Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jay Sexton's "The Monroe Doctrine"

Jay Sexton is University Lecturer in American History at Oxford University. He is the author of many works in the field of foreign relations, including Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era 1837–1873.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America, and reported the following:
We now view the Monroe Doctrine as the cornerstone of early American foreign policy. Yet it was not always seen as such by nineteenth century Americans. Monroe’s 1823 message, which proclaimed U.S. opposition to future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere, largely dropped out of the American consciousness after the threat of European intervention in Spanish America subsided. There was little reason to assume in, say, 1830 that Americans soon would come to see the 1823 message as a binding doctrine of their foreign policy.

That this would happen owed much to President James K. Polk, who invented in 1845 what he called “Monroe’s doctrine” to justify his expansionist designs on western territories, particularly California (then held by Mexico). Polk turned to the largely forgotten 1823 message for two reasons. First, and probably most important, he recognized its domestic political utility. Well aware that not all of his compatriots shared his expansionist goals, Polk sought cover by presenting them as an outgrowth of the anti-imperial foreign policy of a popular president from an imagined, non-partisan era of good feelings. It was a shrewd political move – and one that would be repeated by later presidents.

The second reason why Polk invented “Monroe’s doctrine” is explored on page 99. The 1823 message appealed to Polk because it comported with his worldview. Polk took it as a given that hostile Old World powers sought strategic advantage in the New World and, unless checked, would gobble up coveted territories like California. We now know that Britain and France did little to stand in the way of American expansion. Even at the time, many of Polk’s political opponents, such as Henry Clay, argued that the foreign threat was not as menacing as the president contended. Why was Polk so convinced that hostile European powers lurked behind every tree in North America? It is the task of page 99 to historicize Polk’s perception of threat. The page suggests that the answer lies not in the ideology of manifest destiny, but in the way Polk – and many of his contemporaries, it should be said – internalized certain assumptions about Old World powers, particularly the British.

Text from page 99:
The underlying assumption of the 1823 message – that Old World powers sought to expand their interests in the New World – reinforced Polk’s conception of British and European foreign policy. It requires much historical imagination to understand how deeply Polk, as well as many of his contemporaries, internalized this notion. In part, Polk took European intervention in the Western Hemisphere as a given because it was what he had always been told. The state papers of Jefferson and Jackson – the intellectual and political founders of Polk’s Democratic Party – were laden with Anglophobic statements that presumed the incompatibility of monarchical and republican governments. So too did a hostile Britain and Europe comport with Democrats’ own experiences. Many of the formative events for Polk’s generation of politicians involved conflict between the United States and Old World powers: the War of 1812, the Holy Alliance crisis of 1823, Indian uprisings that were blamed on the British, the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies and alleged British meddling in Texas. Furthermore, the threat from the Old World was not just diplomatic and strategic. The early and mid 1840s were years of economic depression, which witnessed nine states of the union default on their debts held largely by British capitalists. Presiding over a nation deeply indebted to the very foreigners who had burned Washington D.C. to the ground in his own lifetime, Polk never saw reason to interrogate his assumption that Britain and other European powers were hostile to the United States.
Learn more about The Monroe Doctrine at the publisher's website. Visit Jay Sexton's University of Oxford faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue