Lesson 1: The Question of an American Empire

The U.S. Census of 1890 famously declared the American frontier to be closed. A decade later, the United States appeared well on the way to establishing new frontiers and perhaps a new imperial political system. The United States annexed the independent Hawaiian Islands; acquired Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam from Spain as part of the settlement ending the Spanish-American War; and dealt with threats to the political integrity and open markets of China. Cuba would soon become a political protectorate. The United States also acquired sovereign control over the Panama Canal Zone and declared its willingness to intervene if a country in the Western Hemisphere jeopardized the Monroe Doctrine by failing to maintain internal order or to pay its international debts. Americans argued at length whether such actions properly fit into their sense of national purpose and advanced their material interests.

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. With the help of primary source documents students will debate this issue to help them come to their own assessment of the idea of an American Empire.

Guiding Questions

Why did Americans explore the possibilities of national expansion and imperialism in the late 19th century?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lesson, students should be able to: Define imperialism and explain its significance for late 19th century America

List the primary reasons why imperialism appealed to many Americans in the 1890s

Define “Manifest Destiny” and briefly describe its use in American History and as applied by imperialists in the 1890s

Articulate the differences between the imperialists/expansionists and the anti-imperialists