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  • "America for the Americans":Revisiting Monroe's Message
  • Monica Henry (bio)
Jay Sexton . The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. 290 pp. Map, notes, suggestions for further reading, and index. $27.00.

Since George F. Tucker's full account of the Monroe Doctrine in 1885, U.S. historians have provided, on a fairly regular basis, varying interpretations of President James Monroe's 1823 message to Congress. Between 1900 and 1930, as the United States intervened repeatedly in the Caribbean and Central America, most of them agreed that the drafters of the message had meant an active U.S. policy to drive European powers away from meddling in the Western Hemisphere. Hiram Bingham, however, in his provocative book The Monroe Doctrine: An Obsolete Shibboleth (1913), cared to differ, as he claimed that the United States had outgrown the Doctrine and thus should refrain from intervention. In the 1930s, Dexter Perkins, the founding scholar—and still the leading authority for some—of the history of the Monroe Doctrine, also believed that U.S. imperial thrust in Latin America had not been a motivation for the originators of the Doctrine. Upsetting the status quo in Cuba, a Spanish colony and major U.S. trading partner, would have been detrimental to U.S. commercial interests in the Caribbean. That the Doctrine had been transformed into an instrument for intervention in later years was no fault of the Monroe administration, Perkins pointed out. But most importantly, Perkins brought his thorough research of European archives into the historiographical discussion. He concluded that the European threat—the Russian expansion in the Northwest and the attempt of the Holy Alliance to restore the Spanish former colonies—was not real. Hence the prevailing myth that Monroe's message had shielded Latin America from European despotism was inaccurate.

Soon after, Edward Tatum broke away from the Holy Alliance-menace argument. In United States and Europe, 1815-1823 (1936), he made a case of the serious danger Great Britain had posed to her former colonies. It was a realistic assumption at the time of the drafting of the message that Britain could indeed upend U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. Then during World War II, Walter Lippmann turned the argument around. He strongly suggested that [End Page 243] the Doctrine had been an attempt to protect U.S. security by relying on the British fleet to resist European interference, thus brushing aside the idea that it had been an effort to stake out a U.S. empire. The "agreement with the British" assertion was taken up by the diplomatic historians of the 1940s. Arthur P. Whitaker contended that the U.S. unilateral declaration was not primarily to challenge the former colonial power, even though the administration was certainly suspicious of it; rather it was to warn against a joint venture with Great Britain, considered to be a part of the European system.1

Another major shift in the debate took place in the 1970s. In The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (1975), Ernest May argued that the foreign policy factors had not counted in the decision for the message. In fact, domestic considerations—notably the 1824 presidential elections—explained why Secretary of State John Quincy Adams upheld a unilateralist policy, whereas Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford and Secretary of War John Calhoun favored Britain's offer of a joint declaration. Because anti-British feeling ran strong among the U.S. electorate, a U.S.-Great Britain alliance would have hurt Adams' presidential candidacy. Hence Crawford and Calhoun, candidates as well, promoted the coalition, fully aware that Adams would be blamed for it. Today May's singular interpretation still stands alone, yet it should be credited for having introduced home issues into the discussion. Indeed, Cold War revisionists emphasized that domestic pressure for the U.S. capitalist economy to expand overseas had driven the Monroe administration to issue the 1823 declaration. It was a warning to rival empires to steer away from the budding U.S. empire.

So where does The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America come in this major historiographical debate—which the author strangely overlooks...


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