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American Foreign Policy in the Late 19th Century:

Philosophical Underpinnings

By Michael Chimes
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In the years leading up to the Spanish American War, the United States experienced a growth in ethnocentrism, a belief in manifest destiny and Anglo-Saxonism. It was this combination of views that provided the moral impetus allowing for the U.S. public to support the efforts to make the country into an imperial power. The ongoing debate over these views shaped American policy for years.

The Discussion:

Throughout the 19th century, Americans discussed and debated issues connected to expansion. Westward acquisitions began with the Louisiana Purchase and continued through the mid-century period with the land gained through the war with Mexico.  By the Civil War, the territory that today composes the “lower 48” was owned by the United States, and our northern and southern borders were stabilized through treaty negotiations with Canada and Mexico.

From the early years of the century until the Civil War, policy debates centered on extending our North American borders.  Each episode of expansion created an intellectual friction between those that supported territorial growth and those in opposition.  Debate varied in their particulars, however.  The purchase of the Louisiana Territory, for instance, raised important constitutional issues concerning the legality of land purchase.  In the ensuing years, geographic growth would be examined in the context of moral, economic and political issues.  Regardless of the historical event, an underlying belief in manifest destiny, our nation’s fate and duty to settle our North American lands coast to coast, underscored each territorial acquisition.  It seems certain most Americans believed in a special manifest destiny for the nation, and this philosophical foundation enabled the United States to spread westward with confidence and moral assuredness.

The period following the Civil War up to the late 1870’s was given over to consolidating our territorial lands and integrating them into the political and economic mainstream.  In the south, the policies of reconstruction were aimed at a quick reintegration of that region back into the union.  In the west, efforts as diverse as the building of a transcontinental train line, federal support for capital enterprises and a federal subsidization of land settlement all served to bring western territorial areas within the influence of eastern economic and political institutions.

With the election of 1876, southern reconstruction was considered complete, the mechanisms for settling, building and integrating western territories were in place, and the beginnings of a new age of industrialism were in evidence.  Fueled by corporate consolidation and supported through legislation and judicial interpretation, the American economy grew furiously.  Industrial growth was similarly in evidence in Europe among certain nations, notably England, Germany, France and Russia.  In short time, Japan, too, would be seeing rapid industrial growth.  The exponential increase in production witnessed in these countries demanded new markets to sustain growth.  In the last quarter of the 19th century, these nations, and occasionally a few others, actively sought colonies to provide raw materials for industry, markets for products and strategic locations in which to base military defense outposts.

Americans took note of these events, and many thought we should pursue a foreign policy with similar goals.  To not act, it was argued, would inevitably lead to economic stagnation and second class status in the community of nations.  Some anti-imperialists argued a moral position: it was wrong to subjugate others for our advantage.  Many remembered the crusade of abolitionism, and were ready to apply the same standards of human rights to people in faraway lands.  Other anti-imperialists, believers in Anglo-Saxon superiority, voiced concern for the ways in which contact with “tropical people” would eventually dilute our racial stock and diminish our institutions.

It was this tension that fueled foreign policy debates in the latter years of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century.  The acquisition of the Hawaiian Islands, our entry into the Spanish-American War and the resultant debate over the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the building of the Panama Canal and our ongoing presence in Central American affairs, our entry in World War I and Wilson’s central place in the Versailles treaty provisions all can be seen through the lens of a fifty year foreign policy debate.  On one side of the debate stood those in favor of expansion.  They advocated a strong navy, economic gain and military security.  Anti-expansionists tended to emphasize the moral turpitude of colonization, and the hypocrisy attendant to holding others subjects as we held ourselves to the standards of the "Declaration of Independence" and the "Bill of Rights."

To counter the position of the anti-imperialists, a position grounded in morality and legality, expansionists developed a four-pronged attack.  Using the principles of the Social Darwinists, expansionists defended overseas territorial ownership as the natural order of a “more fit species.”  In a related argument, imperialists affirmed the innate superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, and thus justified a place of authority in non-Anglo-Saxon cultures.  Extending the traditional parameters of manifest destiny, imperialists also argued that our destiny as a special people was not limited to the North American continent.  Our fate, it was argued, was inextricably tied to the global community.  Oceans were not barriers; rather, they were the connecting bridges that would lead us to a position of prominence throughout the globe.  Finally, expansionists felt that we had an obligation and responsibility to help others less fortunate.

Uncle Sam watches American ideals being given to non-Anglo Saxons

Uncle Sam watches as the "Goddess of Liberty" heralds freedom for Cuba,
Puerto Rico and the Philippines

The theories of Charles Darwin were revolutionary in science and in the social sciences.  He redefined debate about racial and ethnic differences to include scientific theory.  According to those who applied Darwin’s evolutionary theories to racial differences, the laws of the survival of the fittest applied to racial groups.  Anglo-Saxon people, argued such luminaries as 19th century philosopher John Fiske and political scientist John Burgess, were demonstrably the fittest racial group (Dulles, p. 30).  The evidence was in the economic strength and cultural accomplishments of Anglo-Saxon nations such as England and the United States.

Proving the superiority of Anglo-Saxon people was critical if one was to argue or accept the position of the Social Darwinists.  Many important and influential individuals sought to direct public policy through the promotion of Anglo-Saxon superiority.  One of the more influential promoters of Anglo-Saxonism was Josiah Strong, a Congregational clergyman and social reformer.  Strong’s essay, "Our Country," took the U.S. by storm in 1885.  In this treatise, he asserts that “[e]very race which has deeply impressed itself on the human family has been the representative of some great idea – one or more – which has given direction to the nation’s life and form to its civilization.”  The Anglo-Saxon is the representative of two great ideas, according to Strong: civil liberty and pure spiritual Christianity.  Strong is certain that the United States, by its landmass and growing population, will become the center of Anglo-Saxonism.  In this central position, it will be the role of Americans “during the next fifteen or twenty years, to hasten or retard the coming of Christ’s kingdom in world by hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years.  We of this generation and nation occupy the Gibraltar of the ages which command the world’s future.” ( p. 2-3)

Another important figure that helped shape attitudes about race in the latter part of the 19th century was Carl Schurz.  As a senator in the post-Civil War period, Schurz voted against an annexation of Santo Domingo.  Schurz’ vote was based on his belief that any lands annexed by the United States must necessarily be integrated into our political institutions.  This, in Schurz’ mind, suggested a future of statehood.  Yet he believed “tropical” people were innately incapable of republicanism.

Schurz saw a future of expansionism as early as 1870, and feared for the purity of our nationhood.  As Schurz says, “Have you thought of it, what this means?…fancy ten or twelve tropical States added to the southern States we already possess; fancy the Senators and Representatives of ten or twelve millions of tropical people, people of Latin race mixed with Indian and African blood;…fancy them sitting in the halls of Congress, throwing the weight of their intelligence, their morality, their political notions and habits, their prejudices and passions, into the scale of the destinies of this Republic; and, what is more, fancy the Government of this Republic making itself responsible for order and security and republican institutions in such States, inhabited by such people; fancy this, and then tell me, does not your imagination recoil from the picture?”  (Beisner, p. 23-4)  Over the next 25 years, Carl Schurz argued his beliefs to presidents, policy makers and American citizens.  He steadfastly believed that the acquisition of places like the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Hawaii would only serve to dilute our nation’s strength because our citizenry would be composed of increasingly undesirable elements.  Ironically, as an ardent anti-imperialist, he helped to further the belief in American national superiority.

In 1892, a poem appeared in the Atlantic Monthly that reflected a growing nativist sentiment.  The editor of the magazine, Thomas B. Aldrich, wrote it.  Titled “Unguarded Gates,” it seemed an open rebuttal to the recently installed Statue of Liberty.  Aldrich, much like Strong, foresaw a bleak future for America as our racial stock was increasingly diluted with foreign blood.  Especially distressing to Aldrich was the change in immigrant patterns that drew increasingly from the south and east of Europe.  As Aldrich wrote,

“…Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng-
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures of Hoang-Ho,
Malayan, Seythian, Teuton, Celt, and Slav,
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn;…
O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?…”  (Moquin, p. 2)

 Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican Senator from Massachusetts 1893-1924, added an important and influential political voice to racial attitudes.  Lodge, in speaking to his colleagues on the floor of the Senate, stated in 1896 that the Anglo-Saxons in America were marked by “unconquerable energy, a very great initiative, an absolute empire over self, [and] a sentiment of independence.”  Speaking in support of a bill to limit immigration, he went on to comment on his view of race in America.  “…What makes a race are their mental and, above all, their moral characteristics, the slow growth and accumulation of centuries of toil and conflict.  These are the qualities which determine their social efficiency as a people, which make one race rise and another fall….it is on the moral qualities of the English-speaking race that our history, our victories, and all our future rest.  There is only one way in which you can lower or weaken those characteristics and that is by breeding them out.  If a lower race mixes with a higher in sufficient numbers, history teaches us that the lower will prevail…the lowering of a great race means not only its own decline but that of human civilization…” (Annals, p. 88-92)

 Few American speeches have resonated as deeply with so many as Albert Beveridge’s “March of the Flag” speech, first delivered in Indianapolis in 1898.  Beveridge was hopeful for an appointment to the U.S. Senate by the Indiana legislature, and the issue of expansionism was of importance to the nation.  His remarks suggest a special destiny for America, a destiny built upon superior racial qualities and a responsibility to give to others our economic, political and social institutions.  Speaking of America, Beveridge said

“…It is a glorious history our God has bestowed upon His chosen people; a history heroic with faith in our mission and our future; a history of statesmen who flung the boundaries of the Republic out into unexplored lands and savage wilderness; a history of soldiers who carried the flag across blazing deserts and through the ranks of hostile mountains, even to the gates of sunset; a history of a multiplying people who overran a continent in half a century; a history of prophets who saw the consequences of evils inherited from the past and of martyrs who died to save us from them; a history divinely logical, in the process of whose tremendous reasoning we find ourselves today.

…Shall the American people continue their march toward the commercial supremacy of the world?  Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign as the children of liberty wax in strength, until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind?

…Have we no mission to perform, no duty to discharge to our fellowman?  Has God endowed us with gifts beyond our deserts and marked us as the people of His peculiar favor, merely to rot in our own selfishness…”  (Boorstin, p. 644-653)

Over the next three months, approximately 300,000 copies of this speech were published in pamphlet form.  Beveridge gave the speech again and again to audiences displaying vocal enthusiasm.  His view that America had a special destiny to fulfill helped to convince Americans that we had a responsibility to take control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

President William McKinley, thrust into the center of events, responded, somewhat reluctantly, as an expansionist.  The Philippines were at the heart of the debate over expansionism in 1898-99, and McKinley felt keen pressure from commercial and military interests.  On September 16, 1898, McKinley sent a set of instructions to negotiators in Europe directing them to keep the Philippines.  In these instructions, he asserts that “…the war has brought us new duties and responsibilities which we must meet and discharge as becomes a great nation on whose growth and career from the beginning the ruler of nations has plainly written the high command and pledge of civilization…” (Annals, p. 232-3)

Theodore Roosevelt also believed in a special destiny for America.  On March 4, 1901, he delivered his inaugural address as United States vice-president.  He must have savored the opportunity to articulate his vision of America to a national audience, and was direct in his comments.

“We belong to a young nation, already of giant strength, yet whose political strength is but a forecast of the power that is to come.  We stand supreme in a continent, in a hemisphere.  East and west we look across the two great oceans toward the larger world life in which, whether we will or not, we must take an ever-increasing share.  And as, keen-eyed, we gaze into the coming years, duties, new and old, rise thick and fast to confront us from within and without…A great work lies already to the hand of this generation; it should count itself happy, indeed, that to it is given the privilege of doing such a work…” (Black, p. 27)
Not just politicians argued America’s special destiny.  Henry Watterson, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, one of the South’s most influential newspapers at the turn of the century, saw the events of the Spanish-American War in light of America’s fate.  In an editorial dated April 20, 1898, he argues that our victory in the war carries a special significance:  “…We find it in the law supreme – the law high above the law of titles in lands, in chattels, in human bodies and human souls – the law of man, the law of God.  We find it in our own inspiration, our own destiny.  We find it in the peals of the bell that rang out our sovereignty from Philadelphia; we find it in the blood of the patriots who won our independence at the cannon’s mouth;  …that is the right of our might; that is the sign in which we conquer.”  (Annals, p. 194)

Probably no individual summed up the position that American’s had a unique responsibility in the world of nations than Rudyard Kipling, an Englishman.  A well-known writer with experience living in the British colonies of India and Burma, Kipling observed the American debate over our imperial future at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.  He was moved to offer advice to his adopted nation (he married an American and lived briefly in Vermont during the early 1890’s) in verse. His poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” was first published in McClure’s Magazine in February, 1899.  Within the week, it was widely reprinted in various publications; so were parodies, editorials and cartoons.  His stirring call to take up the white man’s burden fell on responsive ears.  Roosevelt sent a copy to Lodge.  The “imperialism of righteousness” had a tremendous popular appeal and the religious press of the country, with few exceptions, came out forthrightly in favor of expansion on the ground of duty and responsibility.  (Dulles, p. 48)

Kipling was a master wordsmith.  In a few years, he was to win the Nobel Prize for literature, the first English citizen to do so.  Excerpts from “The White Man’s Burden” still have a power to make one listen:

   Take up the white man’s burden –
    Send forth the best ye breed –
   Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need…
   Take up the white man’s burden –
    The savage wars of peace –
   Fill full the mouth of famine,
    And bid the sickness cease…
   Take up the white man’s burden!
    Have done with childish days –
   The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy ungrudged praise:
  Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
   Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers.
       (quoted in Zwick)

Kipling challenged America to take its place among the “adult” nations of the world by accepting responsibility to help our “new caught sullen peoples/half devil and half child” become civilized, Christianized and democratized.

 America’s rise to world power occurred in the fifty-year period between the 1870-1920.  The Spanish-American War may be seen as the “point of no return,” the foreign policy event that conclusively committed us to imperial strength and a global presence.  Our expansion overseas was fueled by desires:  economic markets, raw materials, coaling stations and military bases.  But underlying our expansionist policies was a philosophy of ethnocentrism, racism and a duty based on a perception of national superiority.  The roots of this thinking have never fully been eliminated from the national consciousness.  That is why vigilance against policies rooted in bias and prejudice can never be relaxed.


 The Annals of America, Volume 12. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1968

 Beisner, Robert L. Twelve Against Empire.  Chicago:  Imprint Publications, Inc., 1992.

Black, Gilbert (ed.). Theodore Roosevelt 1858 – 1919.  Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1969.

Boorstin, Daniel (ed.). An American Primer.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. America’s Rise to World Power.  New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955.

Everett, Marshall. Exciting Experiences in Our War with Spain and the Filipinos. Chicago: Book Publishers Union, 1899 (unnumbered page) (source for cartoon image).

Harris, Neil et. al. (eds.). The History of the United States Volume II, Source Readings.  New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1969.

Moquin, Wayne (ed.). Makers of America – Natives and Aliens 1891-1903.  U.S.: Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation, 1971.

Zwick, Jim. "'The White Man's Burden' and Its Critics." In Jim Zwick, ed., Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935. (December 9, 1998).

Zwick, Jim (ed.).  Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire.   Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

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