During the late 1800s, the desire to find new markets, increase trade, and build a powerful navy caused the United States to become more involved in international affairs.

Building Support for Imperialism

Why did the United States assert itself as a world power?

Following the Civil War, most Americans showed little interest in expanding their nation’s territory outside the United States. Instead, they focused on reconstructing the South, settling the West, and building up industry. In the 1880s, economic and military competition from Europe and a growing feeling of cultural superiority convinced many Americans that the United States should become a world power.

A Desire for New Markets

Many European nations were expanding overseas, a development called the New Imperialism. Imperialism is the economic and political domination of a strong nation over weaker ones. European nations expanded their power overseas for many reasons. They needed to import raw materials for manufacturing. High tariffs in industrialized nations—intended to protect domestic industries— reduced trade, forcing companies to look for new markets overseas. Investment opportunities had also slowed in Western Europe, so Europeans began looking overseas for places to invest their capital.

To protect their investments, European nations began exerting control over territories, making some into colonies and others into protectorates. In a protectorate, the imperial power protected local rulers against rebellions and invasion. In return, rulers usually had to accept Europeans’ advice on how to govern their countries.

As the United States industrialized, many Americans noticed the expansion of European power overseas and took an interest in the new imperialism. Many concluded that the nation needed new overseas markets to keep its economy strong.

A Feeling of Superiority

Certain key ideas encouraged Americans to support the nation’s expansion overseas. Historian John Fiske argued that English-speaking nations had superior character, ideas, and systems of government. Many Americans linked his ideas, known as Anglo-Saxonism, with the idea of Manifest Destiny. These Americans believed the nation was destined to expand overseas to spread its civilization to others.

"The work which the English race began when it colonized North America is destined to go on until every land . . . that is not already the seat of an old civilization shall become English in its language, in its religion, in political habits and traditions, and to a predominant extent in the blood of its people."

—John Fiske, from “Manifest Destiny,” Harper’s Magazine, 1885


Another influential advocate of Anglo-Saxonism was Josiah Strong, a popular American minister in the late 1800s. Strong linked Anglo-Saxonism to Christian missionary ideas. His ideas influenced many Americans. “The Anglo-Saxon,” Strong declared, “[is] divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother’s keeper.” By linking missionary work to Anglo-Saxonism, Strong convinced many Americans to support an expansion of American power overseas.

Building a Modern Navy

As these ideas gained support, the United States became more assertive in foreign affairs. In 1888 the country risked war to prevent Germany from taking control of Samoa. The crisis ended peacefully. However, it led some Americans to believe that the United States would be shut out of foreign markets if it did not build up its navy and acquire bases overseas.

U.S. naval officer Captain Alfred T. Mahan helped build public support for a navy when he published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890. Mahan pointed out that many prosperous nations had a large fleet of merchant ships to trade with the world and a large navy to defend the nation's trade. Mahan’s book helped build public support for a big navy. Two powerful senators, Henry Cabot Lodge and Albert J. Beveridge, used their position to convince Congress to support a new navy. In the executive branch, Benjamin Tracy, secretary of the navy under President Harrison, John D. Long, secretary of the navy under President McKinley, and his assistant secretary Theodore Roosevelt, all supported Mahan’s ideas.

By the 1890s, several different ideas had come together. Business leaders wanted new markets overseas. Anglo-Saxonism had convinced many Americans they were destined to expand into the world, while growing European imperialism threatened U.S. security. These ideas, along with Mahan’s book, convinced Congress to authorize a large modern navy.

American Expansion in the Pacific


Why did the United States look to the Pacific for new markets?

From the earliest days of the Republic, Americans had expanded their nation by moving westward. When looking overseas for new markets, the United States naturally looked to the Pacific.

Perry Opens Japan

In 1852 President Millard Fillmore ordered Commodore Matthew C. Perry to negotiate a trade treaty with Japan. In 1853 warships under Perry’s command entered Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay). Japan’s rulers, fearing the influence of Western ideas, had limited contact with the West. After seeing the warships, however, the Japanese realized they were not powerful enough to resist modern weapons. In 1854, Japan signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, giving the United States trading rights at two Japanese ports.

Annexing Samoa and Hawaii

As trade with Asia grew, the United States needed ports for its ships to refuel and resupply as they crossed the Pacific. Pago Pago, in the Samoan Islands, had one of the finest harbors in the South Pacific. In 1878 the United States negotiated permission to open a base there. An 1899 agreement divided Samoa between Germany and the
United States.

More important was Hawaii. Americans found that sugarcane grew well in Hawaii, and planters established sugar plantations there. In 1875 the United States signed a treaty exempting Hawaiian sugar from tariffs. This action was taken to aid Hawaii during an economic recession and prevent Hawaii from turning to Britain or France for help. When the treaty was up for renewal, the United States insisted Hawaii grant it exclusive rights to a naval base at Pearl Harbor.

In 1887, wealthy sugar planters led by Sanford Dole forced the Hawaiian king to accept a new constitution that limited the king’s authority. The planters eventually wanted to make Hawaii part of the United States. Tensions grew worse when Congress passed a new tariff in 1890. The tariff gave subsidies to American sugar producers, making Hawaiian sugar more expensive. The planters knew that if Hawaii joined the United States, they too would get the subsidies. The next year, Queen Liliuokalani ascended the Hawaiian throne and tried to restore the monarchy's authority.

In response, the planters overthrew the queen. Backed by the American ambassador and U.S. Marines, the planters forced Liliuokalani to give up power, and asked Dole to serve as president of the new Hawaiian Republic. Dole then requested the United States annex Hawaii. President Cleveland, who opposed imperialism, tried instead to restore the queen to power, but Hawaii’s new leaders refused. Instead, they decided to wait until a new president took office. In 1898, under President McKinley, the United States annexed Hawaii and McKinley chose Dole to be Hawaii's first governor.

Mahan on Military Bases
"To provide resting places for them [warships], where they can coal and repair, would be one of the first duties of a government proposing to itself the development of the power of the nation at sea."

—Alfred Thayer Mahan, from The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1890

Reviewing Vocabulary



Using Your Notes



Answering the Guiding Questions



TEKS: 4A, 4B


Writing Activity