The United States grew up in a rare situation – isolated, on a vast continent, with relatively little foreign danger. As the nation grew, the Americans kept pushing westward. This would have to end sooner or later, though, and toward the end of the nineteenth century, the frontier was declared “closed.” Expansionism in the late nineteenth century was more or less a continuation of past expansionism, but right around the turn of the century, change loomed. At this point, the US policies departed from previous thinking.
As the settlements across the continent became denser, the US government looked past the borders for opportunity. Americans became involved with many overseas areas, including Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, China, Japan, and many others, especially in the nearby Caribbean. In a sense, America’s expansionist drive was simply, or not so simply, continuing beyond our coastlines. The industry of America also reflected this lack of restraint. Factories and production were growing very rapidly, often at the expense of the underpaid worker. Many industries grew so quickly that safety was never a high priority, especially in factories, coal mines, and good plants. In this sense, America’s original expansionist drive was unrelenting.
As the twentieth century approached, the American expansionism noticeably shifted focus. Our involvement with foreign countries became more invasive and extreme – violating the principles our country was founded on in the first place. We believed in freedom from oppression, yet we were invading and controlling countries such as the Philippines. Thomas Nast’s (Doc. A) cartoon expressed how Germany, Britain, and Russia had been very imperialistic in the later 1800’s, and now the US seemed to be following suit. Some believed the domination of the world was part of destiny, and only the fittest race would survive (Doc. B). America refrained from giving in to this pressure to imperial at first, but when our own land ceased to be a frontier, the US view changed to fit our needs and desired.
A public sway in opinion, or at least a few writers’ opinions, surfaced at the end of the 1800’s. Alfred Mahan’s advice (Doc. C) to the US was to fortify important harbors, build a formidable sea force, and maintain a “wall from foreign colonies. This advice was in response to an apparent need for the US to turn to international trade, especially with production as high as it was. Other citizens’ groups took the opposite view, such as the Anti-Imperialist League. Its platform (Doc. D) was strongly against US involvement in the Philippines, arguing that we were violating our own principles. This was true to a degree, yet there was a constant back-and-forth arguing on this topic. Some even brought God into the debate, such as Senator Beveridge. He said (Doc. E) it was America’s “divine duty” to spread Christianity to the Philippines, and to open the path for trade with China.
Nevertheless, the US continued to entangle itself across the globe, especially in southern American and the Caribbean. We had taken over Puerto Rico already, and just started to return some control to the people there in 1900. It was not annexed like Hawaii was earlier, in 1898, but rather remained under US rule for quite some time. Teddy Roosevelt arguing in favor of this practice (Doc. F), on the grounds that we only extended ourselves in such ways “when necessary” to maintain order, prosperity, and to ensure civility. Perhaps this was only fancy cover-up for deeper American greed and hypocrisy, but the debate is intense on both sides.
Further issues surrounded treatment of those under US control. Should everyone we govern have rights of Americans? This would be unfavorable to America, and likewise in Downes v. Bidwell, the Supreme Court ruled (Doc. H) in favor of the US government in 1901. Basically the ruling was that people inhabiting land occupied by America do not automatically get full rights – and years later this was still debated.
At any rate, these new practices of excessive imperialism and denial of rights were far from traditional American expansionism. Even at home, non-traditional ways were being noticed. Progressivism was alive and thriving, as industry was being regulated more, and protections for workers were created. America, at the turn of the century, had entered a new stage in its life, and with change in growth comes change in policy. Therefore, though American expansionism did change in nature, this may have been necessary for the nation to continue on the path of manifest destiny, even after the frontier had been reached.