The Transition from Isolationism to Expansion in the U.S.

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Traditionally wary of foreign entanglements, the U.S. moved towards expansion and engagement in many parts of the world in the 1890s. In this lesson, learn the reasons for this shift and read about important examples.

Reasons for Expansion

In the 1890s, a Kentucky writer boasted about America's growing power: 'We are a Nation--with the biggest kind of 'N', a great imperial Republic destined to exercise a controlling influence upon the actions of mankind and to affect the future of the world.' The U.S. was, in fact, the economic powerhouse of the world around the turn of the century, and Americans began to see themselves alongside the great European powers as global leaders.

Another reason Americans turned outwards in the late 19th century involved several internal problems. Many believed that an aggressive foreign policy would serve as a distraction from these issues. For instance, one of the worst economic depressions in history slammed the country in 1893, followed by violent workers' strikes and a farmers' third-party political challenge - the Populists - to the two major parties, the Democrats and Republicans. There was a sense that America needed an outlet for these fears, frustrations, and unrest. And that outlet, that 'safety valve,' could be overseas expansion and foreign engagement. As Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge explained, expansion could 'knock on the head…the matters which have embarrassed us at home.'

There were also fears that European expansion across the world was cutting off and blocking American access to markets and raw materials. If the U.S. didn't act fast to acquire overseas territory, the argument went, there would be nothing left to take! With all of the North American continent wrested from Native Americans, it was natural for Americans to look for opportunities abroad.

Justifications for Expansion

One of the biggest challenges was overcoming Americans' tradition of anti-colonialism. The American colonies, after all, had fought for their freedom from Britain in the late 18th century. From there, the country based itself on the ideals of liberty and freedom. And one of the last public statements of George Washington urged Americans to avoid getting entangled with other nations' affairs. All these things worked against America becoming an expansionist power without a bit of soul searching.

Influential government leaders and businessmen, however, put forth a series of arguments meant to convince Americans to embrace the country's new role as a world power aggressively looking outward from their shores. First, they suggested that America's democratic system was the superior way of life, and that it was the obligation of the U.S. to spread democracy to less 'civilized' peoples around the globe. As Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong said, God was 'preparing in our civilization the die with which to stamp nations…preparing mankind to receive our impress.'

Others picked up on Europeans' justification for colonialism: the so-called 'white man's burden.' This belief argued that Anglo-Saxon peoples (mainly Americans and Britons) stood at the top of all races with superior intellect, industry, and morality, and thus were naturally positioned to rule over other 'lesser' peoples. Finally, many Americans believed overseas expansion was good for commerce, in opening up markets abroad and extracting raw materials from overseas regions.

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