Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America, by Jay Sexton

So about a month ago I was browsing a book store and found a copy of Jay Sexton's monograph on sale for about 70% off. Having a certain degree of interest in the history of the nineteenth century (and being very interested in what Mr. Sexton had to say about Theodore Roosevelt) I eagerly picked this book up and put it on my to-do list. Upon completion I have to say that although this is a fairly short monograph, it provides an excellent introduction to American foreign policy throughout the nineteenth century and gives bountiful sources for additional studies on specific topics. I would definitely recommend The Monroe Doctrine for anyone seeking to expand their knowledge of the nineteenth century and the history of American foreign policy.

For those of you that slept during your history classes in school or due to no fault of your own never attended an American school, let me provide a little background information on the Monroe Doctrine. (And if you wish to read this book at a future point it also discusses the creation of the doctrine in-depth and provides bountiful context.) By 1823 nearly all of the former Spanish colonies in Central and South America had rebelled against their colonial master and established (mostly) republican governments. The United States welcomed these rebellions initially, seeing it as an expansion of American ideals, and hoping for additional markets for their goods. However, as political instability threatened some of these new republics, Americans became increasingly concerned that European powers such as France and Austria would attempt to intervene in these former colonies and re-establish European supremacy. To prevent the anti-republican monarchies of the Old World from threatening American styles of government, President James Monroe and his cabinet included three paragraphs in his 1823 State of the Union address to congress. These paragraphs stated that the United States would not tolerate the expansion of European colonies in the American continents, nor their interference in the internal affairs of American countries.

The Monroe Doctrine, as those paragraphs would come to be called, was rather audacious considering the relative lack of power the United States had at the time. In fact, as Sexton rightly points out, the Monroe Doctrine was enforced only because Great Britain and the Royal Navy had reason to enforce it. The British were equally interested in the new trade opportunities presented by these American republics and did not wish to see them enter the economic orbit of another European power. In fact the United States would not be able to enforce the Doctrine twice during the nineteenth century simply because they lacked the resources. What Sexton finds more interesting about the Doctrine, though, is that it only details what European powers could not do, and places no such limits on the United States. As a result there would be countless interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine throughout the nineteenth century as America grew into an empire.

Throughout his work, Sexton details the various interpretations of the Doctrine during the nineteenth century, ending his work with the logical conclusion of the Roosevelt Corollary, contained in Theodore Roosevelt's 1904 State of the Union address to Congress. Proponents of slavery would state that the Monroe Doctrine was a call for America to make the western hemisphere safe for their peculiar institution and expand the slave economy. Nationalists would state that the Doctrine called for America to spread across the continent and bring the light of civilization to the frontiers. Isolationists would state that the United States should also maintain a policy of non-interference, and instead focus upon internal development to outmatch their main commercial rival, Great Britain. Sexton does an excellent job of taking you chronologically though each reinterpretation of the Doctrine. Eventually we see the shift in how Americans divided the world: initially Americans thought in terms of Old vs. New, the republics of the New World united against the decrepit monarchies of the Old, however by the time of Theodore Roosevelt, Americans had begun thinking of the world in terms of "civilized" and "uncivilized". As a result, the "civilized" United States had more in common with the monarchies of the Old World rather than their "uncivilized" republican neighbors to the south. This division continues today with the conception of an industrialized global north versus an industrializing or developing global south.

The Monroe Doctrine would end up being many things to many people for eighty years and although we seldom refer to it today, the latest interpretation of the Doctrine still affects American foreign policy and how Americans view the rest of the world today. In imitation of their formal colonial masters the American government created an empire that rivaled the strength and reach of the British Empire, and the American Empire seems to be rapidly going in the same direction. (Although that is a matter for another book.) The Monroe Doctrine provides an excellent insight into the history of American foreign policy and I recommend it to all my readers interested in the subject.

- Kalpar

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