16 December 2016
American Isolationism and the Monroe Doctrine in the Nineteenth Century
For a great deal of American history, the United States remained—or attempted to remain—independent from the political affairs of other nations. George Washington set this precedent with his Farewell Address, expressing hope that his country “may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected…Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour or Caprice?” Although the United States did fight engage European powers in war, this germ of isolationism—a form of nonintervention that prized peace for Americans over any international involvement—presented by Washington, took root.
Despite the early origins of this idea, the bulk of scholarship on American isolationism specifically focuses on the period of the twentieth century that encompasses the World Wars, and often ignores any earlier manifestations of the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the major questions facing historians who tackle these prior incarnations of isolationism center around its origins. While these historians do not often directly engage in a debate, their ideas nevertheless fall into two different camps: one considers the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 as the official starting point, while the other looks to various earlier moments in American history. Most historians writing on the subject fall into the first category. Carl Becker wrote “The Monroe Doctrine and the War” shortly after the end of the First World War, making him the first historian to notice a connection between the Monroe Doctrine and the broader idea of isolationism, likely because isolationism was more prevalent than ever before in the years directly leading up to American involvement in the war. Several subsequent historians have shared his opinion; Gretchen Murphy (Hemispheric Imagining: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire), Jay Sexton (The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America), and John Kasson (“The Monroe Doctrine in 1881”) make the Monroe Doctrine the focus of their respective works on the American idea of empire in the nineteenth century. More recently however, several historians have come forward to suggest even earlier beginnings to isolationist practices. William Belko’s “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited” traces its development to a very specific event: the 1810 West Florida Revolt, which he proposes shaped the eventual “no transfer” policy of the Monroe Doctrine. Reaching even further back, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol looks to the 1790s as a period of early isolationism following George Washington’s suggestion to avoid entanglement in Europe in her article “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s.”
While the establishment of a concrete point of origin for isolationism is undoubtedly the most contested point within the historiography, other historians have established an ancillary debate centering around the dichotomy of internationalism and isolationism. Some see these two ideas as completely incompatible, and choose to focus their work on the arguments between “imperialists” and “anti-imperialists” within the American government. David Healy (U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s) and Berkeley Tompkins (Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate 1890-1920) both hold this view in their books dealing with both expansionism and anti-imperialism. On the other side of the debate, Marco Mariano’s “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine” and James Sofka’s “American Neutral Rights Reappraised” both point out the similarities between these two ideas, stressing the ways in which they could coexist. Both questions demonstrate the relative lack of consensus among the academic community when it comes to the history of American isolationism, making its study both useful and important in terms reaching new conclusions that may further the field.
Historical works relating to American isolationism vary quite greatly in their specific topics, because scholars do not agree on exactly what “isolationism” comprises in a specifically American sense. Twentieth century historians view it in a narrow sense, defining it as the United States’ reluctance to involve itself in the world wars. These historians rarely acknowledge the existence of isolationism, at least by their definition, before 1914. Understandably, this prevalent idea causes problems when it comes to defining isolationism as it existed in nineteenth century America. This historiography will view isolationism more broadly, as the desire for both distance from and non-intervention in European affairs, Therefore, the major problem in examining works relating to American foreign policy in the nineteenth century—regardless of the emphasis their individual works directly place on it—is discovering exactly how prevalent isolationism was during this period.
Until quite recently, many scholars avoided using the term isolationism at all, even when writing on American foreign policy. However, this does not mean earlier works ignored the possibility of its presence. Instead, a trend carrying from the end of the nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century appears to emphasize imperialism, while failing to acknowledge its connections to isolationist ideas. The implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 and mass territorial expansion throughout the nineteenth century split both politicians and American citizens into two factions: imperialists and anti-imperialists. Evident by their names, the first group supported territorial expansion outside of the continental United States and the establishment of what essentially amounted to a colonial empire. The second opposed this aim, arguing that imposing American rule upon a foreign group “represented a flagrant violation of the fundamental principles upon which the government of the United States was based.”
Berkeley Tompkins and David Healy both published books on these factions in 1970, emphasizing the ways in which many anti-imperialists viewed colonialism/imperialism as a problem not only for the oppressed, but for the wellbeing of the United States as well. Neither author directly relates anti-imperialism to isolationism, but the two ideas are remarkably similar, as they respectively center on keeping the United States out of foreign territory and foreign affairs. This suggests that in its broad definition, isolation did indeed exist during the nineteenth century. Earlier historians simply failed to make this evident. Their books remain useful in the context of imperialism specifically, but they obscure the prevalence of isolationism.
In recent years, scholars finally began to directly associate isolationist tendencies with nineteenth century American foreign policy. For this reason alone, their works more successfully demonstrate the influence of isolationism. Perhaps the most balanced study, Jay Sexton’s The Monroe Doctrine provides examples of isolationism’s successes and failures throughout the century. Marco Mariano represents the watershed moment in acknowledging the pervasiveness of isolationism in nineteenth century America however, by directly associating it with the Monroe Doctrine, which shaped the majority of the century’s foreign policy positions. He points out “the Monroe doctrine embodied the relation between US identity and security through the creation of a Manichean world in which Europe was the negative Other,” which supports his argument that while the doctrine sanctioned expansion, it also set the groundwork for nonintervention/isolationism. Other recent works successfully support Mariano’s findings, and even trace the presence of isolationism to earlier periods of the long nineteenth century, adding credence to the idea that isolationism did in fact play a major role in nineteenth century America, despite its seeming contradiction to expansionism, imperialism, and American involvement in international affairs such as the Spanish-American War.
Given these explanations of the big questions surrounding the field, and its general trajectory, it is possible to examine the above-mentioned works in greater detail. As noted, authors writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not use the term isolationism at all. However, several of these historians examined the value and legacy of the Monroe Doctrine, connecting its clauses not only to the traditionally emphasized imperialistic expansion of the United States, but to ideas of keeping American affairs separate from Europe. The earliest example of this is John Kasson’s “The Monroe Doctrine in 1881,” published in the same year as the title suggests. While such an early publication date could very well make this a primary, rather than a secondary source, it acts as an important starting point for the historiography. His article is fairly straightforward, and aims to explain how the doctrine evolved in its first few decades of existence. Importantly, Kasson acknowledges that while the letter of the doctrine does indeed suggest the possibility of American expansion, but emphasizes the idea that the major issue at stake at the end of the nineteenth century was “that which touches our interests,” or the threat of European interference in not only the United States proper, but the entire continents of North and South America. He draws from the wording of the doctrine itself, as well as speeches from several Senators and government officials, to make the importance of remaining removed from European affairs, and therefore European threats, explicit. That innovation, whether historians consciously subscribed to it or not, shaped the entire rest of the historiography.
Carl Becker published a very similar article in 1917, on the eve of America’s reluctant entrance to World War I. Becker’s work represents another important theoretical intervention that shaped understandings of anti-imperialism, the Monroe Doctrine, and their isolationist tendencies. He writes that “the Monroe Doctrine seems to mean that since we are isolated and provincial in a geographic sense, we will be so politically…we will ask no favors of Europe and will concede her none.” He overtly connected what we now understand as the American isolationism that developed during the two World Wars—a desire to maintain a safe political distance from Europe in order to avoid involving the United States in events with potentially dangerous consequences—with the much earlier composition of the Monroe Doctrine. Like Kasson, Becker is not a professional historian, and his argument consists more of a list of points than a formal analysis, but his conclusion remains important to the discussion of nineteenth century American isolationism.
In the mid-twentieth century, studies of the nineteenth century focused on the debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists. When the Monroe Doctrine appeared in these works, it was only to acknowledge that both groups saw their positions reflected in its wording. The anti-imperialists saw the idea of non-intervention by Europeans in the Americas as something that bound the United States to respect the sovereignty of other nations in the area, such as Hawaii and the Philippines. Imperialists on the other hand, used the doctrine to validate “aggressive foreign policy” within the American sphere of influence. David Healy’s and E. Berkeley Tompkins’ previously addressed books act as the perfect examples of this thought, and essentially mirror each other. Healy specifically addresses imperialism, situating the United States within a worldwide context of imperialist “urges” and addressing the specific reasons the push began in earnest during the 1890s. While this is an important contribution to understanding the politics of the era, Healy makes a mistake in presenting imperialism as the only impetus driving American foreign policy. He does acknowledge the anti-imperialist backlash in his final chapters, but comes to the overall conclusion that the United States was inherently imperialist during this period. This is not necessarily wrong, as imperialism undoubtedly played a major role in nineteenth century American history. However, this book ignores the complexities of specifically American imperialism, which still exhibited some isolationist tendencies by limiting territorial acquisitions to areas outside of Europe and Africa.
In contrast, Tompkins’ book focuses on the anti-imperialists. His work is not very analytical, but remains important because it presents a non-binary way of looking at nineteenth century American foreign policy. He does improve on what Healy did by addressing the ideological ambiguities built into both the imperialist and anti-imperialist groups. Tompkins notes for instance, that Social Darwinism played a role in both groups’ opinions by the late 1890s, and that both groups drew inspiration from the Monroe Doctrine and the Constitution. Despite these improvements over Healy’s work, neither author made explicit connections between anti-imperialism and isolationism, even though the former is essentially a less extreme version of the latter. Anti-imperialism only aimed to limit territorial expansion that would draw the United States into foreign conflicts, while isolationism targeted foreign entanglements altogether.
In 1995 historian Marie-Jeanne Rossignol finally connected the specific terminology of isolationism to pre-twentieth century periods. In her article, she laments that scholars too often view the idea of isolationism as avoiding foreign wars. She concludes, by examining the unrest of the 1790s following the end of the American Revolution, that isolationism in fact grew out of constant unrest and war on non-European fronts—she points to the American West and Atlantic—that led to the unofficial policy of isolation from European wars.  Rossignol supports these claims well, grounding them in the personal writings of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In theory, her work represented a turn in the historiography, that would allow historians to move past focusing on the Monroe Doctrine as strictly imperialist and introduce a more complex discussion of the early development of isolationist thought and policy.
Despite this, further discussions of isolationism did not emerge right away. Historian James Sofka for example, examines American neutrality, but strangely refuses to equate it with isolationism. He argues that during the Early Republic the government equated neutrality with power, or as Eliga Gould phrased it in Among the Powers of the Earth, with becoming a treaty-worthy nation. Sofka merits praise for investigating foreign policy during this period, which he does in a unique way by addressing a variety of neutral rights acts, such as the 1807 Embargo Act. His decision to exclusively use the term “neutrality” to describe American aims in period is not incorrect, and in fact makes sense given the language of the documents he examines. Yet, in doing so he ignores the important fact that isolationism, as Rossignol proved five years earlier, did in fact exist during the Early Republic. In political terminology, neutrality is synonymous with isolationism.
Gretchen Murphy’s Hemispheric Imagining and Jay Sexton’s The Monroe Doctrine, which both cover the connections between the Monroe Doctrine and the idea of an American empire, represent the resiliency of early historiographical trends regarding the doctrine. They portray the nineteenth century United States as an empire, and therefore as fundamentally imperialist. It is true that American foreign policy during this period was indeed imperialist in many aspects, which Murphy demonstrates by examining American influence in Latin America, and Sexton by exploring a wide range of foreign policy issues ranging from the argument over annexing California to American involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal. Sexton’s work is a general but comprehensive overview, while Murphy takes a particularly interesting and innovative methodological approach by choosing to read the doctrine and American expansion through a cultural lens. Although each provides the field with new and interesting information, they nevertheless demonstrate just how little progress historians have made in understanding the complexities of the Monroe Doctrine. Nearly one hundred years after scholars first began to critique it, current academics continue to underemphasize its isolationist or noninterventionist aspects in favor of highlighting its imperialist connotations.
William Belko focuses on the origins of the doctrine itself, tracing the “no transfer” clause which aimed to prevent European powers from gaining former Spanish territories. Taking a much narrower approach than Sofka and Murphy, he isolates one specific example of this, and argues James Madison first developed this idea in 1810 during the West Florida Revolt that led the United States to extend its zone of occupation past the American-Spanish Florida border. He contends that this action “arguably set the standard for further American territorial acquisition” and Manifest Destiny. Drawing from Madison’s personal papers, he makes the important point that the Monroe Doctrine developed out of preexisting ideas. Given Rossignol’s claims this same idea would support the connection between preexisting isolationist tendencies and the doctrine as well. Belko does not acknowledge the isolationist aspect of the doctrine, but his very specific focus on the “no transfer” policy perhaps prevents him from doing so.
Despite these longstanding problems within works in the field, one historian’s recent work may represent a turning point in the historiography. Marco Mariano synthesizes all the disparate ideas of the previously discussed historians, reconsidering the importance of the Monroe Doctrine by drawing out its tendencies towards the seemingly contradictory ideas of isolationism and internationalism. His work is an abbreviated survey of all the ways in which American leaders have twisted and applied the doctrine, from its origins in 1823 to the Cold War and beyond. Due to this wide historical timeframe, he approaches the topic from a purely theoretical standpoint, using the writings of other historians—including Gretchen Murphy—to provide a template for understanding the Monroe Doctrine’s “long-term applications…[which are] extremely relevant to the discussion of ‘internationalism’ and ‘isolationism’ as cornerstones of US thinking on foreign policy.” A lack of primary source analysis limits the impact of Mariano’s work, but his innovations in interconnecting all three ideas: the Monroe Doctrine, isolationism, and internationalism (which he describes throughout the article as being somewhat similar to imperialism/expansionism) represent an important point in this field of study that can be furthered by other scholars.
Recent scholarship undoubtedly demonstrates the need for further study of American isolationism in the nineteenth century, as the field as a whole remains disorganized. Historians’—and political scientists’ as well—debate in regards to the actual prevalence of isolationism during this time frame may be to blame. As previously noted, many historians choose to focus on “anti-imperialism” instead, refusing to acknowledge that isolationist tendencies were present at all despite the similarity between the two ideas. For this reason, the best way to advance the field further would be to examine official government documents in tandem with the personal documents of those involved in their composition, to determine how isolationist the government, and by extension the United States really was during the nineteenth century. While many of the previously addressed historians drew from similar source material, they almost never did so in regards to isolationism, instead preferring to focus on imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine.
A particularly interesting example is the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Perhaps the most serious post-revolution challenge the United States faced, war broke out with the British over impressment, trade restrictions, and a variety of other issues. While the act of going to war with a foreign power clearly conflicts with the strict definition of isolationism as an international nonintervention policy, it is possible to read the treaty in an isolationist manner. The writings of James Madison, president during the war, emphasizes the validity of this sort of reading. Other historians have utilized his papers to demonstrate imperialist/expansionist tendencies, but many of his letters contain isolationist ideas as well.
From the first article of the treaty, its authors—on the British side, James Lord Gambier, Henry Goulburn, and William Adams; on the American side, John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Henry Clay, Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin—chose to portray it in a manner consistent with isolationist thought. They called for “a firm and universal Peace” between Britain and the United States. This specific wording implied the two nations would never again engage in war, clearly supporting nonintervention. Of course, any peace treaty calls for a similar declaration. However, given the outcome of first the American Revolution, and then this war soon after, both countries likely intended for a longer-lasting and true peace this time. The Americans needed to rebuild their country, and the British were still embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars at the time of the treaty talks. Madison personally valued a lasting peace as well, detailing his struggles to suppress a publication on the causes of the war because of its potentially inflammatory language chosen before the negotiation of peace. He explained to Thomas Jefferson the necessity “to preserve the substantial vindication of our Country agst. prevailing calumnies, and avoid asperities of every sort unbecoming the change in the relations of the two Countries.”  Examined in tandem, these two documents demonstrate the importance of peace in this situation and identify isolationism as a potential motivator. Obviously, peace was important because it ended the war and brought safety to the country. More than that, however, it gave America the opportunity to “assume the role of a great nation in the lands and waters in its immediate vicinity.” Eliga Gould suggests that this allowed the United States to focus on eventually becoming a world power, but for the remainder of the nineteenth century, it amounted to an unofficial policy of isolationism.
If this sentiment existed in the treaty alone, dismissing it as a mere formality inherent in a truce could be warranted, given the necessity of making peace to end the war. Nations also tend to break treaties; the Treaty of Paris for instance, which ended the American Revolution in 1783, lasted less than thirty years. However, Madison continued to emphasize it several months after the major American victory at the Battle of New Orleans, which he acknowledged provided insurance against the possibility that “a new War from that quarter would have been opened upon us.”  His decision to block a negative portrayal of the British, even after victory in New Orleans increased America’s standing in global affairs, signified his adherence to a central tenet of isolationism as defined throughout this historiography: remaining removed from European affairs by maintaining peace with them at all costs.
Specific clauses of the Treaty of Ghent support this isolationist reading as well. Most the articles focused on returning relations between Britain and the United States to status quo antebellum. Boundary lines returned to those established in 1783 and prisoners of war on both sides returned home, the only new concession was the promise by both nations to work towards ending the slave trade. None of these agreements benefitted the United States, which could be because at the time of treaty negotiations, the British held more military power. However, the British did not gain any notable advantages either. This acts as another suggestion that the negotiators’ ultimate goal was a lasting peace. For the Americans, specifically, it again demonstrates isolationist tendencies.
This brief example demonstrates that analysis of this kind uncovers expressions of of isolationism in nineteenth century government documents, and therefore establishes its existence in the period despite the mixed opinions of historians in the field. If research proves this point, the field will be able to move towards understanding the evolution of isolationism over the course of American history. This sort of research would also be quite useful in forwarding the ideas of Marco Mariano, who theorized about the connection between the Monroe Doctrine, isolationism, and internationalism in his 2011 article. Any historical work that addresses the complexities of American foreign policy and political thought in the nineteenth century, and takes the competing notions of isolationism and imperialism as cooperative rather than a binary system, will do a great deal to advance the field and provide a greater understanding of exactly how and why American isolationism developed.
Washington, George. “Washington’s Farewell Address.” 19 September 1796. George Washington Papers. University of Virginia. Accessed 10 November 2016.
James Madison to Thomas Jefferson. 12 March 1815. The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress. Accessed 10 November 2016. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mjm.17_0202_0204/?sp=3&st=text.
“Treaty of Peace and Amity Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.” 24 December 1814. The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Accessed 25 November 2016, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ghent.asp.
Gould, Eliga. Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Healy, David J. U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.
Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1962.
Murphy, Gretchen. Hemispheric Imagining: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
Sexton, Jay. The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.
Tompkins, E. Berkeley. Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890-1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970.
Becker, Carl. “The Monroe Doctrine and the War.” Minnesota History Bulletin 2 no. 2 (May 1917): 61-68.
Belko, William S. “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited: The Madison Administration, the West Florida Revolt, and the No Transfer Policy.” Florida Historical Quarterly 2 (Fall 2011): 157-192.
Kasson, John A. “The Monroe Doctrine in 1881.” The North American Review 133 (December 1881): 523-533.
Mariano, Marco. “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 9 no. 1 (March 2011): 35-45.
Rossignol, Marie-Jeanne. “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s.” Journal of American Studies 29 no. 2 (1995): 215-227.
Sofka, James. “American Neutral Rights Reappraised: Identity or Interest in the Foreign Policy of the Early Republic?” Review of International Studies 26 (2000): 599-622.
 E. Berkeley Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890-1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970), 2.
 Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States; David J. Healy, U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970).
 Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).
 William S. Belko, “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited: The Madison Administration, the West Florida Revolt, and the No Transfer Policy,” Florida Historical Quarterly 2 (Fall 2011): 157-192; Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s,” Journal of American Studies 29 no. 2 (1995): 215-227.
 James Sofka, “American Neutral Rights Reappraised: Identity or Interest in the Foreign Policy of the Early Republic?” Review of International Studies 26 (2000): 618-21; Eliga Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
 “Treaty of Peace and Amity Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America,” 24 December 1814, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, accessed 25 November 2016, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ghent.asp.