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Introduction to the age of empire

KC‑7.3.I (KC)
Unit 7: Learning Objective A
After more than one hundred years of isolationism, at the end of the nineteenth century the United States became an imperial power. 


  • In the late nineteenth century, the United States abandoned its century-long commitment to isolationism and became an imperial power.
  • After the Spanish-American War, the United States exercised significant control over Cuba, annexed Hawaii, and claimed Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines as territories.
  • Both a desire for new markets for its industrial products and a belief in the racial and cultural superiority of Americans motivated the United States' imperial mission.

The end of isolationism

The United States had once been a colony, its fates and fortunes tied inextricably with those of Great Britain, and found its colonial status quite at odds with its belief in representative government. In the late eighteenth century, a new alliance with France helped the fledging nation throw off colonial rule. But the help of European powers always came with strings attached, entanglements that the American government found potentially dangerous as the nation struggled to grow and thrive. Having observed the effect of foreign alliances on his administration, when George Washington left office he cautioned his successors to avoid entangling foreign alliances in his Farewell Address of 1796.start superscript, 1, end superscript
For one hundred years, with few exceptions, his successors obeyed. With an ocean separating it from the travails of Europe, the United States quietly developed into a vast and productive country as wars and famines and revolutions elsewhere brought immigrants to its shores. Taking Washington's advice to heart, the United States pursued a policy of isolationism, avoiding alliances and international intrigue as best it could.
But in the late nineteenth century all of that changed rapidly. In the space of just a few years, from 1898 to 1901, the United States went from being a former outpost of the British Empire to an imperial power in its own right, claiming territory or influence over no fewer than five islands outside its territorial boundaries (Cuba, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines).
Why, in such a short time, did the United States abandon its policy of isolationism and take on colonies of its own?

The scramble for colonies

One explanation for the United States' entry into the imperial game was peer pressure. Between 1870 and 1890, the industrial nations of Europe and Asia, particularly Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, scrambled to seize territory in the undeveloped world. With unmatched firepower and technology, these imperial powers divided Africa and Asia among themselves. Many in the United States feared that if America didn't join the race for empire, the great powers would leave it behind.squared
Global map of empires in 1900.
Map of empires in 1900. Note the large number of empires vying for Africa. Map courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
What was the point of having colonies? Like the system of mercantilism, under which the American colonies had sent raw materials to Great Britain and purchased finished goods in return, colonialism was a system designed to benefit the imperial power, usually at the expense of the colony. Colonies not only provided sources of valuable raw materials (diamonds, gold, timber, oil, rubber, and many others) for the imperial power, their populations served as markets for the industrial products made in the home country.
Markets were particularly important for the United States, which had emerged as the world's leading industrial power in the wake of the Gilded Age. Capitalism could only thrive and expand as long as people purchased the products of industry, and at the end of the nineteenth century, Americans were beginning to fear that new markets within the United States were drying up now that Manifest Destiny (the belief that God intended the United States to occupy the North American continent from Atlantic to Pacific) had been achieved. In 1893, eminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the American frontier was now closed, leading many to fear that the pioneering spirit central to the American identity was in jeopardy.cubed
What would Americans do now that relentless expansion was no longer possible? Who would Americans be if they no longer had a wilderness to conquer?

The United States becomes an empire

These questions were still unanswered when disturbing news came from Cuba, where guerrilla rebels were attempting to throw off the yoke of Spanish rule. After an American warship exploded in Havana harbor, the United States declared war on Spain. Spain was badly outmatched, and within six weeks the United States had triumphed in the Spanish-American War. In the process, they had acquired significant influence over Cuba, annexed Hawaii, and claimed Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as territories.
Not everyone was thrilled about the United States' new role as an imperial power. The irony that a former colony, which had once rebelled against a distant government across the ocean, was now governing distant peoples was not lost on contemporary observers. Others protested that imperialism would include people of "inferior" races in the American body politic. The Anti-Imperialist League, which included such diverse characters as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and labor leader Samuel Gompers, protested the United States' new empire.start superscript, 4, end superscript
Illustration on the cover of Puck magazine, 1901, showing Columbia (the allegorical representation of the United States) trying on a new hat: world power. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
But many others saw these new territories as signs that the United States had come of age, and it was the duty of Americans to spread the light of civilization and democracy to the "backward" people of the world. Convinced of the superiority of people of Anglo-Saxon descent, these Americans saw it as the "white man's burden" (a phrase taken from a poem by the author and imperialist booster Rudyard Kipling) to govern and somehow uplift the people of Latin America and the Pacific—whether they wanted it or not.start superscript, 5, end superscript

What do you think?

Why do you think some Americans supported imperialism? Why did some oppose it?
Was colonialism different than Manifest Destiny, or just a new phase of it?
Should the United States have become an empire? How long could the United States have maintained an isolationist policy towards the world?

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