Motivations And Factors That Led To The U.S. Shift From Isolationism And Continental Expansion To Imperialism: Monroe Doctrine

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What were the primary motivations and factors that led to the U.S. shift from isolationism and continental expansion to imperialism by the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

In the late 19th, early 20th centuries, the United States had a sudden shift in world affairs, where at first the country promoted isolationism and continental expansion, where conquered the American continent, and then it promoted imperialism, which is a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force. Factors like Manifest Destiny, the depression of the 1890s, the desire to spread Christianity, America’s expansionist foreign policy, and the Spanish-American War all contributed to this shift.

Imperialism started to arise in the 1890s thanks to the motivation of an influential manifesto: Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is saying that started to spread in the minds of the Americans during this period, primarily a Democrat Party doctrine. This saying promoted territorial expansion, where the United States was “destined” to spread democracy, capitalism, and its domination by God’s blessing.

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“…. the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative development of self-government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.”[footnoteRef:1] [1: In 1845 John O’Sullivan, the editor of the Democratic Review, coined the term Manifest Destiny to encourage the annexation of Texas and the Oregon country to the United States]

This manifesto represented itself over and over in American history, especially when the right of the colonists to proceed with territorial expansion was questioned. During the gold rush of the 19th century, the pioneers exploring the Western territories of the US continent were the first ones to coin this term, and later on, the government itself used the manifesto to exempt itself from accusations of segregating the Native Americans into reservations and to exploiting their lands. Manifest Destiny promoted different wars, like the Mexican-American war for example, which was not supported by the people at first, but later on eager Americans to conquer all the southern territories of the North American continent, ending with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 where Mexico would give the US all its territories for $15 million.

A new version of this manifesto emerged in the 1890s, this time supported by the Republican Party, and that developed as a reaction to an attack of a US army battleship in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Just as the “old” one, the New Manifest Destiny was a way of clothing imperial ambitions for God’s willing. New territories, like the Philippines, Cuba, and Hawaii, were all acquired during this war against the Spanish Crown, and Manifest Destiny helped to spread the motivation needed to win this war.

Many argued that the doings of the manifesto were wrong and unconstitutional, but this did not stop the Americans from performing territorial conquests in their continent and around the world.

The depression of the 1890s also had a significant impact on the shift of the USA intentions that went from isolationism to imperialism. The country went in a deep economic depression, worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s ones according to economists, where unemployment rates spiked at levels never seen before “exceeding ten percent for five or six consecutive years.”. Unhappy about the economic situation, many started to protest, like Jacob Coxey. He was an Ohio businessman, who led the march of unemployed workers from all over the United States to Washington DC in 1894, now know as the Coxey’s Army. A new party formed during this time, launched by the Farmers’ Alliance, made of supporters of free silver, of labor, and that their only goal was to empower the ordinary people. Free silver was an issue in the late 19th century because with the Act of” Crime of ’73,” silver coins were declaimed, decreasing the amount of money in circulation. Farmers, who owed debts to the bank, struggled with these payments and came together in unity to vote for the change of the gold standard.

Farmers were not the only ones who united for change, and labor unions started to form. “Agriculture no longer dominated the economy, producing only about 19 percent of GNP, well below the 30 percent produced in manufacturing and mining. Agriculture’s share of the labor force, which had been about 74% in 1800, and 60% in 1860, had fallen to roughly 40% in 1890”. Labor unions aimed for better wages, better working conditions, and better working hours, and all these requested were never met, so they found themselves to strike for their rights. The three most famous strikes were the Homestead Lockout, the Cripple Creek Miners’ Strike, and the Eugene V. Debs and the Pullman Strike, all of them significant to this period, showing the frustration of the workforce.

The populists were a growing number of the population, and the representing party decided to run to the presidency. It is remarked that the election of 1896 is one of the most battled elections in American history because it ended the Third Party System and began the Fourth Party System. Even though the Republicans won the presidency, the populists kept on trying to protect its members’ rights alongside the Democratic party.

This economic depression made it possible for churches to relive the people, turning many to support these agencies and missions, and the spread of Christianity also contributed to the idea of imperialism, even though the spread of the religion started as a moral cause. With the Treaty of Tianjin, signed in 1858, missionaries had freedom of movement in China, and this helped the conversion of 100,000 people, all motivated by American Christian missionaries. These missionaries were not always welcome in the Asian continent, and tensions between the foreigners and the locals started to rise.

The Boxer’s uprising of 1900 was a revolt led by an organization called “the society of the righteous and harmonious fists” in China against foreigners and western missionaries, but that it extended to the newly converted Chinese Christians too. These “boxers” wanted to maintain the Chinese regime and traditions, eliminating all the changes that took place since the westerns started to settle in their country. Foreign forces came to the rescue on August 14th, the foreigners and Chinese Christians after Qing Empress Dowager Tzu’u Hzi announced war to these targeted groups. This dispute ended in 1901 with the endorsement of the Boxer Protocol, which prohibited Chinese from importing arms for two years, the leaders of the uprising were punished, and western countries were allowed to base their troops in Beijing for defense after the forts protecting the city were destroyed. “Stray Boxers are captured, and passers-by are challenged. The missionaries and Chinese who have weapons all help in guard duty. There are barbed-wire barricades at the end of each street…”

The Monroe Doctrine was a policy established in 1823 by President James Monroe to prevent the mixing of laws and policies between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. The doctrine also states other fundamental concepts that were addressed by the President during his annual Congressional speech which discussed the “disagreement over the border between the United States and lands owned by Great Britain; Prohibition of the slave trade; Reaction to the war between Spain and France; Other statements.” As stated by the President Monroe during his speech “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for colonization by any European powers,”[footnoteRef:2] Even though the United States announced that it would not interfere with European affairs, and the same will do Europe, promoting isolationism, it was just the begging of spreading imperialism. With the European countries not able to interfere with American’s affairs, the United States was able to control Latin America as they wanted, constructing the Panama Canal, and acquiring lands later on with the Spanish-American War, establishing the country’s power in the new territories. [2: Speech by President Monroe to Congress in 1823]

The Spanish-American War of 1898 originated an inevitable and robust need for Americans to expand their territories oversea. Supported by the Monroe Doctrine, this war originated as a moral cause to free the Latin American countries from the Spanish Crown’s dominance, but all wars taken out by the United States dealt with economic reasons as well that could benefit the country itself. Cubans started to revolt against the Spanish colonists when the economic depression of the 1890s took hold upon the island as well, slowing the exports of sugar to the United States. Yellow journalism, based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration, was a practice that was had a goal to motivate the American into intervening and helping with the liberation and independence of Cuba, but many were fond of the idea of isolationism, and Congress decided not to intervene. The war was also triggered by the De Lôme Letter, a letter written by the Spanish ambassador to the United States, calling President McKinley “weak” and criticizing his work. As written by Albert Shaw in the “American Monthly,” “The feeling has been, therefore, that Spain’s real enemies were the Americans, and that the open outbreak of hostilities was simply a matter of the convenient time and season, to be determined by exigencies in Spain.”[footnoteRef:3] After an explosion caused the sinking of the USS Maine in the port of Havana, the United States declared war to Spain, and it was a victorious war for America since little blood was shed, and it lasted less than four months. The United States knew that they could have easily won the war against Spain, and they saw the benefits it would bring, like the acquisition of the new territories abroad. The United States acquired Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam and bought the Philippines for $22 million, declaring its world power in the Eastern Asian continent. [3: Reaction to the De Lôme Letter by the journalist of the “American Monthly” Albert Shaw]

After winning the Spanish-American War, the United States had been extremely interested in China, after founding cheap cotton goods markets for American textile manufactures, and the United States need to recover from the economic depression that affected the country during this period. Proposed by John Hay, an American statesman and official, between 1899 and 1900, the Open Door Policy “statement of principles initiated by the United States in 1899 and 1900 for the protection of equal privileges among countries trading with China and in support of Chinese territorial and administrative integrity.” This concept of free access to China had been previously blocked by the “exclusive privileges of investment” each European country had on China. Since the United States could not take hold of China using the old system, they developed this policy where they would be the first ones to benefit from it. This policy consisted mainly of three key concepts: “First each great power should maintain free access to a treaty port or any other vested interest within its sphere, second only the Chinese government should collect taxes on trade, and third no great power having a sphere should be granted exemptions from paying harbor dues or railroad charges.” With the Open Door Policy, the United States had free access to China, and consequently, of the Asian continent, contributing to the country’s imperialism.

American imperialism has been critiqued by many, arguing that the United States’ doings were immoral and unconstitutional, but it unarguable that it was a quick shift for the country to promote first isolationism and then imperialism because it restored national pride and it helped with the improvement of the economy, previously devised by a depression. The economic depression of 1983, the Spanish-American war, policies, and beliefs of superiority and Christianity all caused the rise of imperialism, which will, later on, become one of the many causes of the first world war.


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