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History of American Foreign Policy 101: Looking West - The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny


To make sense of both the world of foreign policy and the world as it is, an understanding of United States foreign policy and its interaction with the policies of other nations is critical. It is the purpose of this series to give the reader an overview of the history of the United States' foreign policy, and show how it has helped shape the path of the United States and of international relations in general. Such illustration will include analyses of the United States' foreign policy in both theoretical assumptions and empirical application. The series will thus provide the reader with a foundation from which they will be able to accurately understand global historical events, and also critically examine and form opinions on the current and future United States' foreign policy.

This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

  1. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Founding Principles

  2. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Looking West - The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny

  3. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Beginnings of Empire and World War I

  4. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Interwar Period and World War II

  5. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War - Confrontation and Containment

  6. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War Part 2 - Detente and Rapprochement

  7. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Unipolarity and the War on Terror

  8. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Rise of China

With the beginning of the 19th century and the election of Thomas Jefferson, American foreign policy would remain relatively unchanged, isolation and neutrality being its two hallmarks. With the brief aberration of the War of 1812, this would continue to be the case for almost the entire 19th century. Instead, the new country’s eyes would be set on the West, where the major changes and challenges of the 19th century would present themselves. In this sense, the two defining characteristics of American Foreign Policy from 1800 until 1897 would be neutrality with the great powers of the time, and the facilitation of rapid westward expansion into lands previously belonging to Native Americans and European powers.

This article discusses American foreign policy in the years 1800 - 1897, primarily focusing on its efforts towards neutrality with foreign powers, and its application towards the ends of American westward expansion.

Palmer, F. F. B. (1868). Across the Continent: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” [Hand-colored lithograph].

As discussed in the previous iteration of this series, American foreign policy from its outset was generally centred on the principles of neutrality and isolation (McDonald, 1974). Such policies were thought prudent in order to guarantee the fledgling nation’s successful economic and political development. In his first inaugural address of 1800, Thomas Jefferson signalled the continuity of these sentiments, proclaiming that the essential principles of American government and foreign policy were “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” (Jefferson, 1801). These Jeffersonian feelings would be further cemented by the Monroe Doctrine, which would declare American neutrality in European affairs, and also warn European powers against any colonisation in the Western Hemisphere.

As mentioned above, westward expansion from the original 13 coastal colonies was also a top foreign policy priority, one which would involve dealing with other European powers who held the land, and the Native Americans who lived on it. Westward expansion was especially important to Jefferson, who viewed it as a way of cementing his vision of an America made up of small farmers through cheap land grants to individuals in the West (Vandenbroucke, 2008). Originally viewed as an economic and even as a security measure, the westward expansion would eventually take on a Wilsonian aspect, being considered a God-given task drenched in the language of expanding American capitalism, democracy, and exceptionalism (Anderson, 2017).

Leutze, E. (1861). Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way [Painting].

The 19th century would be a time of incredible Westward expansion for the United States. Whereas in 1800 there were only 16 states almost all on the Atlantic coast, only one hundred years later the United States would stretch all the way to the Pacific Ocean. From the start, westward expansion was a clear foreign policy objective of the founding fathers, and would be ingrained in the psyche of future leaders of the United States (Anderson, 2017). In the words of Thomas Jefferson: “however our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent” (Anderson, 2017, p. 13). Later, in 1845, the situation would be put even clearer: “It is the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and possess the whole continent (O’Sullivan, 1845, p. 6).” From the start, it was clear that Western expansion would be a central pillar of American foreign policy. These Western lands would be acquired through a variety of foreign policy means, including treaties, direct payment, and war. The most important acquisitions were the Louisiana Purchase, Florida, lands won from Mexico, and the Oregon Territory.

Expansion in the 19th century would begin primarily with the acquisition of the massive Louisiana Purchase from France, a tract of land greater than 828,000 square miles. Originally set on the purchase of only New Orleans and Florida, Jefferson sent a delegation to France in 1803 for such purposes. Yet to his surprise, Napoleon offered the United States the whole of the Louisiana Purchase, giving up his ambitions of a French empire in North America in order to focus on more pressing issues at home. In one stroke, the size of the United States doubled overnight. However, what is often overlooked is that the French actually controlled very little of the vast Louisiana territory, most of which was actually inhabited by native Americans. This being the case, most of what the United States actually purchased was the ‘pre-emptive right’ to negotiate with the native American inhabitants or invade them, without interference from other European powers (Lee, 2017). This would begin a long and unjust process of ‘treaties’ between the American government and various Native American tribes, who would legally sell off vast tracts of land to the U.S. government for relatively small one-time or annuity payments, often under the threat of coercion and violence (Ibid.).

Jofis, B. (2003). kaart Louisiana Purchase [Map].

Similar dealings would be seen in the United States' acquisition of Florida. Nominally owned by the Spanish Empire, but inhabited primarily by Native Americans, Florida in the early 1800s was viewed in the United States as no man’s land filled with dangerous natives and runaway slaves over which the Spanish exercised little control (Watson, 2018). In early 1818, President Monroe ordered the infamous General Andrew Jackson into Florida to subdue the Seminole tribe, leading to the First Seminole War. Jackson however, not content with subduing the Seminoles, also seized most of the territory and occupied Spanish settlements, against the orders from Monroe (Ibid.). The Spanish were outraged, but Jackson’s actions had already made it clear that their hold on Florida was shaky at best. The United States and Spain would later sign the Adams-Onis treaty, giving Florida over to the U.S. in exchange for 5 million dollars (Ibid.).

Seminoles were removed from Northern Florida and sent to a reservation in central Florida under the terms of the treaty of Moultrie Creek (Missall & Missall, 2016). Ten years later, the United States government would void the treaty, and force the Seminoles to be deported from Florida to the ‘Indian Territory’ in the Midwest, along with the peoples of four other tribes from the old southwest, in what would be known as the ‘trail of tears’ (Missall & Missall, 2016). This forced deportation of the Seminole and four of the other Native American tribes of Florida and the old southwest represents one of the darkest chapters of American history.

Leutze, E. (1863). Indians Attacking a Wagon Train [Oil on Canvas].

The next phase of territorial expansion would be unlocked by war. The Mexican-American War, fought from 1846-1848, tends to be glossed over in history textbooks (Sjursen, 2021), even though its resolution, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, granted the United States over 500,000 square miles, and the territory for what would make up 7 states in the American Southwest. According to Sjursen, one of the reasons for this is that it was widely viewed, even at the time, as a fraudulent war, undertaken with manufactured public consent, with the aims to expand the slave economy, and to expand America westward to the Pacific, no matter who stood in the way (Ibid.). If one were to examine the conflict through one of the four lenses discussed in the previous article, the type of foreign policy during the time would be categorized as ‘Jacksonian’: an aggressive and patriotic nationalism, driven by an energetic populist political energy. Given that the regime of President Polk was explicitly expansionist and supported by populist elements of the electorate who desired Mexican lands, it was only logical that this Jacksonian tilt would lead to war. Such populist and expansionist foreign policy was one essentially built into the Democratic Party's platform at the time, a product of the previous regime of Andrew Jackson, which supported "Indian removal, slavery, racism, and mob violence" (Sjursen, 2021). It was this mob aspect of the electorate that most ardently supported westward expansion, primarily to expand and protect slavery by adding more slave states into the union, but also to open up land to a spreading population of white Americans to whom it was pre-ordained under Manifest Destiny (Watson, 2018). The segment of the population that elected Polk in 1944 believed unwaveringly in the right for American expansion, and Polk, himself an ardent believer in manifest destiny, would take up this foreign policy cause with vigour.

Bayot, A. J. B. (1851). Capture of Monterey [Hand Colored Lithograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

The actual cause of both the Mexican-American War and the Texan War for Independence lay in the United State’s unbridled appetite for expansion, both in terms of the public and the political elite. At the time, this deep belief in American expansion, termed manifest destiny, posited that the United States was actually destined by God to spread itself across the entire North American continent (O'Sullivan, 1845). This almost religious belief would provide the justification for expansion at all costs in the mid to late 1800's, and upon its lofty religious verbiage would be justified the war with Mexico, and the dislocation of various Native American tribes (Pratt, 1927). The importance of manifest destiny lay in its function as the driving ideology behind westward American expansion, while its power lay in its divine and therefore unquestionable justification for said action. In this sense, manifest destiny can be viewed as a precursor to the Wilsonian foreign policy of the 20th century which emphasized a divine mission to spread capitalism, democracy, and American values. On the other hand, as noted by historian Daniel Walker Howe, "Manifest destiny served as both label and justification for policies that might otherwise simply been called... imperialism" (Howe, 2009, p. 703). Either way, manifest destiny was the ideology that justified and legitimized nearly all degrees of westward expansion, and drove the Polk presidency of the 1840's to pursue lands in Texas, Mexico, and the Oregon territory.

Texas, formerly a distant province of Mexico, was viewed as the first object of manifest destiny. In 1836, The Texan War of Independence was instigated by Anglo settlers, and mostly fought by American volunteers and financed directly by the United States (Sjursen, 2021). Texas would go on to win its independence from Mexico, and loud calls to annex Texas would follow, even though its annexation would almost certainly lead to conflict with Mexico. In the words of Andrew Jackson to President Polk, "obtain [Texas] the United States must, peacefully if we can, but forcibly if we must" (Sjursen, 2021, p. 226). In the end, Texas was annexed in 1844 against the wishes of Mexico, and America turned its sights further West.

Moran, P. (1912). Battle of the Alamo [Painting].

In the case of the Mexican-American war, the provocation was more clear-cut, as were the motivations. 1845 was the fever pitch of manifest destiny. In the words of Sjursen: “There was an American sense of mission, clear from the very founding of puritan Massachusetts, to multiply and inhabit North America from ocean to ocean… Mexico and the few remaining native territories were all that lay in the way of American destiny by 1846” (Sjursen, 2021, p. 227). In fact, one of the stated ‘great measures’ that the Polk administration hoped to achieve during its tenure was in fact “the acquisition of California and a large district on the coast (Ibid.), which could only mean the acquisition of land from Mexico. In the end, with the clear intention of provoking a conflict, President Polk sent four thousand troops along the disputed Mexican-American border and into what Mexico considered its own sovereign territory. When the American troops were attacked, Polk demanded that Mexico sell California and recognize Texan independence, which Mexico would almost certainly deny. When Mexico did indeed reject the demands, America declared war. The war would be a brutal conflict which would lead many to question what America stood for, but the United States would acquire what it desired: nearly half of Mexico, and what is today the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona (Sjursen, 2021).

The final large acquisition during this time period, the Oregon Territory, was obtained by a more subtle and measured form of foreign policy. Though still subject to the fever of manifest destiny, dealings with a great power such as Great Britain required more tact than had been employed against Mexico. Jointly ruled by the United States and Great Britain since 1818, the Oregon Territory would eventually be split at the 49th parallel, marking the modern boundaries between Canada and the United States, and completing the expansion of the continental United States essentially as it is today (Sjursen, 2021).

Bierstadt, A. (1869). The Oregon Trail [Painting].

The second pillar of American foreign policy during the 19th century would be defined by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. One of the most famous declarations of American foreign policy ever, the Monroe Doctrine would proclaim the non-interference of the United States in European affairs, while also declaring the United States' opposition to any attempts at colonization or re-colonization in the Western Hemisphere (Watson, 2018). Originally, the Monroe Doctrine was the American response to the forming of the Holy Alliance in Europe, the alliance between the victorious powers of the Napoleonic Wars (Gilderhus, 2006). The Holy Alliance was an alignment which sought order and the status quo, and shortly after its creation it would repress various rebellions and potential revolutions across Europe, as its members sought to stabilize the recovering European monarchies. In the United States there was fear that the Holy Alliance would seek to reinstate Spanish control over its old colonies in the new world, right in the aftermath of the Spanish American Wars of Independence (Ibid.). This was unacceptable in the view of the United States, for both economic and security reasons. As a result the Monroe Doctrine would be issued, proclaiming American non-colonization, i. e. opposition to European intervention on the grounds that it was a threat to American 'peace and safety", and American non-intervention in Europe (Ibid.).

Partridge, B. (1902). Monroe Doctrine [Drawing].

The Monroe Doctrine, and by extension United States’ neutrality on the world stage, would serve two primary purposes: to keep America free to focus on westward expansion, and to set up what would be the beginning of U.S. domination, both economically and politically, of Latin America. In practice, however, the Monroe Doctrine was viewed by many in Europe and Latin America as a paper tiger, given that the United States at the time lacked a strong military and navy. Additionally, at the time of its proclamation, nearly all of the Spanish colonies in the Americas had achieved, or were on the point of achieving independence, with the exception of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Adding to the paper tiger illustration is the fact that the strength of the Monroe Doctrine actually lay with the British in the beginning, who controlled the seas with their unparalleled navy (Hobson, 2002). For their part, the British generally approved of the Monroe Doctrine and enforced it tactically, since the eventual colonization and subsequent monopolization of Latin American markets by other colonial powers were also against the British's own economic interests (Hobson, 2002). Nonetheless, the Monroe Doctrine was still significant in that it marked a turn away from European colonization in Latin America, yet also set Latin America up squarely in the American sphere of influence, a fact which would become unmistakably clear in the coming century.

The Monroe Doctrine provides an excellent example of the purposes neutrality serves in the field of international relations. Specifically, Monroe made his declaration of neutrality and anti-colonization in order to bar European states from obtaining preferential economic relationships from colonization (Watson, 2018). In this sense, the United States sought to dominate Latin America economically, though under the neo-colonial auspices of freedom of trade and neutrality (Watson, 2018). The second benefit of neutrality is, as mentioned above, the ability to focus primarily on domestic matters (Vandenbosch, 1935). Here, the United States utilized neutrality in order to focus primarily on westward expansion. The United States would come to reap both these benefits during the 19th century; as a neutral power and growing economic powerhouse, it was able to develop, expand, and trade without being drawn into any debilitating global conflicts.

Gillam, V. (1896). “Keep off! The Monroe Doctrine must be respected” [Drawing].

American Foreign Policy from 1800 until 1897 would be surprisingly uniform and intelligible, being based on the pillars of neutrality with the great powers set forth in the Monroe Doctrine, and rapid westward expansion driven by Manifest Destiny. Though the 19th century was a period of utmost domestic chaos, the United States' foreign policy would be largely successful in its acquisition of land, and ability to steer clear of global conflicts. In this sense, the dominant strain of foreign policy during the 19th century would be characterized by Jeffersonian isolationism and nationalism, which generally forwent international activity and espoused neutrality, while focusing instead on domestic issues, including expansion into the West. But the coming century would push American neutrality to its limits, both through the temptation of colonies and riches, and the necessity of defending oneself in the anarchic world of international relations.

Bibliographical References

Anderson, P. (2017). American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (Reprint ed.). Verso.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. (2008). The New Encyclopedia Britannica (32 Volume Set) (2007) (15th ed.). Encyclopedia Britannica.

Gilderhus, M. T. (2006). The Monroe Doctrine: Meanings and Implications. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 36(1), 5–16.

Jefferson, T. (1801) Inaugural Address, March 4, reading copy, in Jefferson's hand. March 4. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Hobson, R. (2002). Imperialism at Sea: Naval Strategic Thought, the Ideology of Sea Power, and the Tirpitz Plan, 1875–1914 (Studies in Central European Histories). Brill Academic Pub.

Howe, D. W. (2009). What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford History of the United States). Oxford University Press. Lee, R. (2017). Accounting for Conquest: The Price of the Louisiana Purchase of Indian Country. Journal of American History, 103(4), 921–942.

Missall, J., & Missall, M. L. (2016). The Seminole Wars: America’s Longest Indian Conflict (Florida History and Culture) (Reprint ed.). University Press of Florida.

McDonald, F. (1974). The Presidency of George Washington (American Presidency Series) (New edition). University Press of Kansas.

O’Sullivan, J. (1845). Annexation. United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 17(1), 5–10. Pratt, J. W. (1927). The Origin of “Manifest Destiny.” The American Historical Review, 32(4), 795–798.

Sjursen, D. (2021). A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism (Truth to Power). Steerforth Press / Truth to Power. Vandenbosch, A. (1935). Is American Neutrality Possible? Proceedings of the Annual Session (Southern Political Science Association), 8, 18–20.

Vandenbroucke, G. (2008). The U.S. Westward Expansion. International Economic Review, 49(1), 81–110. Watson, H. L. (2018). Building the American Republic, Volume 1: A Narrative History to 1877 (Illustrated ed.). University of Chicago Press.

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