Chapter Theme

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The Path of Empire,

Chapter Theme

Theme: In the 1890s new economic, political, and ideological developments sparked a spectacular burst of imperialistic expansionism by the United States. This movement culminated in the Spanish-American War, a conflict that began over freeing Cuba and ended with the highly controversial acquisition of the Philippines and other territories. The war signaled the arrival of the United States as a great power on the global scene.

chapter summary

Various developments provoked the previously isolated United States to turn its attention overseas in the 1890s. Among the stimuli for the new imperialism were the desire for new economic markets, the sensationalistic appeals of the “yellow press,” Protestant missionary fervor, Darwinist ideology, great-power rivalry, and naval competition.

Strong American intervention in the Venezuelan boundary dispute of 1895–1896 demonstrated an aggressive new assertion of the Monroe Doctrine and led to a new British willingness to accept American domination in the Western Hemisphere. Longtime American involvement in Hawaii climaxed in 1893 with a revolution against native rule by white American planters. The new government sought annexation by the United States, but President Cleveland blocked the effort.

The “splendid little” Spanish-American War began in 1898 over American outrage about Spanish oppression of Cuba. American support for the Cuban rebellion was whipped up into intense popular fervor by the “yellow press.” After the mysterious Maine explosion in February 1898, this public passion pushed a reluctant President McKinley into war, even though Spain was ready to concede on the major issues.

An astounding first development of the war was Admiral Dewey’s naval victory in May 1898 in the rich Spanish islands of the Philippines in East Asia. In August, American troops, assisted by Filipino rebels, captured the Philippine city of Manila in another dramatic victory. Despite much military confusion and deaths by disease, American forces also easily and quickly overwhelmed the Spanish in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

McKinley’s decision to take the Philippines precipitated a long and bitter national debate in Congress and the country over the wisdom and justice of American imperialism. The narrow proimperialist victory in the Senate made the Philippines and Puerto Rico American colonial possessions, presenting new constitutional problems regarding legal rights. Regardless of remaining doubts about imperialism, the United States had asserted itself as a new international power, including in East Asia.

developing the chapter: suggested lecture or discussion topics

  • Explain more fully the different views of the causes of imperialism, including the idea of expansion as a way to create new economic markets. Show how these factors affected the Spanish-American War and the decision to take the Philippines.

    reference: Walter LaFeber, The New Empire (1963).

  • Analyze the complicated mix of “idealism” and “realism” in the Spanish-American War, and explain why some Americans were deeply concerned about the oppressed Cubans while others were more interested in the war as an occasion to demonstrate and spread America’s new national power abroad.

    reference: Ernest May, Imperial Democracy (1961).

  • Demonstrate how the political impact of the war was much greater than the impact of the actual chaotic fighting. The focus might be on the ways in which the war raised up new heroes (Theodore Roosevelt and George Dewey) and created a new sense of the United States as a great world power.

    reference: David Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (1981).

  • Consider why the question of whether to hold on to the Philippines was so controversial and why the proimperialist forces were able to win by a narrow margin. The discussion might center on both the short-term and long-term consequences of the Philippine acquisition.

    reference: H. W. Brands, Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (1992).

for further interest: additional class topics

  • Examine Teddy Roosevelt as a central character in the events of the chapter: TR as imperialist advocate, assistant secretary of the navy, Rough Rider, legendary war hero, governor of New York, vice president, and then president.

  • Analyze the “yellow press”: what “yellow journalism” is, why it had such great appeal and popular impact in the late nineteenth century, how it sensationalized and distorted issues, how important it was (or was not) in really influencing President McKinley and others.

  • Focus on Cuba and America: why, from the pre–Civil War era forward, Americans were concerned with Cuba; how they viewed the Cuban rebels; what issues dominated American debates about Cuban readiness for independence (for example, the Teller and Platt amendments); and what links developed to the subsequent history of American-Cuban relations.

  • Consider the Philippines: where they are (point out that most Americans, even government officials, did not know their location in 1898), who the Filipino people were and are, why the islands have been viewed as strategically and commercially important (especially in relation to China). Discuss the nature of the Filipino rebellion against Spain, which became a rebellion against America. Perhaps tie in the subsequent history of American-Philippine relations.

character sketches

Queen Liliuokalani (1838–1917)

The refusal by Liliuokalani, the native ruler of Hawaii, to accept the white planters’ revolt of 1893, and her eloquent pleas to President Cleveland, helped delay American annexation of Hawaii until 1898. Her devotion to her people and her resistance to white assimilation have made Liliuokalani a romantic symbol of traditional Hawaiian culture down to the present.

She became queen of Hawaii in 1891, at age fifty-two, after the death of her brother, King Kalakaua. She was a conscientious Christian with strong charitable interests, but she also had a disdain for “Protestant moralism.” Despite her tireless efforts to preserve the power of the monarchy, she was deposed following the 1893 uprising, in which American troops openly aided the rebellious white minority.

A contemporary newspaper described Liliuokalani’s face as “strong and resolute.” She spoke a pure and graceful English, and her voice was musical and well modulated. Throughout her life she composed beautiful Hawaiian songs, including the famous “Aloha Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”).
Quote: “Some of my subjects, aided by aliens, have renounced their loyalty and revolted against the constitution and government of my kingdom. . . . Upon receiving incontestable proof that His Excellency the Minister of the United States aided and abetted their unlawful movements, and caused United States troops to be landed for that purpose, I submitted to force.” (To President Grover Cleveland, 1893)
reference: Helena Allen, The Betrayal of Liliuokalani: Last Queen of Hawaii, 1838–1917 (1982).

William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951)

Hearst’s sensationalistic “yellow journalism” and bombastic warmongering in 1897–1898 have long provoked the debatable charge that he was personally responsible for the Spanish-American War—a view to which Hearst himself was willing to subscribe. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,” Hearst allegedly responded to the assertion of artist-correspondent Frederic Remington (who covered Cuba during the war) that Remington had witnessed little evidence of Spanish cruelty. (Although the statement was reported by another correspondent, there is no proof that Hearst ever actually said it.)

A native San Franciscan, Hearst had been raised primarily by his mother and given an elite education, but he was expelled from Harvard (where he worked on the humor magazine Lampoon) for a stunt that involved sending chamber pots to professors. In 1887 he used family wealth to take control of the San Francisco Examiner, which he turned into a commercially successful paper. In 1895 he acquired the New York Journal and entered a fierce circulation war with Pulitzer’s New York World. In June 1898 Hearst personally sailed to Cuba, where he helped round up Spanish prisoners while writing headline-grabbing stories.

Ever an extremely flamboyant and controversial figure, Hearst was active in politics and remained a dynamic force in journalism for many decades.
Quote: “The journalism that talked was a great advance from no journalism at all. But the future belongs to the journalism that acts.” (1898)
references: David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (2000).

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919)

Although Roosevelt was a great president, a skilled international diplomat, and a gifted writer, it was his brief actions during the Spanish-American War that created the enduring Roosevelt legend the public always loved best: Teddy the Rough Rider charging up San Juan Hill. Roosevelt himself never regretted that these exploits overshadowed his more substantive achievements, because he too loved the image of the rugged hero.

After graduation from Harvard in 1880, Roosevelt began his public life by writing lively works of naval and western history. An assistant secretary of the navy under William McKinley, he pushed for a big navy and expansionism. His famous order to Commodore George Dewey, issued when Secretary of the Navy Long was away for a weekend, led to the American victory at Manila Bay and the conquest of the Philippines, which Roosevelt and his friends strongly desired. Although lacking military experience, Roosevelt used his political connections to obtain his army commission for service in Cuba and, along with writer Richard Harding Davis, effectively promoted the legend of the Rough Riders that made him “the most famous man in America.”

Quote: “There comes a time in the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, when it must face great responsibilities, whether it will or no. We have now reached that time.…The guns of our warships in the tropic seas of the West and the remote East have awakened us to the knowledge of new duties.”
references: Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979); John M. Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest (1983).

great debates in american history

great debate (1899): American imperialism. Should the United States become an imperialist power by keeping the Philippine Islands?

For: The “proimperialists”—led by expansionists like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Albert Beveridge; some business publications like the Review of Reviews and business spokespersons like Mark Hanna; and some religious leaders like the Rev. J. H. Barrows and the Rev. Josiah Strong.

Against: The “anti-imperialists”—led by writers like William James and Mark Twain; some business spokespersons like Andrew Carnegie; some labor leaders like Samuel Gompers; and some clergymen like the Rev. Charles Ames and the Rev. Henry Van Dyke.

ISSUE #1: Manifest Destiny. Is overseas expansion, and therefore control of the Philippines, part of the inevitable manifest destiny of the United States?

For: Proimperialist Theodore Roosevelt: “Our whole national history has been one of expansion. Under Washington and Adams we expanded westward to the Mississippi. Under Jefferson we expanded across the continent to the mouth of the Columbia.…The same will be true of the Philippines. Nations that expand and nations that do not expand may ultimately go down, but the one leaves heirs and a glorious memory, and the other leaves neither.”

Against: Anti-imperialist Carl Schurz: “Whenever there is a project on foot to annex a foreign territory to this republic the cry of ‘manifest destiny’ is raised to produce the impression that all opposition to such a project is a struggle against fate. The fate of the American people is in their own wisdom and will. If they devote their energies to the development of what they possess within their present limits…their ‘manifest destiny’ will be the preservation of the exceptional and invaluable advantages they now enjoy.…”

ISSUE #2: Democracy. Would ruling another nation be compatible with basic American ideals of democracy and self-government?

For: Proimperialist New York Tribune:
“Cannibals govern themselves. The half-ape creatures of the Australian bush govern themselves. The Eskimo governs himself, and so do the wildest tribes of darkest Africa. But what kind of a government is it?”

Against: Anti-imperialist Rev. Henry Van Dyke: “How can we pass by the solemn and majestic claim of our Declaration of Independence, that ‘government derives its powers from the consent of the governed’? How can we face the world as a union of free states holding vassal states in subjection, a mighty mongrel nation in which a republic is tied to an empire, and democracy bears children not to be distinguished from the off-spring of absolutism?”

ISSUE #3: Economic benefit. Is acquiring the Philippines essential for America’s economic health and future trade with Asia?

For: Proimperialist American Wool and Cotton Exporter: “Annexation is important because the contingencies of our China trade bid fair to be such as to make the Philippines exceedingly valuable to us as a basis for operations in the continent of China.”

Against: Anti-imperialist Carl Schurz: “I agree that we cannot have too many foreign markets. But can such markets be opened only by annexing to the United States the countries in which they are situated?”

ISSUE #4: Race. Should the dark-skinned Filipinos be brought under the rule of white-skinned Americans?

For: Proimperialist The Textile Record: “Supremacy in the world appears to be the destiny of the race to which we belong, the most competent governor of inferior races.…The clear path of duty for us appears to be to bring to the people of the Spanish islands in the Pacific and the Atlantic an opportunity to rise from misery and hopelessness to a promise of just government and commercial success.”

Against: Anti-imperialist Henry Labouchère: [A parody of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.” See text]

“Pile on the brown man’s burden

Nor do not deem it hard

If you should earn the rancor

Of those ye yearn to guard.

The screaming of your eagle

Will drown the victim’s sob

Go on through fire and slaughter

There’s dollars on the job.

Pile on the brown man’s burden

And through the world proclaim

That ye are freedom’s agent—

There’s no more paying game!

And should your own past history

Straight in your teeth be thrown

Retort that Independence

Is good for whites alone.”

references: E. Berkeley Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890–1920 (1970); Richard Welch, ed., Imperialists vs. Anti-Imperialists (1972).

questions for class discussion

1. What were the causes and consequences of the Spanish-American War? Did the results of the war (particularly the acquisition of the Philippines) flow from the nature of the war, or were they unexpected?
2. How was American expansionism overseas similar to previous continental expansion westward, and how was it different?
3. Was the taking of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines really a violation of fundamental American ideals of self-government and democracy?
4. What were the elements of “idealism” and “realism” in American expansionism in the 1890s? How have Americans incorporated both of these seemingly contradictory philosophies in their foreign policy?

makers of america: the puerto ricans

Questions for Class Discussion

1. How has Puerto Rico’s special relationship to the United States made Puerto Ricans unique among all immigrant groups?
2. Compare the experience of Puerto Ricans with that of other Latino immigrants, especially the Mexicans (see Chapter 42).

Suggested Student Exercises

  • Examine the continuing debate over Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. Consider how Puerto Rican statehood or independence would affect Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States.

  • Consider the particularly important role that Puerto Ricans have played in the life of New York City in the twentieth century, and the transformations their community has undergone there. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot (1963) is an older sociological work that examines Puerto Ricans in New York; Virginia Sanchez Korral, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City (1983) is a good study of the evolution of the Puerto Rican community.

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