The Birth of American Imperialism

Subject: History
Pages: 7
Words: 1671
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: Master

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the USA experienced the shift from isolationism and continental expansion to imperialism. The current world situation allowed America to intervene in the politics of other countries, capitalize on this intervention, and, step by step, develop the status of a powerful empire. The choice of a new political course was determined by both economic and ideological reasons. The desire to establish economic influence over new lands was reinforced by America’s vision of its mission to change the existing world order.

Since the nation’s founding, American foreign policy could be characterized by isolationism. Most of the citizens did not want to get involved in the European wars. They preferred to put collective efforts into the creation of a powerful inland empire. That was achieved by exploring vast lands of the Wild West, where agriculture and mining promoted economic growth. However, this could not last forever, and, eventually, “as markets weakened at home, American businesses looked abroad for profits” 1. Business interests were stimulating, but they were not the sole motive of imperial bureaucrats. According to Moore, the officials involved in the management and creation of the American empire were interested in bringing order, stability, and discipline to the colonies 2. Although this seemed promising, presidents and colonial bureaucrats did not gain much support from the Congress and citizens. Nevertheless, they started acting in partnerships with Wall Street bankers and making their way towards an empire that could go beyond the American continent. Driven by progressive ideas of the value of public health, civil service, railways, road-building, policing, and education, they commenced to launch their modernizing projects.

The economic situation in the USA at the end of the 19th century provided all conditions for the establishment of imperialism. Being a country of monopoly capitalism, America continued to concentrate production and capital. Trusts were emerging in all economic sectors, which can be illustrated with “Standard Oil”, founded in 1870 by Rockefeller and having subdued all other oil companies. The development of trusts intertwined with the growth of the banks’ power. Banks were becoming more closely bonded with industry, providing long-term loans to industrialists, and investing their funds in production. In this situation, drawing American capital to the colonies was seen as a chance to fuel further industrial development. That is why the world needed to be re-divided between the USA and other powerful countries.

Some claim that American imperialism is rooted in the initial period of the country’s history. Burns connects US imperialism to “the earliest continental expansion, the subjugation of Native Americans and the ideology of Manifest Destiny” 3. Taking a look at the history of the USA’s expansion may be a clue to understanding how the worldview of American founding fathers influenced the historical events of the 19th and 20th centuries. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders and the author of the Declaration of Independence, regarded his new nation as an “Empire of Liberty” that would spread across the continent. Historian Richard Immerman noted that the choice of this word “signaled further ambitions beyond consolidation of what already existed 4. It was not surprising, thereby, when the Continental Congress announced in 1780 that “the unappropriated lands that may be ceded or relinquished to the United States shall be disposed of for the common benefit of the US” 5. After this announcement, the USA’s expansion continued with purchasing territories such as Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. The annexation of Texas and its consequences became a part of “Manifest Destiny”.

Manifest Destiny was a belief that America was divinely empowered to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Americans believed in their mission to redeem the Old World and to establish ground-breaking principles of democratic equality and moral dignity. Journalist John L. O’Sullivan, who called America the great nation of futurity, described in his article a creation of “Union of many Republics”, which would become “the noblest temple ever” 6. He criticized countries with the despotism of the majority, the aristocracy of the few, or the monarchy of one, considering them doomed to destruction. O’Sullivan was assured that America was destined for better deeds because the country was based not on violence and oppression but on the defense of humanity. Thus, the Americans were convinced that they were entitled to unite nations and guide them towards a new world of peace and happiness. This strong belief gave the USA carte blanche in expanding over new territories. These severe measures were considered to be necessary steps to the salvation of man and to life under the rule of God instead of tyrants from the past.

One of the key points of the USA’s imperialism was the country’s civilizing mission. It was aimed at rescuing backward nations from their savage state through westernization and modernization. This idea was accorded with Manifest Destiny because, as the most progressive nation, the Americans gained the opportunity to fulfill their divine mission and show uneducated people another way of living. In turn, small nations got a chance to receive protection and care of a leading world power, to join its values, to adapt to the rapid pace of the contemporary world. However, the USA’s noble aspiration was mixed with hidden economic and political motives. Implementing cultural values, social behavior, and the government similar to the ones of the USA could help the empire subdue these nations more easily. Incorporating new territories was a way to provide America with commercial benefits, rich resources, and strategic positions. An opportunity to enjoy these advantages was another motive for the development of American imperialism. The country had set a great goal of creating the empire, which explained its bold and dynamic foreign policy.

Among the ideological motives that the USA pursued was the promotion of religion. The American missionaries strove to “spread the gospel of Christianity to the heathen” 7. However, the Boxer uprising in China in 1899 may serve as proof that sometimes the American religious movement encountered resistance. This rebellion emerged from the anger and hostility felt by many Chinese toward the local Christian people and their foreign supporters. During the uprising, 30,000 Chinese converts and 250 foreign nuns, priests, and missionaries were severely killed. The missionaries’ reaction to these horrible outcomes was remarkable. They were convinced of the necessity of bringing Christianity to China, even accompanied by such casualties. This fact supports the idea that “merchants and missionaries alike shared such moralistic reasoning” 8. Thus, Christianity became the first stream through which America transmitted its influence.

Speaking of relations between America and China, it was the Open Door policy that provided the USA with the market access to this country. This policy helped America keep Chinese markets under control and retain its leading position when, after the Boxers uprising, various benefits were distributed between European powers. Another explanation for the USA’s expansionist foreign policy was the Monroe Doctrine declaring the Western Hemisphere as an American “sphere of influence”. Promoting hemispheric peace and trade was combined with intervening in Latin American border disputes in the 1880s and in the conflict between Venezuela and British Guiana in 1895. Such audacious policy fostered the establishment of American hegemony in Latin America and the Caribbean, leaving even Great Britain astonished by the USA’s invulnerability. Thus, the Doctrine became an indisputable law that was supported by smart diplomacy and by participating in various territorial conflicts.

The Spanish-American war in 1898 became another successful combination of humanitarian motives and territorial claims. The USA identified this war as a desire to help the Cubans fighting for independence against the Spanish colonial regime. However, America had other reasons to participate in this conflict. According to Monroe Doctrine, it was necessary to deprive Spain of control over Cuba. In terms of economics, American interests in Cuba were also significant, considering huge investments in Cuban sugar. Thus, even though the business community was reluctant to start a war with Spain, Theodore Roosevelt succeeded in calling the country for action. The time was chosen rightly – after a decade “marred by bitter depression, social unrest, and political upheaval, the war offered Americans a chance to wave the flag and march in unison” 9. The Spanish-American war was called a splendid little war by Secretary of State John Hay. Being carefully planned, it had an encouraging effect, and not a devastating one, on the American nation.

Besides uniting the nation in a surge of pride and patriotism, the war contributed greatly to the formation of the American empire. After the victory, the country acquired Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and annexed Hawai’i. To control the Cubans, who proved to be quite rebellious, the US government imposed a Cuban constitution and continued military pressure until the Cubans did not agree to conditions beneficial for America. The Platt Amendment included the right of the USA to intervene for protecting Cuba’s independence and the power to oversee the Cuban debt. The Cubans had to concede because they had a choice: “either a protected Republic or no Republic at all” 10. Thus, not only did America succeed in raising the status of Cuba to a republic independent from Spain, but it also gained economic and political benefits for itself.

The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries for the USA was a time of changing the political course from indifferent isolationism to active imperialism. Monopoly capitalism made the USA a force to be reckoned with and provided conditions for drawing American capital to the new colonies. Successful conquest of the Wild West formed a pattern of strategy that could be used for the further extension of the territory. Obtaining impact on new lands was beneficial for America both for economic and ideological reasons. That could give the country access to new markets and, at the same time, the opportunity to complete the USA’s divine mission. Expansive actions were regulated mainly by the Open Door policy and the Monroe Doctrine. Righteous motives of establishing justice and bringing American values to the world justified the USA’s intervention in other countries’ affairs.


Burns, Adam. American Imperialism: The Territorial Expansion of the United States, 1783-2013. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Moore, Colin D. American Imperialism and the State, 1893-1921. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

O’Sullivan, John L., “The Great Nation of Futurity.” The United States Democratic Review 6, no. 23 (1839): 426–430.

Roark, James L. et al. The American Promise: A History of the United States. Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020.


  1. Roark, James L. et al. The American Promise: A History of the United States (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020), 2:419.
  2. Moore, Colin D. American Imperialism and the State, 1893-1921 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 18.
  3. Burns, Adam. American Imperialism: The Territorial Expansion of the United States, 1783-2013 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 1.
  4. Burns, Adam. American Imperialism, 10.
  5. Burns, Adam. American Imperialism, 10.
  6. O’Sullivan, John L., “The Great Nation of Futurity,” The United States Democratic Review 6, no. 23 (1839): 427.
  7. Roark, James L. et al. The American Promise, 423.
  8. Roark, James L. et al. The American Promise, 423.
  9. Roark, James L. et al. The American Promise, 426.
  10. Moore, Colin D. American Imperialism, 97.