Why did the United States Acquire an Overseas Empire?



Early 1890’s for the United States are considered defining moments for the U.S. in relation to its perception and policies relating to the world beyond the continental boundaries of North America. Approximately forty years before the year 1890, Americans were fundamentally uninterested in the conduct of international relations and foreign affairs. For many different reasons, Americans did not find a substantial reason to engage in establishing foreign empires. They were not even prepared for one. Nonetheless, this situation would change dramatically in the decade that followed 1890. In the next forty years, the U.S. would take part in two global wars, i.e. WWI and WWII, annex territorial possessions in remote areas of the world as it established an empire for itself. Within this period, United States presidents started playing an active role in international matters. What could have led to this dramatic change in policy? What factors account for the powerful new attention and interest in acquiring an overseas empire, as well as frenzied activity in subsequent years after 1890? The desire to acquire new territories; the principles of Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny; the need to expand the economy; as well as jingoist leaders were some of the main factors behind American imperialism.

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Historic State Imperialism

If one of the fundamental policies regarding United States’ international engagement was diplomatic isolationism, one of its other fundamental principles was an insatiable and constant desire for acquiring new territories. Regional expansion had taken place unhindered from colonial period forward. Originally, the U.S. had been restricted to the Atlantic Seaboard but then expanded over and above its original territory – the Mexican Cession, Oregon, Texas, Florida, the Louisiana Purchase, and Mississippi among others (Library of Congress n.p). By the year 1890, all of the central areas of North America, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean had come under the U.S. control. However, the aspiration to annex new land did not just go away. That longing for expansion remained a driving force for the U.S. activities well into the 20th Century. Americans now started eyeing land beyond their continental precincts of North America – to Philippines, the Isthmus of Panama, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hawaii among others (De Witt n.p). National border extension would not be restricted to North America.

The Principles of Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny

The concept of Social Darwinism was used in relations between different nationalities and races, similar to how Darwin’s theory of evolution was used in the business domain while experiencing the confusion and resultant challenges of concentration and the industrialization process. Supporters of this principle argued that just as there were more advanced or superior organisms, so there were backward races and superior races of people. According to them, the onus was on the superior nationalities and races to bring advancement and progress to the backward and uncivilized regions of the world. They firmly believed that failure to do so would see the human race cease to evolve and start to die. Therefore, it was, to them, the responsibility of the White man to civilize the uncivilized through empire building and conquest.

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In 1840s, Manifest Destiny was a popular principle as both a rationalization and applicable concept for the spread of the U.S. across the whole continent. During this period, Americans firmly believed in the ethnocentric notion they had been tasked through a divine mission to spread the good news and bring the rewards of Christianity to all regions more so in North America. This strong belief resulted in the direct occupation of Oregon and Texas by treaty and the Mexican Cession region owing to War with the Mexicans (Shopes n.p). The conquests and subsequent annexation of Texas and Oregon did not see the end of the application and use of the Manifest Destiny concept. In late 1880s and early 1890s, Americans started deliberating on the extra responsibilities facing a contemporary America – that of civilizing the uncivilized and spreading religion to lands beyond territorial boundaries (Library of Congress n.p[b]). If there was a divine calling for Americans to bring salvation and progress to the North American Indians, it followed that he must have meant for them to do the same in overseas lands upon having the capacity to travel that far. A majority of Americans supported international expansion in Asia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean for this reason.

According to Ferraro (n.p), these two ideas flourished in the years after 1890 and served as a lynchpin to push America outward. There are many instances where U.S. government officials’ arguments and beliefs were guided by these two concepts. For instance, Senator Albert J. Beneridge made the following remarks after the Spanish-American War. He was speaking in support of the retention of the Philippines as an American territory:

“…Mr. President, this question is deeper than any question of party politics; deeper than any question of the isolated policy of our country even; deeper even than any question of constitutional power…. has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. God has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in 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. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace. The judgment of the Master is upon us: “Ye have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many things…“ (Beveridge, “The Philippine Question” Washington D.C., 1900).

Economic Factors

Between the years 1865 and 1889, America tended to keep of foreign territorial acquisitions and internationalism in part owing to the fact that they (Americans) were focused on effecting an industrial revolution, which would make the country rich and strong economically. Towards late 1880s, the American’s efforts had become so successful to an extent it had produced unimaginable outcomes. Indeed, the U.S. production of finished products threatened to outmuscle local consumption notwithstanding a growing population. Therefore, manufacturers were faced with a choice between finding more clients for their products, or limiting production, which by extension would reduce profits. Breaking into the European markets would be a tough order since countries there applied protective quotas and tariffs to protect their internal industries just the same way the Americans had done. If America were to annex foreign territories and create an international American empire, not only would the people of that empire create a market for the products, but would also provide natural resources and cheap raw materials for sustain growth in the newly industrialized America. Thus, whereas industrialization had hindered American imperialism before 1890, it promoted it in the decade that followed.

The Impact of Naval Planners

One of the most fundamental factors that resulted in the American imperialism in the 1890s moving on into the 20th century was the effect of naval strategists, and in particular Alfred Mahan. A. Thayer Mahan had reached the rank of an Admiral within the U.S. Navy at the time he wrote three vital books in the last ten years of the 19th century. His books focused on the effect of naval power on the world. They included The Interest of America in Sea Power (1897), The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (1892) and The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) (Trask n.p). The books were widely read across America and had significant effects on the policy makers.

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According to Mahan (63b), if America desired to become a world power, it was of paramount importance that it acquires certain specific possessions of tactical naval significance. He noted that by then, every world power had a huge merchant marine with the capacity of conducting trade in different parts of the world. He argued that if America intended on initiating a lucrative trading relationship with Africa, Europe, or Asia, it would be required to modernize and enlarge its merchant marine. Mahan (113a) also noted that every world power had developed a huge naval military, which enhanced its influence in all the distant, disparate areas of the world. He argued that if America wished to become an international power, enlarging its navy was a mandatory requirement.

In his explanations, Mahan indicated how the control of Suez Canal, the Straits of Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and the Straits of Gibraltar had transformed the Mediterranean Sea into a British protectorate. He noted that this strategy had helped reduce costs and time required to travel back and forth the British Isles of Asia. In his argument, Mahan noted that such strategic placements gave the British an upper hand in both its commercial and military exploits. He urged America to acknowledge the strategic naval significance of certain geographical locations in the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean and pushed for the acquisition of these locations. For example, creating an American naval base in Cuba would give the U.S. the rights to control exit and entry into Mexico’s Gulf area (Cleveland n.p). It would additionally give the U.S. the power to control the approach paths towards Panamanian coast. The construction of a canal across Panama would reduce the costs and time spent between the west and the east costs of the U.S., subsequently reducing both by half.


Another reason attributed to the emergence of the U.S. imperialism was a new warlike or martial spirit that swept across the U.S. in late 1880s and early 1890s called jingoism. Some of the famous jingoist leaders include Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Beveridge, who were most anxious to show the power and maturity of the U.S. through its military prowess. For example, the then serving President of the United States – Theodore Roosevelt – said, “…the clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war. Let the fight come if it must; I don’t care if our seacoast cities are bombarded or not; we would take Canada” (Nasaw 499). Nonetheless, the longing to demonstrate the military prowess of the U.S. found its opening in the course of the run-up to the Cuban crisis. A fundamental reason that led to the Spanish-American War in 1898 was the need of jingoists to attest the new military prowess of America.

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For the duration of its first century as a nation, America, by circumstance and choice, was fundamentally uninterested in engaging in international matters. During this period, it was unquestionably less of an international power. However, towards the beginning of 1890s, all that started to change. Between the period ranging from 1890 to 1920, America actively engaged in international diplomatic relations and activities, fought in two world wars, and created an empire for itself. After taking these dramatic steps, there was no turning back. It thus became difficult to isolate itself diplomatically and physically from the challenges faced by the rest of the world.

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  1. “Albert J. Beveridge “The Philippine Question” Transcript.” Speeches-Usa.Com, 2017, http://www.speeches-usa.com/Transcripts/albert_beveridge-question.html.
  2. Cleveland, Grover. “American Interests in the Cuban Revolution.” Papers Relating to Foreign Policy (1896).
  3. De Witt, William. “History Of Later Years Of The Hawaiian Monarchy And The Revolution Of 1893 : Alexander, W. D. (William De Witt), 1833-1913 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive”. Internet Archive. N.p., 18987. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
  4. DPLA,. “The Introduction From An 1899 Book, A Complete History Of The Spanish-American War..” Dp.la. N.p., 1898. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
  5. Ferraro, Vincent. “William Mckinley: The Acquisition Of The Philippines”. Mtholyoke.edu. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
  6. Library of Congress,. “Parallel Histories: Spain, The United States, And The American Frontier          Home / Historias Paralelas: España, Estados Unidos Y La Frontera Americana”.   International.loc.gov.            N.p., 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
  7. Library of Congress. “Chronology Of Spain In The Spanish-American War – The World Of 1898: The Spanish-American War (Hispanic Division, Library Of Congress)”. Loc.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
  8. Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The influence of sea power upon the French Revolution and Empire: 1793-1812. Vol. 2. Little, Brown, and company, 1905.
  9. Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The interest of America in sea power, present and future. Ayer Company Pub, 1918.
  10. Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. London: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
  11. Shopes., Linda. “Talking History Listserv”. Historymatters.gmu.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
  12. The New York public Library “Part V”. Web-static.nypl.org., 1898. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
  13. Trask, David. “The Spanish-American War – The World Of 1898: The Spanish-American War (Hispanic Division, Library Of Congress)”. Loc.gov. N.p., 1898. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
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