The Monroe Doctrine: Origin and Early American Foreign Policy

The Monroe Doctrine, 1823.
Photo caption

The Monroe Doctrine, 1823.

"[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, an exhibit of the U.S. Department of State.

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.