Latin American Revolutions, American Response to

views updated


The centuries-old Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the New World had experienced upheaval long before the French emperor Napoleon I tried to extend his sway over the Iberian Peninsula in 1807. But it was his decision to replace the Spanish king with his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, that sparked the events that resulted, fifteen years later, in the independence of Portuguese Brazil and all of Spain's mainland colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

In late 1807, with French troops poised to enter Spain, the Portuguese royal family decamped to its largest American colony, Brazil. The following June, Napoleon installed his brother on the Spanish throne. Very quickly, a revolution broke out in Spain in support of the king (Ferdinand VII) and the Junta Central (later, the Cortes) that ruled on his behalf. In most of Spain's colonies, the local authorities initially declared their loyalty to the Junta. But by 1810 true independence movements had begun to emerge across the Spanish colonial mainland. Neither Joseph nor the Cortes were in a position to address the colonial crisis. Some of these revolutions were suppressed by local authorities; others managed to establish independent governments.

With the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of Ferdinand VII in 1814, most of the early independence movements collapsed. But the seeds of instability remained. The Portuguese king (Joa˜o VI) stayed in Brazil, which he elevated to the status of a kingdom within his empire (the equivalent of Portugal itself) in 1815. And a new group of revolutionaries, including Simon Bolívar and José de San Martín, organized forces and made plans for renewed action. In July 1816 Buenos Aires declared its independence. In 1817, Bolívar in the south and San Martín in the north won major victories. Over the next few years, they proceeded to establish military and political control over most of Spanish South America.

During the early 1820s Latin America was transformed. In April 1821 the Portuguese king returned to Lisbon, leaving a prince regent (Pedro I) to rule in Rio de Janeiro. Eighteen months later he declared Brazil independent. In the summer of 1821, major revolutionary victories in Peru and Mexico finally broke Spain's hold over its mainland colonies. By early 1822 six independent nations—Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Buenos Aires (the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata)—had replaced the old Spanish colonies.

early response to revolution

From the beginning, American public opinion tended toward enthusiastic support for the revolutionary movements to the south. While there were always skeptics, the signs of support were everywhere. Letters and essays in newspapers and journals championed revolutionaries who often claimed the Americans' own anticolonial and republican revolution as their model. Private citizens showed their views, illegally, by joining filibustering incursions into neighboring Spanish colonies or outfitting privateering expeditions against Spanish shipping. Following the War of 1812, this popular interest fueled frequent efforts on behalf of the revolutions in Congress, led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay.

Until early 1822, however, administration opinion generally lagged behind that of the public and Congress. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had initially viewed the turmoil in Spain and the Spanish Empire with a combination of hope and fear. If it resulted in republican governments that were independent of all of Europe (not just Spain), it would certainly advance American economic and strategic interests. But if it instead ended with a powerful France or, even worse, Great Britain replacing a weak Spain throughout the hemisphere, American interests would clearly suffer. Between 1808 and 1812, Jefferson and Madison had offered some encouragement to the revolutionaries, particularly in Mexico and South America. At the same time, they had tried to guard against the spread of British influence in the region, especially in the neighboring colonies of East and West Florida, Mexico, and Cuba. With the start of the Anglo-American War of 1812, American policymakers received little information from, and devoted little attention to, the Spanish Empire beyond their immediate borders.

With the end of the war in early 1815, President Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe labored to shape policies toward the region that balanced threats and opportunities. They crafted a neutrality policy that they hoped would prevent a conflict with Spain and, thus, with Spain's Native American and British allies, while still opening American markets to the revolutionaries. Their definition of neutrality fully satisfied no one—not Spain, which complained about lax enforcement of the existing laws, and not the patriots or the American public, which expected more encouragement for revolutions that seemed so like the American Revolution. The War of 1812, however, had convinced the administration not to risk another war until its wide-ranging preparedness efforts had been completed.

deciding on recognition

After the spring of 1817, the principal issue confronting the new Monroe administration was whether to extend formal diplomatic recognition to Buenos Aires, which had declared its independence the previous year. Both supporters and opponents of recognition squared their position with American neutrality. Supporters argued that the United States was not neutral if it failed to recognize states that had secured their independence because recognition would confer rights Spain already enjoyed. Opponents insisted that the government would abandon neutrality if it recognized any of the rebellious states, since that would effectively announce that the revolutionaries had won. Speaker Clay led the congressional pressure for recognition. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made the strongest counterargument. President Monroe sought ways to recognize the new states without risking war. Between late 1817 and early 1821, Clay tried at every session of Congress to introduce a resolution or bill in support of recognition. Adams worked quietly to defeat them or, at least, to water them down.

Then, in early 1822, the administration quickly reversed its position. Monroe and Adams continued to worry about the Spanish and European response. They continued to doubt that the United States was ready for war. And they continued to wonder whether the Spanish Americans could establish independent, republican governments. But the military successes of the preceding summer had left no doubt that the revolutions had succeeded throughout the Spanish mainland colonies. Any further delays, they worried, would only poison their relations with the new governments. By recognizing the governments and exchanging ministers with them, moreover, Monroe and Adams hoped to encourage the emergence of truly republican governments, the adoption of nondiscriminatory trade policies, and the rejection of close political or diplomatic ties to Europe. In early 1822 the New World seemed to have reached a decisive moment. It would either replicate—or extend—the European political, economic, and diplomatic system or reproduce the very different U.S. system. The former would seriously threaten American economic and strategic interests; the latter would probably promote them. Recognition might help decide in favor of the latter.

monroe doctrine

Having recognized five Spanish American nations in March 1822, Monroe and Adams found themselves in a difficult position eighteen months later, when European developments threatened a new effort by Spain, aided by the anti-republican Holy Alliance, to reconquer the rebellious colonies. The British foreign minister proposed a joint Anglo-American statement to discourage such a multipower enterprise and to disavow any interest in acquiring Spanish colonies for themselves. The cabinet discussed the new European threat and the surprising British proposal at length in the fall of 1823 (while the British dispelled the danger through quiet negotiations with the French). The result of these deliberations was a public statement of American concern in the president's annual message to Congress in December 1823 and new instructions for the American ministers in Great Britain, France, and Chile. In time, three crucial paragraphs in Monroe's message would be known as the Monroe Doctrine. Taken together, they asserted that the New World was closed to new colonization, that the European powers should not intervene in New World affairs, and that the United States would not interfere in European affairs. This bold stance was undercut by the reserve expressed in the instructions and other contemporary documents. Largely ignored in Europe, the message was well received within the United States and by the new Spanish American governments, some of whom hoped that it embodied the commitment to the success of their revolutions that they had expected from the United States years earlier. Monroe and Adams were quick to dispel this misconception.

relations with the new nations

In 1825 President Adams and Secretary of State Clay seized a new opportunity to shape Latin America in the United States' image by accepting an invitation to the Panama Congress. First proposed by Bolívar, the Panama Congress would bring together all of the independent American governments in the summer of 1826. Adams and Clay hoped to secure multilateral agreements at Panama that would solidify republican government, liberal commerce, and diplomatic isolation throughout the hemisphere. Fierce domestic opposition to attendance at Panama foiled these hopes. Delayed by congressional attacks, the U.S. delegates missed the Congress, which accomplished very little in any case.

By the end of the 1820s, developments in Latin America—the emergence of military governments and the descent into recurrent warfare, in particular—had left American policymakers untroubled by and uninterested in the new states. Only the United States' immediate neighbors, Mexico and Cuba (which remained a Spanish colony), still captured its attention.

See alsoAdams, John Quincy; European Influences: Napoleon and Napoleonic Rule; Latin American Influences; Monroe, James; Monroe Doctrine .


Anna, Timothy E. Spain and the Loss of America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Griffin, Charles Carroll. The United States and the Disruption of the Spanish Empire, 1810–1822: A Study of the Relations of the United States with Spain and with the Rebel Spanish Colonies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937.

Johnson, John J. A Hemisphere Apart: The Foundations of United States Policy toward Latin America. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Lewis, James E., Jr. The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire, 1783–1829. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808–1826. New York: Norton, 1973.

Whitaker, Arthur Preston. The United States and the Independence of Latin America, 1800–1830. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1941.

James E. Lewis Jr.

About this article

Latin American Revolutions, American Response to

Updated About content Print Article