The Age of Empire: American Imperialism at the Close of the 19th Century

Last Updated: 07 Dec 2022
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Imperialism is a process by which countries attempt to extend their power into new spheres by leveraging their military, economic, cultural, and political power over another land. The roots of imperialism have differed through the ages. Some countries have sought imperialism by conquest, pillaging and plundering another land for pure exploitative economic gain. Other countries have conducted imperialism by colonization, slowly infiltrating and eventually assuming control of another land over time by force.

For much of European history after the renaissance, the European continent entered an “Age of Imperialism” that saw British, French, Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, and German expansion across the far reaches of the globe. America, however, was a late addition to the scramble for imperialist expansion. Not until the late 19th century did the fledgling North American power attempt to move beyond its borders in pursuit of bolstering the national interest.

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Over the course of several decades, however, America removed the shackles of isolationism and became an aggressive expansionist power primarily in Latin America and the Philippines. While this policy was not uniformly popular, it is important to understand because it drastically influenced and shaped American foreign policy for the 20th century. During the late 1800’s, America engaged in overseas expansion in three main areas: Spanish-America, the Philippines, and several Pacific islands. These campaigns were ideologically motivated by the philosophical underpinnings of the Monroe Doctrine.

This foreign policy standard, developed by President James Monroe in 1823, stated that the Western Hemisphere was distinctly the domain of the United States and that American “exceptionalism” would allow the United States to exclusively deal with affairs of the Western Hemisphere (Oklahoma College of Law, The Monroe Doctrine). This principle was the foundation of a series of events that eventually prompted the United States to invade foreign sovereign nations. Racist thought also perpetuated public support for these imperialist invasions.

The so-called White Man’s Burden, which had justified so much inhumanity by European powers was also raised by proponents of American expansionism. This theory held that because White men were “civilized” in contrast to their colored counterparts, it was the ethical duty of Europeans and European descendants to forcibly civilize the “uneducated” and “inferior” races of the world. Coupled with the Monroe Doctrine, politicians combined with sensational journalists (often referred to as “yellow journalists”) to drum up support for American excursions abroad (American Library of Congress).

The first major front in the eventual military expansionism that ensued was in Cuba and other parts of Spanish America. This campaign, known as the Spanish-American War, was Cuba. Here, Americans sympathetic to the plight of the Cubans, legitimized a show of force with the U. S. S. Maine, which was eventually sunk near Havana, prompting an outcry for war. The war in Cuba raged on in the aftermath of that incident, with Congress issuing a declaration of war. Unlike Cuba, which was more of a conflict between two “White” powers, American imperialism in the Philippines developed into a far more systematic form of colonialism.

American became an occupying power that asserted its dominance and applied its customs and language on the native population. Indeed, during the course of the war, American brutality was substantial, with an estimated 200,000 Filipinos dying from the conflict, largely in the festering disease-ridden concentration camps. Additionally, many Americans were reported to have carried out war crimes against the local population—shameful acts that were exposed and documented by the Lodge Committee report (Miller, 184).

Similarly, America extended its reach—with many negative results—in Guam, Samoa, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. These particular conquests mark the height of American imperialist expansion at the close of the 19th century. Even though the Monroe Doctrine and the White Man’s Burden theories garnered sufficient support from the public to carry out the imperialist campaigns popularly, dissent against the newfound expansionism did exist. The major opponent of imperialist policies in America was the Anti-Imperialist League.

This organization, which prided itself on its founding ideals of liberty and equality for all persons, regardless of race or geographic location, sought to end American imperialist expansionism. As they argued, America’s militarism against the defenseless indigenous populations was nothing more than “criminal aggression” (Modern History Sourcebook). The League had a substantial impact on the national debate over imperialism, as it had cultural superstars like Mark Twain on its side.

Nonetheless, however, even as the League successfully highlighted some of the bankrupt practices of American expansionism, the campaigns were nonetheless carried out. The impact of American imperialism during the late 1890s reverberates still today. The Monroe Doctrine has now been replaced by a series of new foreign policy strategies, including the most recent addition of the Bush doctrine, which authorizes preemptive attacks anywhere in the world to ensure American security. Our occupation of Iraq currently has its roots and its legacy embedded in the deployment of troops under President McKinley.

This fact highlights why early American imperialism is so important to understanding our current foreign policy; it is a continuum rather than a series of isolated events. And now, just like then, anti-imperialist groups are being heard throughout the country. Only time will tell how effectively they will be at steering our government from continuing the imperialist legacy started at the close of the 19th century. Works Cited: Miller, Stuart C. "Benevolent Assimilation": the American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899- 1903. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

340 p Modern History Sourcebook. “American Anti-Imperialist League, 1898. ” Available online from: http://www. fordham. edu/halsall/mod/1899antiimp. html. Accessed 17 January 2009. “The Monroe Doctrine. ” University of Oklahoma College of Law. Historical Documents. Available online at: http://www. law. ou. edu/ushistory/monrodoc. shtml. Accessed 17 January 2009. “The World of 1898: The Spanish American War. ” The Library of Congress, Hipic Division. Available online from: http://www. loc. gov/rr/hipic/1898. Accessed 18 January 2009.

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The Age of Empire: American Imperialism at the Close of the 19th Century. (2016, Jul 03). Retrieved from

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