The Monroe Doctrine was a declaration made by President James Monroe to Congress on December 2, 1823, claiming that the Western Hemisphere was now “off limits” to European powers by saying that no new colonies could be established in the Americas. It also stated that the US would remain neutral in affairs between these powers and their existing colonies, unless these conflicts occurred in the Americas.
After the Napoleonic wars (which ended in 1815), almost all of Latin America revolted against Spanish or Portuguese rule and declared independence. Americans welcomed this development as a validation of the spirit of Republicanism. Adams suggested delay in formal recognition until Florida was secured in in 1819. The whole problem of imperial invasion was intensified by a Russian claim to the Pacific coast down to the fifty-first parallel and simultaneous European pressure to have all of Latin America returned to its colonial status. In March 1822 Monroe informed Congress that permanent stable governments had been established in the United Provinces of La Plata (present-day Argentina), Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. Adams, under Monroe’s careful supervision, wrote the instructions for the ministers (ambassadors) to these new countries. They declared that the policy of the United States was to uphold republican institutions and to seek treaties of commerce on a most-favored-nation basis. The United States would support inter-American congresses dedicated to the development of economic and political institutions fundamentally differing from those prevailing in Europe. The articulation of an “American system” distinct from that of Europe was a basic tenet of Monroe’s policy toward Latin America. Monroe took pride as the United States was the first nation to extend recognition and to set an example to the rest of the world for its support of the “cause of liberty and humanity.”
Monroe and Adams realized that American recognition would not protect the new countries against military intervention to restore Spain’s power. In October 1823 Richard Rush, the American minister in London, advised that Foreign Secretary George Canning was proposing that the U.S. and Britain jointly declare their opposition to European intervention. Galvanized by the British initiative, Monroe consulted with American leaders and then formulated a plan with Adams and incorporated it in his annual message to Congress in December 1823. The principles that have become known as the Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine, which followed up George Washington’s admonitions against foreign entanglements, was the work of British Foreign Minister George Canning and Monroe’s Secretary of State John Quincy Adams more than of Monroe. At the time it pertained more to the Russians in North America than to the former Spanish colonies in South America. The result was a system of American isolationism under the sponsorship of the British navy.
The Monroe Doctrine held that the United States considered the Western Hemisphere as no longer a place for European colonization; that any future effort to gain further political control in the hemisphere or to violate the independence of existing states would be treated as an act of hostility; and finally that there existed two different and incompatible political systems in the world. Therefore, the United States promised to refrain from intervention in European affairs and demanded Europe to abstain from interfering with American matters. In the event there were few serious European attempts at intervention.
By the time James Polk was elected president in 1844, the Monroe Doctrine was regarded abroad not so much as a shining white sword to debar evil European nations from despoiling South America, but as a handy all-purpose weapon, by means of which the United States could carve out vast tracts of territory for itself in the northern hemisphere. It did not become relevant to South America until the Venezuela-British Guiana dispute of 1895. Its prestige reached its zenith under Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), who interpreted it to give the United States police powers. Since that time it has been known as the Roosevelt Corollary.