Great American Documents: The Monroe Doctrine

On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe provided a State of the Union address which included the first articulation of foreign policy for the United States: We would not meddle in Europe’s affairs, and European nations should not interfere with political developments in the Western Hemisphere.  This became known at the Monroe Doctrine.

The United States was barely half a century old, and had sustained one assault from the British already in 1812.  Russia had established outposts in the northwest regions, which would become Alaska and British Columbia.  Spain’s colonies in South America were forming nations, such as Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela.  Napoleon was running amuck in Europe.  At some point, rather than “a cock-boat in the wake of a British man-of-war”, as John Quincy Adams phrased it, the USA would need to take a position on how to conduct itself on the global scene.

In case anyone should think that international trade and globalization are buzz words of the 1990’s, consider that The Dutch East India Company, Virginia Company, and Massachusetts Bay Company were as much about commerce as about colonization.  More than a hundred years earlier, Columbus has sailed west, not to find Hispaniola but India.  Europe knew about Asia, wanted their products and markets, but wanted to find a fast way there.

Neutrality.  Non-interference.  Such foreign policy statements seem quaint in today’s world.  The world markets deal with oil exporters who appear for the most part to despise the economies, which provide them with wealth.  Since the end of the Cold War the Russian Federation has collapsed into mob-style governance, while the European Union gathers remnant counties like chits on a huge game of Risk.  The USA runs about the world trying to be somewhere between the police and democracy-on-demand, but looking more like the Key Stone Cops without the laughs.  Switzerland, a nation that claims neutrality in all these affairs, keeps the bank accounts hidden for political despots and businessmen alike, who primarily share the desire for non-interference in their amassment of wealth.  President Obama is caught in the no-win situation that if the USA provides weapons to the rebels in Syria, then we have most likely arms Islamist groups, but if we do not, we most likely will prolong the slaughter of the Syrian people.

Declaring neutrality and requesting non-interference are easier than gaining cooperation.

President James Monroe’s 7th State of the Union Address to Congress

At the proposal of the Russian Imperial Government, made through the minister of Emperor residing there, a full power and instructions have been transmitted to the minister of the United States at St. Petersburg to arrange by amicable negotiations the respective rights and interests of the two nations on the northwest coasts of this continent.  A similar proposal has been made by His Imperial Majesty to the Government of Great Britain, which has likewise been acceded to.  The Government of the United States has been desirous by this friendly proceeding of manifesting the great value which they have invariably attached to the friendship of the Emperor and their solicitude to cultivate the best understanding with his Government.  In the discussion to which this interest has given rise and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subject for future colonization by any European powers…


It was stated at the commencement of the last session that a great effort was then making in Spain and Portugal to improve the condition of the people of those countries, and that it appeared to be conducted with extraordinary moderation.  It need scarcely be remarked that the results have been so far very different from what was then anticipated.  Of events in that quarter of the globe, with which we have so much intercourse and from which we derive our origin, we have always been anxious and interested spectators.  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.  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 preparations for our defense.  With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by cases which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers.  The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America.  This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted.  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.  With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere.  But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, 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.  In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declare our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgment of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.


The late events in Spain and Portugal shew that Europe is still unsettled.  Of this important fact no stronger proof can be adduced than that the allied powers should have thought it proper, on any principle satisfactory to themselves, to have interposed by force in the internal concerns of Spain.  To what extent such interposition may be carried, on the same principle, is a question in which all independent powers whose governments differ from theirs are interested, even those most remote, and surely none of them more so than the United States.  Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, 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 frank, firm and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.  But in regard to those continents circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different.


It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord.  It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference.  If we look to the comparative strength and resources of Spain and those new Governments, and their distance from each other, it must be obvious that she can never subdue them.  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…

Readers, this is the final post for this year in this series from the text Great American Documents.  If you have enjoyed this, pick up a copy of the text and browse through the more than 50 documents that it contains.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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6 Responses to Great American Documents: The Monroe Doctrine

  1. The Vicar says:

    Emerging nations, like start up companies, can make decisions on the fly to adapt to world or market conditions. It is the super powers and global companies that find it hard to stay neutral when they perceive that everything involves their best interest.

    I have enjoyed learning more about our country’s formative documents through your blogs throughout the year. Keep it up in the new year.

  2. Judi says:

    John Quincy Adams wrote the Monroe Doctrine. He was Secretary of State at the time.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      You are estute in your history, for John Quincy Adams made the argument during a cabinet meeting on November 7, 1823 “It would be more candid, 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”. President James Monroe articulated the concept a month later in his State of the Union Address. How often do presidents get/take credit for what other say/do around them? How often do we blame presidents for the actions/ideas of others, regardless of whether the president had anything to do with the events. As I have said before, we should be scrutinizing our school boards more than the president. They have more influence on our immediate lives. Thanks for reading carefully.

  3. Wisewoman says:

    I think this is the one I was told to read by MaMa Susana. It is so long and my eyes are so bad I will have to print it for bedtime reading — if I can stay awake that long. Thanks for the history lessons.

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