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U.S. Foreign Policy from 1789 - 1914 Video

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  • 0:01 Initial Advice
  • 0:32 Pirates & Monroe Doctrine
  • 1:57 Focus on North America
  • 2:52 Colonial Power
  • 3:48 Making Money
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

More than anything else, American foreign policy from 1789-1914 focused on making money. Find out more in this lesson, which shows how everything about the work of American diplomats and military leaders was focused on making commerce easier.

Initial Advice

For many, George Washington was more than just America's first president. In many regards, he was also a sage figure whose advice was considered particularly poignant. So when he warned his countrymen to avoid foreign entanglements, those words did not fall lightly. In fact, for the next 130 years, the warning of Washington to maintain cordial relations with other countries was taken as literally as possible. However, as we will soon see, there were times that the warning came in and out of style.

Pirates and Monroe Doctrine

The major entanglement that Washington was warning about getting involved with was the standing drama of the day: the fight between France and Britain. While you'd think that many would be willing to throw their lot in with the French against the British, the fact was that many Americans were growing rich off of trade with the United Kingdom. In fact, during the Quasi War of 1798-1800, the U.S. and France fought many sea battles. Washington's advice was simple: why fight when you could make money off of trade?

Yet, there was a barrier to making money from trade. Many American merchant ships traded in the Mediterranean Sea, and here, the Barbary Pirates operated. Sailing from Algeria and Tunisia, they demanded tribute in order to not attack American shipping. Tribute? That cut into profit margins! As such, President Jefferson sent the American fleet to fight them, making the point that while America would stay neutral in European struggles, it would enforce its rights to trade.

That became even more clear with the Monroe Doctrine, an order by President Monroe that stated Europeans should avoid meddling in American affairs, by which he meant all areas of the Western Hemisphere that were not already European colonies. At the same time, Monroe promised to not intervene in European affairs, whether in colonies or in Europe itself.

Focus on North America

In fact, for much of the 19th century, the U.S. focused on North America. Deals like the Louisiana Purchase and the Oregon Treaty meant that the United States expanded its territory, but did so on increasingly good terms with European powers. It purchased the Louisiana Purchase of much of the Central U.S. from France in 1803, and reached a deal known as the Oregon Treaty that set the boundary between the United States and British Canada at 49 degrees North latitude.

Other dealings, albeit still in North America, were not so peaceful. In the 1840s, the United States fought a war with Mexico, effectively capturing all of the Southwestern United States from its southern neighbor. Additionally, the United States was quick to make sure that it would remain dominant on the continent. Following the Civil War, the U.S. worked quickly to expel the French leader acting as Emperor of Mexico.

Colonial Power

In many ways, the American expansion into the West following the Civil War resembled European colonial attempts elsewhere in the world. The natives were taught the 'proper' way of acting, while communications links like railroads and telegraphs allowed more thorough control. As such, while much of the rest of the Western world was looking outward to expand, the United States focused on the lands within its own borders.

That came to an end in 1898. Following the Spanish-American War fought between Spain and the U.S. for the perceived sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, suddenly the United States had an empire that stretched from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. In fact, the country was the envy of many older European states! Still, the over-arching goal of protecting American commerce was central. The United States participated in the coalition to put down the Boxer Rebellion, an attempt to throw all foreign powers out of China.

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