United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Hardcover print text only


Per volume


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform


Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Hardcover print text only


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Per volume


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Read the fully unlocked textbook below, and if you’re interested in learning more, get in touch to see how you can use this textbook in your course today.

Chapter 19: Immigration and Imperialism

Pre-Chapter Discussion 

Pre-Chapter Discussion - Level 4

Prior to reading this chapter, what do you think led the spread of American ideas to the rest of the world? What do you think was the mechanism by which Americans exported their beliefs?

Chapter Overview

America experienced its first “fitness craze” at the the close of the 1800s. The invention of dumbbells in the mid-1890s and the growing prevalence of bicycles meant that those with available free time and discretionary income could strengthen their bodies through exercise, embodying what Theodore Roosevelt deemed the “strenuous life.” City governments made a point of providing outdoor spaces, including paths for bicyclists, to allow for athletics and recreation; they created Edens within expanding urban jungles, where people might take walks or row small boats across ponds. An Austrian body-builder named Eugen Sandow became a celebrity, displaying and flexing his mighty physique in live performances and as the star of numerous short films produced by the Edison Studios. The growing national obsession with physical fitness at the close of the 19th century coincided with dramatic changes in the workplace and concerns regarding their possible impact on health. For generations, men and women had worked outside, tested and hardened by the elements as they planted and harvested crops, tended livestock, and managed their farms. Mechanization and industrialization did much to eliminate such labor as machines increasingly took the place of human workers. Over time, more laborers moved indoors, manning machines inside of dim, dingy, and stifling factories. Medical professionals worried that the repetitive and mind-numbing tasks performed indoors, shut off from fresh air and sunshine, would erode the health of the industrial working class and destroy American masculinity.

For some, an expanding American empire suggested a panacea to cure many of the industrializing nation’s ills. It held the promise of new raw materials and new markets to benefit the economy, and it provided opportunities for young men to break free from the drudgery of factory work and prove their manhood. Christian missionaries would be able to better deliver their message of salvation to people living in supposed ignorance. America could offer the blessings of civilization in the form of new schools, roads, and eradicated topical diseases. The question remained whether imperialism was an appropriate endeavor for the United States, a nation that had long condemned European nations’ scramble for colonies. Few could dismiss the irony of America’s emergence as an independent nation following a war with the British Empire.

Another source of concern and division in the late 1800s centered on the growing number of foreign-born individuals coming to the United States. Most immigrants who arrived prior to the Civil War came from Northern and Western European nations, bringing with them an ethnic and religious identity deemed more desirable than that of Eastern and Southern Europe. Americans of a more traditional outlook bristled at extending their rights and privileges to the new expatriates seeking the chance to practice their faith, secure employment, and start a new life in a land they assumed to offer limitless opportunity. Violence against unwanted groups such as the Chinese flared with disconcerting regularity. The concern that America was becoming too multicultural proved a useful source of contention for critics of American imperialism; they argued that the pursuit of colonies would eventually bring more “undesirables” into the United States.

Chapter Objectives

  • Identify the reasons why more European immigrants undertook the challenging voyage to the United States during the late 1800s
  • Examine the various ways opponents of immigration engaged in collective action to resist the flow of immigrants
  • Trace the development of America’s growing commitment to empire-building by the end of the 19th century
  • Assess the reasons behind the United States’ decision to go to war with Spain in 1898 and its subsequent choice to annex several former Spanish colonies
  • Consider Theodore Roosevelt’s assertive approach to foreign policy and how it drew from previous traditions while simultaneously deviating from them

19.01 - Level 2

Which of the following encouraged the United States toward becoming an imperial nation?


It was perceived as a uniquely American characteristic


It would provide new spaces for Native American reservations


Greater missionary activity


Opportunities to sell more American goods abroad


The chance to allow young men to prove their masculinity

Question 19.02

19.02 - Level 4

Imagine you are an American factory worker during the late 1800s, learning about the growing interest in the United States acquiring an empire. What might you find appealing about such an enterprise? What concerns might you have?

Click here to see the answer to Question 19.02.

New Patterns of Immigration

Between 1877 and 1900, 25 million immigrants came to the United States, a staggering upsurge compared to previous periods. Europe’s rapidly expanding population and the resultant shortage of farmland was a central reason for the exodus. Great Britain was the first of many European nations to industrialize and witness the emergence of a new class of industrial laborers. Mechanization replaced human labor on farms, and land ownership remained largely the privilege of the elites. Without viable employment or the prospect of owing property, resettlement abroad became the most promising option for many former agricultural laborers. America’s seemingly limitless western frontier and rapid industrialization provided tantalizing justifications to leave. The same industrialization that caused concerns about the vitality of America’s men acted as a beacon to millions of foreign immigrants seeking employment and advancement in the many new factories springing up in the United States.

Other European immigrants sought refuge in the United States for political rather than economic reasons. The increasing prevalence of nationalist movements across Europe darkened suspicions of anyone whose religious or cultural identity seemed contrary to the established national identity. Northern and Western Europe provided the majority of immigrants to the U.S. in the decades before the Civil War, particularly Germany, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. Following a dearth of immigration during the war, rates rose dramatically with a marked shift to arrivals from Eastern and Southern European nations. The political unrest of the late 19th century, such as the wars of Italian unification and state-sanctioned attacks against Jewish communities in Russia called pogroms, further encouraged millions to seek the relative safety afforded by the United States. The United States’ reputation as a nation of tolerance and religious freedom, particularly during the Progressive Era, held the promise of acceptance and assimilation. The number of Jews and Roman Catholics residing in America after 1880 grew dramatically at a time when most Americans identified as Protestant and tended to disapprove of the new arrivals.

Completing the arduous passage to the United States, usually by overcrowded steamship on a transatlantic passage, did not guarantee admittance. Aspiring Americans first needed to pass a rigorous inspection process, including a series of medical examinations. Any travelers diagnosed with a significant communicable illness went into quarantine or, more likely, found themselves on a ship returning them to their country of origin. The new arrivals also needed to demonstrate their mental aptitude and provide paperwork proving that they were not criminals or political extremists (such as communists or anarchists). To process the growing number of immigrants entering the country, Congress approved the construction of a large reception center on Ellis Island, located in New York Harbor (Figure 19.1). Accounts of immigration officials abusing their positions in order to exploit and abuse the new arrivals, particularly through bribery, encouraged the construction of a new facility where the admission process might be better overseen. The new facility opened its doors in 1892.

To meet the growing demand for more factory workers, some American industries and state governments dispatched recruiters to foreign nations to drum up interest among prospective employees. Such tactics proved effective; by 1900, nearly one–third of urban residents were of foreign birth. The new arrivals congregated in distinct ethnic neighborhoods with informal names such as “Little Italy,” “German Village,” and “Chinatown” in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Often surrounded by friends and family members from their homeland, it was possible for recent immigrants to speak their first language, savor their native foods, and retain their religious and cultural practices. Numerous immigrant-aid societies further assisted the recent immigrants in acclimating to their new surroundings, helping in securing lodging and employment. Demographically, those who immigrated to the U.S. during the late 1800s skewed toward young, unmarried men. Most intended to spend only a few years away from their homelands as industrial workers before returning home with their hard–earned savings to start a new life. Others became the first link in so-called chain migration, their success encouraging loved ones to undertake the journey themselves.

Figure 19.1: A group of recently arrived immigrant children and their parents at Ellis Island, 1908. A decided shift from northern and western European immigrants to those from the eastern and southern parts of the continent renewed nativist fears that had not existed since the mid-1800s when the influx of Irish immigrants brought with it concerns that their Roman Catholicism would destroy the values and beliefs of the established Protestant majority.​ [1]
Figure 19.2: Number of European immigrants from 1880-1919 by nation of origin​

19.03 - Level 3

Using the data from the Infographic above, approximately what percentage of European immigrants who came to the United States between 1880 and 1919 were from Slavic nations?

Note: when entering in your answer, omit the % symbol

Renewed Resistance to Immigration 

The influx of new arrivals with a religious background other than Protestantism escalated tensions between them and their native-born counterparts. Industrialization accelerated existing animosity toward immigrants over completion for factory jobs. Hiring agents realized the ease with which they could exploit immigrants, who spoke and read little to no English, by employing them at low pay. Companies further assumed that these immigrants would be far less prone to unionize. The increasingly fierce competition for industrial labor, coupled with fear of the new immigrants’ cultural background and resistance to assimilation, coalesced into a resurgence of nativism, which championed the supposed superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture to that of Latin or Slavic peoples. Such sentiment was not without precedent; nativist groups had sprung up before the Civil War in response to increased Irish immigration.

Numerous anti-immigration groups formed in the late 1800s to lobby for tighter restrictions on unwanted immigrants. The most successful proved to be the American Protective Association (APA) of the upper Mississippi River Valley, which pushed for restrictions on immigration to preserve the perceived American Anglo-Saxon identity and warned of Catholic conspiracies that would result in the Vatican taking control of the country. Nativists suspected Jews of similar treacheries, as agents of an imagined Zionist scheme to undermine the U.S. government and its economy. The strength of the APA was such that it successfully pressured Congress into passing an 1897 bill obligating new immigrants to pass a literacy test in order to gain entry into the country. The Immigration Restriction League, another such nativist group founded in 1894, drew a clear distinction between immigrants from supposedly superior nations such as England and Germany, from which a great deal of immigration had already taken place, and the undesirable countries of Asia and eastern and southern Europe.

Elected officials walked a tightrope in dealing with nativist groups and sponsoring laws that reduced immigration; doing so threatened to alienate prospective voters. The Democratic Party in particular, still seeking to reassert its legitimacy and competitiveness (particularly in the North), realized the potential advantage of actively courting the immigrant vote. Party bosses in industrial centers such as New York and Chicago made a point of assisting new immigrants in securing lodging and employment, knowing full well how it would reflect in the elections. The strategy worked most effectively in spreading the Democrats’ influence well beyond its Southern stronghold into Northern urban areas. The most notorious example of a party “boss” overseeing an urban political “machine” was William Magear Tweed, better known as “Boss Tweed. From 1858 until 1877, Tweed ruled Democratic Party political machine Tammany Hall in New York City. During Tweed’s tenure, Tammany Hall became synonymous with graft and corruption, using patronage to build a loyal cadre of party followers. His methods violated the law, but those who obtained housing and employment in exchange for their votes, many of them recent immigrants from Ireland, looked at Tweed as a savior. 

Even with the large increase of southern and eastern European immigrants at the close of the 1800s, Asian immigrants arriving on the West Coast continued to bear the brunt of anti-foreigner violence and exclusion. Much of the anger derived from Asian immigrants’ readiness to work for lower salaries while still making financial gains due to their hard work and thriftiness. Most Chinese immigrants who prospered during the California gold rush and the Nevada silver strike did so not as miners, but by cooking meals, taking in laundry, and assisting in the construction of the many transcontinental railroad lines built after the Civil War. 

The cultural differences between the traditionally white, Anglo-Saxon western inhabitants and recent Chinese immigrants, coupled with the latter’s financial success, resulted in no shortage of violent episodes. One such instance occurred in Los Angeles in late 1871 when a mob, frenzied after the accidental death of a white man during an altercation between rival Chinese gangs, stormed into the city’s Chinatown and lynched a number of its inhabitants. The eight men convicted later went free due to a legal technicality. San Francisco hosted its own mass persecution of Chinese residents in July 1877, a product of the mounting influence of nativism and high unemployment caused by the depression of four years earlier. A two-day riot engulfed the Chinese quarter, leaving four dead and numerous businesses destroyed. The bloodiest of these anti-Chinese massacres was in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, when unemployed miners laid waste to the local Chinatown and took close to thirty lives. Once again, economic causes motivated the attackers, specifically the willingness of the Chinese to work for lower wages.

Undeterred by such instances of organized violence, Chinese immigration continued. By 1880, close to 10% of the population of California was Chinese, a high point dashed by Congress’ passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act two years later, which all but eliminated immigration from China with the exception of some desired professionals and those who had relatives already living in the country. Intended to last for only a decade, Congress renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act regularly until its repeal in 1943. The Japanese also encountered heightened resistance to immigration, causing tension with the Japanese government, which sought to release the pressures of Japan’s rapidly growing population by encouraging immigration abroad. San Francisco’s decision in 1906 to segregate its schools due to the large presence of Japanese students elicited protests from the Japanese government and the intervention of President Roosevelt. The two countries worked out the Gentlemen’s Agreement, ending San Francisco’s segregated school policy in exchange for reductions in the number of unskilled Japanese workers intending to relocate to the United States.

One group actually experienced a period of increased immigration, even amid increased pressure to limit the arrivals of Asian, Catholic, and Jewish immigrants: people from Latin America and the Caribbean. Over a quarter of a million Caribbean immigrants established residences, primarily in the southern U.S., by 1920 in search of employment opportunities. The increase in arable farmland in the western U.S., the result of ongoing state and federal efforts to irrigate largely desert areas, created an increased demand for agricultural workers. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans answered the call in ever greater numbers, particularly after the start of the bloody Mexican Revolution in 1910. Some enterprising Asian immigrants, unable to enter the U.S. via the west coast, disguised themselves as Mexicans and came through a southerly route.

19.04 - Level 1

Nativist groups resisted immigrants entering the United States from all of the following regions except _________.


Latin America




Southern Europe


Eastern Europe

Question 19.05

19.05 - Level 5

How do you explain the particularly hateful attitude towards Asian immigrants from the mid-1800s through the end of the century? Why would they continue to struggle to find acceptance compared to such groups as German and Irish immigrants?

Click here to see the answer to Question 19.05.

19.06 - Level 2

Which of the following statements about late 19th century immigrants is false?


They were primarily from southern and eastern Europe, as well as East Asia


Many were Catholics and Jews rather than Protestants


Most hoped to eventually return to their country of origin


They were greeted with open arms by virtually all Americans

19.07 - Level 1

Which of the following factors contributed to the mistrust between Americans and recent immigrants?









19.08 - Level 2

Which of the following groups was not explicitly “nativist” in their politics?


American Protective Association


Tammany Hall


Ku Klux Klan


Immigration Restriction League

19.09 - Level 2

Click on the nation with which President Teddy Roosevelt reached a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” on immigration issues.

Social Darwinism and Eugenics

The increased heterogeneity provided by late 19th century immigration coincided with the growing acceptance of Charles Darwin’s concepts of evolutionary development, specifically the idea of “natural selection,” decades after their public appearance. Though many continued to reject Darwinist thinking of the basis of religion, others transposed it from the natural world to the industrialized one under the name of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinist thinkers, beginning with Herbert Spencer, utilized the concept of the “survival of the fittest” when examining America’s rapidly changing society. “The fittest” comprised those who dominated industry and finance, such as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, both of whom found favor with the theory. Their natural gifts and talents all but guaranteed their ascendance to the top of the social hierarchy. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil could be viewed as a top predator, eliminating its competitors through mergers and bankruptcy in a natural process that state interference would only disrupt to the detriment of society. More extreme Social Darwinists argued that governmental regulation, the imposition of high taxes on the wealthy, and social welfare programs, the hallmarks of the Progressive Era, should be discouraged. Following this line of thinking, those making up the industrial workforce lacked the traits necessary to rise to the top and were therefore cursed to struggle at the bottom, competing for menial jobs and rundown housing in slum areas. A possible solution to ending the cycle of grinding poverty and desperation among the lower classes seemed to be preventing them from having more children through sterilization, a population control measure known as eugenics. An English mathematician, statistician, and first cousin of Charles Darwin named Francis Galton postulated that a clear line could be drawn between people’s genetics and their place within the social hierarchy. Building upon the foundation laid by his cousin, Galton used data collected over a number of years to argue that the use of selective breeding would assist humanity in reaching its full potential.

When Galton’s theory reached the United States, many seized upon it as a scientific justification for the prevention of miscegenation and viewed sterilization as potentially useful in preserving the supposed purity of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples in the face of increasing numbers of Slavs and Asians. Adding to the mounting unease, birthrates indicated that immigrant mothers gave birth to far more children than their established counterparts, often so that the family would have more potential wage earners. The theory of eugenics gained favor among academics and intellectuals, including African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois. The acceptance of eugenics proved destructive, as it lent credence to new laws restricting immigration as well as existing ones preserving segregation throughout the South.

Some state legislatures passed forced sterilization laws in the early 1900s, using pseudoscientific and bigoted justifications to do so. Indiana set a shameful precedent with a 1907 law permitting the forced sterilization of designated convicted criminals and people judged by doctors to be “idiots” or “imbeciles.” Eight other states had similar statutes on their books by 1921, bolstered by support from the Supreme Court. Distinguished jurist and member of the Court Oliver Wendell Holmes supported such state laws, even comparing them to forced vaccinations. As he observed in 1927: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Thousands of men and women endured forced sterilizations in the first two decades of the 20th century.

19.10 - Level 2

Choose the group most likely to find favor in the theory of Social Darwinism.


Members of the upper classes


Industrial workers


Recent immigrants



19.11 - Level 3

Which of the following concepts is not related to “Social Darwinism”?




Seward's Folly


White Man's Burden


"Survival of the Fittest"

Question 19.12

19.12 - Level 4

Describe the concept of “Social Darwinism” and explain why it was a misapplication of evolutionary theory.

Click here to see the answer to Question 19.12.

Urban Struggles 

No group found itself more buffeted by the forces of industrialization and urbanization than the poorest inhabitants of urban centers, most of them recent immigrants seeking work in mills and factories. A 500% increase in city residents between 1870 and 1920 generally found urban governments incapable of making the necessary changes to provide clean water and proper sanitation. Unscrupulous property owners constructed cheap buildings called tenements to house hundreds of families, sometimes with two families to a room. Often lacking indoor plumbing and proper ventilation, tenements became breeding grounds for diseases such as typhus and cholera, while fires easily swept from apartment to apartment. New York City took action in 1879, enforcing building codes intended to improve plumbing and ventilation in tenements, to mixed results.

Americans living far from urban slums gained some sense of the miseries, courtesy of a group of journalists and photographers committed to calling attention to the plight of the immigrant poor. Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant from Denmark, perhaps did more than anyone to educate the American public about the stark realities of slum life through his vivid photographs of New York’s most destitute inhabitants, eventually compiling them in a best-selling book titled How the Other Half Lives (Figure 19.3). Theodore Roosevelt, while serving as the city’s police commissioner in the 1880s, frequently accompanied Riis on his trips to the slums, seeing firsthand a life far removed from the one he knew on the Upper East Side. He would carry his memories of the misery he witnessed firsthand into the White House in 1901. 

Figure 19.3: Jacob Riis used photography to convey most effectively the grinding poverty experienced by those living in the urban slums of the United States. Riis realized that documenting the plight of children, such as this shoeless trio, huddled around a heating grate, would be far more likely to elicit an action from a sympathetic public than comparable images of adults. Riis was one of the true pioneers in the fields of photojournalism and modern social activism. [2]
19.13 - Level 1

Where would tenement housing typically be found?


In rural areas close to farms


In wealthy residential areas


In urban areas close to factories


Only in southern cities

Question 19.14

19.14 - Level 3

Based on previous readings, how do you explain the relative slowness on the part of government leaders to take action in regulating the construction of tenement housing?

Click here to see the answer to Question 19.14.

Background on Imperialism

The nation’s manifest destiny seemed to be fulfilled by the close of the 19th century, its eastern and western borders clearly defined by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a process of purchase and conquest. But much of the territory acquired during the previous century remained largely uncharted, its possible resources and riches still a mystery. It did not seem necessary to consider acquiring more land abroad with the untapped potential of the continental United States yet to be determined. Most Americans in the 1800s exhibited little interest in empire-building outside of the established borders of the United States, focusing instead on the impact of industrialization and other domestic concerns. Imperialism was perceived as a largely European pastime, fundamentally at odds with America’s emphasis on relative isolationism and the Western Hemisphere.

However, some leaders in the government and the military identified certain advantages of an empire, particularly for industrializing states: easy access to global markets, readily available raw materials, and more secure trade routes patrolled by American warships to protect the nation’s growing economic interests. As agricultural and industrial production in the U.S. more than met domestic consumer demands by the late 1800s, American entrepreneurs increasingly adopted an imperialistic outlook, hoping to sell their products to foreign markets. An American empire would facilitate just such a process and conceivably relieve pressures on the economy, such as overproduction and unemployment, which had helped bring about the economic downturns of 1873 and 1893. Beyond the financial benefits, the acquisition of colonies would herald the United States as an international power, able to compete with its European rivals. But if the U.S. wanted to enter the empire-building game, it needed to do so quickly. European powers had divided up the African continent among themselves in the “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s and appeared ready to do the same to China. Defying the largely European trend, a recently modernized Japan began to compete for colonies as well.

America’s imperial ambitions increased due to a series of ambitious secretaries of state rather than presidents or members of Congress. William Seward, Secretary of State under Lincoln and Johnson, oversaw the purchase of Alaska from the cash-strapped Russian government for just over $7 million in 1867. The presumed worthlessness and remoteness of the territory led it to be known as “Seward’s Folly”. The subsequent discovery of large deposits of gold and abundant oil fields resulted in a swift reappraisal of Seward’s purchase. Secretary of State John Hay, who served under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, encouraged his government to look to Asia for possible opportunities. Hay was less concerned with the United States acquiring Asian colonies than he was with European nations doing so, cornering Asian markets and commodities at the expense of American business interests. Hay advocated for an “open door” policy when it came to Asia and particularly China, not wanting a handful of European powers to dominate the region’s trade at the expense of the U.S.

19.15 - Level 2

Please click on the location of “Seward’s Folly.”

Motivations for an American Empire 

A naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan (Figure 19.5) became the patron saint of American imperialism at the close of the 19th century. The son of a legendary teacher at West Point, Mahan took lessons from the history of Great Britain, the world’s foremost modern empire, in order to map out a similar trajectory for the United States. Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, published in 1890, argued for an enlargement of the navy, the acquisition of more coaling stations to expand the navy’s operational capabilities, and imperialism. Doing so would better position the U.S. in international trade while increasing the nation’s prosperity and global standing. In Mahan’s view, the U.S. needed to expand upon the Monroe Doctrine by asserting control over the Caribbean Sea and constructing a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the Panamanian Isthmus. Mahan’s ethos struck a chord with military and government officials, including Theodore Roosevelt, who were fearful the nation would remain a secondary power without the raw materials and markets that an empire would afford. Benjamin Tracy, Secretary of the Navy under President Benjamin Harrison, spearheaded the construction of new class of modern iron-hulled battleships to replace older wooden vessels beginning in 1880. 

Figure 19.4: Increase in number of ships in the U.S. Navy 1886-1906

In addition to enhanced military strength and greater profits, advocates of American imperialism recognized the moral imperative of such an endeavor. Western empire-builders had long espoused faulty and bigoted theories of their racial superiority, justifying attempts to claim large portions of Asia and Africa. This perversion of Darwinist theories came to be known as the “white man’s burden”: a supposed obligation of Western nations to dominate regions inhabited by less “civilized” peoples in order to lead them toward modernity and material progress. Such thinking simply projected Social Darwinism onto a global scale.

Figure 19.5: Alfred Thayer Mahan articulated one of the most profoundly influential treatises in the history of American foreign policy. His opinions proved persuasive well beyond the United States. In 1914, when this picture was taken, the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, an avowed discipline of Mahan’s work, led his country into the First World War as part of a larger effort to secure for Germany an empire. Members of the Japanese military also read Mahan with great interest. [3]

Question 19.16

19.16 - Level 5

How do the motivations behind America’s decision to expand beyond its established borders reflect its decision to conquer the West after the Civil War?

Click here for the answer to Question 19.16.

Expanding into the Pacific 

The uneasy mixture of Mahanism and the idea of imperialism as civilizing mission coalesced in America’s growing interest in Pacific colonies after the Civil War. Pacific islands would afford the U.S. greater proximity to Asian markets, a plus for American trade, and could offer locations to construct naval bases, a necessity for increasing the nation’s military abilities. As a tentative first step toward improving America’s positon in the Pacific, the U.S. took possession of the uninhabited Midway Islands with the intention of constructing a naval base and coaling station for the Navy’s steam-powered ships. Similar ambitions informed the U.S. government’s possession of Pago Pago, Samoa in 1878 following a treaty that provided the Americans with extraterritoriality, meaning they would not be subject to Samoan law.

The Hawaiian Islands, a free and unified kingdom since 1795, proved even more tempting as a potential American colony. Like Midway and Samoa, the U.S. Navy established a refueling station at Pearl Harbor, located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, in 1887. A small number of Americans had relocated to Hawaii throughout the 1800s, most either as Christian missionaries or sugar plantation owners who quickly dominated the Hawaiian economy. Both groups saw advantages of a closer relationship between their native land and their adopted one. An 1875 trade agreement allowed the U.S. to import Hawaiian sugar as a duty-free commodity in exchange for Hawaiian assurances that no other foreign power would be permitted to establish a presence in the islands. Exploiting this toehold, the American sugar plantation owners, fast asserting themselves as a political as well as economic elite, pressured the Hawaiian King Kalakaua into accepting constitutional changes that gave only the leading landowners the right to vote. With this accomplished, the American sugar kingpins ramped up their production and reaped the resultant profits. This arrangement worked until 1890, when the U.S. government voided the existing trade agreement by imposing a high tariff on Hawaiian sugar, causing significant economic distress due to increased competition in the U.S. market. The only solution to eliminating the tariff seemed to be the United States annexing Hawaii.

The chances of annexation dwindled the following year when the pliable King Kalakaua died and a new monarch took the throne in Hawaii: Queen Liliuokalani. Far more assertive than her predecessor, the young queen worked diligently to recover power lost to the American planter elite, specifically by striking down the correlation between land ownership and voting rights. Desperate to shore up their influence, the Americans, assisted by American ambassador John L. Stevens, plotted a revolt in 1893, convinced that it would result in an annexation of Hawaii by the U.S. government. Desperate telegrams to Washington resulted in a small contingent of U.S. sailors and Marines arriving in Hawaii to protect American interests and assist in dethroning Queen Liliuokalani. The American conspirators established a new government under an American lawyer named Sanford B. Dole and invited Hawaii’s annexation by the U.S. To their shock and dismay, President Grover Cleveland rejected their request and condemned the underhanded manner in which it had been made. Nevertheless, the planters refused to restore power to Liliuokalani. They instead opted to declare Hawaii a republic that the U.S. was welcome to take as its own whenever it wished.

Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley, wished very much to take the sugar planters up on their offer, particularly with the Japanese exhibiting a growing interest in assuming control of Hawaii. His opportunity would come when America went to war with the Empire of Spain in 1898, a war McKinley initially attempted to avoid. The conflict’s roots can be traced to America’s long-standing commitment to the Caribbean and its growing interest in Asia. War with Spain would give America an opportunity to establish a toehold in both regions. 

19.17 - Level 1

In what year did Queen Liliuokalani become ruler of Hawaii?

19.18 - Level 1

What did the plotters of the coup against Queen Liliuokalani hope to achieve?


Provide the U.S. with the location of a naval base


Eliminate a U.S. tariff on Hawaiian sugar by encouraging annexation


Restore the most controllable King Kalakaua to the throne


Prevent Japanese immigration into Hawaii

Question 19.19

19.19 - Level 5

How do you account for the timing of America’s ambitions in the Pacific during the late 1800s? Is it consistent with expansion efforts from previous periods in U.S. History?

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Question 19.20

19.20 - Level 4

Describe the anti-democratic means by which the United States was able to acquire Hawaii as a territory.

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Causes of the Spanish-American War

By the late 1800s, Spain’s once glorious empire, the envy of Europe during the 1500s, existed as a shell of its former self, consisting of a handful of colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, the Philippines foremost among these. The Spanish were committed to retaining what little remained at virtually any cost. Such was the case when the Spanish colony of Cuba, following decades of brutal rule, began a revolt in 1895 under the leadership of Jose Marti. Marti, a law school graduate and journalist who had lived for a time in the United States during a period of exile from the land of his birth, died on behalf of the cause shortly after it started. Before his death, he believed that it might be possible to convince the U.S. government to support the Cubans in their independence efforts. Marti’s logic stemmed from the numerous American investments in Cuba’s sugar and mining industries, which had allowed America to eclipse Spain as the island colony’s most important trading partner. The growing economic closeness between Cuba and the U.S. had helped to spark the Cuban revolt; the imposition of a U.S. tariff on sugar in 1894 helped to destroy Cuba’s sugar market, resulting in greater political tensions. Cuban rebels strategically continued to weaken the economy and attract American attention by attacking trains and sugar plantations across the island. The strategy initially prompted calls from American investors to support the Spanish government in order to safeguard their interests.

The Spanish governor-general of Cuba, Veleriano Weyler, reacted to the attacks with brutal measures starting in 1896. Unable to identify Cuban rebels, Weyler opted to detain entire communities exhibiting frequent rebel activity in the western and central parts of the island, placing residents behind barbed wire and under armed guard in what became known as the reconcentración policy. The hundreds of thousands of prisoners in these concentration camps received little in the way of adequate shelter, food, or medical care. Many succumbed to disease and starvation. American journalists covering the violence in Cuba chronicled the miseries of the camps while photographers provided images of the emaciated victims, arousing the sympathy and anger of the U.S. public.

Question 19.21

19.21 - Level 5

Analyze the possible reasons behind the American people’s growing interest in the Cuban Revolution. Take into consideration America’s previous dealings with the Caribbean.

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Media coverage presented the tipping point in America’s involvement on behalf of the Cuban revolutionaries. Newspaper moguls Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, and his chief rival William Randolph Hearst, who printed the New York Journal, watched as their circulation numbers rose, realizing that accounts of the Cuban situation were largely responsible. Both men encouraged their reporters to embellish and exaggerate stories of Spanish atrocities in order to maintain readership, a less-than-reputable form of journalism that came to be known as “the yellow press.” Hearst famously (if apocryphally) told famed illustrator Frederic Remington that he needed to go to Cuba to cover a coming war between Spain and the U.S. When Remington expressed disbelief that such as war was possible, Heart retorted, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Congress might have indulged Hearst sooner, given the chance. A growing number of their constituents, galvanized by the stories of the “yellow press,” called for action, and many in Congress, particularly hawkish Republicans, expressed interest in giving formal recognition and support to the Cuban rebels. President Cleveland, however, did not wish to follow any course of action that might result in a war between the U.S. and Spain. Instead, he proposed to serve as a mediator between the Spanish and the Cubans and encouraged Spain to consider granting increased self-rule to Cuba. The Spanish government rebuffed both of Cleveland’s suggestions.

The Cuba crisis passed to president-elect William McKinley following his victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Part of McKinley’s platform included his avowed support for Cuban independence, America’s acquisition of Hawaii, and U.S. construction of a canal across Panama, all tenets with a strong Mahanian flavor. Detecting a more resolute presence in the White House, the Spanish decided to extend greater autonomy for the Cubans in 1897 in exchange for an end to the fighting. The Cuban rebels refused the offer; it was to be independence or nothing. The Spanish continued their peace offensive by recalling General Weyler and closing the concentration camps, but the Spanish officers formerly under Weyler’s command continued their abusive and repressive tactics. Americans looked to McKinley for a sign of executive assertiveness.

The McKinley administration dispatched American warship USS Maine in early 1898. Its presence served as a clear symbol of America’s interest in Cuban affairs as well as a none-too subtle display of military force. While the Maine remained anchored in Havana Harbor, the New York World obtained and printed an inflammatory letter written by Spanish ambassador Enrique de Lôme to a friend back in Spain. A Cuban spy had intercepted the letter and passed it on to the newspaper. In the communique, the Spanish diplomat ridiculed President McKinley by referring to him as “weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” De Lôme resigned at the behest of the Spanish government, which extended a sincere apology to McKinley, but the sting remained.

Such trivial insults paled in comparison to a mysterious explosion aboard the Maine on the night of February 15, which killed 260 of the crew aboard (Figure 19.6). With little evidence to substantiate their claim, American newspapers accused the Spanish of using a mine or other explosive device to destroy the vessel and murder innocent sailors. Hearst went so far as to offer a $50,000 bounty for the apprehension of the Spaniards responsible for the attack. Others suspected that the Cubans might be to blame. An investigation into the blast conducted decades later indicated that a boiler fire or improperly stored ammunition aboard the ship was likely to blame. 

19.22 - Level 1

In what year did the USS Maine explode?

Question 19.23

19.23 - Level 5

How do you explain the growing influence of the American press on the eve of the Spanish-American War? Why might newspaper publishers such as Pulitzer and Hearst have been so enthused for a war?

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Figure 19.6: The wreckage of the USS Maine shortly after its untimely destruction in Havana Harbor. The Spanish government allowed U.S. Navy investigators unfettered access to the devastated ship to assess the cause of the explosion. The conclusion: sabotage caused by an external explosive devise, which confirmed Spanish duplicity in the minds of many Americans. ​[4]

War Begins

With much of the American public chanting “Remember the Maine!” and demanding immediate action, McKinley initially sought to avoid a war with Spain. A decorated Union veteran of the Civil War, McKinley bristled at suggestions that war was a virtuous and manly activity that benefitted the young men of the nation. At the same time, he believed it prudent to make some preparations for a possible conflict. Congress readily approved his $50-millon appropriations bill to improve defense on March 9. Spanish leaders, even more than McKinley, saw little need for a war and caved into American demands for an immediate cessation of hostilities. On April 9, they announced their plans to grant Cuba an autonomous government and approved a thorough American investigation into the Maine. These measures proved incapable of deterring McKinley and Congress. Critics of McKinley, foremost among them William Randolph Hearst, interpreted his slowness to action as an indication that there “wasn’t a man in the White House.” Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, having resigned his post as New York City’s police commissioner, pettily said of the president that he had ''no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.''

In the face of such withering criticism, McKinley prepared to move forward with a war resolution. He appeared before Congress on April 11 to demand that Spain withdraw its troops from Cuba and grant the Cubans immediate independence. On April 20, with war becoming increasingly likely, Congress passed a bill including the Teller Amendment, which disclaimed any American ambitions of taking Cuba as a colony. Should the U.S. go to war, it would be a conflict to secure Cuban independence, not a war of conquest. McKinley insisted that the Spanish respond to his demands by April 23, but ordered the imposition of a naval blockade of Cuba on April 22, a precursor to a formal declaration of war under international law. The Spanish government, weak but not without pride, declared war against the United States on April 24. A furious Congress followed suit, voting to retroactively declare war against Spain five days earlier.

In the spring of 1898 America possessed the desire to fight, but little else. Diminished defense spending in previous decades had left the small standing army with few resources or personnel to wage war effectively. 125,000 young men eagerly answered the call to action, only to receive inadequate training from grizzled Civil War veterans unfamiliar with modern warfare. Bureaucratic mismanagement and a lack of preparedness resulted in heavy woolen uniforms despite Cuba’s distinctly tropical climate. U.S. troops also found themselves at a distinct disadvantage compared to the Spanish when it came to their rifles. The Spanish, though lacking in adequate supplies and leadership, carried modern German Mauser rifles using smokeless powder, allowing them to fire at the Americans without billowing smoke and revealing their position. In contrast, many U.S. troops were issued Civil War era Springfield rifles that used black powder, producing thick smoke that made them easy to detect even in dense jungle terrain. 

19.24 - Level 3

The explosion aboard the USS Maine provided a convenient excuse for the United States to enter into a war with Spain. In what other conflict did the U.S. government similarly instigate a war under dubious pretences?


Mexican-American War


First World War


Civil War


War of 1812

Spotlight on Primary Source

Rates of illiteracy dropped from 20 percent to just over 10 percent from 1870 to 1900 in the United States. The growing number of literate Americans promoted an increase in the publication of books and newspapers, a trend that delighted publishing moguls such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. They made available to their readers two newspapers published each day, the early edition and the evening edition, offering the latest news stories and editorials. Political cartoons, long an established part of American media, grew in prominence during the late 1800s. The following cartoons show how the perception of the ongoing troubles in Cuba changed over time, from an event that perhaps did not merit America’s attention, to a call to arms that culminated in war. 

Figure 19.7: Cartoon by Louis Dalrymple in the July 27, 1898 issue of Puck magazine [5]​

Figure 19.8: Cartoon by Louis Dalrymple in an 1898 issue of Puck magazine [6]​

Figure 19.9: “School Begins” from the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine [7]​

Figure 19.10: “A Thing Well Begun Is Half Done” by Victor Gillam in an 1899 issue of Judge magazine [8]​

19.25 - Level 4

In the image below, click on the figure that symbolizes the United States.

Question 19.26

19.26 - Level 5

How do these political cartoons convey America’s increasing willingness to implement imperialistic policies by the end of the 1800s? What are the basic motivations for the U.S. as suggested by each cartoon?

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Question 19.27

19.27 - Level 5

What are the general depictions of gender and race in these cartoons? What’s the intended purpose of these portrayals?

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Question 19.28

19.28 - Level 5

Based on these images, how did America’s foreign policy agenda change from before the Spanish American War to the period afterwards?

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A Brief Conflict 

Even with such restrictions, the Spanish-American War proved to be a short engagement, lasting only 114 days between Spain’s declaration of war and its surrender. Very few sea or land battles occurred during that period, and Secretary of State John Hay dubbed it “a splendid little war.” When the war ended, it marked a clear end to Spain’s days as an empire after four centuries as well as the beginning of America’s hesitant if unmistakable rise as an imperial power. Much of that imperialism derived from an early and decisive battle fought not in Cuba, but off of the Philippines in Manila Bay less than a week after the war began. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the staunchest advocates of a war with Spain, used his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to send a communique to his friend Commodore George Dewey, the head of the U.S. Pacific Naval Squadron. He advised the squadron to head from its base at Hong Kong toward the Philippines in the event of war in order to engage the Spanish fleet stationed at Manila. On April 30, Dewey’s flotilla entered Manila Bay and handily destroyed the outmoded Spanish warships in a short engagement that resulted in the loss of only one American life.

Dewey’s tremendous victory at Manila Bay bolstered American confidence and provided the people with a new military hero. The commodore’s likeness soon appeared on a variety of consumer goods, from chewing gum to soap. But the triumph also presented a challenge regarding the fate of the Philippines. Both Britain and Germany expressed their determination to acquire the islands should America fail to do so after the defeat of Spain. America’s scope of operations expanded to include the liberation of the Filipino as well as the Cuban people. To this end, the U.S. located Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the Filipino independence movement who’d been expelled by the Spanish. Aguinaldo resumed his campaign with American assistance and worked with U.S. troops to take the capital city of Manila on August 13.

Figure 19.11: Commodore George Dewey presented the United States with a glorious victory over Spain very early in the conflict between the two nations. Dewey’s image became ubiquitous, gracing everything from commemorative plates to recruitment posters such as this one. Nearly every American could recite the words Dewey uttered to his first officer just before the destruction of the Spanish squadron: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.”​ [9]

A second hero of the Spanish-American War arose in Cuba, one whose fame would surpass that of Commodore Dewey’s: Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, whose father had sent a substitute to fight on his behalf in the Civil War, had long desired to experience combat, both to demonstrate his own personal courage and to atone for his father’s failure to answer the call. When the war began, Roosevelt immediately resigned his government position, ordered a custom-made uniform from Brooks Brothers, and set about forming his own military unit: the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry or Rough Riders. The unit drew upon a number of groups, including polo players from Ivy League schools, cowboys from the western plains, African American cavalry troops, and Native Americans.

17,000 troops, including the Rough Riders, left from Tampa to fight in Cuba, but the diversity of Roosevelt’s unit proved the exception rather than the rule in the segregated U.S. military forces. Some military leaders believed that black troops should be the first to fight the Spanish, the erroneous assumption being that they possessed a natural immunity to tropical diseases. Black cavalry units, who fought with distinction but little recognition in Cuba, encountered bigotry and hostility as they journeyed to Florida from their western outposts. Restaurants denied them service, and train companies insisted on segregated passenger cars to conform to Jim Crow laws.

General John Shafter commanded U.S. ground forces in Cuba. Tipping the scales at well over 300 pounds, troops dubbed Shafter “the floating tent.” He intended to be the conqueror of Cuba, little realizing Theodore Roosevelt’s ambitions to earn that same mantle. Roosevelt drove his Rough Riders into action almost as soon as they disembarked. They participated in fierce fighting on June 24 at Las Guasimas and went on to lasting fame on July 1 in the battle of San Juan Hill, where they took part in a charge that involved two regiments of African American cavalrymen. In a virtual repeat of Manila Bay, the U.S. Navy destroyed the Spanish Caribbean squadron off of the capital city of Santiago two days later, dealing a crippling blow to the Spanish. Santiago itself fell on July 17, taken by a combined U.S.-Cuban force. American soldiers successfully conquered the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico on July 25. With little remaining of its military, Spain sued for peace on August 12, the same day that Congress voted to make Hawaii a formal American territory. It remained to be seen what America would do with what remained of the Spanish empire.

America Commits to Empire

Spanish and American diplomats convened in Paris in December to hash out a peace agreement. Abiding by the Teller Amendment, the U.S. decided against annexing Cuba as an American colony, but taking possession of Puerto Rico and Guam proved too tempting to ignore. Hawaii had already been annexed before the end of the fighting. Possibly taking the Philippines would prove a far more contentious issue. American forces occupied Manila and expelled the Filipino rebels who had assisted them in taking the capital city. Assumed liberators were now acting like replacement conquerors. McKinley initially expressed little interest in annexing the Philippines, but business leaders envisioning more American influence in Asia and missionaries prepared to explore conversion opportunities could not be ignored, to say nothing of McKinley’s own Republican Party. After some careful consideration, the president came to support the annexation of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, providing the Spanish government with a payment of $20 million.

Many factions protested America’s foray into imperialism. The Democrats, still in firm control of the southern states, vigorously opposed the taking of the Philippines, but couldn’t overcome the pro-empire Republicans. Detractors of an American empire pointed out the hypocrisy of a democratic nation such as America embracing imperialism, a characteristic associated with European states. African American leaders including W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington argued the United States should resolve its ongoing racial tensions before taking up challenges abroad. Labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, worried that the new territories would encourage more immigration and increased competition for jobs, driving down wages. Others frowned upon acquiring colonies in Asia and the Caribbean for racist reasons. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke of America’s commitment to look after its “little brown brothers,” these critics did not wish to see the U.S. further contaminated by those they considered to be culturally inferior.

Question 19.29

19.29 - Level 5

Imagine that you are President William McKinley. Weigh the arguments for and against annexation of the Philippines, paying attention to America’s past ideas and national trajectory. What do you see as the benefits or pitfalls of annexing the Philippines? What would you do?

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More resolute resistance to American colonization came in the form of armed resistance in the Philippines. Emilio Aguinaldo, upon realizing that the Americans had no intention of liberating the Philippines after the defeat of Spain, renewed the fight on behalf of Filipino independence, taking the battle to the Americans in early 1899. His guerrilla forces challenged U.S troops, who were accustomed to clashes with conventional forces, wearing uniforms and fighting pitched battles on open ground. Mounting frustration in trying to defeat Aguinaldo’s forces led to the Americans adopting some questionable tactics, such as waterboarding captives in order to gain information and, in an ironic turn of events, establishing concentration camps to detail suspected rebels and their supporters. The U.S. managed to lay a trap for Aguinaldo in 1901 that resulted in his capture, a development that hastened the end of the Filipino Insurrection the following year after the deaths of nearly 20,000 Filipinos and a cost of close to half a billion dollars. American efforts to establish a colonial government in the Philippines improved with the arrival of a commission headed by William Howard Taft. Unlike most American officials, Taft sought the advice and participation of Filipino leaders in creating an efficient bureaucracy. He became the Philippines’ colonial governor in 1901. 

Figure 19.12: U.S. forces attempting to put down the Filipino Insurrection led by General Emilio Aguinaldo frequently resorted the types of brutal tactics used by Union troops during the later phases of the Civil War. When his American pursuers drew close, General Aguinaldo ordered his men to set fire to the Malolos Cathedral, a site he had been using as his personal residence. Many such Catholic churches existed throughout the Philippines. American imperialists who used missionary activity as a justification to colonize the Philippines failed to grasp the fact that Christianity had existed there since the 1500s, courtesy of the Spanish. [10]

Although not a formal American colony, the U.S. also sought to reconfigure Cuba’s government following its independence, ensuring that its economic and foreign policies reflected American interests. Congress passed the Platt Amendment in 1901, insisting that the Cubans implement a constitution that restricted any treaties with third party nations, allowed American intervention whenever it was deemed necessary, prohibited the Cuban government from going into debt, and provided the U.S. with access to Cuban territory for military bases and coaling stations. After some protests and calls for armed resistance, Cuban leaders adopted the recommended constitution and accepted the island’s new status as an American protectorate—not a formal colony, but not free of foreign influence either. Shortly thereafter, the Navy began building a facility at Guantanamo Bay. Per the United States’ “civilizing mission” in Cuba, the Americans began construction on modern hospitals and schools, and U.S. army doctors led by Dr. Walter Reed worked to eradicate the scourge of yellow fever. 

America’s military occupation of Puerto Rico under General Nelson A. Miles proved much smoother than that of the Philippines. Many Puerto Ricans hoped the U.S. would consider bringing their new colony into the Union as a state, but American leaders’ interest in Puerto Rico was mostly due to strategic considerations, including the potential for a canal in nearby Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The people of Puerto Rico received relatively few political rights under the U.S. civil government that replaced the military in 1900.

Question 19.30

19.30 - Level 5

What explains why the United States took a greater interest in colonizing the Philippines than Spain’s former colonies in the Caribbean?

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19.31 - Level 1

In which “theater” of the Spanish-American War were the following figures primarily involved?


Theodore Roosevelt




George Dewey




John Shafer




Emilio Anguinaldo




Jose Marti



19.32 - Level 1

Sort the following events of the Spanish-American War in chronological order.


Passage of Teller Amendment


Mysterious explosion of USS Maine


Passage of the Platt Amendment


United States takes possession of the Philippines


Battle of San Juan Hill

Ongoing Interests in Asia

U.S. policy regarding Asia took on a decidedly assertive tone following the annexation of the Philippines. Secretary of State John Hay stepped up his commitment to keeping China free of foreign colonization with a series of 1899 communiques to European and Japanese leaders, emphasizing America’s insistence on shared trading rights among all interested nations rather than any single country cornering the Chinese market. Foreign governments, not seeking war over China, agreed to the policy.

International cooperation over China played an important role once more in 1900. Large numbers of foreign missionaries, traders, and government officials establishing a permanent presence in China were humiliated by the creation of numerous secret societies dedicated to expelling the foreigners and returning China to its traditional roots. The most prominent and violent of these underground groups, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (designated the “Boxers” due to their proficiency with martial arts), began to murder Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts in 1900. In late summer, the U.S. dispatched over 2,000 troops to participate in a multi-national coalition of soldiers from Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Japan to bring an end to the Boxer Rebellion and relieve foreigners under siege in the capital city of Beijing (Figure 19.12). Detecting the possibility that foreign governments would use the uprising as justification to divide up China, Secretary Hay restated America’s commitment to protecting free trade with China.

Figure 19.13: This dramatic photograph from 1901, taken shortly after the end of the Boxer Rebellion, shows members of the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment flanking the entryway to the Meridian Gate inside Beijing’s enormous Forbidden City. [11]

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

The untimely assassination of President McKinley in 1901 ushered in the presidency of his vice president Theodore Roosevelt. His exploits in Cuba as a leader of the Rough Riders garnered a great deal of media attention, which had compelled Republican leaders to make him McKinley’s running mate in the election of 1900, once more competing with the Democrat William Jennings Bryan. They assumed that doing so would ground the unfettered Roosevelt’s political ambitions before they had a chance to take flight; the vice presidency was viewed as an office where political careers ended rather than started. With American imperialism as the election’s central issue, it made further sense to put an avowed imperialist like Roosevelt on the party ticket. McKinley had easily won reelection only to be gunned down in Buffalo, New York less than a year later.

As the youngest president at the age of 43, Roosevelt channeled his immense vigor into the presidency, fully committed to modernizing the office. He broke as much ground in the field of foreign policy as he did in his domestic agenda, using a distinctly progressive worldview in both areas, and expanded the powers of the presidency more than any executive leader since Abraham Lincoln. A Mahanian to the core (as Assistant Naval Secretary, Roosevelt ordered each U.S. naval vessel to have a copy of Mahan’s book on board), Roosevelt bypassed a divided Congress on a number of ventures intended to increase American influence abroad. The energetic president set his sights on completing a canal across Panama, an effort many in Congress opposed due to concerns regarding the canal’s neutrality. Existing plans called for a series of military fortifications protecting the canal, which suggested anything but a neutral position. 

19.33 - Level 1

Arrange these events in proper sequence of occurrence


The Battle of Manila Bay


The sinking of the USS Maine


The assassination of President McKinley


The Battle of San Juan

America and the Panama Canal

A partially dug canal already existed when Roosevelt became president. Building efforts by a French company had begun in 1881, following lengthy negotiations with the government of Colombia, which controlled Panama. Six years, millions of dollars, and several thousand dead workers later, the French effort came to an end with only one-third of the project completed. When Roosevelt expressed interest in completing the project in 1901, French executives offered the strip of land for $109 million. Roosevelt balked and counteroffered $40 million, which the French accepted. Negotiations then turned to the Colombian government. The Colombians initially agreed to Roosevelt’s offer of $10 million, then insisted upon a fee of $25 million, still a modest price tag in light of the enormous profits the U.S. stood to receive when the canal was finished. But the enraged Roosevelt, rather than paying what he considered to be extortion, opted to support a revolt by the Panamanians against Colombia. Roosevelt dispatched an American battleship to Panama as the rebels there began their uprising, a clear sign of U.S. support and a hint of a possibly larger intervention. Colombia prudently granted Panama its independence. The new Panamanian government then negotiated the sale of the canal area to the U.S. for $10 million and a yearly rental fee of $250,000. Construction efforts resumed in 1904, this time with the American government overseeing the project, and lasted until 1914 when the Panama Canal opened for business.

Roosevelt boasted of his success in Panama: “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate; and while the debate goes on, the canal does also.” He clearly reveled in his ability to pursue a foreign policy agenda independent of Congressional constraints, one that often reflected an African adage he quoted frequently: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt’s interest in Latin America extended beyond Panama into the Caribbean, which frequently found U.S. Marines on the move; this began with the Dominican Republic in 1904, an incursion intended to encourage the Dominicans to repay a long-standing debt owed to the United States.

While America stepped up its involvement in Latin America, Roosevelt resolutely rejected the notion of European powers possessing a similar privilege to intervene in the region. This reemphasis on the Monroe Doctrine came to be known as the Roosevelt Corollary, brought up to date with 20th century military might. Roosevelt’s lifelong love of the U.S. Navy came through in his expansion of the military’s most prestigious branch. A full complement of new modern battleships nicknamed “the great white fleet” embarked upon a world tour from 1907 to 1909 to announce America’s arrival as an emerging world power not to be trifled with.

Question 19.34

19.34 - Level 4

In what ways was Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy an expansion of America’s existing agenda rather than a departure from it?

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Roosevelt as Peacemaker

Roosevelt exhibited a penchant for effective diplomacy in addition to his obvious love of militarism. In an unprecedented act as president, Roosevelt served as an arbitrator between the Russian and Japanese governments to end the Russo-Japanese War over Manchuria, which lasted from 1904-1905. Most assumed that the conflict would yield a decisive Russian victory over Japan. Russia’s enormous military and its status as a European power suggested that the recently industrialized Asian state stood little chance of winning. The Japanese military defied expectations, winning a series of devastating victories against the Russians on land and at sea.

In bringing together emissaries from the warring countries, Roosevelt sought not only to assist in negotiating an end to the conflict, but also to protect American interests in Asia. While Roosevelt admired Japan’s stunning modernization efforts, he did not wish to see the Japanese assume hegemonic control over Asia, particularly China, where the “open door” remained ajar. Roosevelt pursued a peace treaty that was not nearly as favorable to the victorious Japanese as they believed was their right. The final product of the negotiations, the Treaty of Portsmouth, gave the Japanese some territory at Russia’s expense, but largely preserved the prewar balance of power in Asia. Roosevelt received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, but the Japanese returned from the negotiations convinced that an altercation between the U.S. and their nation was perhaps inevitable.

19.35 - Level 1

Match the following individual with the reason for their fame:


Emilio Aguinaldo


Naval officer in favor of U.S. imperialism


Valeriano Wyler


Spanish governor general of Cuba


Alfred Thayer Mahan


Leader of Filipino rebels against Spain and the U.S.


Jose Marti


Cuban revolutionary killed in 1895


John Hay


Newspaper publisher in support of war with Spain


William Randolph Hearst


Advocate for “Open Door” to China

19.36 - Level 1

Which of the following was not one of Teddy Roosevelt’s accomplishments as President?


Overseeing the construction of the Panama Canal


Winning the Nobel Peace Prize


Significantly expanding the American navy


Annexing Hawaii and Puerto Rico


The twin influences of immigration and imperialism further diversified the population of America, helping to increase the size of its population and the extent of its global reach. The combined efforts of McKinley and Roosevelt cemented the United States’ position as a world power and expanded the scope of responsibilities for all subsequent presidencies. America’s victory over the Spanish, its first war with a foreign nation in half a century, demonstrated the range and relative efficiency of its military, which improved into the 20th century; the U.S. Navy stood second to only Great Britain’s by the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. In participating in the international effort to destroy the Boxers, America showed a willingness to cooperate with foreign nations while still looking after national interests, especially the “Open Door” to China.

But this new assertiveness on the global stage remained at odds with the more conservative outlook of Americans who believed that their nation had already realized its “manifest destiny.” This helps explain why America’s modest empire never assumed the character and proportions of European holdings; imperialism didn’t seem to suit the nation. But the concept of waging war for distinctly moral reasons would linger on. The Spanish American War proved the first of many conflicts that would see the United States committing blood and treasure to the preservation of liberty and free trade on behalf of the whole world.

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 19.01

Class Discussion 19.01 - Level 2

How did newly arrived immigrants acclimate to life in the United States shortly after their arrival during the late 1800s?

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Class Discussion 19.02

Class Discussion 19.02 - Level 2

What various forms of resistance to immigration appeared by the late 19th century?

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Class Discussion 19.03

Class Discussion 19.03 - Level 4

How did America’s perception of the Spanish American War change drastically from its initial decision to go to war to the end of the conflict?

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Class Discussion 19.04

Class Discussion 19.04 - Level 2

What accounts for America’s decision to acquire colonies at the end of the Spanish American War?

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Class Discussion 19.05

Class Discussion 19.05 - Level 4

How does the foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt appear more modern than previous presidencies?

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Suggested Additional Material

Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882. Hill and Wang, 2005.

O’Toole, G. J. A. The Spanish War: An American Epic 1898. W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Random House, Reprint Edition, 2001.

Silbey, David J. A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902. Hill and Wang, 2007.

Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 19.02

Advocates for American imperialism argued that continued economic growth necessitated the acquisition of additional raw materials and markets, which an empire would provide. As the United States transitioned from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial one, factory workers could take pride in contributing to the nation’s growing competitiveness and prosperity. By the end of the 19th century, much of Asia and Africa had been colonized by industrialized European powers that correlated their influence with the size of their empires. With America outpacing Britain’s industrial output, it seemed obvious the U.S. should, like the British, oversee a sizeable empire, one that would allow American industry to continue to expand and increase the wages of the industrial working class. There might be concerns regarding the potential for increased immigration brought about by American imperialism, for it would likely lead to greater competition for unskilled factory jobs.   

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Answer to Question 19.05

Chinese culture seemed particularly alien to white Americans of the 19th century and the perceived unwillingness of Chinese immigrants to assimilate made them the frequent target of discrimination and violence. Economic factors in many ways proved even more of a factor behind the anti-Chinese movement than cultural differences. Competition among miners in California and Colorado often resulted in the Chinese, whose numbers were well below those of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, being targeted by whites. The Chinese immigrant population proved a convenient scapegoat during times of economic downturn such as the 1873 Depression. By the 1880s, the federal and multiple state governments passed laws restricting or prohibiting Chinese immigration.

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Answer to Question 19.12

Social Darwinism drew upon the evolutionary theories of naturalist Charles Darwin. The growing chasm between millions of laborers and a handful of ultra-wealthy industrialists necessitated a scientific justification to explain the phenomenon. Social Darwinists appropriated the concepts of adaptability and natural selection observed in the natural world and applied them to industrial society. Wealth disparity was explained as the product of superior individuals possessing the traits necessary to acquire abundant prosperity, such as intelligence and determination. Those without riches seemingly lacked such requisite characteristics and were, by default, destines to be poor.

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Answer to Question 19.14

Social welfare was not considered an appropriate function of the federal government until the late 1800s when tenement housing first appeared in American cities. Any policies designed to protect the rights of urban residents were enforced by city officials, many of whom owned such properties or retained their positions due to the support of those who did. Industrialization resulted in urbanization unfolding at a rapid pace that made it difficult to pass laws and regulations that reflected the evolving urban landscape. 

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Answer to Question 19.16

One justification for American imperialism was the concept of the “white man’s burden”, a racist justification for empire-building that supposed inferior peoples living in Africa, Asia and Latin America needed the guidance of whites in order to appropriately “civilize” them. A similar mentality applied to Native Americans among whites who believed that it was possible to “Americanize” them on reservations and at Indian schools located in the eastern U.S. But, first and foremost, the desire for additional land and raw materials undergirded western expansion in the decades after the Civil War and the subsequent decision to project American influence into the Pacific by the end of the 19th century. 

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Answer to Question 19.19

The United States’ interest in acquiring territories in the Pacific during the late 1800s coincided with naval technology transitioning from sail to steam power. Steamships required large quantities of coal to power them while only being able to store a finite quantity of coal on board. This necessitated nations having reliable access or control of coaling stations located around the world. The greater the number of coaling stations a navy could access, the greater its area of operations. American capitalists also desired increased contact with Asian markets, specifically that of China, which placed greater importance of naval strength and U.S. colonies located closer to the Asian mainland. This new imperialism of the late 19th century differed from previous periods of expansion in its emphasis on international trade and the logistical challenges it involved. 

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Answer to Question 19.20

American sugar plantation holders came to economically and politically dominate the kingdom of Hawaii. They convinced the Hawaiian king to only allow them the right to vote, which offered them near complete control for several decades. When a less compliant monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, came to power, they plotted a revolt to overthrow her, with assistance from the U.S. military. A new government was established under an American lawyer, who declared the island a republic before it was eventually annexed by the United States.

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Answer to Question 19.21

The Spanish government’s increasingly brutal efforts to thwart the Cuban independence movement angered members of the American public following events in newspapers. The U.S. media compared events to Cuba to those of the period of the American Revolution. But the closeness of Cuba (less than 100 miles from Florida) and the long-standing acceptance of the Monroe Doctrine also made American intervention of Cuba’s behalf seemingly guaranteed. Economic factors also played a role. Cuban plantation owners, recognizing the growing weakness of Spain, sought closer trade relations with the U.S. and encouraged American investors to seek out opportunities in the Cuban economy.  

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Answer to Question 19.23

Increased literacy in the U.S. by the late 1800s help to explain the rapidly growing power of the American media by the outbreak of the Spanish American War. Illiteracy dropped by 50% from 1870 to 1890 while the circulation of newspapers and magazines rose dramatically. Growing leadership resulted in journalism with an emphasis on sensationalism that included murder, drug addiction and white slavery, an approach that came to be known as “yellow journalism”. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, two of the foremost practitioners of “yellow journalism,” used it in their coverage of the ongoing struggles in Cuba. They quickly realized that the more sordid the details on the front page were, the higher their newspaper sales. Obviously a war would further the trend.

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Answer to Question 19.26

The first cartoon depicts Uncle Sam as a detached observer, standing aside with his Arms folded in an aloof pose while the European powers chat excitedly over the body of Spain. Seemingly, this recent death is not an American concern. The second cartoon depicts the perception of Spanish misrule of Cuba many Americans harbored by 1898. Cuba is posed on the brink of possible anarchy; a fate that might be avoided should the U.S. involve itself. The final two cartoons from the period after the war show the responsibility of caring for those now formal or informal members of the American empire, while also allowing for the U.S. to flex its military and economic muscle.  

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Answer to Question 19.27

Cuba’s depiction as a helpless woman in the second cartoon clearly reflected Victorian notions of women as helpless and in need of protection. Such an image was designed to appeal to American men at a time when many feared that their masculinity was at risk. Imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt believed empire-building would help to mold and shape generation of young men. The third cartoon, showing schoolmaster Uncle Sam attempting to restore order to his schoolhouse, uses crude representations of race to distinguish between the orderly white students (representing the states) and the ignorant darker-skinned students symbolizing the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Their lack of shoes and miserable expressions indicate they require a great deal of education before they can join the other students. 

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Answer to Question 19.28

The four cartoons seem to indicate a marked shift from the initial desire to help the Cubans gain their independence from Spain to using the war as a means of seizing Colonial possessions and increasing American power in Latin America and Asia. 

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Answer to Question 19.29

Taking the Philippines would provide the U.S. with comparatively close access to Asia and improve the feasibility of maintaining the “open door” to China that the government sought to maintain. It would allow the navy to gave greater range in the Pacific. It would provide raw materials and markets to benefit American industry. But it would be viewed as hypocritical in light of Cuba gaining its independence and America having brought back Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo to assist the U.S. in fighting Spanish forces. It might increase tensions with other imperial powers in the area, particularly Japan, who might view the annexation as potentially hostile. Annexation would also lead to anger among Americans resistant to an increase in the number of Asians to be overseen by the U.S. government, possibly even as citizens.     

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Answer to Question 19.30

Under the Monroe Doctrine, America long viewed itself as a hegemon in the Caribbean with a longstanding tradition of intervention if the situation seemed justifiable. This continued long after the Spanish American War. The relatively small size of Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico made them less appealing than the Philippines the it came to colonization. But the Philippines’ closeness to Asian markets on China and Japan made them all the more desirable. 

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Answer to Question 19.34

An expansion of American naval power was underway by the 1880s under the direction of U.S. Naval Secretary Benjamin Tracy. His Roosevelt Corollary reinforced the long-standing Monroe Doctrine in place since the 1820s. Roosevelt’s arbitration during the negotiation of the Treaty of Portsmouth assisted in preventing any one power from dominating Asia, a policy concern that Secretary of State John Hay articulated during McKinley’s presidency.

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 19.01

For newer immigrants coming to America in the decades following the Civil War, establishing themselves primarily in urban areas, there existed housing and employment opportunities provided by city leaders. In exchange for support for their political party, chiefly as voters, city “bosses” saw to it that immigrants received jobs and places to live. Cities also came to feature various immigrant associations and ethnic neighborhoods assisting new arrivals in making the transition.

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Answer to Class Discussion 19.02

Resistance to immigration assumed both formal and informal appearances. Mob violence, particularly against Chinese immigrants living in the west, became an all too common occurrence in states such as Wyoming and California. Elected officials eventually caved into demands for restrictions on immigrants, passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1885 and other such laws designed specifically to limit immigration from areas deemed “undesirable” by a great many Americans.  

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Answer to Class Discussion 19.03

America went to war in the spring of 1898 committed to liberating Cuba from Spanish tyranny. Images and accounts of emaciated Cuban civilians left an impact on the growing population of newspaper readers who pressed for action. The McKinley administration pledged to free the Cuban people but not to annex Cuba; it was not to be a war of conquest. This might have remained so, had it not been for the U.S. Navy’s stunning triumph over the Spanish at the start of the war in the Battle of Manila Bay. Such a one-sided victory shifted attention to the Philippines and emboldened American imperialists to advocate more vocally for colonies that came to include the Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The war had become on for American expansion. 

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Answer to Class Discussion 19.04

The concept of the “white man’s burden”, that Western nations should “civilize” Asian, African and Latin American areas by bringing technological advances, medical breakthroughs and Christianity, existed by the time of the Spanish American War. There also existed the entrenched belief that American should have colonies as a matter of international prestige and economic advancement. These justifications for imperialism became more pronounced by the end of the war compared to the start of the conflict when American involvement was framed primarily in humanitarian terms. The U.S. annexed Hawaii shortly after the war began, a long-sought goal, in light of the wealth generated by American sugar plantation owners since the mid-1800s. The Philippines seemed to offer similar opportunities.  

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Answer to Class Discussion 19.05

Much more than his predecessors, Roosevelt subscribed to the belief that the presidency rather than Congress should set the tone in the American government. He saw himself as answering to the American people and justified in pursuing policies that would benefit them. His foreign policy reflected this mindset, as he circumvented Congress in his pursuit of control of the canal zone in Panama. He further assumed responsibilities for arbitrating a peace treaty between Russia and Japan in 1905, a responsibility that heralded the growing international prominence of the United States.

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Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of the National Archives in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of Zeno in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration ARC#301648 in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of New York Historical Society under CC BY-SA 3.0.

[7] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[8] Image courtesy of Cornell University Library in the Public Domain.

[9] Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration ARC#512468 in the Public Domain.

[10] Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica in the Public Domain {{PD-1923}}.

[11] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.