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The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America

by Sexton, Jay
Publisher: Hill and Wang
Retail Price: $27.00
Issue: Summer 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8090-7191-3

THE MONROE DOCTRINE AND AMERICA’S NATIONAL HISTORY


Even before American defeat in Vietnam helped to shatter myths of U.S. innocence abroad, scholars exposed U.S. imperial ideologies and behaviors starting with the nation’s founding, if not its colonial antecedents. In recent years, a flood of significant syntheses has presented U.S. history as an imperial or partially-imperial story worthy of comparison with the narrative of European territorial, racialist, and economic imperialism.

Within this context, Jay Sexton’s penetrating new book revisits the Monroe Doctrine’s antecedents and history through the Roosevelt Corollary and its aftermath in the twentieth century’s first two-plus decades, providing an update and rethinking more than a revision of Dexter Perkins’s decades-old, landmark works about the origins, meanings, and legacy of one of the most famous episodes in U.S. diplomatic affairs. Sexton’s bibliographic essay acknowledges the importance of consulting Perkins’s works, however his text fails to engage them other than to suggest that Perkins’s sustained attention helped implant the Doctrine within the “foundational symbols of American history” (243).

Though Sexton provides an organic interpretation of the Doctrine, emphasizing its plasticity or transmutability over time and conceding that Americans contended heatedly over its meaning and application, he applies William Appleman Williams’s theory of “imperial anticolonialism” to illuminate “how the state that emerged as the preeminent global power of the twentieth century” resulted from an interplay of “anticolonial liberation, internal national consolidation, and imperial expansion” (5). The very tendency of Americans to mythologize the phrasing of President James Monroe’s annual message to Congress of December 2, 1823 (where what later became anointed by Stephen Douglas and others in the mid-nineteenth century as the Monroe Doctrine was articulated in separated passages) into a revelation of the nation’s non-colonial innocence allowed subsequent U.S. leaders to pursue territorial empire, neocolonialism and world power less guiltlessly than they otherwise would have. How paradoxical, Sexton shows us, that Monroe’s warning monarchical European powers against further attempts at colonizing “the American continents” evolved so blatantly into U.S. interventionism and dominion abroad that it became counter-productive for U.S. diplomats in Latin America to allude to the Doctrine, though that part of the hemisphere was the supposed beneficiary of its protective wording.

Even before Monroe’s announcement, American leaders exposed pre-imperialist inclinations (and the ethnocentric racism that helped grease it) by rejecting Henry Clay’s call in Congress for swift official U.S. recognition of states in Latin America trying to establish their independence from Spanish rule, often on the self-serving logic that the Catholic peoples of Latin American were too superstitious and ignorant to appreciate liberty and sustain it over the long haul. When Monroe decided on announcing his initially impotent Doctrine unilaterally, rather than as part of a joint policy statement with Britain, he exposed U.S. imperial ambitions (particularly those of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams) for eventual U.S. annexation of Cuba and Texas, since Britain’s version would have necessitated a disavowal of Anglo-American ambitions to absorb land in Spain’s eroding empire. Afterwards, though both countries implemented divergent policies in Latin America, they nonetheless “engaged in a collaborative competition” with Britain conceding U.S. domination in North America and the U.S. surprisingly compliant when Britain had imperialistic moments in far-away South America (64). President Andrew Jackson, for instance, “looked the other way” when Britain seized the Argentine-claimed Malvinas/Falkland islands in 1833 (82). The very substitution in the United States in the 1810s and 1820s of the terms “North America” and “South America” for what had once been the holistic, inclusive “America” was revelatory of U.S. racialist conceptions of hemispheric states southward, and lay “an important foundation” for later American imperialism towards them (79-80). Repeatedly, U.S. diplomats and politicians condescendingly spurned Latin American overtures for cooperation, particularly when it came to initiatives to foster joint policies through hemispheric conferences, until U.S. politicos in 1888 belatedly realized that their nation might manipulate such meetings to the end of “Americanizing” the “hemispheric economy” and consequently controlled the “First International Conference of the American States” of 1889-90 (186-187).

Sexton reconsiders familiar milestones in the Monroe Doctrine’s saga within the parameters of the United States’s ascendance to world power, particularly its invocations by U.S. presidents James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. By Reconstruction, he argues, American leaders were thinking “more and more like their counterparts in the Old World, particularly in Britain;” given recent liberal reforms across the Atlantic, many U.S. policy makers, rather than view European imperialism as reactionary, as Monroe’s wording suggested, instead urged their own country to adopt Old World models of international behavior (150). U.S. Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, in Gladstonian style, advocated advantageous trade agreements and protectorates and used the British model in Suez as a model for his own handling of Nicaraguan transit affairs, revealingly negotiating with the British in pursuit of an American isthmian canal rather than with Nicaragua. Doing more to “shape the Monroe Doctrine” in the 1870s than any other American, Fish rejected the tradition that Monroe’s message precluded U.S. involvement in European matters and even offered U.S. mediation of the Franco-Prussian War (165). When Fish asked six European powers to join the United States in making demands that Spain reach an accommodation with revolutionaries in Cuba during the Ten Years’ War (1868-78), The Times of London reacted with incredulity, wondering what had become of President Monroe’s opposition to European intervention in Western Hemispheric politics. Ironically, the invocation of the Monroe Doctrine by the second Grover Cleveland administration in the British Guiana-Venezuela boundary dispute (1895), intended, in part, to preempt aggressive U.S. imperialists, wound up giving the Monroe Doctrine far more potency abroad than it had ever really had and helped foster U.S. imperialism and interventionism in subsequent years. And this leads to one of Sexton’s most sustained secondary themes: that domestic politics always imprinted U.S. utilizations of the Monroe Doctrine, no more so than in the 1850s when, in their bid for national dominance, Democrats blasted the Whigs’ Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 as a violation of Monroe’s principles.

Sexton argues forcefully that the Monroe Doctrine would have had even more imperialist/interventionist clout than it did before the Civil War had not the U.S. sectional controversy over slavery’s expansion constrained U.S. initiatives towards empire, and readers of this journal will welcome Sexton’s thoughtful account of the Civil War years, interpreted as a transitional period in Monroe Doctrine history. Neither Lincoln nor Seward mentioned the Doctrine publicly during the strife; and, as is well known, the Union showed great restraint when France capitalized on the U.S.’s absorption in the war by establishing the monarchical Maximilian régime in Mexico. Nonetheless, the draft Corwin-Doblado Treaty, which failed of ratification in the U.S. Senate in 1862, “represented a new conception of the Monroe Doctrine” by pointing to the document’s informal empire uses later in the century (144). Because the Union’s proposed loan would have offered direct financial assistance to Mexico’s beleaguered liberal Juárez government as a means of fending off European interventionism, with Mexico’s mineral lands and Catholic Church properties as collateral, it was potentially more interventionist and controlling of Mexico’s economy than U.S. “dollar diplomacy” in Latin America in the early twentieth century. Revealingly, few Americans protested the logic of interventionism abroad; rather the treaty failed for fear of its costs and angering the French.

Sexton rarely strays from a top-down approach to his topic, and at times his focus on hall-of-power “statesmen,” and their documents, is limiting. Since one of Sexton’s primary themes is that constructions of the Monroe Doctrine consistently infected domestic politics, he might have said much more, for instance, about the ways the Union and Confederate press invoked the Monroe Doctrine in reaction to European intervention in Mexico, or, for that matter, the Spanish reannexation of the Dominican Republic as the Civil War began. How much did the northern peace Democrats capitalize on Lincoln’s seeming failure to uphold the Doctrine during Lincoln’s campaign for reelection in 1864? Sexton tells us that his digitized search of mid-nineteenth-century papers shows they alluded to the term Monroe Doctrine twice more often in the 1860s than in the 1850s, but he resists giving us a sampling of what they were saying, though he has a lot to say about what Republicans in the administration and Congress did to coopt Democratic complaints about the Doctrine. Similarly, Sexton mostly ignores immigrant and nativist perceptions and uses of the Doctrine, which might be worth exploring given the role of ethnicity in U.S. electoral politics. Did post-Civil War Irish immigrant nationalists in the United States confront what Monroe’s words implied about U.S. involvement in Europe? The very virtue of Sexton’s compressed account, its focus, in other words, invites additional lines of exploration.

Jay Sexton’s The Monroe Doctrine provides a balanced, provocative, accessible account of how the Monroe Doctrine’s meaning and influence evolved over time, and why we need to know about it. His book makes a very important contribution to the historiography of U.S. foreign policy and mythology, and will prove an invaluable resource for scholars and educated general readers alike. His achievement is impressive.

Robert E. May (mayr@purdue.edu) is Professor of History at Purdue University and the author of several books and articles treating U.S. diplomacy in the nineteenth century, including The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 (paper ed.; University Press of Florida, 2002) and “Culture Wars: The U.S. Art Lobby and Congressional Tariff Legislation during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (Jan. 2010): 37-91.

May, Robert E., review of The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America, by Sexton, Jay, Civil War Book Review, (Summer 2011).