Expansionism in the 1890s
An Expanding and Changing Economy
The decade of the 1890s saw several factors converge that account for America’s desire to pursue an imperial policy. In the years following the Civil War the economy of the United States expanded rapidly. The Civil War briefly retarded the Industrial Revolution, which began roughly around 1815, but the end of the conflict allowed the nation to finish the process of industrialization.
Did you know?
The kind of expansionism the United States engaged in during this period is called Imperialism. Imperialism is the policy of acquiring dependent territories or extending a country’s influence through foreign trade.
Mechanization and mass production allowed American industries to flood the domestic marketplace with consumer goods, but it also led to the growth of businesses and the emergence of the modern American corporation. Transportation systems improved—especially railroads—allowing producers to move goods efficiently to market for exchange. Changes occurred in other sectors of the American economy, also. For example, farm production increased with the adoption of mechanization. The settlement of the American West by a class of new farmers translated into greater yields in crop production. Industrial and agricultural production changes, while beneficial to the American economy, presented new challenges.
A pattern of over-production and under-consumption led to troubles in the post-Civil War economy. The industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy produced more than the public could buy. Surpluses resulted in downturns in the economy, as evidenced by the financial panics that occurred in 1873 and 1893. American business leaders and farmers believed that foreign markets with access to additional consumers would alleviate some of these problems. By 1890, many American business leaders began to cast covetous eyes overseas in a search for new markets and investment opportunities. Learn more about American Imperialism in the Imperialism drag-and-drop.
As early as 1885 Josiah Strong argued, It seems to me that God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the world’s future. The lands of the earth are limited, and soon will be taken. Then will the world enter upon a new stage in its history- the final competition of the races. Then this race of unequaled energy, with the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it- the representative of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization... will spread itself over the earth.
newspaper cartoon illustrating the “backward peoples” that the United States would civilize.
Another factor that contributed to American expansion was idealism. An idealism emerged in the 1890s rooted in the belief that American civilization and Protestant “Christianity” possessed great potential to uplift so-called “backward peoples.” Many Americans have pursued this goal of spreading democratic and/or religious ideas to those whom they considered to be less fortunate. Many Americans argued that it was a sin to leave “backward peoples” in a godless and chaotic state, contending that it was the duty of pious Americans to aid the disadvantaged and “inferior.” Some religious figures, such as Minister Josiah Strong, urged expansion to further the American mission to spread civilizing and Christian influences.
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English poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in 1899 that described the U.S. conquest of the Philippines and other former Spanish colonies as being “The White Man’s Burden.” American imperialists adopted the phrase, using it in their arguments to justify their actions as a noble enterprise. The following is part of the poem:
Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
newspaper cartoon interpreting “The White Man’s Burden”
Hawaiians, Cubans, Filipinos, and the Chinese received a great deal of attention from American missionary societies in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
American idealism and the missionary tradition helped to usher in the era of empire.
Alfred Thayer Mahan and Naval Theory
Alfred Thayer Mahan
American overseas expansion also rested on the desire for a strong and effective navy. With the publication of his book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan influenced imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt, who would become president in 1901, and Henry Cabot Lodge, who served in the House and Senate. Thayer argued that great nations possessed modern navies to protect vital trade routes. He also advocated an imperial policy to support the country’s steam-powered navy, contending that colonies provided much needed coaling stations.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis
Frederick Jackson Turner
The Frontier Thesis was another factor that accounted for the course of American imperialism because it crystallized many of the hopes and desires that Americans possessed during the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1892, Frederick Jackson Turner, a prominent historian of the American West, stated that frontier and westward expansion served many purposes. The frontier, he said, acted as a “safety valve” alleviating overpopulation by providing Americans with ready access to cheap or free land. Additionally, the frontier presented new economic opportunities as individuals looked for land and resources to exploit in order to ensure prosperity. The frontier served as an outlet for the civilizing impulses of the country because Anglos migrating brought undeveloped land and Native peoples under control. Turner also suggested, according to figures available from the 1890 United States Census, that the frontier would soon close. If Turner was correct, the frontier experience and all the benefits it brought would rapidly end.
Turner left unanswered the question of what the United States would do with the closure of the frontier. American actions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century provided a new framework for meeting this challenge. Americans would look abroad for economic and civilizing opportunities. A new frontier could be created in places yet untouched by the American experience. Imperialism offered an inviting answer to the closing of the American frontier and westward expansion. By 1890, American foreign policymakers began to take definite steps to ensure that this new frontier would be open to the nation.
Did you know?
Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, had been a brigadier general for the Union Army in the Civil War.
In 1889, significant changes began to occur in the formulation and execution of American foreign policy. American diplomacy had historically been haphazard and reactionary. Foreign service officers and ambassadors were traditionally appointed based on their political connections or the donations they had made to various presidential campaigns. In reality, American diplomats knew little about the culture and language of the countries to which they were dispatched. But Benjamin Harrison, a Republican elected to the presidency in 1888, began the process of changing the approach taken in American foreign policy. Along with James Blaine, Harrison’s secretary of state, the president began rationalizing and modernizing American diplomacy. The “New Diplomacy,” as it was called, entailed a more active foreign policy as well as more advanced planning to deal with foreign crises and contingencies. State Department employees and American ambassadors began to study the languages and cultures of the countries in which they would reside. Additionally, Blaine and Harrison recognized the inherent problems that accompanied American industrialization. Both men sought ways to alleviate those problems.
Did you know?
Pan-Americanism is the advocacy for a political alliance or union between North, Central, and South America that would lead to cooperation in the areas of economics, culture, and the military.
The Harrison Administration pursued an expansion of foreign markets throughout its four-year-term. Blaine wanted a closer relationship with Latin America and initiated a series of policies that attempted to improve the nation’s ties with those countries. Blaine and Harrison saw the untapped economic opportunities available in Latin America and aggressively sought to lower barriers like tariffs to stimulate trade. Though most of Blaine’s initiatives failed, his efforts laid the foundation for later administrations to pursue a policy based on Pan-Americanism. Harrison also continued the modernization and expansion of the United States Navy in order to protect potential trade routes. Finally, the administration put America firmly on the path toward empire with its acquisition of the Hawaiian Islands.
Henry Cabot Lodge
Hawaii existed as an independent country with a monarchy, but planters of American ancestry, descended from missionaries who had come to the islands in the early 1800s, dominated the economic life. By 1890 these planters owned all the prime lands needed for growing sugar and fruit and kept the native-born Hawaiians locked in a cycle of perpetual poverty and servitude. American sugar and fruit companies had come to rely upon the chain of Pacific islands as a source of profit. Resentment began to build against both the planters and the United States among the islanders. For a number of years a succession of weak Hawaiian monarchs had allowed continued American domination of the kingdom, but that changed with the succession of Queen Liliuokalani.
Queen Liliuokalani came to the throne as a determined nationalist. She witnessed the years of American domination and exploitation and wanted to remove foreign influences, restoring the kingdom to its former autonomy. Sugar planters, fearful of being expelled from the islands, planned and executed a coup against Queen Liliuokalani. John Stevens, the American ambassador to Hawaii, ordered 150 marines from the cruiser Boston to aid the planters in their overthrow. The wealthy planter class succeeded and declared Hawaii an independent republic. The leaders of the new republic petitioned Congress in 1893 to annex Hawaii and make it an American territory.
Early that year, the Harrison Administration submitted a treaty of annexation to the Senate. But President Cleveland, a Democrat who won the election in November and took office in March, withdrew the treaty, stating that the coup violated American morality. He condemned the attempted acquisition of Hawaii as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Henry Cabot Lodge, a congressman from Massachusetts and chief foreign policy spokesman for the Republican Party, denied the charges arguing that the doctrine applied only to European involvement in the Western Hemisphere and in no way curtailed American expansion. This disagreement illustrates the deep differences that existed between the Republican and Democratic political parties when it came to the question of imperialism.
Did you know?
The Monroe Doctrine was a statement made by President James Monroe on December 2, 1823, to Congress that articulated the United States’s policy on the new political order developing in the Western Hemisphere, particularly what role Europe would have in this order. The great powers of Europe ignored the Monroe Doctrine at the time but the statement did become a longstanding tenet of U.S. foreign policy. The doctrine has three main concepts:
- Separate spheres of influence for the Americas and Europe.
- European powers would no longer colonize or interfere with the affairs of newly independent Latin American nations.
- The U.S. would stay neutral in wars between European powers and their colonies, except if these wars occurred in the Western Hemisphere.
Differing Party Views
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Republicans tended to be imperialists. Since the end of the Civil War the party increasingly represented business interests. Republicans sought foreign markets and investment opportunities throughout the period, as compared with the Democratic Party. Hawaii, in particular, represented such an opportunity to many Republicans. Additionally, the islands might provide a stepping-stone to the mythical China market that had held potential for American business.
Map of Hawaii 1888
Conversely, many Democrats like Grover Cleveland opposed overseas expansion. Democrats tended to represent the interests of individual farmers and small businesses. These groups usually produced for the domestic marketplace and had minimal contact with international consumers. The acquisition of foreign markets provided little interest to these groups, and Democrats reflected this view. In addition, much of the Democratic Party’s political strength came from the American South. The region’s racial ideology, based on white supremacy and a fear of racial mixing, looked upon any additions of foreign territory populated by people of color with suspicion. Democrats of the era doubted that the United States could absorb and govern large numbers of non-whites. Many in the Democratic party opposed the annexation of Hawaii.
Annexation of Hawaii
The islands remained a republic throughout the years of the Cleveland Administration. While Cleveland condemned the coup he refused to place Queen Liliuokalani back on the throne, an activity that would have pitted the President against American planters in Hawaii. In 1898, Republican President William McKinley annexed Hawaii. His administration effectively pushed a joint-resolution through both houses of Congress to make the Republic a Territory. The resolution needed only a simple majority, while a treaty would have required an affirmative two-thirds vote by the United States Senate and substantial opposition remained in that legislative body on the question of Hawaiian annexation.
Growing Interest in Latin America
Lord Salisbury, Britain’s Prime Minister
During the 1890s, American foreign policy came to include a growing interest in Latin America. The Cleveland administration interpreted the Monroe Doctrine strictly, using it to justify limitations on American expansion in Hawaii while at the same time establishing the United States’s hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. In 1895, the president threw American support behind Venezuela in a dispute between it and the English colony of British Guinea. The Venezuelan government insisted that the disagreement be submitted to an arbitration board. President Cleveland, invoking the Monroe Doctrine, insisted that Great Britain submit to such an arrangement. This action built international and domestic goodwill for the United States because it appeared that the U.S. supported Venezuela’s rights against a great Western power, but the British prime minister and foreign secretary rejected any calls for arbitration and alleged the Monroe Doctrine was not applicable under international law. The Cleveland Administration voiced outrage at the Prime Minister’s response, insisting that Great Britain submit to arbitration.
War threatened as this Anglo-American dispute unfolded. Great Britain, concerned with German economic and military competition, did not want to go to war with the United States, deciding instead to accept the American offer of arbitration. The American public opinion initially pushed for war with Britain but soon calmed. Eventually, an arbitration board ruled in Britain’s favor, ending the boundary dispute. But by that time the Venezuelan Crisis had ushered in a new era of Anglo-American cooperation that deepened into a “special relationship” between the two countries. Great Britain’s agreement to arbitrate affirmed the Monroe Doctrine, signaling the country’s acceptance of American primacy in the Western Hemisphere. In the end, the Venezuelan Crisis provided Americans with a false sense of security, convincing diplomats that the United States could achieve policy goals through bluster and threats. Learn more about how Americans viewed Imperialism in the interactive American Attitudes toward Imperialism