This is The Siècle, Episode 19: France and the Monroe Doctrine.

Welcome back. What you’re about to hear was originally going to be a part of Episode 18. But this segment never quite fit into the narrative flow of Episode 18, so I decided to split it off into a stand-alone episode. That’s why this is the shortest full episode of The Siècle so far. But I think given the subject matter, many of you won’t find it short on interest. That’s because this episode is the first real entry into our story of the United States of America. Let’s get to it.

In Episode 17 we discussed the Mutiny of Cadiz, when Spanish soldiers assembled to retake Spain’s American colonies instead revolted and imposed a liberal constitution on Spain. In Episode 18, we saw how King Louis XVIII’s government invaded Spain a few years later and restored King Ferdinand VII to absolute power.

But restoring Ferdinand as King of Spain wasn’t the only interest France had in Spain in 1823. She also was casting a keen eye on Spain’s former American colonies, which had taken advantage of Spain’s domestic turmoil to defeat remaining loyalist forces and establish de facto independence. But while the United States officially recognized the new American republics in 1822, the other countries of Europe all hesitated.

Below: Rembrandt Peale, “Albert Gallatin,” 1805.

Albert Gallatin, by Rembrandt Peale, from life, 1805

Part of this was for ideological reasons. Governments committed to suppressing revolution at home in Europe were hardly going to be excited about it happening overseas — especially when American revolts might serve as an inspiration to Europeans. After the United States recognized the independence of the former Spanish colonies, the Comte d’Artois met with the American minister to France, Albert Gallatin, to very politely express his concern at, as Gallatin summarized the conversation, the “‘moral’ effect of our recognition on the revolutionary spirit of Europe.”1 The Austrian foreign minister Count Metternich declared that European powers’ aim was “to prevent all the children of Europe from becoming the adults of America.”2

But even beyond this general anti-revolutionary mindset, Europe — and especially France — had more concrete concerns about recognizing Spanish-American independence. That’s because an explicit goal of French foreign policy at this time was to arrange for Spain’s former colonies to become independent, but not as republics. Instead, France wanted to create New World monarchies, with members of the Bourbon family as kings.

As the French statesman Chateaubriand wrote in a May 1822 memo, while serving as France’s ambassador in London: “If Europe is obliged to recognise the de facto governments in America, its whole policy must [be] to bring monarchies to life in the New World, instead of these revolutionary republics which will send us their principles together with the products of their soil.”3

The idea had been conceived as early as 1819, and was the “favorite dream” of Chateaubriand as foreign minister; by 1823 France was hard at work to lay the diplomatic groundwork for such a plan. The idea was to arrange another congress of Europe’s great powers, which would endorse the French plan. 4 Doing so would bring glory to the House of Bourbon, and also open up new commercial markets for French merchants.5

This was not, I should clarify, conceived as a plan for military intervention to impose these Bourbon princes on America. France believed that a declaration by the powers of Europe commanding such a plan, along with what seemed the self-evident superiority of monarchy and a family connection to one of Europe’s great powers, would lead the rebellious colonies to simply accept their new kings. Whether this was a complete fantasy I’m not in a position to say, though the idea of foreign powers handpicking a foreign prince to be the ruler of a newly independent kingdom had both a past and a future in Europe. There was also the example of Portugal’s former American colony of Brazil, which as we saw in Episode 17 became an independent empire in 1822 ruled by a member of the Portuguese royal family — though this emerged through domestic politics in Brazil rather than imposition from foreign powers. But French ministers were under the impression that the only resources necessary to enact their American plan would be “a few ships and a little money.”6

Against this plan France encountered three major points of objection. The first was the United States, the world power closest to the former colonies, which saw in the French plan both a threat to American commerce and a violation of the ideals of the American Revolution. The American minister Gallatin met with Chateaubriand and warned him against any French designs on Spain’s former colonies, saying that “the United States would oppose every undertaking of this kind.” With considerable gall, Chateaubriand replied “in the most explicit manner that France would not make any attempt whatever of that kind or in any manner interfere in the American questions,” even though France was in the process of attempting exactly that.7

Below: Samuel Morse, “Portrait of James Monroe,” c. 1819. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

James Monroe White House portrait 1819.jpgIt was with this context in mind that American Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote, and President James Monroe issued, the Dec. 2, 1823 declaration that we today call the Monroe Doctrine: “with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

Though the Monroe Doctrine eventually acquired legendary status in the United States, it had a fairly limited impact at the time. France and other European powers largely disdained the United States and reacted with horror to the suggestion that the United States be invited to take part in a diplomatic congress debating the future of Spanish-American colonies.8

Metternich wrote a lengthy missive arguing that “the United States of America can never take part in a European congress, whatever subjects may be treated there.” To be sure, Metternich acknowledged, the United States had an interest in the future of the Spanish colonies, but such an interest, he argued, was less noble than the interests of more distant powers like Austria, Prussia or Russia:

The interest of the United States is that of their commerce, of the increase of their territory, of the extension of their power; it is an interest purely material. That of the European powers… is an interest in the preservation, in the stability, in the material and moral well-being of the great European family, and if they should assume to deal with the future relations of Spain with her vast American provinces, it is not to divide the spoils, or obtain any positive advantage whatsoever; it is to assure themselves that those relations will not be too far incompatible with the peace and general prosperity of Europe, and will work as little harm as possible to the rights and interests of those governments which, so to speak, created America, and have ruled over it for three centuries.9

Below: Nach d. Leben v. Julien gez./Julien Metzeroth, “Jules de Polignac,” c. 1830. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Jules de Polignac

But if France, Austria, and the rest of Europe disdained the United States, they didn’t disdain Great Britain, and in the moment it was the British opposition to restoring European control over Spain’s former colonies that proved the biggest obstacle. Britain was determined to keep France or other European powers from restoring a huge American colonial empire, for a combination of commercial and geopolitical reasons. In October 1823 — more than a month before Monroe’s declaration — British Prime Minister George Canning met with French ambassador Jules de Polignac to discuss the Spanish-American question, and Canning essentially threatened war if France tried to either restore Spanish dominion in the New World, or establish French dominion. Browbeaten, Polignac was forced to promise that France “abjured, in any case, any design of acting against the colonies by force of arms,” or to “appropriate to herself any part of the Spanish possessions in America or obtain for herself any exclusive advantages.” 10

Even after Britain’s firm opposition became clear in late 1823 and early 1824, European powers still contemplated some form of scheme to impose European princes on the former Spanish colonies. But any plans that didn’t founder in the face of American or British opposition faced a third serious obstacle: the restored King of Spain, Ferdinand. Put back on his throne by French arms, Ferdinand was only willing to accept one outcome: reconquering Spain’s former colonies. The fact that Ferdinand was effectively powerless to do this didn’t stop the stubborn king from sticking to his guns, and opposing fiercely any proposals that would recognize the independence of Spain’s former colonies — even if they would be independent under the rule of one of his cousins.11 Nor did the fact that he owed his throne to France incline him to acquiesce to this French foreign policy priority.

Spain wouldn’t recognize any of its former American colonies as independent until 1837, when it acknowledged Mexican independence. Other countries took decades longer: Venezuela in 1846, Argentina in 1863, Peru in 1879, and Honduras not until 1894.

The upshot for Spain’s former colonies was that they didn’t have European kings imposed on them by force; all of them became republics, give or a take a couple of transitory experiments with monarchy. The United States and Britain avoided any other great powers besides themselves gaining a significant foothold in the Americas — and also largely avoided the trade restrictions that might have entailed. For the Bourbon government in France, the episode was seen simply as a missed opportunity to bolster their prestige and influence. But as we will see much, much later in the podcast, the French dream of establishing a European monarchy in the Americas didn’t die in the 1820s, and when France eventually returns to the idea, they’ll find it much more difficult than Richelieu or Chateaubriand had imagined.

My thanks to all of you for listening to and supporting the show, including new Patreon backers Stefan Lhachimi, Rubric, Blayne Scofield, Anton Kulikov, Chad Hunter and Nathan McDermott. As I record this, I’m currently home on a two-week self-quarantine, after possibly encountering someone infected with the coronavirus — a disease that’s doubtlessly affecting many of your lives, too. It’s my hope that The Siècle can help provide a little bit of distraction from these turbulent times. Fortunately or unfortunately, we’re quite a few episodes away from 19th Century France’s next disease pandemic, though not as many episodes away as the people of the time might have wished.

For the next episode of the show, we’ll be leaving foreign policy behind for now, but we won’t be abandoning events of global significance. That’s because we’ll be returning to a monumental event that happened in 1821, and which I’ve skipped over until now. Join me next time for Episode 20: The Death of Napoleon.

  1. Albert Gallatin, “Gallatin to J.Q. Adams, Paris, April 26, 1822,” The Writings of Albert Gallatin, vol. 2, ed. Henry Adams (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1879). 

  2. Dexter Perkins, “Europe, Spanish America, and the Monroe Doctrine,” The American Historical Review, vol. 27, no. 2 (Jan. 1922), 214. 

  3. François-René de Chateaubriand, The Memoirs of François René Vicomte de Chateaubriand sometime Ambassador to England, Vol. 4 (of 6), translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and London: Freemantle and Company). Project Gutenberg, 2017. 

  4. Perkins, “Europe, Spanish America, and the Monroe Doctrine,” 209-10. 

  5. Henry Blumenthal, France and the United States: Their Diplomatic Relations, 1789-1914 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972), 35. 

  6. Perkins, “Europe, Spanish America, and the Monroe Doctrine,” 210. 

  7. Gallatin, “Gallatin to J.Q. Adams, Paris, June 24, 1823,” The Writings of Albert Gallatin. 

  8. Perkins, “Europe, Spanish America, and the Monroe Doctrine,” 214-5. 

  9. Perkins, “Europe, Spanish America, and the Monroe Doctrine,” 212. 

  10. Adolphus William Ward and George Peabody Gooch, The Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, 1783-1919, Vol. II: 1815-1866 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1923), 67 

  11. Perkins, “Europe, Spanish America, and the Monroe Doctrine,” 218.