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History, Imperialism

Anti-Imperialist League, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, Louisiana Purchase, labor leaders

The United States had a long tradition of territorial expansion. Gains of adjacent territory in the 19th century—the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the areas won from Mexico in 1848, and U.S. expansion across the continent—all enhanced American stature. More recently, the defeat and removal of Native American tribes by federal troops had opened the West to farms and ranches, speculators and corporations.

In the 1890s, several motives combined to build pressure for expansion overseas. First, business leaders wanted overseas markets. Products basic to the American economy—including cotton, wheat, iron, steel, and agricultural equipment—already depended heavily on foreign sales. Business leaders feared that if the United States failed to gain new markets abroad, other nations would claim them, and these markets would be lost to U.S. enterprise. Second, national prestige required the United States to join the great European nations and Japan as imperial powers (nations with overseas colonies). Alfred Thayer Mahan presented this position in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890). In order to enter the race for influence, Mahan contended, the United States had to expand its depleted merchant marine, acquire overseas naval bases, build up a large navy, and find markets abroad. Third, religious leaders supported efforts to spread Christianity to foreign peoples. Finally, the United States seemed to be falling behind in the race for empire; it had not acquired noncontiguous territory since the secretary of state bought Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Imperial designs evoked criticism, too. Some Americans opposed U.S. expansion and challenged the drive for an overseas empire. The Anti-Imperialist League—a coalition of editors, academics, reformers, and labor leaders—contended that the United States had no right to impose its will on other people and that imperialism would lead to further conflict. Foes of imperialism also protested that overseas territories would bring nonwhite citizens into the United States. Still the economic crisis of the 1890s made overseas expansion seem imperative, especially to the business community. At the century’s end, the United States began to send American forces to Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and East Asia.

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