- United States of America
- Between 1800 and 1914, the United States nearly quadrupled its national territory, became a world power, and created three overlapping and intimately connected forms of empire: a transcontinental empire, an informal empire, and an overseas colonial empire. American expansion was accelerated by the spectacular economic and population growth of the nation, the successful integration of vast territories through a unifying communication and transportation network, a powerful expansionist ideology that at times encountered substantial anti-expansionist opposition, and a cultural setting conducive to the practice of empire-building.TRANSCONTINENTAL EMPIREThroughout the nineteenth century, the United States steadily expanded its national territory by diplomacy and war. The most important steps included the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, through which the United States acquired almost 530 million acres from France for $15 million, and the 1819 Transcontinental Treaty, through which the United States acquired Florida from Spain and extended its boundaries to the Oregon coast in exchange for $5 million and a temporary recognition of Spanish claims to Texas. The United States then annexed Texas in 1845, the Oregon Territory in 1846, and large territories in the West and Southwest in 1848 as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican- American War. The cessions from Mexico alone, including Texas, equaled the Louisiana Purchase and made the United States 10 times the size of Britain and France combined and equal in size to the Roman Empire. The Gadsden Purchase of southern Arizona from Mexico in 1853 and the acquisition of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867 completed the transcontinental empire.The United States exploited imperial rivalries among the European powers and thereby replaced their dominion over enormous stretches of territory by way of a dual strategy of negotiated land transfers and financial compensation. But to ensure full control over these territories inhabited by indigenous American peoples the U.S. government relied not only on diplomacy but also on war and internal colonization. In this process, the Indian nations, pressured by ever accelerating Euro-American settler colonialism, experienced a rapid demographic decline, and were forced to accept negotiated land transfers to the central government. Their legal status was successively downgraded from sovereign nations to dependent wards, as resistance was punished with forced removals and continuous warfare. By the late nineteenth century, Native Americans had been militarily defeated, confined to a reservation system, and exposed to intrusive assimilation programs designed to eradicate indigenous cultural identities.Warfare was used not only to secure control over land transferred by European colonial powers and indigenous peoples but also to contain potential imperial contenders for North American territory. Accompanied by a surge of nationalist sentiment, the United States fought a victorious war against Mexico in 1846–1847 and, in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, acquired 500,000 square miles of territory—today the states of California, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, as well as parts of Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming—for $15 million. The annexation of all Mexico would have been militarily possible but was rejected on racial grounds; opponents interpreted the inclusion of a large Hispanic population as detrimental to the American body politic. Nonetheless, rapid territorial expansion— combined with the retention of slavery in the southern states, the expansion of freehold agriculture in the western territories, and the accelerated industrialization of the northeast—led in 1861 to the American Civil War, the greatest crisis of American nationhood.The expansive dynamism of the transcontinental empire was fueled by, and in turn contributed to, rapid economic growth and population increase. The American continental economy profited from great expanses of rich agricultural land, bountiful raw materials, and new technological innovations, such as railways, the steam engine, and mining equipment, for the development of those resources. It also encountered comparatively few social and geographical constraints, a relative absence of significant foreign threats, and a steady flow of foreign and domestic investment capital. The development of this economic powerhouse was accompanied by an increase of the population from 3.9 million in 1790 to almost 76 million by 1900.In accordance with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, new territories were required to pass through stages of political development before they could be admitted to the Union. During that time, they were ruled in a quasi-colonial manner with no political representation and limited rights for the inhabitants and were policed by the U.S. Army, which ensured control over trading routes and strategic positions. At the same time, these territories were integrated into an emerging national transportation and communication network, in which the evolution of the American railway system was particularly vital. In the 1830s, local railroads covered only short distances, but during the period between the Civil War—in which superior railways gave the Union a critical strategic advantage—and the 1880s, the available track increased 10-fold from 9,000 to 93,000 miles. In the early years of the twentieth century, the figure reached more than 200,000 miles. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, by the combined Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, symbolized the western integration through transportation networks.Accelerating transportation opportunities were accompanied by equally revolutionary developments in communications technology. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it took 25 days for news to travel from the eastern seaboard of the new republic to its western frontier. By 1900, news could be transmitted almost instantaneously through new media such as telephone, telegraph, and wireless communication; more than 1.4 million telephones were in service, 1 for every 60 inhabitants. At the same time the experimental use of wireless, or radio, was beginning to usher in a new era of communications technology. George Washington had lamented that it took six to nine months to deliver a letter to Paris in 1779, but Marconi’s instantaneous transmission of radio messages across the Atlantic in 1901 heralded a new era that would successfully challenge Britain’s monopoly on the global information infrastructure after World War I.The creation of a transcontinental empire with hemispheric ambitions and a global outlook was legitimated and popularized through a coherent ideology of expansion. This consisted of a quasi-religious missionary zeal concerning the exceptional nature of American national development and the idea of the United States as a nation embodying universal values. Despite marginal changes over time, those core convictions were a persistent feature of American expansion and provided a rationale for reconciling it with a republican form of government. Since the early days of the Republic, in fact, the missionary myth drew on biblical ideas such as the millenarian concept of a coming kingdom and interpreted American history as a project in salvation, the United States as redeemer nation. Concrete manifestations of this national ideology often varied radically: Whereas one mode of popular transmission advocated the exemplary role of the Republic as a “city upon the hill,” another demanded an active role for the United States in reshaping the world. Even before national independence, Thomas Paine offered one of the most powerful and enduring expositions on America’s world role. In Common Sense, Paine’s “idealistic internationalism” emphasized the fundamental differences between old and new worlds, suggested a congruence of American and international democratic aspirations, and emphasized the beneficial impact of mutual trade interdependence on the international system.In contrast to Montesquieu and others who had warned that republics could not expand by conquest and expect to successfully reproduce their constitutional system, founding fathers of the United States, such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, argued in one way or another that extensive territory and republican government were compatible, indeed necessary. Adams was the author of the precocious Monroe Doctrine of 1823, according to which the United States had a natural and abiding interest in the entire Western Hemisphere. Inconsistencies were ironed out with the argument that extensive territory was a blessing for a republic founded on popular sovereignty, as it served as insurance against the corruption of virtue and thus ultimate decline. A continuously expanding nation would prevent powerful interests from dominating the republic’s affairs. At the same time, expansion was also interpreted as a prudent defense against potential of European imperial incursions in North America. Thus, the anticolonial spirit of the Revolutionary period was directed against Great Power Europe while territorial expansion was made an integral aspect of the national security of the United States.INFORMAL EMPIREThe completion of a transcontinental polity was accompanied by a growing strategic and commercial interest beyond the confines of North America. Some considered the Asian mainland, the North Pacific, and the Caribbean Basin to be natural spheres of interest, and others regarded Hawaii and Cuba appendages to the United States. The interest in outlying territory did not translate immediately into a quest for colonial dependencies, but it did accelerate the elaboration of informal empire with instruments ranging from commercial penetration and punitive military expeditions to missionary reform and educational modernization. By the late nineteenth century, this informal empire then provided justification for the acquisition of colonies, which in turn provided an even stronger rationale for the extension of informal control over adjacent areas.In Asia, the United States played a prominent role in the “opening” of Japan and Korea to Western influence and simultaneously sough access to the commercial potential of China. To secure new customers for surplus production and simultaneously contain social instability at home, successive administrations developed the strategy of economic penetration within a conceptual framework that praised the simultaneous benefits of trade for commercial profit, social stability at home, development overseas, and international stability through mutual interdependence. And although the imagined riches of a Chinese market with 400 million people eager to purchase American products did not materialize, the United States nonetheless greatly enhanced its role in Asian affairs. The Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900 and American participation in the western military intervention during the Boxer Insurrection of 1900 jointly underlined Washington’s insistence on access to the Asian mainland. The Hawaiian Islands were considered an important steppingstone to commercial opportunities in Asia. Located more than 2,500 miles off the California coast, Hawaii had been of major importance for whaling and trade in the North Pacific since the late eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century, American missionaries and planters assumed important government positions in the independent kingdom, maneuvered Hawaii into increasing political and economic dependency with the United States, and repeatedly lobbied Washington for formal annexation of the islands.The U.S. government supported many private initiatives, extended the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii to prevent annexation of the islands by a European contender, granted Hawaiian sugar duty free entry into the United States in the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875, and received naval rights at Pearl Harbor. In 1893, Washington even supported a coup d’état against Hawaiian ruler Queen Lilioukalani’s efforts to contain American influence in the islands. At the same time, however, concern over inclusion of a racially diverse body of Chinese, Japanese, and native Hawaiian inhabitants postponed incorporation until 1898, when the Pacific colonies won in the Spanish-American War increased American concern over Japanese influence in the North Pacific provided the rationale for annexation. In the Caribbean basin, too, American power oscillated between informal and formal empire, as the United States contained European influence in the region and used commercial hegemony, cultural penetration, and military intervention to secure virtual sovereignty over a number of countries such as Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. Cuba was a prized asset of this informal empire. Strategically located at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, the island was part of Spain’s colonial empire between 1511 and 1899. During the nineteenth century, the Cuban struggle for independence was accompanied by a growing American commercial and cultural presence on the island while the government in Washington assumed a position of political noninvolvement for much of the century. Many contemporary observers preferred Spanish rule to possible instability and its anticipated negative effects on U.S. commercial interests. But in 1898, the William McKinley administration intervened in the Cuban War for Independence, and the Spanish-American War effectively ended Spanish colonial rule in the western hemisphere. The reasons for American military intervention and the “splendid little war” of 1898 included public outrage over the brutal oppression of the Cuban population by Spanish troops, in particular the strategy of forced removals ( reconcentrado ), fear of instability in the Caribbean, the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor blamed on Spanish sabotage, and the desire to protect American commercial investments.The U.S. Congress, however, prohibited annexation with the Teller Amendment and limited the military occupation to Cuban pacification. From 1898 to 1902, U.S. troops disbanded the Cuban revolutionary army, worked on infrastructure improvements, and laid the foundations for health and educational reforms. To secure control over Cuban affairs beyond the immediate period of military occupation, the McKinley administration developed a legal framework for Cuban-American “ties of singular intimacy.” Through the Platt Amendment of 1901,which became part of the Cuban constitution, and the U.S.-Cuban Treaty of 1903, the United States was not only granted naval rights at Guantánamo Bay but reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and established virtual sovereignty over Havana’s foreign and economic affairs. Between 1906 and 1909, Cuba, which had effectively become a U.S. protectorate, was again placed under American military occupation with additional military interventions in 1912 and 1917.An even stronger quasi-colonial relationship was the result of America’s unorthodox approach to nation-building in Panama. After France’s failure to build an interoceanic canal and British permission to assume sole responsibility, the United States selected Panama, Colombia’s northernmost province, as the site for the monumental construction. After the government in Bogotá rejected the terms, a U.S.-backed rebellion secured Panamanian independence. The new country gratefully acknowledged American intervention rights and provided Washington with a 10-mile wide canal zone, which constituted a quasi-colony, sometimes referred to as a “government owned reservation.” The Panama Canal, completed in August 1914, became the strategic center of America’s informal empire in the Caribbean. It provided commercial stimulation by completing a net of interoceanic shipping links, and represented a strategic asset of utmost importance for American security. It also completed the integration of the transcontinental empire by linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and simultaneously confirming the central position of the United States within a new set of global transportation and communication routes between East and West.COLONIAL EMPIREAfter victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States acquired a colonial empire in the Philippines, Guam, parts of Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. The proponents of overseas expansion celebrated these new possessions as logical extensions of transcontinental empire, strategic adjuncts to the informal empire, and the nation’s entrance ticket into the exclusive club of colonial powers. Their arguments invoked the Manifest Destiny that had accompanied the quest for transcontinental empire and added progressive reform enthusiasm along with a strong dose of Anglo-Saxonism.Anglo-Saxonism advanced the argument that the civilization of the Englishspeaking nations was superior to that of any other nation, by virtue of inherited racial characteristics, in particular industry, intelligence, adventurousness, and talent for self-government. Those abilities were contrasted with the accomplishments of other races in a hierarchy of racial success. Advocates emphasized that Anglo-Saxonism had provided the basis for the perfection of democratic government and that Britain and America were thus ideally suited for the civilizational mission of the imperial mandate; it also fused with a social Darwinist conception of international relations and turned colonialism into a mission and obligation for the betterment of global conditions. This set of ideas also provided the intellectual glue and ideological rationale for the “great rapprochement” between the British Empire and the United States This transformation from confrontation to cooperation was characterized by peaceful crisis management in the Venezuelan Boundary Crisis (1895–1896), the extension of mutual support in the Spanish-American and Anglo-Boer Wars, and intensified diplomatic relations embedded in a general sense of kinship between the two nations.Closely connected to a transatlantic racial legitimation of imperialism was the notion that the rigors of colonial vocation would enable American men to escape the emasculating influences of civilization. Discursive constructions of manliness accompanied the national debate on the merits of empire, as expansionists framed the colonial project as a test of character, manhood, and the martial spirit. Many imperialists tapped into widespread cultural concern in turn-of-the-century America about effeminacy, racial decadence, and the worry that modern civilization produced soft, self-absorbed, and materialistic middle class men who would weaken both the national fiber and the political system.The opponents of empire, mostly organized in the Anti-Imperialist League, meanwhile shared many of the racial assumptions of Anglo-Saxonism but emphasized the fundamentally contradictory nature of an imperial republic and argued that the quest for colonial possessions violated the nation’s core political values. They rejected the notion of national reinvigoration through imperialism, stressed the detrimental impact of tropical life on the human condition, and suggested that the negative record of the United States in dealing with its indigenous population, as well as the enduring legacies of slavery, hardly qualified the nation to provide for the educational uplift of colonized races. Although the critics of empire and the Anti-Imperialist League ’ s many prominent members—William Jennings Bryan, Edward Atkinson, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Schurz, and Mark Twain among them— attracted much public attention, they ultimately failed to translate their agenda into political power. The proponents of imperial expansion carried the debate with William McKinley’s reelection in 1900.Despite the electoral victory for imperialism, the optimistic assumptions of its enthusiasts were severely tested in America’s largest colony, the Philippines, where the American project of colonial state-building was accompanied by one of the bloodiest and most costly colonial wars ever. Between 1899 and 1913, American forces fought against the Filipino independence movement under Emilio Aguinaldo and militarily pacified the southern Muslim part of the archipelago. After the independence forces then embarked on a campaign of guerrilla warfare, American forces increasingly confronted unexpected challenges and ultimately embarked on a campaign characterized by massive retaliatory measures against the archipelago’s civilian population. By 1902, more than 130,000 American soldiers had fought in a war that killed more than 4,200 of them and wounded another 3,500. During those first four years only, approximately 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed, one-quarter of the armed forces of the independence movement. Conservative estimates assess the number of civilian casualties at least as high as 250,000, and some studies suggest that losses may have been as high as 750,000, or approximately 10 percent of the prewar population. The fighting was accompanied by an extensive pacification program designed to co-opt the local population into the American colonial regime. In the Philippines, as in Puerto Rico, the United States perceived its rule as mandate for benevolent tutelage and introduction to eventual self-government. Although political independence remained a mirage for Puerto Ricans and was granted to Filipinos only after World War II, initial military governments, as well as subsequent civilian colonial commissions, reaffirmed this outlook and logic of the colonial project. They placed great emphasis on local political participation and strongly supported public education. Those measures were complemented in both cases by social engineering and economic development, as the United States embarked on public health programs, infrastructure improvements, land reform, and commercial investments designed to transform fundamentally the colonial possessions consistent with notions of civilizational development common to the Progressive Reform era in the United States. Other possessions such as American Samoa and Guam were excluded from the project of political tutelage. Their functions as naval and coaling stations, ruled by the U.S. Navy, limited their colonial status to that of strategic outposts and confined the concerns of Americans posted there to the maintenance of stability and order. As political transformation was assumed to be counterproductive, Washington accepted indirect rule and governed through local hereditary chiefs in Samoa and traditional functional elites in Guam. The colonized were exposed neither to political education nor civil government, and the possessions were largely excluded from capital investment or integration into the American economic system. Americans approached the task of colonial state-building with a dual strategy: they looked to the British Empire for guidance and transferred know-how on a wide range of issues from colonial administration to colonial military policies to urban planning and social engineering. They also used the experience of the transcontinental empire to develop a durable basis for a colonial policy in accordance with established precedents and traditions.This dual positioning of the American colonialism was embedded in the cultural context of a comparatively insular empire built on accepted traditions, myths, and practices that had celebrated westward expansion as a formative factor in the rise of an exceptional nation. The cultural production of the West entailed a measure of racism and social Darwinism as part of a frontier myth that permeated nineteenthcentury American society. This myth found its cultural outlet in a wide range of cultural artifacts ranging from dime novels to ethnographic displays and Wild West reenactments. The overseas empire prompted an equally impressive outpouring of travelogues, poems, and novels that not only introduced Americans to the conditions in the new possessions but also integrated the colonial adventure into the national tradition of expansion. In addition, international expositions and world fairs, such as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, served as a popular platform for imperial propaganda in the years leading up to World War I. These fairs illustrated and interpreted America’s overlapping expansionist projects for a mass audience in a meaningful way and provided a synthesis of the driving forces, aspirations, and manifestations of American history from the founding to the early twentieth- century. Through the uses of ethnographic displays, American international expositions provided national self-assurance and suggested multiple linkages and continuities between the westward continental expansion and the late nineteenth century colonial acquisitions. As the United States consolidated its international position, Americans became more assertive and reinvigorated their claim to exceptional national development. Despite continued close association between Britain and the United States, Americans increasingly rejected the British Empire as a trusted reference point, underlined the violent and exploitative attitude of European colonial powers, and boasted the transformational accomplishments of U.S. colonial rule. By World War I, this claim to a unique and temporary imperial role coincided with an increasing disillusionment of the American public with the colonial project, a growing belief in the benefits of decolonization, and a renewed interest in the advantages of informal rule from strategic positions of strength that soon became the hallmark of the “American Century.”See also Appendix Words and Deeds, Docs. 4, 7; Anglo-American War; Hay-Pauncefote Treaty; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; Navalism; Roosevelt, Theodore; Root, Elihu; Webster-Ashburton Treaty.FURTHER READING:Darby, Philip. Three Faces of Imperialism: British and American Approaches to Asia and Africa, 1870-1970 . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987;Go, Julian, and Anne L. Foster, eds. The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003;Hunt, Michael. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987;Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002;LaFeber, Walter. The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913 . The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations Vol. II . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993;Langley, Lester, and Thomas Schoonover. The Banana Men: American Mercenaries and Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880-1930 . Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995;Miller, Stuart C. “Benevolent Assimilation”: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1902 . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982;Ninkovich, Frank. The United States and Imperialism . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001;Onuf, Peter S. Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood . Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2000;Osborne, Thomas J. Empire Can’t Wait: American Opposition to Hawaiian Annexation, 1893-1898 . Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1981;Paolino, Ernest N. The Foundations of the American Empire: William Henry Seward and U.S. Foreign Policy . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973;Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians . Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984;Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984;Schoonover, Thomas. Uncle Sam’s War of 1898 and the Origins of Globalization . Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003;Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny. American Expansion and the Empire of Right . New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.FRANK SCHUMACHER
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.