American Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century

In political science studies, it is not often that one reads of American Imperialism.  The term imperialism is almost exclusively associated with colonial exploits of major European powers such as Britain, France and Germany in the West; and China and Japan in the East.  Although a late joiner of the imperial club, the United States is by far the most dominant in this group.  With the entity called the United States of America having emerged only toward the end of the eighteenth century, it was only in the subsequent centuries it meaningfully expressed its imperial goals.  The perception of the United States as an imperialist state was first mooted in the early part of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of the Spanish-American war in 1898 confirmed this fact.  Indeed, the final years of the 19th century saw the peaking of American imperialist aggression as it occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands – the latter two eventually becoming American colonies. (Lens & Zinn, 2003)

The early indicators of imperialist tendency can be found in the founding documents of the country.  Even luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson have articulated an imperialist vision for the United States in no unclear terms.  The annexation of Louisiana in the eighteenth century is seen as the first act of this vision.  During the nineteenth century, the U.S.’ foreign policy was largely confined to the American continent, with Central and Southern American regions being focal points.  As is typical of imperialist propaganda, convoluted justifications were given for aggressive foreign policy.  It was stated that lands of ‘semi-civilized’ and ‘primitive’ peoples were occupied in order to bring Western civilization (which is supposedly superior) to these lands.  Empire expansion was also projected as benign and compassionate, for Christian missionary work was invariably associated with it.  Propaganda also had it that the standards of living of subjects of the empire will eventually rise.  On the whole, imperialist enterprise was promoted using these vapid and empty slogans and motives. (Lens & Zinn, 2003)

Recognizing the duplicity and dubiousness of these claims, intellectuals both within and outside the country started expressing their discontent.  The ruthlessness and gruesomeness with which Filipino uprising was crushed evoked shock and anger among some of America’s illustrious citizens including Andrew Carnegie and William James.  It is in this context that they founded American Anti-Imperialist League in 1899.

“We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is “criminal aggression” and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.” ( Platform of the American Anti-imperialist League, 1913, p.77)

The League might have been promoted by well-known leaders of the American cultural landscape, but it had the backing of numerous lesser-known liberals.  The identification of American foreign policy as imperialist might seem politically radical for a modern reader, but during the 19th century there was a vibrant Left-Liberal tradition in American political discourse.  Trade unions could be formed and collective rights could be demanded.  There was also a thriving working class press, which articulated the concerns and preoccupations of newly arriving immigrants and ethnic minorities.  But eventually, dissenting voices would be marginalized or disregarded, as the nation marched ahead with its imperialist vision.  As the new century ushered and geo-political power equations changed, America seized its moment to emerge as a global superpower.  American involvement in WWI was minimal as it saw the war as a dispute internal to Europe.  But with Hitler’s Third Reich threatening to monopolize power, United States was forced to ally with Britain and Russia to defeat Axis powers. (Field, 1978, p.659)  Far from being an act of charity, the defeat of Nazism and Fascism created unprecedented opportunities for the expansion of American empire.  With the fall of Soviet Union in 1989, the last substantive resistance to its imperialist agenda has been removed.  But the seeds for this foreign policy direction was first evidenced during late 19th century.


“Platform of the American Anti­lmperialist League,” in Speeches, Correspondence, ard Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 6, ed. Frederick Bancroft (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913), p. 77, note 1., retrieved from <>

Field, James A., Jr. (June 1978). “American Imperialism: The Worst Chapter in Almost Any Book”. The American Historical Review 83 (3): 659.

Lens, Sidney; Zinn, Howard (2003). The Forging of the American Empire: From the Revolution to Vietnam: A History of American Imperialism. Plkuto press. ISBN 0745321003.