During most of the 19th century, the U.S. was uninterested in foreign policy with its eyes fixed on expanding its own territory in the West. Pursuit of the west came forth as a result of the Americans’ belief in Manifest Destiny — “the belief that the United States had a ‘God-given’ right to aggressively spread the values of white civilization and expand the nation from ocean to ocean.” Hence, Western Expansion turned into a rush for metals, movements of Indians into territories and out of their lands, immigration of people, and finally, the rise of big businesses — capitalism — which became the main focus in America for a large part of the 1800s. Soon, however, Americans were reminded of the belief that started it all in the first place. No longer were Americans interested in conquering territories in their own land, for they were already secured under their rule, but they were looking to possess lands from “ocean to ocean.” This change from isolationism and expansion did not only arise because of Manifest Destiny, but due to a mix of motivations and factors such as economics/business, religion, culture, and politics that led to the U.S. Imperialism starting from the late 19th century until the early 20th century.
Economics and Business
One can say that the main motivation in Americans’ minds that led to the shift into imperialism in the 1870s was economics and business. As mentioned above, capitalism was ruling the country greatly during this time. Despite this, “other nations… advanced with great rapidity, and…their competition made it more and more difficult to dispose of the full surplus of…manufactures at a profit.” Therefore, when the depression of the 1890s caused markets to fall in Wall Street, “a powerful impetus to American commercial expansion” appeared, leading Americans to look elsewhere for profits in the name of business.
Through this seeking of profits abroad, Americans became interested in the trade industry, principally the trade of raw materials, provided by other countries and colonies. However, Americans not only wanted business with these countries, but soon figured out some of them housed, as stated by John A. Hobson in Imperialism, “vast populations…capable of growing economic needs which [America’s] manufacturers and merchants could supply.” Hence, Americans were now pushing to annex lands in order to obtain access to a workforce that could provide them with all the materials needed for trade. In addition, the annexation of lands would also help the U.S. avoid tariffs placed on imported materials. An example of this can be clearly seen in the U.S.’ “[pushing of] Congress to annex the islands to avoid the high McKinley tariff on sugar.”
Religion, Morality, and Missionaries
Although one could say the primary motive for imperialism was for the expansion of economic opportunities abroad, there was also another factor that led to its rise — religion. As stated by Alfred Thayer Mahan, a leader of an American expansionist group at the time, “Even when material interests are the original exciting cause, it is the sentiment to which they give rise, the moral tone which emotion takes that constitutes the greater force.” Meaning, there was almost a sense of morality being stirred in this era where the conquering of lands was not because of economic gain alone but because of the quest to spread Christianity to all those who didn’t know about the religion in an effort to save them. Therefore, missionaries started being sent to different parts of the world, especially to countries in Asia.
This “moral duty” that drove thousands of missionaries around the world to spread Christianity did not come without costs. For instance, missionaries allowed into China under the Tianjin treaty were not welcomed in the villages in which secret societies formed and consequently murdered Chinese Christians and missionaries. However, missionaries and bishops felt that no matter the cost, Christianity had to be spread to the Chinese in order to “make millions of Chinese true and intelligent Christians.” Furthermore, one can see that this sense of a moral duty to convert unbelievers was not only in the minds of missionaries but also in the mind of President McKinley. McKinley, who was president during this time, was given an interview concerning the U.S. seizure of the Philippines in which he explains the reasons why he decided to step forth and take the land. Among those reasons he stated that we, Americans, had to “Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died,”again proving that imperialism was also stirred by a moral obligation to rescue other civilizations in terms of religion.
Civilizing Cultures and Manifest Destiny
Throughout the period of Western Expansion in the U.S., Americans were guided by the belief of Manifest Destiny as mentioned before. Some of the points of this belief were America’s granted rights to extend its enlightenment and take over lands around the world, even though this taking of lands had only happened inside the U.S. until then. As a result, Americans subjugated the Native Americans in North America and forced them to move. However, Americans not only wanted the Indians’ territories but desired that they be illuminated to civilization and learn from the “higher race” around them. This movement “provided a template for the subjugation of native peoples in the name of civilization” later on. Thus, the “civilizing” of foreign people became another motivation for U.S. imperialism in the late 1800s caused by the renewed awareness in Manifest Destiny.
As can be read in a publication from 1898, by Senator Albert J. Beveridge, Americans believed they had been blessed with gifts from God such as a rich history and that they were “a people imperial by virtue of their power, by right of their institutions, by authority of their Heaven directed purposes—the propagandists and not the misers of liberty.”This realization of such gifts and status caused Americans to feel, once again, a sense of duty in which they owed other nations a piece of America’s greatness. Hence, they perceived other nations had to be governed by the U.S. even without their consent.
Since most Americans deduced that “the rule of liberty that all just government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, applies only to those who are capable of self-government” those who were incapable of governing themselves had to be ruled even without their authorization. Furthermore, Beveridge also states in his article, “Would not the people of the Philippines prefer the just, human, civilizing government of this Republic to the savage, bloody rule of pillage and extortion from which we have rescued them?” implying that nations would be happier with this “rescue” by America than if they were left to fend for themselves in an uncivilized world, providing another excuse for the forced “civilizing” America was executing.
Another example verifying that “civilizing” people from other nations into American culture was also a motivation for American imperialism can be seen again in the interview of President McKinley. In this interview, McKinley expressed, “we could not leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there…; and…there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize…them.” Thus, from this one can comprehend that the idea of “civilizing” was rather fixed in Americans’ minds, including the President’s, which eventually led to the seizure of countries and the people in them.
Politics and Nationalism
Throughout the 1870s until 1910, America was heavily involved in politics due to its desire to conquer lands. Because of this, the U.S.’ aspirations for imperialism was also fueled by a feeling of nationalism which can be defined as “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” Hence, a perfect example of this nationalistic-driven imperialism can be seen in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
As mentioned in an article by the Library of Congress, “U.S. [interests] in purchasing Cuba had begun long before 1898.” This was especially true because of the fact that the U.S. had invested millions of dollars in Cuban sugar but profits had been declining badly. Despite this, it was series of nationalistic factors that led to the eventual breakout of the war since even Theodore Roosevelt declared, “We will have this war for the freedom of Cuba…, in spite of the timidity of commercial interests,” meaning the seizing of Cuba went beyond economic motivations but instead tapped into a sense of responsibility that Americans were feeling towards Cubans.
Another example of how nationalism propelled the U.S. into a war with Spain therefore influencing imperialism was how the publications of certain newspapers affected Americans profoundly. Newspapers at the time were being dramatized almost to a form of cartoon-like reports. The use of these types of publications eventually got the public to support a war with Spain because of the nationalism they stirred, leading people to be against Spain and its interests. This was so much so that President McKinley “was even more anxious to become involved, particularly after the New York Journal published a copy of a letter from Spanish Foreign Minister Enrique Dupuy de Lôme criticizing the American President….”
To conclude, one could say that while Western Expansion in the U.S. was primarily stimulated by Manifest Destiny, U.S. Imperialism in the late 1800s was somewhat incentivized by this belief in some respects like in culture and religion but not all. Imperialism was also driven by economics such as cheap trade and exclusion of tariff in addition to politics such as the feeling of nationalism instilled in Americans’ through various mediums. Given these points, one can deduce then that the U.S.’ shift from isolationism and expansion to imperialism was caused by a series of factors such as economics, culture/Manifest Destiny, religion, and politics.