In his ideas regarding American foreign policy, James Monroe echoed both Washington and Jefferson, yet he had to worry about things neither of them did—in particular, European involvement in the affairs of the republics of the Western Hemisphere. His policy needed to follow the diplomatic thought of the previous administrations while also adapting to quickly changing circumstances and intentions.
Europe is again unsettled and the prospect of war increasing. Should the flame light up in any quarter, how far it may extend it is impossible to foresee. It is our peculiar felicity to be altogether unconnected with the causes which produce this menacing aspect elsewhere. With every power we are in perfect amity, and it is our interest to remain so if it be practicable on just conditions. I see no reasonable cause to apprehend variance with any power, unless it proceed from a violation of our maritime rights. In these contests, should they occur, and to whatever extent they may be carried, we shall be neutral; but as a neutral power we have rights which it is our duty to maintain. For like injuries it will be incumbent on us to seek redress in a spirit of amity, in full confidence that, injuring none, none would knowingly injure us. For more imminent dangers we should be prepared, and it should always be recollected that such preparation adapted to the circumstances and sanctioned by the judgment and wishes of our constituents can not fail to have a good effect in averting dangers of every kind. We should recollect also that the season of peace is best adapted to these preparations.
In his ideas regarding American foreign policy, Monroe echoed both Washington and Jefferson, yet he had to worry about things neither of them did—in particular, European involvement in the affairs of the republics of the Western Hemisphere. His policy, directed by his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, needed to follow the diplomatic thought of the previous administrations while also adapting to quickly changing circumstances and intentions.
Out of the more sane and Burkean Congress of Vienna emerged the more insidious and controlling Congress of Verona. Out of Verona, a “Holy Alliance” of three powers, Austria (Roman Catholic), Prussia (Protestant), and Russia (Eastern Orthodox) arose. Radicalized against the possibility of another French Revolution, the Holy Alliance vowed to oppose all republics as anti-Christs.
In March 1822, the United States recognized somewhat reluctantly the newly proclaimed republics in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. The United States was reluctant to extend its recognition only because it feared that Roman Catholicism and Spanish heritage would shape the republics not as democratically-oriented republics but as military caudillo republics.
A little over a year later, in April 1823, the Holy Alliance directed monarchist France to invade Spain. What this would mean for Spain’s Latin American possessions remained unclear, but the Holy Alliance seemed intent on lumping the American republic in with the more radical Latin republics.
After consulting with former Presidents Adams and Jefferson, President Monroe told his cabinet that he believed it necessary to issue a joint statement with the British against European intervention in Latin America. Quincy Adams adamantly refused. He recorded in his diary:
The subject for consideration was, the confidential proposals of the British Secretary of State, George Canning, to R. Rush, and the correspondence between them relating to the projects of the Holy Alliance upon South America. There was much conversation, without coming to any definite point. The object of Canning appears to have been to obtain some public pledge from the Government of the United States, ostensibly against the forcible interference of the Holy Alliance between Spain and South America; but really or especially against the acquisition to the United States themselves of any part of the Spanish American possessions.
From the perspective of John Quincy Adams, the United States had no right to claim or annex any part of Latin America. It also, however, had no right to deny any part of Latin America from joining its cause with that of the United States.
I thought the cases not parallel. We have no intention of seizing either Texas or Cuba. But the inhabitants of either or both may exercise their primitive rights, and solicit a union with us. They will certainly do no such thing to Great Britain. By joining with her, therefore, in her proposed declaration, we give her a substantial and perhaps inconvenient pledge against ourselves, and really obtain nothing in return. Without entering now into the enquiry of the expediency of our annexing Texas or Cuba to our Union, we should at least keep ourselves free to act as emergencies may arise, and not tie ourselves down to any principle which might immediately afterwards be brought to bear against ourselves.
It is difficult not to see Quincy Adams’ reasoning as even more proof that he was the greatest Secretary of State the United States ever had. And, to make matters even better (at least from the standpoint of this historian), Quincy Adams quipped: I remarked that the communications recently received from the Russian Minister, Baron Tuyl, afforded, as I thought, a very suitable and convenient opportunity for us to take our stand against the Holy Alliance, and at the same time to decline the overture of Great Britain.” Further, the Secretary of State noted with great humor, “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 cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” To issue a joint statement with Great Britain, Quincy Adams well understood, would merely make the United States yet another province (again!) of the U.K.
Instead, the Secretary of State convinced the President that the United States must navigate its own course, and the result, beautifully and movingly, was what has been known by Americans as the “Monroe Doctrine.” Written by Quincy Adams, it is worth quoting at length.
At the proposal of the Russian Imperial Government, made through the minister of the Emperor residing here, a full power and instructions have been transmitted to the minister of the United States at St. Petersburg to arrange by amicable negotiation the respective rights and interests of the two nations on the northwest coast 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 discussions 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 subjects 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 preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes 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 declared 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 judgement 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 a 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.
Frankly, the Monroe Doctrine should be as revered as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance. It is, for all intents and purposes, our statement of philosophy when it comes to foreign policy.
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The featured image is a portrait of James Madison (c. 1820–22) by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.