American Imperialism Around the Globe

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you'll explore the history of American imperialism and discover how imperialism can appear in many different ways. Afterwards, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Imperialism Defined

Imagine that there are two houses separated by an empty lot. Both houses want the empty lot. The house on the right plants a few flowers and then argues that they should get the empty lot because they improved it, and they do. The house on the right builds up the empty lot into a lush garden, but then decides that it needs the house on the left of the once empty lot to have more space to store gardening tools. The house on the right then uses this logic to force the other owner out of the house on the left, and takes it, turning it into a tool shed. That, my friends, is imperialism.

Imperialism is technically defined as the expansion of influence of one nation over other nations. In essence, the more powerful nation, like the house on the right, takes over another country, usually as part of their empire. There have been many empires throughout history, and the United States is one of them. Many people don't believe that the United States could be an empire, especially due to our heritage as the colony of another empire. But ask yourself, how did we go from 13 colonies to 50 states? And what in the world are we doing in Guam?

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  • 0:02 Imperialism Defined
  • 1:16 Westward Expansion
  • 2:59 Overseas Expansion
  • 4:05 Other Forms of Imperialism
  • 6:26 Lesson Summary
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Westward Expansion

America's first experience with imperialism came very early on, as the United States began moving west. As more American citizens moved into the lands of the west, these lands were established as United States territories. Over the 19th century, the United States increased dramatically in size, incorporating more and more territories into the nation. For a while, American politicians treated the residing Native American groups of these regions like independent nations, using treaties to justify the transfer of land into the United States.

One of the first major attempts by the United States to gain territory from another formal country was during the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848. Americans had been moving into the Mexican territory of Texas for decades, and around 1836, they rebelled against Mexico and turned Texas into an independent country. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas, meaning that they incorporated it into the nation, despite the fact that Mexico had still not recognized the legitimacy of Texas' independence.

To Mexico, the annexation of Texas was nothing short of stealing land. The result was a war between the United States and Mexico, which the United States won. In the peace treaty between the US and Mexico, called the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico not only lost Texas to the United States but an additional 520,000 square miles of land as well. Most of what is now the U.S. Southwest - including parts of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming - was the northern part of Mexico until 1848.

Overseas Expansion

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States essentially had its current shape, but the United States controls more territory than just the states. In 1895, Cuban rebels began their fight for independence from Spain. Spain sent troops to stop the rebellion, which violated America's Monroe Doctrine, an 1823 policy that established European nations could not interfere in the Western Hemisphere. This meant that as of 1898, now we were at war with Spain, too.

The Spanish-American War lasted 10 months but was fought across the Spanish Empire, from Cuba to the Philippines. In the end, Spain lost. But what happened at the peace treaties? The Spanish colonies did not gain independence; instead, they were given to the United States. Now, the United States controlled the colonies of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and had temporary possession of Cuba. The people of the Philippines went into rebellion but were subdued by American forces and remained an American colony until 1946.

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