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The Meaning Of The Monroe Doctrine [1817-1823]
By Admiral A. T. Mahan


The formulation of the Monroe Doctrine, as distinguished from its origin, resulted, as is universally understood, from the political conditions caused by the revolt of the Spanish colonies in America. Up to that time, and for centuries previous, the name Spain had signified to Europe in general not merely the mother country, but a huge colonial system, with its special economical and commercial regulation; the latter being determined through its colonial relations, upon the narrowest construction of colonial policy then known, which was saying a great deal. Spain stood for the Spanish empire, divisible primarily into two chief components, Spain and Greater Spain—the mothercountry and the colonies. The passage of time had been gradually reversing the relative importance of the two in the apprehension of other European states.

In Sir Robert Walpole's day it was believed bymany beside himself that Great Britain could not make head against France and Spain combined. The naval power of Spain, and consequently her political weight, still received awed consideration; a relic of former fears. This continued, tho in a diminished degree, through the War of American Independence; but by the end of the century, while it may be too much to affirm that such apprehension had wholly disappeared—that no account was taken of the unwieldy numbers of ill-manned and often ill-officered ships that made up the Spanish navy—it is true that a Spanish war bore to British seamen an aspect rather commercial than military. It meant much more of prize money than of danger; and that it did so was due principally to the wealth of the colonies.

This wealth was potential as well as actual, and in both aspects it appealed to Europe. To break tn upon the monopoly enjoyed by Spain, and consecrated in international usage both by accepted ideas and long prescription, was an object of policy to the principal European maritime states. It was so conspicuously to Great Britain, on account of the preeminence which commercial considerations always had in her councils. In the days of William III the prospective failure of the Spanish royal house brought up the questions of what other family should succeed and to whom should be transferred the great inheritance won by Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro. Thenceforth the thought of dividing this spoil of a decadent empire—the "sick man" of that day—remained in men's memory as a possible contingency of the future, even tho momentarily out of the range of practical politics. The waning of Spain's political and military prestige was accompanied by an increasing understanding of the value of the commercial system appended to her in her colonies. The future disposition of these extensive regions, and the fruition of their wealth, developed and undeveloped, were conceived as questions of universal European policy. In the general apprehension of European rulers they were regarded as affecting the balance of power.
It was as the opponent of this conception, the perfectly natural outcome of previous circumstances and history, that the Monroe Doctrine entered the field; a newcomer in form, yet having its own history and antecedent conditions as really as the conflicting European view.

Far more than South America, which had seen little contested occupation, the northern continent had known what it was to be the scene of antagonistic European ambitions and exploration. There had been within her territory a balance of power, in idea, if not in achievement, quite as real as any that had existed or been fought for in Europe. Canada in the hands of France, and the mouth of the Mississippi in alien control, were matters of personal memory to many, and of very recent tradition to all Americans in active life in 1810. Florida then was still Spanish, with unsettled boundary questions and attendant evils Not reason only, but feeling, based upon experience of actual inconvenience, suffering, and loss—loss of life and loss of wealth, political anxiety and commercial disturbance—conspired to intensify opposition to any avoidable renewal of similar conditions. To quote the words of a distinguished American Secretary of State, speaking twenty years ago: "This sentiment is properly called a 'doctrine,' for it has no prescribed sanction, and its assertion is left to the exigency which may invoke it." This accurate statement places it upon the surest political foundation, much firmer than precise legal enactment or international convention, that of popular conviction. The sentiment had existed beforehand; the first exigency which invoked its formulated expression in 1823 was the announced intention of several great powers to perpetuate by force the European system, whether of colonial tenure or balance of power, of monarchical forms in the Spanish colonies; they being then actually in revolt against the mother-country and seeking, not other political relations to Europe, but simply their own independence....

The American declaration against "the extension of the system of the allied powers to any portion of this hemisphere" was welcomed as supporting the attitude of Great Britain; for the phrase, in itself ambiguous, was understood to apply not to the quintuple alliance for the preservation of existing territorial arrangements in Europe, to which Great Britain was a party, but to the Holy Alliance, the avowed purpose of which was to suppress by external force revolutionary movements within any State—a course into which she had refused to be drawn. But the complementary declaration in the President's message, that "the American continents are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power," was characterized in the Annual Register for 1823 as "scarcely less extravagant than that of the Russian ukase by which it was elicited" and which forbade any foreign vessel from approaching within a hundred miles of the Russian possession now known as Alaska. The British government took the same view; and in the protocol to a conference held in 1827 expressly repudiated this American claim.

There was therefore between the two countries at this moment a clear opposition of principle, and agreement only as to a particular line of conduct in a special case. With regard to the interventions of the Holy Alliances in Europe, Great Britain, while reserving her independence of action, stood neutral for the time, but from motives of her own policy showed unmistakably that she would resist like action in Spanish America. The United States, impelled by an entirely different conception of national policy, now first officially enunciated, intimated in diplomatic phrase a similar disposition. The two supported each other in the particular contingency, and doubtless frustrated whatever intervention any members of the Holy Alliance may have entertained of projecting to the other side of the Atlantic their "union for the government of the world." In America, as in Europe, Great Britain deprecated the intrusion of external force to settle internal convulsions of foreign countries; but she did not commit herself, as the United States did, to the position that purchase or war should never entail a cession of territory by an American to a European state, a transaction which would be in so far colonization. In resisting any transfer of SpanishAmerican territory to a European power, Great Britain was not advancing a general principle, but maintaining an immediate interest. Her motive, in short, had nothing in common with the Monroe Doctrine. Such principles as were involved had been formulated long before, and had controlled her action in Europe as in America.

The United States dogma, on the contrary, planted itself squarely on the separate system and interests of America. This is distinctly shown by the comments of the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, in a dispatch to the American minister in London, dated only two days bef ore Monroe's message. Alluding to Canning's most decisive phrase in a recent dispatch, "Great Britain could not see any start of the colonies transferred to any other power with indifference," he wrote. "We certainly do concur with her in this position; but the principles of that aversion, so far as they are common to both parties, resting only upon a casual coincidence of interests, in a national point of view selfish on both sides, would be liable to dissolution by every change of phase in the aspects of European politics. So that Great Britain, negotiating at once with the European alliance and with us concerning America, without being bound by any permanent community of principle, would still be free to accommodate her policy to any of those distributions of power and partitions of territory which for the last half century have been the ultima ratio of European arrangements."

For this reason, Adams considered that recognition of the independence of the revolted colonies, already made by the United States, in March, 1822, must be given by Great Britain also, in order to place the two States on equal terms of cooperation. From motives of European policy, from which Great Britain could not dissociate herself, she delayed this recognition until 1825; and then Canning defined his general course toward the Spanish colonies in the famous words: "I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old. I resolved that, if France had Spain, it should not be Spain with the Indies." His coincidence with the policy of the United States is thus seen to be based, and properly, upon British interests as involved in the European system, but that, so far from being the Monroe Doctrine, is almost the converse of it.

Nor was it only in direction that the impulse of the two States differed. They were unequal in inherent vital strength. The motive force of the one was bound to accumulate, and that of the other to relax, by the operation of purely natural conditions. An old order was beginning to yield to a new. After three centuries of tutelage America was slipping out of European control She was reaching her majority and claiming her own. Within her sphere she felt the future to be hers. Of this sense the Monroe Doctrine was an utterance. It was a declaration of independence, not for a single nation only, but for a continent of nations, and it carried implicitly the assertion of all that logically follows from such independence. Foremost among the conditions insuring its vitality was propinquity, with its close effect upon in
terest. Policy, as well as war, is a business of positions. This maxim is perennial; a generation later it was emphasized in application, but not originated, by the peopling of the Pacific coast, the incidental discovery of gold in California, and the consequent enhanced importance of the Isthmus of Panama to the political strategy of nations. All this advanced the Monroe Doctrine on the path of development, giving broader sweep to the corollaries involved in the original proposition; but the transcendent positional interest of the United States no more needed demonstration in 1823 than in 1850, when the ClaytonBulwer5 Treaty was made, or than now, when, not the Pacific coast only, but the Pacific Ocean and the Farther East, lend increased consequence to the isthmian communications.

The case of the United States is now stronger, but it is not clearer. Correlatively, the admission of its force by others has been progressive; gradual and practical, not at once or formal. Its formulation in the Monroe Doctrine has not obtained the full legislative sanction even of the country of its origin; and its present development there rests upon successive utterances of persons officially competent to define, but not of full authority to commit the nation to their particular expressions. So, too, international acquiescence in the position now taken has been a work of time, nor can there be asserted for it the final ratification of international agreement. The Monroe Doctrine remains a policy, not a law, either municipal or international; but it has advanced in scope and in acceptance. The one progress, as the other, has been the result of growing strength—strength of numbers and of resources. Taken with position, these factors constitute national power as they do military advantage, which in the last analysis may always be resolved into two elements, force and position.

In the conjunction of these two factors is to be found the birth of the Monroe Doctrine and its development up to the present time. It is a product of national interest, involved in position, and of national power dependent upon population and resources. These are the permanent factors of the Monroe Doctrine; and it cannot be too strongly realized by Americans that the permanence of the doctrine itself, as a matter of international consideration, depends upon the maintenance of both factors. To this serious truth record is borne by history, the potent mother of national warning and national encouragement. That the doctrine at its first enunciation should not at once have obtained, either assent or influence, even in its most limited expression, was entirely natural. Altho not without an antecedent history of conception and occasional utterance by American statesmen, its moment of birth was the announcement by Monroe; and it had then all the weakness of the new-born, consequent upon a national inadequacy to the display of organized strength which had been pathetically manifested but ten years before.

After the destruction of the rule of Spain in her colonies, except in Cuba and Porto Rico, Great Britain remained the one great nation besides the United States possest of extensive territory in America. She also was the one state that had had experience of us as an enemy, and known the weakness of our military system for offensive action. What more natural than that she should have welcomed the first promulgation of the doctrine, in its original scope directed apparently merely against a combination of Continental powers, the purposes of which were offensive to herself, and yet failed to heed a root principle which in progress of time should find its application to herself, contesting the expansion of her own influence in the hemisphere, as being part of the European system and therefore falling under the same condemnations Yet even had she seen this, and fully appreciated the promise of strength to come, it was to be expected that she should for the meantime pursue her own policy, irrespective of the still distant future. It may be advantageous to retard that which must ultimately prevail; and at all events men who head the movements of nations are not able at once to abandon the traditions of the past and conform their action to new ideas as yet unassimilated by their people.

There is, then, this distinguishing feature of the Monroe Doctrine, which classifies it among principles of policy which are essentially permanent. From its correspondence to the nature of things, to its environment, it possest from the first a vitality which insured growth and development. Under such conditions it could not remain in application at the end of a half century just what it had been in terms at the beginning. Apprehended in leading features by American statesmen, and by them embraced with a conviction which the people shared—tho probably not fully understanding it received from time to time, as successive exigencies arose to invoke assertion, definitions which enlarged its scope; sometimes consistently with its true spirit, sometimes apparently in excess of evident limitations, more rarely in defect of them....

It is vain to argue narrowly concerning what the Monroe Doctrine is, from the precise application made of it to any one particular emergency. Nor can there be finality of definition, antecedent to some national announcement, formally complete, which it is to be hoped will never be framed; but which, if it were, would doubtless remain liable to contrary interpretations, sharing therein a fate from which neither the enactments of legislatures nor the bull of a pope can claim exemption. The virtue of the Monroe Doctrine, without which it would die deservedly, is that, through its correspondeuce with the national necessities of the United States, it possesses an inherent principle of life, which adapts itself with the flexibility of a growing plan to the successive conditions it encounters. One of these conditions, of course, is the growing strength of the nation itself. As Doctor Johnson ungraciously said of taxing Americans for the first time, "We do not put a calf to the plow: we wait till he is an ox."

For these reasons it is more instructive, as to the present and future of the Monroe Doctrine, to consider its development by successive exhibitions in the past, than to strive to cage its free spirit within the bars of a definition attempted at any one moment.