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American Imperialism: Definition, Reasons & Rising International Power

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  • 0:05 What Is Imperialism?
  • 2:17 Alfred Thayer Mahan
  • 3:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

When George Washington left office, he warned against getting drawn into global issues, yet just over 100 years later, the U.S. began its rise to become the dominant world power. What started this rise of American Imperialism?

What is Imperialism?

The beginning of American imperialism and rising international power. So we have to start with some important questions:

  • What is imperialism?
  • Why imperialism for America in the latter 19th century?
  • Who was this Alfred Thayer Mahan, and what is his significance in the rise of American imperialism?

So, what is imperialism? Well, it is when a nation works to expand its power and influence. The two primary methods of imperialism are military conquest and political diplomacy.

Why imperialism for America in the latter 19th century? Well, we need to look back. Initially the U.S. was warned against foreign entanglement. President Washington warned against it in his farewell address. Of course, he also warned against political parties; nobody listened to him on that one either. Looking at the 19th century, the U.S. had a major civil war to keep its focus on home, and it managed to become the dominant industrial power without imperialist ambitions. So what changed?

There are several factors, including something that anyone in today's world can understand. In 1893, a financial panic led to Americans experiencing a major economic depression. The government had been run by conservatives and riddled with corruption for years. After 1890, the Progressive Movement got a foothold in the government.

The end of westward expansion was here. Manifest destiny was accomplished. Now that we covered the continent - including Alaska - how does the U.S. show our greatness through growth?

There is also the idea of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism takes the Darwinian idea of survival of the fittest at the biological level to what many would consider the natural next step: the idea that certain races and certain nations were superior to others. They were basically destined by their superiority to dominate what they considered the inferior races or nations. A variant of Social Darwinism held that it was the burden of these superior races and nations to elevate these inferiors through colonization.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

So who is this Alfred Thayer Mahan, and what is his significance in the rise of American imperialism? Well, not all people held to the idea of a social need to build an empire, but they did understand a strategic need to hold our own in a technologically advancing world.

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