The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (review)
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James Monroe, Monroe Doctrine, American expansion, Diplomacy

The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America. By Jay Sexton. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. Pp. 294. Paper, $26.00.)

A touchstone for American foreign policy for the better part of two centuries, the Monroe Doctrine possesses a rich and varied history that has been examined for many different eras and from many different angles by historians, political scientists, and others. One might wonder if it remains possible to say anything novel about it, particularly in a work that is broadly accessible and largely synthetic. By making new choices about periodization and perspective, however, Jay Sexton offers an informative and impressive account of the Monroe Doctrine as it developed over a long sweep of American history. In the process, he highlights the domestic and foreign possibilities and pressures that slowly transformed a tentative and limited assertion of anticolonial ideals into a confident and sweeping—but always contested—basis for imperialist actions. In his hands, considering the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine becomes a means to examine "the protracted, contentious, and interconnected processes of anticolonial liberation, internal national consolidation and imperial expansion" that underlay the United States' emergence "as the preeminent global power of the twentieth century" (5).

Rather than limit the work to the doctrine's origins and early impacts or extend the coverage to its ongoing relevance, Sexton addresses what we might describe as the Monroe Doctrine's "long nineteenth century"—from the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to the Roosevelt Corollary in 1904. Drawing heavily from recent scholarship, he begins by grounding the doctrine in a way of thinking about the newly independent American [End Page 740] states and their place in the world that emphasized both the necessity and the fragility of union. The second of the book's six chapters describes the international developments that led to the doctrine and the cabinet discussions that shaped it, before turning to its initial reception and early abandonment. The remaining chapters trace the resurrection, reinterpretation, and elaboration of the doctrine between the late 1820s and the early 1900s. Across these chapters, Sexton shows that the doctrine was summoned up from the increasingly distant past—and redefined in the process—to address internal and partisan as often as external and diplomatic purposes. In fact, he argues, over the course of the nineteenth century the doctrine was more often, and more successfully, invoked against other Americans than against foreign powers. These invocations ultimately contributed to a rising sense of national identity and purpose.

Similarly, rather than focus solely upon the thinking of American policymakers, Sexton traces the doctrine's creation and evolution by considering the active roles of a large number of groups and individuals. Monroe's annual message to Congress of December 1823 was the work of a small body of policymakers, but the elevation of three paragraphs from that message into "the Monroe Doctrine" required the labors of a much broader array of actors over the course of decades. Sexton shows not only how foreign diplomats and governments—both Latin American and European, particularly the British—led American policymakers to redefine the doctrine, but also how party leaders, reform groups, business interests, and others imbued it with new meaning and new value. What the original message left unsaid or unclear was as important as its actual text in making it adaptable to and useful for a wide range of interests and circumstances.

This approach ensures that the argument gains gravity and complexity as the chronological narrative progresses. Less than a quarter of the way through the book, the message itself has already been debated in the cabinet, crafted by Monroe and Adams, published for Congress and the world, and responded to at home and abroad. It is the examination and explanation of what happened to that message over the next eighty years—especially during the sixty years after Polk "invented 'Monroe's doctrine' in late 1845" (102)—that carries this book. And it is the careful attention to the full range of forces that shaped this process—internal and external, diplomatic, partisan, economic, cultural, among others—which makes the book...