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Some historians think that the most important thing that happened in all the 1900s was that the United States became the most powerful country in the world. And indeed, of all the things that happened, America being involved in events around the world has often made a huge difference in how things turned out.  One reason Americans started to look outward was because they thought that the United States was exceptional, or different and better than all other countries.  Also, when he was president in the 1700s, George Washington had warned Americans not to get mixed up in other country’s business, but by 1900, people were worried less and less about this.

America had always been driven by the idea of manifest destiny, which at first meant growing to cover all of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. But once that was done, White Americans started to look further away for new lands to control.

The industrial revolution also was important in changing the way Americans thought. As factories turned out more and more products, they needed more raw materials to fuel those factories, and also more people to buy the products.

But did this have to happen? It’s true that money motivates people, and of course American business leaders wanted places to sell their products and find raw materials, but the same is true today and we do not need to take over China to buy and sell with the Chinese. Couldn’t the same have been true 120 years ago?

What do you think? Did America need to be an imperial country?


American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is somehow different and better than other countries. People who have this idea often think American exceptionalism started with the American Revolution.  They think the United States is special because it was the first country in the world to be started because of the ideas that freedom, equality and the rule of law were worth fighting for. To these people, the United States is the City upon a Hill, an example for other countries to look up to and follow.

During the late 1800s, industrialization led many American businessmen to look for people around the world to buy their products.  Also, Social Darwinism was becoming a popular idea in America.  This was the idea that people who win must be better.  In other words, business leaders thought they must be better than the poor because they had turned out rich.  But people started to take the idea of Social Darwinism and also use it when they thought about the United States and other countries.  If America was more powerful and another country, they figured, it must be because America was better.

Finding the true start of American imperialism is hard. Some historians think that we’ve been acting like an imperial country from the very start. Others think it began when we started buying new land, such as when Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase. These historians point to how Whites took land from Native Americans and destroyed Native American cultures as evidence that imperialism is an old idea.

No matter where it started, the time when imperialism was the most popular in America was at the end of the 1800s and the early decades for the 1900s. During this Age of Imperialism, the United States took land from, or had a lot of power in many places around the world, including Hawaii, Russia, the islands of Micronesia, the Philippines, Cuba, Spain, Germany, Japan and Korea.


The 48 states that all touch are called the contiguous United States, and the first time America started taking land that was outside of the contiguous United States was in the 1860s when the government bought Alaska from Russia.  So, this event is a good date to use as the start of America’s Imperialist Era.

Russia owned Alaska and Russian explorers had even gone down the western coast of North America as far as Northern California. However, the Russians knew that holding on to a land that was far away was hard and might not make them any money, so they agreed to sell it to the United States. In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward paid $7.2 million for Alaska.  People thought it was a terrible idea and called the decision Seward’s Folly.

Only if gold were found, newspaper writers said at the time, would Seward’s decision turn out to be a good idea. But that is exactly what happened. Seward had added almost 600,000 square miles of land to the United States and given Americans control of rich natural resources, including gold and oil.  Today, Alaska is still important as a producer of oil for the rest of the country.

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The Trans-Alaska Pipeline now carries millions of barrels of crude oil from wells in along the Arctic coast to ports in the South where it is loaded onto tanker ships and carried to refineries in California and elsewhere. This discovery of gold and oil have made Seward’s purchase of Alaska from Russia appear to be one of the wisest and best deals America ever concluded.


As we have already learned, the end of the 1800s was a time when factories, mines and railroads were growing in America.  The Industrial Revolution meant that if businesses did well, the whole country would do well also.  Making strong connections with other countries around the world was a way to get raw materials that the United States didn’t have, and to find people to buy the things that were made in American factories.

When there was an economic crisis in the 1890s and many Americans didn’t have much money to spend, business leaders were even more sure that they needed to find new markets around the world where people would want to buy American products.  American exports to other countries went way up in the years following the Civil War, from $234 million in 1865 to $605 million in 1875. And by 1898, as the new century was about to start, American exports had reached $1.3 billion every year. Imports during this time also increased as Americans started to buy more and more things made in other countries.  This change in business led many American leaders to think that it was time to get more involved in foreign affairs.

And we can’t forget that this was a time when business leaders such as Carnegie and Rockefeller had a lot of control over politicians, it is no surprise that many politicians were willing to do what business leaders wanted.


Businesses were not the only ones who thought it was time to get more involved in other countries. Religious leaders and Progressive reformers joined business leaders in calling for imperialism.  They wanted to share the American system of government and their Christian ideas. Editors of magazines such as Harper’s Weekly supported imperialism, saying that it was something the United States had to do as a democracy.  Several Protestant church groups sent missionaries around the world, especially to Asia. Missionaries mixed Christian teaching with American ideas about government, often teaching them as if they were the same thing. This was most true with women missionaries, who made up 60% of all missionaries at that time. By 1870, missionaries around the world were spending as much time trying to get people to act like Americans as they did teaching the Bible.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

Uncle Sam and John Bull, representing the United States and Great Britain, carry the people of their respective colonies toward civilization over rocks labeled “ignorance,” “oppression” and “superstition.” It is hard to image and more clear visualization of the racist idea of the White Man’s Burden.


“The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands”, is a poem written in 1899 by the British writer Rudyard Kipling. 

In the poem, he tells the United States that it’s time to take control of the Philippines.  But the writer also warns Americans about the trouble being an imperial country will bring.  But, wrote Kipling, Americans must do it anyway because it was the job of White Christians from Europe and America to spread their ideas to the rest of the world.  Being better, wrote Kipling, meant that they must also carry “The White Man’s Burden”, which was to spend their time, energy and money to take over other countries and teach the less civilized people of the world how to live and think.  Clearly, it was a racist idea, but one that was popular with many Europeans and Americans at the time.


Many Americans weren’t sure that imperialism was a good idea, but it seemed like everyone was doing it. The late-1800s were a time of colonialism, when the European countries seemed like they were in a race to take over all the less developed areas of the world. Europeans had divided up Africa. They were starting to take control of parts of China. It was a time when people said that the sun never set on the British Empire since Britain controlled land all around the world.

If the Europeans were doing it, many Americans thought, it was ok for America to take foreign lands as well. Besides, if Britain, Italy, Germany or France got there first, the United States might be cut off from the raw materials and markets American factories needed.


Maybe the person who did the most to make imperialism popular was Alfred T. Mahan. Mahan had been in the navy and in 1890 he wrote a book called “The Influence of Seapower upon History”.  In his book he wrote that the United States should do three things to become an imperial power.

First, he said the government needed to spend more money to build a stronger, more powerful navy. Only a strong navy, he said, could protect American ships as they sailed around the world doing business.

Second, he wrote that the navy needed bases around the world. This was important because ships at this time used coal to run and they had to stop often to load more coal for their engines.  Coaling stations around the world would mean that the America’s navy could go anywhere.

Finally, Mahan wrote that the United States needed to build a canal across the isthmus of Central America to connect the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans.  Doing this would mean the American navy could quickly move between the two oceans without going all the way around the tip of South America.

Overall, Mahan ideas could be summarized as: Great countries had colonies to help them get rich, and great countries had strong navies to protect trade with their colonies.

Politicians took Mahan’s advice, and the government passed the Naval Act of 1890, which paid for a new, modern navy. By 1898, the navy had 160 ships, of which 114 were newly built of steel. Also, the fleet now included six battleships when it had none just ten years before. As a naval power, the country jumped to the third strongest in the world.


Americans had been interested in the Hawaiian Islands for many years before the time of imperialism. Hawaii was a good place for ships going to China and Japan to stop. American missionaries first went to the islands in the early 1800s. American businessmen were interested in Hawaii because of the land, weather and crops like sugar and fruits. Americans weren’t the only people interested in Hawaii.  The British also saw why Hawaii might be useful as a colony.  Native Hawaiians wanted to stay independent and thought the Americans might be able to help them. In the beginning, the United States didn’t want to take control of Hawaii, but it was American policy to try to stop anyone else from taking the Islands.

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Queen Liliuokalani, who gave up her throne peacefully rather than see bloodshed and then lobbied unsuccessfully for the United States to intervene to correct the injustice.

In 1875, the United States signed a treaty with Hawaii.  The United States agreed to let sugar from Hawaii be sold in America duty free, or without the companies who grew the sugar having to pay taxes. In return, Hawaii agreed not to let any other country take over any land in the islands.  And later, Hawaii’s government also agreed to let the United States build a naval base at Pearl Harbor. In 1887, a group of White, mostly American, planters in Hawaii forced King Kalakaua to change the government of the islands to give more power to the wealthy, minority White Americans. By 1890, American planters owned two-thirds of the land in Hawaii.

In 1890, a new American law ended the tax-free deal for sugar planters from Hawaii and they started to lose money. The American planters also lost power when Queen Liliuokalani, a strong Hawaiian nationalist, became queen in 1891. An educated woman, she said that “Hawaii is for the Hawaiians!”. In 1893, Sanford Dole, the son of an American missionary, started a Committee of Safety to overthrow the native Hawaiian government. American Minister to Hawaii John L. Stevens broke international law by sending American Marines from a ship in the harbor into Honolulu to help with the overthrow.  Dole became president of a new government.

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US Marines in Honolulu helping to enforce the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The action was clearly a violation of international law and was reversed by the US government, but the damage had already been done.

Right away, the new government, led by American sugar planters, asked the United States to annex, or make Hawaii an American territory.  President Harrison, who could see that the overthrow was clearly illegal, helped to block their request. When President Cleveland took office in 1889, he tried to have Queen Lililuokalani restored to power. However, Dole’s government refused to give up and President Cleveland did not want to have a war over Hawaii.

Even though many Americans could see that taking over Hawaii would be wrong, it fit well into Mahan’s plan for American expansion. The naval station at Pearl Harbor would be a great stopping point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and Hawaii was a good place to grow sugar and pineapple.

When he became president, William McKinley decided that making Hawaii a territory of the United States would be a good idea, and he signed off on a joint resolution of Congress to annex the islands.  Hawaii became a United States territory on June 14, 1900.


Hawaii was not the only Pacific Island America was interested in. The Samoan Islands were like Hawaii, mostly because the navy could build a base at Pago Pago where they could stop to pick up food, coal, and other supplies.

German businessmen also were interested in the Samoan Islands, especially on the island of Upolu, where German companies controlled copra and cocoa bean processing. Britain also sent soldiers to protect British businesses in Samoa.

An eight-year civil war broke out, during which each of the three powers, Germany, Great Britain, and the United gave guns, training and sometimes even sent soldiers to the different groups of Samoans. The Samoan crisis came to a head in March 1889 when all three countries sent warships into Apia Harbor, and it seemed like there was going to be fighting between the great countries themselves. But then, a huge storm damaged or destroyed the warships, stopped them from starting a war and gave the leaders a chance to find a way out of the conflict.

The United States, Great Britain and Germany split the Samoan Islands. The eastern island group was given to the United States and became American Samoa. The western islands became German Samoa. Great Britain gave up all its claims in Samoa and in return, Germany gave up its claims to Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

After World War I German Samoa became independent and is now called Samoa, but American Samoa is still a territory of the United States.


Not everyone in the country was happy that America was taking over new land. In 1899, the Anti-Imperialist League wrote:

“We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism… all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… We insist that the subjugation of any people is criminal aggression…”

Many Americans knew that taking over other people’s countries was wrong. The American Anti-Imperialist League was a group of these people that first got started to try to stop the United States from taking over the Philippines. The League also said that America’s war with Spain in 1898 was wrong because it was really being fought to take over new lands.

The anti-imperialists didn’t like expansion because they thought it was important for all people to be able to vote for their leaders, and the people in places like Hawaii or the Philippines were not going to be voters.  They thought American ideas about self-government, ideas as old as the Declaration of Independence were too important to trade for a chance to make money.

The Anti-Imperialist League was mostly made up of older people who liked the idea of the United States keeping to itself like it had done during most of the 1800s. In the end, they didn’t convince the younger generation of Americans and, in the 1900 election, President McKinley and imperialists in Congress won easily.


America became an imperial country for many reasons. Business leaders and military leaders wanted to control new lands.  Some people had racist ideas about how Whites were better than anyone else, and sometimes Americans just didn’t want to lose out to the Europeans. However, did this have to happen? American businesses are doing well today buying and selling things with countries that are independent. America has military bases in other countries without having to take them over. American culture is popular all around the world.

In a way, the fact that modern America is successful without being imperial is an argument that the Imperialist Era was a mistake, a time when Americans were racist, greedy and ignored our basic belief in freedom for all people.

What do you think? Did America have to be an imperial country?



BIG IDEA: American leaders sought to expand and become an imperial nation for a variety of reasons, but most significantly to have access to natural resources and markets.  There were some critics of imperialism.

Americans have believed for a long time that we are exceptional in the world. This idea has led American leaders to involve ourselves in other countries. Sometimes we think we can fix problems or can teach other people the best way to live or run their government. This idea might go as far back as the Pilgrims who believed that their success as a colony in the 1600s was because they had a special covenant with God.

The most common reason Americans took control of distant lands was to make money. Sometimes they were looking for raw materials. Sometimes they wanted to have access to markets with people who would buy American-made goods.

Sometimes imperialism was motivated by religion. Christian missionaries in the United States travelled abroad to spread their beliefs. Usually they looked down on the beliefs and traditions of the people they met. Hawaii is one example where this was true.

Other Americans (and Europeans) believed that their culture was superior to all others, and it was their responsibility to share their way of life with the lesser people of the world. This idea was nicknamed the White Man’s Burden. Clearly, it is based on racism.

An important reason politicians became interested in taking control of territory was to provide ports for the navy to stop and refuel their ships. The author Alfred Mahan argued that great nations need colonies and navies to protect trade. Theodore Roosevelt believed in this idea. Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines all had good harbors.

The United States began taking control of territory outside of the contiguous 48 states in 1867 when we purchased Alaska.  Later in the 1890s we took control of more territory by annexing Hawaii and Samoa.  The European nations also were involved in imperialism at this time in both Asia and Africa.

Not all Americans liked imperialism. Some believed it was bad to take land that belonged to other people. Some thought it was too expensive. Still others did not like the thought of foreign people moving to the United States after their homes became American territories.



Alfred T. Mahan: Author of the book “The Influence of Seapower upon History.”

Queen Liliuokalani: Last queen of the independent Kingdom of Hawaii.

American Anti-Imperialist League: Organization of Americans opposed to imperialism.


American Exceptionalism: The idea that the United States is unique in the world, usually in the sense that the United States is better than all other nations due to our history and form of government.

City Upon a Hill: An image borrowed from the Bible by Puritan minister John Winthrop to describe the United States as a model society that the rest of the world should look up to as an example.

Social Darwinism: The idea that people, businesses and nations operate by Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest principle. That is, successful nations are successful because they are inherently better than others. At the turn of the century, White culture was seen as superior to others because Europeans and the United States were imperial nations and had defeated the people of their colonies.

White Man’s Burden: The idea that White Americans and Europeans had an obligation to teach the people of the rest of the world how to be civilized.


The Influence of Seapower upon History: Book by Alfred T. Mahan in which he argued that great nations have colonies and navies to protect trade with those colonies. This book inspired Theodore Roosevelt and led to the acquisition of overseas colonies such as Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam and Samoa.


Contiguous United States: The 48 states that touch. In other words, all the states except Alaska and Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor: Naval base on Oahu in Hawaii. The United States annexed Hawaii in part to gain control over this important coaling station.

American Samoa: Island group in the Pacific annexed by the United States. It was divided with Germany and remains an American territory.


Seward’s Folly: A nickname for the purchase of Alaska, alluding to the idea that it was a mistake.

Annexation of Hawaii: June 14, 1900 resolution by Congress that made Hawaii a territory of the United States.

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