In his annual written message to Congress, submitted on Dec. 2, 1823, President James Monroe outlined what would eventually become a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Monroe insisted that European powers ought no longer meddle with the free countries of the western hemisphere, declaring, "The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers."
The decree, which in years to come would be known as the Monroe Doctrine, was articulated at a moment of very modest American power. The U.S. was still recovering from the traumas of the War of 1812, and a humble American Navy now tacitly required the might of Great Britain to enforce the neutrality of the seas. Monroe warily eyed Spanish and Portuguese ambitions in South America and the Caribbean as well as the Russian colonial beachhead in modern-day Alaska; in his statement, he appealed to principles of neutrality, enlightenment and justice. The irony, of course, is that in the decades that followed, the Monroe Doctrine came to stand for a legacy of U.S. influence and dominance over much of Latin America.