Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The Monroe Doctrine: Origin and Early American Foreign Policy (4 Lessons)



The Unit


[This document is] the most momentous [pronouncement] which has been . . . offered . . . since that of Independence. That made us a nation. This sets our compass and points the course.
Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, October 24, 1823 from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, from correspondence in which the authors discussed ideas eventually incorporated into the Monroe Doctrine.

In Monroe's message to Congress on December 2, 1823, [the President] delivered what we have always called the Monroe Doctrine, although in truth it should have been called the Adams Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine from Information USA, an exhibit of the U.S. Department of State, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.

James Monroe spent most of his life in public office, devoting a significant portion of his career to foreign affairs. He served as George Washington's Minister to France, but was eventually recalled by the President. Thomas Jefferson appointed Monroe as a special envoy for negotiating the purchase of New Orleans and West Florida. He and principal negotiator Robert Livingston exceeded their authority and all expectations by acquiring the entire Louisiana Territory as well as a claim to all of Florida. Next, Monroe became Minister to Great Britain. Under James Madison, he served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War.

Monroe brought a vision of an expanded America to his presidency—a vision that helped facilitate the formulation of what has become known as the Monroe Doctrine. Because this Doctrine bears his name, the general public is not inclined to recognize the significant contributions made by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and unofficial presidential advisor Thomas Jefferson.

In this unit, students will review the Monroe Doctrine against a background of United States foreign relations in the early years of the republic. In particular, they will examine Monroe's involvement in American diplomacy while serving in a variety of positions before he was elected president. They will become familiar with Monroe's beliefs in an expanded United States as well as an expanded role for the United States in the Americas. Students will also read primary source material reflecting the independence movement in South America, which served as the direct impetus for the Monroe Doctrine. Finally, small groups will analyze some documentary evidence of Adams's role and Jefferson's advice regarding the Monroe Doctrine. The class will debate how credit for the Doctrine should be "allocated."

This unit of study prepares students to reflect on the Doctrine. What were its most significant goals? In what ways, if any, was it intended to provide peace and safety for the United States, protect the newly independent Latin American states, and/or promote expansionist goals of the United States in the Western Hemisphere?

Guiding Questions

  • What were the circumstances leading to the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine?
  • What were its major provisions?
  • What were Monroe's contributions to American foreign policy prior to and during his terms as president?
  • What contributions did John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson make to the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine?

Learning Objectives

  • List events in early American diplomatic history that contributed to the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Discuss the reasons President Monroe used when recommending that Congress recognize the revolutionary governments of Spanish America.
  • Paraphrase the central points of the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Weigh the relative contributions to the Monroe Doctrine of President Monroe, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, and former President and unofficial advisor Thomas Jefferson.
  • Decide whether the Doctrine was intended to provide peace and safety for the United States, protect the newly independent Latin American states, and/or promote expansionist goals of the United States in the Western Hemisphere.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF for this lesson. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Each activity in this unit of study is designed for use as a stand-alone lesson. Taken all together, the lessons provide a fairly comprehensive review of U.S. diplomacy before 1823. Since available time and curriculum needs vary by classroom, the following guidelines for use are provided:
  • According to Information USA, an exhibit of the website of the U.S. Department of State (a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library):

    In Monroe's message to Congress on December 2, 1823, he delivered what we have always called the Monroe Doctrine, although in truth it should have been called the Adams Doctrine.

    Information USA should not be regarded as an authoritative scholarly source. However, the suggestion that John Quincy Adams—Monroe's Secretary of State—has received insufficient credit for his role in formulating the Monroe Doctrine is not unique. In this lesson, the suggestion provides a motive for students to take a closer look at the Monroe Doctrine, as well as some of the international events and domestic ideas that provided the impetus for it.

    When students read correspondence between Monroe and former President Thomas Jefferson, they also will note Jefferson's apparent influence on Monroe. In the culminating lesson of this unit of study, students will decide for themselves if the famous Doctrine has been correctly or incorrectly named. Any well-reasoned conclusion based on evidence will be fine because this unit has a different underlying purpose: As students explore the relative influence of Monroe, Adams, and Jefferson on the Monroe Doctrine, they also will be analyzing the Monroe Doctrine itself and events contemporary to it.

  • Throughout this unit, students will read and analyze a variety of primary documents. The following materials from EDSITEment resources may be useful to teachers seeking expert advice on the use of primary documents:

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Using primary sources
  • John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and Judicial Review—How the Court Became Supreme

    Chief Justice John Marshall (r.) and Associate Justice Joseph Story

    If James Madison was the "father" of the Constitution" John Marshall was the "father of the Supreme Court"—almost single-handedly clarifying its powers. This new lesson is designed to help students understand Marshall's brilliant strategy in issuing his decision on Marbury v. Madison, the significance of the concept of judicial review, and the language of this watershed case.

  • The Federalist Debates: Balancing Power Between State and Federal Governments

    Alexander Hamilton (l.) and Thomas Jefferson (r.)

    This lesson focuses on the debates among the U.S. Founders surrounding the distribution of power between states and the federal government. Students learn about the pros and cons of state sovereignty vs. federalism and have the opportunity to argue different sides of the issue.

  • Lesson 1: The President Under the Articles of Confederation

    Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington

    At the time the Founders were shaping the future of a new country, John Adams suggested the President should be addressed as “His Excellency.” Happily, others recognized that such a title was inappropriate. Though the proper form of address represents only a small detail, defining everything about the Presidency was central to the idea of America that was a work-in-progress when the nation was young.

  • Lesson 4: Leadership in Victory: One Last Measure of the Man

    Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.

    It was almost expected in the world of the late 18th century that the leader of a great military victory would be amply rewarded. But Washington refused any such reward. in this lesson, students examine Washington's resolve to refuse power in exchange for his leadership.

  • Lesson 3: Leadership in Victory and Defeat

    Battle of Germantown. Detail from E. L. Henry's 1874 painting of the fighting  around Cliveden ("Chew House").

    In this lesson, students examine Washington as a military leader and explore some of the difficulties he faced during the Revolutionary War.

  • Lesson 2: Powers and Problems

    Battle of Brandywine.

    Students examine Washington's ability to handle a wide range of problems during his time as Commander-in-chief.

  • Lesson 3: George Washington on the Sedition Act

    George Washington.

    What arguments were offered in support of the Sedition Act? Washington's favorable attitude toward the Sedition Act illustrates that reasonable men in 1798 could support what most modern Americans would regard as an unjust law.

  • Lesson 1: James Madison: Madison Was There

    James Madison.

    Why is James Madison such an important figure? Why is he known as the "Father of the Constitution"? How involved was James Madison in the most important events in America from 1775 to 1817? The answers to these questions provide context for understanding the importance of James Madison's opinions on constitutional issues.

  • Lesson 3: The First American Party System: Federalists and Democratic-Republicans: The Platforms They Never Had

    Thomas Jefferson, Democratic-Republican, and Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 3

    The rivalry between the Federalists and Republicans in the early days of the American Republic was bitter. What were the key positions of the parties? How important to the parties' positions were their basic attitudes toward constitutional interpretation (Federalists, broad interpretation / Democratic-Republicans, strict interpretation)? Which positions of either party resonate in the politics of today?