"America Acquires An Empire:

Factors Prompting American Internationalism During the 1890s and Beyond"

1890 was a watershed year for the United States in terms of its view of the world past the continental boundaries of North America. In the thirty years preceding 1890, Americans were largely indifferent to foreign affairs and the conduct of international relations. For a variety of reasons Americans were not yet terribly interested in or prepared for an overseas empire. This would change dramatically during the 1890s. In the next thirty years the United States would participate in two wars, acquire territorial possessions in far-flung areas of the globe as it created an empire for itself, and American presidents began playing an active role on the world stage.

Why this dramatic change in directions? What factors account for the overall indifference and inactivity from 1860 to 1890 and what factors account for the intense new interest and frenetic activity from 1890 to 1920?

Causes of American Indifference to Internationalism from 1860 to 1890

One of the primary reasons for American indifference and inactivism was the preoccupation of Americans with a series of domestic crises, events, and trends at home. Between 1860 and 1865 Americans struggled to determine the future direction of their country on Civil War battlefields. Following the demise of the Confederacy, Americans were absorbed for a decade with reuniting and reconstructing their shattered nation. The Civil War and Reconstruction were a divisive period of the American experience requiring all the attention, energy, and resources of the American people.

Prior to 1890 Americans had yet to complete the conquest of North America. For almost twenty-five years the United States Army had its hands full with the Indians of the Great Plains. The conquest of foreign lands was premature until the entire continent between Canada and the Republic of Mexico came under the control of the United States.

Americans in the quarter century prior to 1890 were also preoccupied with the demanding process of industrialization. The American Industrial Revolution occurred with such startling swiftness only because the United States invested such an abnormally high percentage of its national resources and efforts in industrialization, even at the expense of other goals.

In short then, the United States in the thirty years prior to 1890 was still preparing for its emergence on the international scene. Until the Civil War had been fought and the country reunited, until conquest of the North American continent was complete, until industrialization had made America wealthy and powerful, the United States was unprepared for overseas acquisition and imperialism.

During much of its history, the United States has benefited from its physical isolation. The nation developed in relative isolation from Europe and its problems. Had the British colonies in North America been fifty miles off English shores rather than on the other side of the world, perhaps there would have been no United States. Once the American Revolution took place, Americans were able to concentrate on solidifying their independence and developing their country in part because they were not forced to permanently deploy armed forces and expend resources to defend against a strong enemy on their very borders. The United States was in part indifferent to and inactive in international relations between 1860 and 1890 because, given the security afforded by the physical isolation of America, no nation forced Americans to form foreign alliances to protect themselves. Americans did not have to play the diplomatic game in order to protect themselves. No unfriendly nation posed a real threat to the United States. The country was the strongest in the Western Hemisphere and could rest easy in that position. A policy of isolationism in foreign affairs was one of the cornerstones of the first century of American history. Because of the colonial experience of the American people, most Americans felt it was prudent for the new country to steer clear of European affairs to the greatest degree possible. Europe was viewed as the Old World, replete with numerous problems and contagions. Early Americans felt that if the United States allied itself with any European power, the new country would soon become entangled in the perpetual power struggles and military conflicts that characterized Europe.

Perhaps no better example of this attitude can be found than the words of President Washington in his Farewell Address to the American people. He warned against "entangling alliances" that might cost the nation the freedom it had won on revolutionary battlefields. Washingtonís words had great impact because no sooner had they been uttered than England and France went to war in another of their endless conflicts. Despite the best efforts of Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Madison to remain neutral, the United States would in the end be drug into this struggle - the War of 1812. This seemed to prove the wisdom of Washingtonís warning and during the early 1820s the United States would issue the Monroe Doctrine trying to prevent conflicts with European powers by isolating it from the New World nations of the Western Hemisphere. While necessity at times mandated interaction with various world powers, the United States in large part attempted to remain aloof from and uninvolved in world affairs during its first century of existence.

During its first hundred years as a nation, the United States, quite frankly, was simply not large enough, strong enough, or financially capable of creating an empire for itself in the distant regions of the world and asserting itself as the equal of Britain and other global powers. By the 1890s this was no longer true. By the 1890s the United States had solidified its revolution and its independence, taken possession of all of North America, become an industrial power of the first order, and was now ready for overseas territorial acquisition and a policy of international involvement and leadership.

Factors Prompting International Expansion in the 1890s

If one of the cornerstones of Americaís first century of national existence had been diplomatic isolationism, one of its other cornerstones had been a constant and insatiable desire for new land. Territorial expansion had occurred unimpeded from colonial days forward. First America had been limited to the Atlantic Seaboard but then it grew by leaps and bounds - the Trans-Mississippi, the Louisiana Purchase, Florida, Texas, Oregon, the Mexican Cession, etc. By 1890, all of the middle portions of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific had come under American control but the desire for new land didnít simply vanish. That desire for growth remained a motivating factor for American action well into the twentieth century. Americans now began to cast covetous eyes on land beyond the continental boundaries of North America - to Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Isthmus of Panama, the Philippines, etc. Territorial expansion would not be limited to North America. Manifest Destiny was a popular concept in the 1840s as both an encouragement to and a rationalization for the spread of the United States across the entire continent. Americans came to accept the ethnocentric idea that it was the divine mission of America to bring the benefits of Christianity and civilization and progress to all areas of North America. Belief in such a divine mission sped the annexation of Texas and Oregon by treaty and the Mexican Cession territory as a result of the War with Mexico. The concept of Manifest Destiny did not end however with these conquests. Americans of the late 1880s and 1890s began discussing the additional task facing a modern America - that of spreading Christianity and civilization to areas beyond continental boundaries. If God had meant for Americans to bring progress and salvation to the Indians of North America, he must also have meant for Americans to continue in overseas lands once they had the ability to do so. Many Americans supported territorial expansion in the Caribbean, the Pacific, and Asia for this reason.

Social Darwinism was applied to relations between different races and nationalities just as Darwinís theory of evolution had been applied to the business sector during the process of industrialization and turmoil of concentration. Social Darwinists postulated that just as there were superior or more advanced biological organisms, so there were superior races of people and backwards races of people. It was the responsibility of the superior races and nationalities to bring progress and advancement to the backwards areas of the world. Unless they did so, mankind would cease to evolve and begin to die. Thus, it was, to them, "the white manís burden" to spread civilization through conquest and empire building.

Both of these ideas prospered during the 1890s and served to thrust America outward. Examples are easy to find. Take for instance the speech made by Senator Albert J. Beveridge following the Spanish-American War speaking on behalf of retaining the Philippines as an American protectorate:

"God has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept at government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man...

What shall history say of us? Shall it say that we renounced that holy trust, left the savage to his base condition, the wilderness to the reign of waste, deserted duty, abandoned glory?...Our fathers would not have had it so. No! They founded no paralytic government, incapable of even the simplest acts of administration...They unfurled no retreating flag. That flag has never paused in its onward march. Who dares halt it now...now, when historyís largest events are carrying it forward?"

Between 1860 and 1890 the United States tended to shy away from internationalism and territorial acquisitions overseas in part because Americans were concentrating on producing an Industrial Revolution that would make the country strong and rich. By the 1890s these efforts had produced phenomenal results. Indeed, American production of manufactured goods threatened to outrun domestic consumption despite a rising population. Thus, manufacturers faced a choice between limiting production and thus profits or finding more consumers. European markets would be tough to break into because nations there used protective tariffs to safeguard their manufacturers in the same manner as the United States had. If the United States were to acquire an overseas empire, not only would the peoples of that empire mean more consumers for the American manufacturer but also a dependable supply of cheap raw materials and natural resources to fuel an industrial America. Therefore, while industrialization had delayed American internationalism prior to 1890, it served to promote it after 1890. One of the most important reasons for the creation of an American empire in the 1890s and into the new century was the influence of naval strategists, and most particularly Alfred Thayer Mahan. An admiral in the United States Navy, Mahan authored three very important books during the crucial last decade of the nineteenth century regarding the influence of naval power - The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890), The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (1892), and The Interest of America in Sea Power (1897). In these three widely-read books that had tremendous influence on American policy makers, Mahan argued three primary points. Mahan pointed out how Great Britainís control of the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and a canal it built across the Isthmus of Suez made the Mediterranean Sea a virtual British lake. It cut travel time and costs from the British Isles to Asia and gave the British a tremendous military and commercial advantage.

Mahan urged America to realize the strategic naval importance of certain points in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific and to acquire these points as quickly as possible. For instance, a naval base on the island of Cuba would enable the United States to control entry into and exit from the Gulf of Mexico as well as control the approach routes to the Isthmus of Panama. If the United States constructed a canal across Panama, travel time and cost between the east and west coasts of the United States would be cut in half. The United States Navy would have easy passage back and forth between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. What the Suez Canal did for Britain, a Panamanian Canal would do for the United States. The importance of Hawaii and the Philippines as refueling stops and military bases was also stressed.

Itís hard to overemphasize Mahanís influence. By 1905 the United States had made Hawaii and the Philippines part of an American empire, had obtained a naval base on the island of Cuba as well as the rights to construct and operate a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Further, American naval forces had been greatly expanded and modernized.

One final reason for the American emergence onto the world scene and the creation of an empire was a new martial or warlike spirit which swept the United States in the 1890s and into the new century known as jingoism. Jingoists were American leaders such as Mahan, Beveridge, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt who were most eager to demonstrate the maturity and power of the United States by military force. For instance, listen to the following statement by Roosevelt during the Venezuela-British Guiana boundary dispute: "Let the fight (with Great Britain) come if it must. I rather hope that the fight will come soon. The clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war." This attitude was thwarted by the peaceful settlement of the boundary dispute. However, the desire to express the military strength of the United States found its opportunity during the Cuban crisis later in the 1890s. One of the primary reasons for the Spanish-American War was the desire of jingoists to prove the new power of the United States.


During its first century of national existence, the United States, by choice and circumstance, was largely indifferent to foreign affairs and was certainly less than a global power. All of that began to change around the year 1890. From 1890 to 1920 the United States created an empire for itself, fought two wars, and became an active participant in diplomatic relations. Once the United States took this dramatic step , it could never return, even if it wished and tried, to the security of both physical and diplomatic isolation from the problems of the rest of the world.