Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: The Question of an American Empire

A We The People Resource
Created January 20, 2011


The Lesson


The Question of American Empire: Albert Beveridge

Albert Beveridge was US Senator from Indiana (1899-1911), and a fervent supporter of American imperialism

Credit: Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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


The late 19th century was a time of great hope and anxiety for the United States. Several decades of extraordinary growth had transformed the United States into the world’s leading industrial power; yet a financial panic in 1893 plunged the nation into a major economic depression.  The American people were now a generation removed from the fierce divisions created by the Civil War (setting apart the continuing mistreatment of African-Americans). But other potentially violent fault lines had emerged between debtors (especially farmers) and creditors, as well as between labor and capital. The major European powers scrambled for new colonies and influence in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. These aggressive European empires and a newly-rising Japan threatened to exclude American business from vital overseas markets and to expand into the Western Hemisphere. Yet there was considerable hope that science, commerce and civilization had reached the point where international conflict might be prevented or limited by international cooperation.  

Some Americans felt that they must exercise greater influence over this brave yet frightening new world if they were to restore their economic prosperity, domestic peace, and sense of national purpose. But they did not agree on the best means of looking outward. Should the United States enter a new era of Manifest Destiny and further expand American territory, especially beyond continental North America? If so, should the United States become a European-style empire (that is, a nation that governed other peoples without extending to them the full rights of citizens)?  Were there other ways besides expansion and empire by which the United States could legitimately pursue its material interests and sense of national purpose? 

Several broad intellectual currents and political assumptions affected how Americans approached these questions.  The United States, it was generally agreed, required greater access to foreign markets to avoid economic crises like the Panic of 1893. American manufacturers and farmers were thought to be producing too many goods and foodstuffs for the U.S. domestic market to absorb, at a time when European nations and their empires had become increasingly protectionist. (The United States itself had adopted very high tariff rates after the Civil War.) The U.S. government and American businesses looked to lands like China, with hundreds of millions of potential consumers, as outlets for American products, if they did not fall victim to great power imperialism.

Americans were also influenced by the concept of Social Darwinism. Certain peoples and nations were supposedly superior, a fact demonstrated by their ability to expand and dominate others. Inferior races were condemned naturally to extinction or colonization. (Such views, a distortion of biological Darwinism, unfortunately fit in with older racial prejudices still held by many Americans). Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal essay on the frontier in U.S. history suggested to some that the American democratic character was integrally linked to the challenges of expansion.  Variants of Social Darwinism held that culture was the defining variable and that inferior peoples were capable gradually of being elevated toward higher forms of civilization. It was the “white man’s burden” to lift up their lesser brethren through benevolent colonization. This outlook fit into long-standing U.S. missionary impulses and genuine humanitarian concerns. 

Americans were not completely given over to racial prejudices or to the argument that war was necessary to strengthen the national character.  They did appreciate, however, that the strategic map of their world had been altered by new technologies, especially steam power, railroads, and the telegraph. These technologies heralded major changes in warfare, lessened Americans’ traditional sense of geographic security, and challenged their ability to protect the nation’s overseas commerce. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a widely-read military historian, and political allies such as Theodore Roosevelt argued that the United States must develop a modern navy, obtain new overseas bases, and secure critical lines of communication and commerce.    

These strategic trends and political assumptions did not necessary point towards the establishment of a formal U.S. empire. Public opinion was deeply influenced by a strong anti-imperialist movement, even if the anti-imperialists did not always win out on particular policy matters. Interest, ideals and experience pointed towards solutions other than expansion. Americans retained a deep attachment to the principle that peoples could be governed only with their own consent. The United States arguably could obtain access to overseas markets and military bases without establishing colonies. Perhaps domestic economic and political reform was the answer to overproduction. Racist assumptions cut both ways. Many supporters of an interventionist American foreign policy, as well as their opponents, did not want the country “tainted” by acquiring non-white peoples. And if foreign cultures were indeed highly resistant to change, perhaps the costs and risks of “civilizing” others was simply too great. The coming twentieth century would witness Americans trying to operate in a difficult, contentious middle ground between empire and non-intervention.

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.

Download the Text Document for this lesson. 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.

In addition, if your students need assistance with primary source documents, the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites may be useful:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Growth of Imperialism

Near the end of the 19th century Americans began to consider emulating the nations of Europe by building an overseas empire. In this activity, students will discuss the issue of imperialism and whether a policy of U.S. expansion was moral, constitutional and in America’s material interest.

To begin, discuss with students what Imperialism was and how it influenced America at the end of the Nineteenth Century (see background section for teachers). Explain to students that the idea of Imperialism was hotly contested during this time period.  Not all Americans believed that it was our “manifest destiny” to expand to other lands or that the growth of American international power and influence necessarily required the United States to acquire foreign colonies.

Break the class into two groups, those for imperialism and those against. (Note:  Although U.S. public opinion did not neatly fall into those two categories, especially before the Spanish-American War, this exercise is structured in this manner  to help students understand  the choices that Americans faced as they stepped onto the global stage as a great power. The remaining lessons in this Unit will consider variants and alternatives to imperialism.) Hand out the corresponding documents below for each group, located in their excerpted form on pages 1-9 of the attached Text Document and in their entirety on the EDSITEment-reviewed resources History Matters and American Memory Project at the Library of Congress.

Imperialists (pages 1-4 of the text document):

Anti-Imperialists (Pages 5-9 of the text document):

While students are reading the documents, which may be assigned as homework, they should complete the chart at the end of their packets (pages 4 and 9 respectively). On this chart they should list in the first column the arguments made by those for or against imperialism. In the second column, students should list their interpretation and what comments they would like to make about these arguments in preparation for a town hall discussion. Encourage students to bring additional information into their chart that they gleaned from their textbook and other classroom resources.  As a guide, students should list at least four facts per column.

Once students are finished reading the documents, hold a town hall discussion with the students. To do this, create a circle of desks/chairs in the center of the room. Place half of each group in the circle to debate whether or not America should build a colonial empire? While those students are in the circle talking, the rest of the class should be sitting outside the circle as active listeners. Each listener should record a least one question or comment that they would like to make when they move to the center of the circle. After about ten minutes have students switch roles, with the listeners having a chance to discuss what they wrote down from the first discussion group. 

Conclude the discussion by having students vote whether they would have supported imperialism at this point in American history. For lower students you may wish to conclude by having the class create a Venn diagram on the board showing the beliefs of each group. Where did each group stand? What were their views on colonization, race, and economics? This will help students clarify the similarities and differences between the two groups.


Students can be graded on their participation in the debate.

Also, students should be able to define the following:

  • Imperialism
  • Manifest Destiny

Finally, students should be able to write a brief essay answering the following:

  • Why did American foreign policy embrace imperialism in the late 1800s?

Extending The Lesson

Prior to the Spanish American War, there was much controversy over the annexation of Hawaii.  Teachers may wish to introduce this controversy to their students by have them look at documents concerning annexation at “The Annexation of Hawaii: A Special Collection of Documents”. Teachers could divide the class into two groups, those for and those against annexation, and using documents from this site stage a class debate over whether Hawaii should be annexed.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4 class periods

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 > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Patrick Garrity, University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets