine became a key facet of American foreign policy throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century. It became a justification for Manifest Destiny and would play a major role in the foreign policies of Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So, where did the Monroe Doctrine come from? Well, let's take a minute to look at some of the major world events of the time period and the major players who brought the Monroe Doctrine about. All right, dateline 1820. It has been a bad couple of years for monarchy in Europe. For one thing, the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution have been convulsing the powers of Europe for several years. By 1815, the Revolution has more or less finished and the monarchies of Europe have been reinstated. But, this revolutionary fervor coming from the French Revolution, coming also from the American Revolution, has started to spread. So, movements for independence are now taking hold in South America. There's a Chilean movement for independence, Argentinian movement for independence, Venezuelan movement for independence. So, they've kind of caught the democracy bug. The people in the United States are cheering for their southern brethren, saying, "Excellent work, picking up democracy, "breaking away from old-fashioned, monarchical, "tyrannical Europe. "We're totally on your side." But it's easier to make an independence movement happen when the home country is distracted with another war, aka the Napoleonic Wars. Once the Napoleonic Wars are over, the monarchies of Europe start saying, "Hmm, you know what? "Since Spain is in control of these nations, "now Spain has the time and energy "to consider maybe putting down these revolutions." So, they're no longer distracted by war, and they have the manpower and the bandwidth to think about maybe trying to reinstate, or secure, Spanish rule in South America where nations have been in the process of revolution. Now, we don't know the extent to which Spain was actually planning on putting these revolutions down, but we do know that the United States and England were very concerned that the monarchies of the continent-- France and Spain-- might join together and try to put down all of these revolutions. Now, wouldn't they want that? Well, for the most part, it kind of came down to markets. If you think back to early American colonial society, the economic system was known as mercantilism. Mercantilism is the practice of colonies kind of existing to enrich the mother country. So, all trade goes through the home country. That means that the home country is going to be making sure that the colonies are not trading with any other international partners because they want to be the ones who are enriched by the natural resources of the colonies. So, when Chile and Argentina and Venezuela revolt from Spain, it means that their markets are now opened up to the United States and to England. So, England and the United States are not eager to see these new nations be returned to their colonial status because, thanks to mercantilism, they're not going to be able to trade with them anymore. With this idea in mind, the British Foreign Secretary, a man named George Canning, approached the American Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, and he said, "Why don't we make a joint proclamation "between the United States and Great Britain "saying that the powers of Europe "should not interfere in the New World.? And John Quincy Adams thought, "Hmm, I'm not sure if I like you British folks." Remember that the War of 1812 had not taken place too long beforehand. The United States was not quite ready to be friends with the United Kingdom yet. And they were a little bit afraid that if the United States made a joint declaration with England that it would seem a little bit like a flea on the back of a rottweiler saying, "Don't mess with us or we'll bite you!" The United States didn't have nearly the strength to actually make an equal partnership so it might have looked a little bit like they were hiding behind the British in a joint declaration, but J.Q.A. thought this actually still sounded like a pretty good plan so he floated the idea to President James Monroe. Now, there's kind of a movement of nationalism going on at this time in the United States. Even though the United States didn't technically win the War of 1812, they kind of felt like they had. So, they're busy kind of creating a new nationalist rhetoric in the United States. They're feeling pretty good about themselves. They stood up to their old foe of Great Britain, and won. Or, at the very least, didn't lose, but to them it was kind of the same thing. So, John Quincy Adams crafts for James Monroe what will become known as the Monroe Doctrine. Now, Monroe is not only concerned about the possibility of European powers coming down here and trying to start fights with each other over the fate of South America. Monroe was also worried about Russia, who had recently made some territorial claims in Canada, saying that their territory should come all the way down there. The Russians have started putting some forts on the coast of California, close to modern day San Francisco. So, Monroe sees the old monarchical powers of Europe sort of encroaching both from the north and the south here. And so, in 1823, he makes the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine. He says, "No more colonization. "Russia, get out of there. "And no more interference, in general. "So, don't try to turn these new republics "back into colonies under the rule of monarchies. "In fact, just keep your monarchy "out of our hemisphere altogether." Monroe makes this statement completely outside of the relationship with the United Kingdom so it doesn't have this kind of riding on the coattails feeling of being allied with Britain. But nevertheless, the only way that the United States can actually count on the Monroe Doctrine being enforced is because the British Navy is so incredibly powerful. I'm going to draw a very bad boat here. Nobody who heard about the Monroe Doctrine thought, "Ah, man, we better not make the United States angry." What they thought was, "Ah, man, we better not make the British Empire angry." Because they knew that the British Navy, which wanted neutrality of the seas, which wanted to be able to continue to have these trade relationships with new nations in South America, would defend the neutrality and the independence of South America by proxy, and by doing so, kind of enforce the Monroe Doctrine. So, this is interesting. You could think of this as being a little bit weaselly on the part of Monroe, declaring that the Americas should remain free of the influence of Europe, but counting on the United Kingdom to enforce it. Or you could think of it as perhaps a brilliant policy maneuver. I don't know. Certainly, the nations of South America and Latin America appreciated this declaration of independence for the Americas coming from the United States, but they certainly knew that it was more about the United States making sure that they, themselves, were protected than wanting to have a real equal partnership with South America. So, the Monroe Doctrine really didn't amount to much for most of the 19th century. It was certainly a justification as the United States continued to push west in their quest of Manifest Destiny, but it will become increasingly important in the 20th century as the United States steps onto the world stage with things like the Spanish American War, under the auspices of William McKinley, and making famous Theodore Roosevelt, saying that the Caribbean is the province of the United States, and the nations of Latin America and South America. They're only to be dealt with through the United States. So, you can see the Monroe Doctrine as a very early expression of the United States' intention to become a world power and to be the leading and most powerful nation in the Americas. And you can also see it as an expression of American isolationism, which will really be the leading aspect of American foreign policy up until the Spanish American War. As early as George Washington's Farewell Address, Washington expressed the view that the United States should just not get involved in the business of Europe. That that would only lead to heartbreak. While the Monroe Doctrine is now kind of taking not only that idea that the United States should not become involved in the affairs of Europe, but also turning it around and saying that Europe should not become involved in the affairs of the Americas, drawing an even stronger barrier between the old world and the new.