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Monroe Doctrine

Origins and Pronouncement

The doctrine grew out of two diplomatic problems. The first was the minor clash with Russia concerning the northwest coast of North America. In this quarrel, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams expressed the principle that the American continents were no longer to be considered as a field for colonization by European powers. That principle was incorporated verbatim in the presidential message. The other and more important part of the doctrine grew out of the fear that the group of reactionary European governments commonly called the Holy Alliance would seek to reduce again to colonial status the Latin American states that had recently gained independence from Spain.

Great Britain, which wished to maintain open commerce with the newly formed states, supported Latin American independence. The United States had just recognized the independence of these states, and in Aug., 1823, the British foreign minister, George Canning, proposed to the United States that a joint note be sent by the two governments protesting intervention in the New World by the Holy Alliance. President Monroe consulted with two of his predecessors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who recommended that Canning's proposal be accepted. Secretary of State Adams dissented. He feared, with some justification, that the British would try to exact a pledge from the United States not to attempt to acquire any territory in Spanish America.

Meanwhile, Canning had secured an agreement with France (which had earlier made the proposal that the Holy Alliance intervene in Latin America), by which France renounced any intention of intervention, thus obviating the need for a joint U.S.-British protest. However, Adams had by then proposed a unilateral action to President Monroe, who finally agreed to this course. The presidential message, therefore, announced that the United States would not interfere in European affairs but would view with displeasure any attempt by the European powers to subject the nations of the New World to their political systems. Thus in a sense the Monroe Doctrine as a dual principle of foreign policy (no colonization and no intervention by European states in the Americas) complemented the policy expressed by George Washington of noninterference in European affairs.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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