[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On the limits and possibilities of Monroe’s signature policy.
Although the U.S. in the Early Republic was globalizing in all the ways I highlighted yesterday, it was to its fellow North American and Western Hemisphere countries that the new nation was most fully and complicatedly connected. Many of those links were due to slavery, from the economic dominance of the Triangle Trade to the political, cultural, and social effects of the Haitian Revolution. The relationship between the United States and Mexico (especially after it gained its own independence from Spain in 1821, right in the middle of Monroe’s presidency) also loomed large over the era. But along with those actual historical events and their effects on the U.S., I would argue that ideas of our national neighbors played a consistently central role in how the United States developed and contested its own narratives of identity in the Early Republic. The controversial 1854 Ostend Manifesto, which plotted a U.S. purchase or annexation of Cuba as a new slaveholding state, offers one of many early 19th century moments when imagined versions of Caribbean or hemispheric connections directly shaped debates within America’s borders.
No single governmental statement or action better reflects that set of hemispheric ties and influences than the Monroe Doctrine. Co-written by Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, first articulated in Monroe’s 1823 State of the Union address, and given the name “Monroe Doctrine” in 1850, the doctrine laid out a perspective of hemispheric independence, arguing both that “the American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any Eurpean powers” and that any such colonization efforts would be viewed “as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” That latter clause embodies the most striking limit of the Doctrine, one directly visible in the Ostend Manifesto among many other moments: an entirely U.S.-centric view of the Western Hemisphere, one in which the histories and fates of other nations are significant precisely in relation to how much they impact our own identity and arc. Besides reducing the colonial histories and independence movements of dozens of other nations to an extension of U.S. foreign policy, this side to the Doctrine would become a longstanding justification for direct U.S. intervention in the affairs of these sovereign nations.
Yet if that kind of U.S.-centric narrative and overreaching hemispheric presence became the Doctrine’s effects in practice too much of the time, those are certainly not the only ways to read the statement and perspective themselves. In its own moment, the Doctrine was viewed positively by many of the prominent Latin American revolutionaries then fighting their own battles for independence from European rule: historian John Crow writes that leaders such as Simon Bolívar (fighting in Peru by 1823), Colombia’s Francisco de Paula Santander, Argentina’s Bernardino Rivadavia, and Mexico’s Guadalupe Victoria all “received Monroe’s words with sincerest gratitude.” What would it mean to connect Monroe’s own history as a Revolutionary War soldier and officer and Founding Father to these fellow hemispheric revolutionary leaders? Can we see this as one more manifestation of creolization, a reflection of interconnections and influences between the Western Hemisphere’s revolutions and revolutionaries? I’ve written elsewhere about my desire to see José Martí as part of (if also certainly separate from) the United States, but it would be just as important to see James Monroe as part of Latin American revolutions—not in a U.S.-centric way, but rather as an expression of the parallels and links between the moves toward independence and sovereignty around the region. The Monroe Doctrine offers one potent way to make that case.
Last MonroeStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?
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