Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The Birth of an American Empire (4 Lessons)

Created January 20, 2011



The Unit


Birth of an American Empire: Columbia's Easter Bonnet

"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.

Guiding Questions

  • Why did Americans explore the possibilities of national expansion and imperialism in the late 19th century?
  • Did the Spanish-American War define a fundamental shift in American foreign policy? In what way?
  • What purpose did the Open Door Notes serve for American foreign policy?

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, students should be able to

  • define imperialism and explain how it impacted America
  • articulate the differences between the imperialists/expansionists and the anti-imperialists
  • list the causes of the Spanish American War.
  • relate the war to the larger political debate over American imperialism
  • articulate the key positions of people in the controversy over the Philippines.
  • analyze the short-term successes and failures of the Open Door Notes


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.

Preparation Instructions

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:

Unit Lesson Plans

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.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: The Question of an American Empire

    Created January 20, 2011
    The Question of American Empire: Albert Beveridge

    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.

  • Lesson 2: The Spanish–American War

    Created January 21, 2011
    The Spanish–American War: Battleship U.S.S. Maine

    On April 11, 1898, two months after the battleship U.S.S. Maine was destroyed by an explosion in Havana harbor, President McKinley sent a message to Congress requesting authority to use the U.S. armed forces to end a brutal civil war in the Spanish colony of Cuba. This lesson plan, through the use of primary sources and a WebQuest Interactive, will focus on the causes of the war and the political debate in the United States over the advisability of intervening militarily in the affairs of countries.

  • Lesson 3: The Matter of the Philippines

    Created March 10, 2011
    The Matter of the Philippines: Philippine Prisoners

    The treaty of peace ending the Spanish-American War resulted in the United States obtaining the Philippine Islands from Spain. Despite intense political opposition to the acquisition of the islands, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty. The political impact of anti-imperialist arguments, the difficult experience of suppressing native Filipino resistance, and the lack of attractive opportunities for further territorial expansion, all effectively stalled the American imperialist/expansionist movement.

  • Lesson 4: Imperialism and the Open Door

    Created March 10, 2011
    Imperialism and the Open Door: John Hay

    In 1899 and 1900, Secretary of State John Hay issued what became known as the Open Door Notes to foreign powers involved in China. Secretary Hay called on those powers to respect the rights of each other, to agree to an open market and equal trading opportunities for merchants of all nationalities, and to respect the territorial and administrative integrity of China.

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > People > Asian American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Hispanic
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Globalization
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources