America’s Great 19th Century Statement of Intent

In this fascinating article, Wout Vergauwen tells us about the Monroe Doctrine, an Empire of Liberty – and America’s expansion across the West and beyond into the rest of the American Continent.



We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace … we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.”

Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States


Thomas Jefferson was a great many things, but above all he was a visionary. Yet, it is hard to imagine that even he understood to the fullest extent what his Empire of Liberty could become. Several presidents have, at least to a certain extent, broadened the interpretation. Whereas Jefferson’s empire ideally stretched, as Katharine Lee Bates wrote “from sea to shining sea,” it would become an idea that was applied to the United States’ expansionist efforts, both at home and abroad. However, the first extension of Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty almost caused Mr. Madison to lose US territory in the War of 1812. Luckily for the Americans, the British were too busy fighting Napoleon to pursue their efforts in North America. Ultimately, the British and the Americans signed the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, reaching a modus vivendi on the expense of the Native Americans. Yet, it quickly became clear that Uncle Joe intended to look across the border. 

America’s Great 19th Century Statement of Intent

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson from 1791. At the time Jefferson was Secretary of State. Painted by Charles Willson Peale.

When the Spanish failed to control their colonial possessions in the Americas, another opportunity arose for the United States to expand their sphere of influence. Given that the United States had only gained independence as recently as half a century earlier, they did not feel confident to invade a world power’s possessions, even if that world power was waning. However, colonial insurrection in present-day Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico was too good a chance to let go by. Both the Monroe administration and Congress favored action of at least some sort, because the possibility of having Spain intervene in Latin America would first of all pose a threat to American security. Second of all, reinforced Spanish colonies would also prevent any further expansion of influence across the continent.

Although still dreaming of an Empire of Liberty, caution was required. Spain did indeed still possess Florida, and it would have been unwise to provoke more than strictly necessary. However, immediately after Florida was ceded to the United States, Washington was inevitably going to act quickly. As soon as 1822, the United States recognize the rebelling colonies as independent countries. And besides the ideological ‘support-another-former-colony’ idea, there were several important reasons for having done so. Indeed, a Holy Alliance consisting of Austria, France, Prussia, and Russia had formed in Europe, trying to uphold monarchy and suppress liberalism. The rumors were that after crushing rebellions in both Spain and Italy, the alliance might help Spain to regain control over its prestigious colonies. In a statement supported by Congress, James Monroe read a statement written by future president John Quincy Adams. The American continents, he declared, “are henceforth not to be considered subjects for future colonization by any European power.” That might have been the end of it supposing that there was such a thing as a capable American army. But this was 1823.



Just as in 1814, the Americans had the British to thank. Indeed, making a bold statement is one thing. Upholding it is another. Luckily, British interests aligned with America’s. By then, the British had already set up very profitable trade routes with Spain’s former colonies, and they were not going to give them up easily. Already in the early 18th century James Thomson wrote “Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves.” And yes, by 1823, they did. Commanding the most powerful Navy ever seen, King George IV was not going to let an Armada supported by the Holy Alliance cross the Atlantic. The Spanish, still remembering the fate of the Great Armada, decided to hold back and let the Americans have it their way.

Finally having gained the confidence they had lacked since 1776, the Americans went the full mile by 1845. The trigger was, once again, a foreign threat. Although this threat was much less serious when compared to previous ones, some Americans still believed the British might cause trouble in California, Oregon, and Texas. The latter is a special case here. Ever since the Lone Star Republic gained independence from Mexico in 1836, a large majority of the population had wanted to join the United States. Southern states favored the admission of Texas, yet Northern states originally opposed the admission. They feared that Texas might be admitted as a slave state – or worse, divided in up to five slave states – and thus disturb the balance in Congress. Even though a treaty was finally drafted on February 27, 1844, it was not signed. John L. O’Sullivan, an editor from New York, urged President Polk to finally sign the treaty and admit Texas to the union, if only because it was their “manifest destiny.” The term quickly became popular and thrived on the assumption that Providence had intended the United States to control the entire North American continent.

Even though successful attempts were never made to annex Canada, as was Mr. Madison’s dream, Manifest Destiny guided US policy for the rest of the century. Whether manifest destiny caused Polk to annex Texas in 1845 is not entirely clear, and your guess is as good as mine. Yet, in the subsequent eight years, undoubtedly guided by manifest destiny, the US would gain control over the remaining third of its contingent states. An 1846 treaty with Britain gained them Oregon country, also including Washington and Idaho. An 1848 treaty with Mexico gained them present-day California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finally, the 1853 Gadsen purchase gained the United States the final part of its contingent states – a thirty thousand square mile border area between Mexico and the United States.

Ultimately, by the end of the century, President Theodore Roosevelt would square the circle by amending the Monroe doctrine, thereby confirming America’s global intent. His Roosevelt Corollary was thus the capstone of Thomas Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty.


Did you enjoy this article? If so, let the world know. Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking one of the buttons below!