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American Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century


Imperialism refers to the control or influence of weaker states by the stronger ones. This influence can be demonstrated in terms of military, culture, politics as well as economy. American policy on imperialism started in the late 1800s, just before the war with Spain, and gained momentum in the early 1900s. The abovementioned concept became more profound after the war with Spain, when, through the treaty made in Paris, they assumed the Philippines, Guam, Cuba as well as Puerto Rico. Moreover, this made the Americans acquire several islands throughout the globe, with rigorous debates arising over their imperialism (Hansall, 1980, p. 1). Representatives of the US government also believed that they were predestined to reach the Pacific as they fought against Mexico. American imperialism should be regarded considering all consequences of active expansion and territorial invasions that were aimed at gaining a cheap labor force and the image of a superpower in the world.

Why Was the Policy Adopted?

American foreign policies were implemented during the nineteenth century to gain economic benefits. These benefits included cheap labor from the weaker nations and available natural resources that were used to enhance the countries economic position. The other reason included economic benefits; the American government was looking for territories that would be easy to colonize and that could become a perspective market for American goods in the future. Other reasons concerned investment opportunities including inputs from Hawaii and other mines available in the Philippines. The U.S. found raw materials and opportunities appealing and wanted to exploit those. This was affirmed by Henry Cabot who told that they commercialized their supremacy by controlling Samoa and Hawaii. National security was also a reason for reviewing imperialism as they wanted to protect their territories. Other reasons included Anglo-Saxonism, development of ethnocentrism, faith in marked destiny as the democrats came to believe, and the need to expand their influence throughout the globe (Hansall, 1980, p. 1).

Rationalization of the Policy

One of the ways through which Americans rationalized their involvement in imperialism ran through yellow journalism, which used to sway the public to promote their agenda of imperialism. These were fabricated stories intended for the public to gain their support for the war against Spain with a hidden agenda on imperialism. Andrew Carnegie and William James convinced the public that Spain slaughtered Cubans and they were going to defend their rights (Tucker, 2009, p. 616). Another mystery was in the form of the U.S. ship, which blew at the coast of Cuba and then blamed Spain to instigate war. The war against the Philippines in 1899 was also rationalized as a way of helping the Philippines to manage their country, since, according to the U.S., they were not ready for independence. This was an interesting position for over a million deaths of the Philippines were witnessed in such tyrannical rationalization (Hansall, 1980, p. 1).

Major Events

Americans had discussed issues about expansion which started with Western extensions. They acquired land in several ways including purchasing. This helped the invaders to ensure that their borders reached the ocean as they negotiated treaties with their neighbors, Mexico and Canada. Following the Civil War, they went on a program of consolidating Southern land and building their economy at an increased pace. Other economically strong countries that grew at this fast rate included England, France, Germany, and Japan (Chimes, 1997, p. 1). These economies seek sources of raw materials for their industries and a market for ready-made goods. Anti-imperialists who thought that it was unethical did not succeed as America acquired Hawaii through war, won the war against Spain, and got a favorable treaty over Spain in Paris.

Events that followed this treaty included the building of the Panama Canal. Americans were sure about their destiny of being both a superior country in North America and the world superpower; this certainty led to acquisitions of Puerto Rico, Guam, Panama, in which they involved themselves through the fight with Mexico. Besides, Americans acquired the Philippines after a blood bath that killed over one million Filipinos (Hansall, 1980, p. 1).

Countries Involved

This nation pursued an antagonistic policy towards expansion; due to this fact, weaker states such as the Philippines and Hawaii among others were doomed to suffer from the American invasion. In the process of spreading the control, America was able to expand its territories, a factor that enhanced both its economic and political power. America had to fight against Spain to secure Cuba, and again with Mexico to acquire more land. It conquered Hawaii, which they acquired as well as the war with the Philippines in 1899. Puerto Rico was also annexed in addition to Guam and Panama. This highlighted their need to influence other countries beyond their borders (Chimes, 1997, p. 1).

Anti-Imperialist League

The league was started in 1899, just after Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba were occupied by the U.S. Cuban legal affairs, based on their treaty with the U.S were retained, while the Philippines and Puerto Rico remained colonies. It was founded by Carnegie and James who were sickened by America’s imperialism and laid out to campaign against the occupation of the Philippines, although it did not succeed. They held that the policy was undermining liberty and moved towards militarism. They also felt that everyone was entitled to freedom, and any activity was to have the full support of the public. Moreover, they believed that subjugation of other people was therefore unacceptable and disloyal to the laid principles that facilitated the foundation of the United States (Hansall, 1980, p. 1). They saw it as a way of continuing Spanish manner of colonization, which was unacceptable; consequently, they tried to deter Americans from continuing with the war in Manila in vain, even threatening to defeat supporters of imperialism at the ballot box but still of no avail.


The response got by anti-imperialists was a four-pronged attack, which was founded on Darwinism, Christian charity, racial superiority, and marked destiny, which they believed in, especially the democrats. These elements ensured that anti-imperialists failed in their quest for liberty and America went on to colonize virtually all islands between it and China, setting its military bases in many countries in the process of invasion (Chimes, 1997, p. 1). With this moral impetus, the majority of the citizens gave their full support to this adventure, and this raised a heated debate as far as the country’s foreign policies were concerned.


The main drives for American imperialism were due to the cheap labor they found for the industries, as well as natural resources required to expand and sustain their large economies. Americans also wanted to stamp authority in the world as a superpower due to their belief that they were a superior race and opinions on marked destiny for America. American imperialism started in the late 1800s and gained momentum in the early 1900s. It poised Americans against weaker countries, which they colonized. These countries included Cuba and the Philippines, which were former Spain colonies, among others. These revolutionized the country, shaping its history to one of a superpower.

Reference List

  1. Chimes, M. (1980). American foreign policy in the late 19th century: philosophical underpinnings. The Spanish American War Centennial Website. Web.
  2. Hansall, P. (1997). Modern history sourcebook: American anti-imperialist league1899. Fordham.
  3. Tucker, S. C. (Ed.). (2009). The encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars: a political, social, and military history. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.
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