This lesson will introduce the students to the challenges of American foreign policy in the late 19th century and specifically to the political debate over whether the United States should acquire further territory and/or become a European-style empire.
"Columbia's Easter Bonnet." 1901 Puck magazine cover celebrating America's new-found confidence as a budding world power
Credit: 6 April 1901. "Columbia's Easter bonnet / Ehrhart after sketch by Dalrymple. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The last decade of the 19th century was a time of great hope and anxiety. The major European empires and Japan threatened to exclude U.S. businesses from vital overseas markets and challenge U.S. security in the Western Hemisphere. Yet Americans shared the general optimism of the era that science, commerce and civilization had reached the point where great power conflict might be prevented or at least limited by international cooperation.
After completing this unit, students should be able to
Many Americans felt that their burgeoning economic power and the moral authority of their democratic society entitled them to exert greater influence over this brave yet frightening new world. They disagreed considerably over the means and ends of doing so, however. Some Americans wanted to enter the imperial sweepstakes directly. Others favored the use of indirect means, such as U.S. economic power or moral suasion, to preserve global opportunities for American commerce and moderate the worst effects of European imperialism. Still others wanted to remain politically aloof from the wars and quarrels of the larger world.
The public debate over the future global role of the United States soon had a particular policy focus: how to respond to a bloody rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in Cuba. U.S. public pressure for intervention grew following a series of inflammatory incidents in early 1898, which included the explosion of the battleship Maine. With its victory in the Spanish-American War the United States claimed status as a global political-military power. President William McKinley’s decision to annex the Philippine islands galvanized anti-imperialist sentiment. The anti-imperialists fought against Senate ratification of the peace treaty with Spain in early 1899; and then tried to foil President McKinley’s reelection bid in 1900. McKinley won these political battles but a Filipino rebellion against U.S. rule, which was suppressed at considerable humanitarian cost, discouraged Americans from seeking a full-blown overseas empire.
Meanwhile, the European imperial powers and Japan seemed on the verge of partitioning the once-fabled Chinese Empire. In 1899-1900, Secretary of State John Hay issued what became known as the Open Door Notes. Secretary Hay called on those foreign powers involved in China to respect the rights of each other, to agree to an open market and equal trading opportunities, and to respect the territorial and administrative integrity of China. The Open Door Notes were an important step in the process by which the United States asserted a distinctive and expansive set of interests in East Asia.
Throughout this unit, students will be able to explore the rising tensions between the United States and other countries as they raced to develop empires and create economic opportunities around the globe.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF file.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the learning activity, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
There are two web interactives for the students. Accompanying Lesson 2 is the interactive on the Spanish American War and for Lesson 4 there is one about the Open Door Notes. Take time to make yourself familiar with these interactives prior to giving them to the students.
In addition, if your students need assistance with primary source documents, the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites may be useful:
There are four lessons in this unit, each of which is designed to stand alone but when combined together portray a dramatic era for America and the world. It is recommended that you use all four lesson plans for students to be able to grasp the magnitude of world events from this time period. However, if you do not have enough time to complete all four lessons, it is suggested that you focus on lessons 2 and 4 to provide students with enough background information for future 20th century world events.
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