The Path of Empire

1890–1899

The Path of Empire is chapter 27 of the APUSH curriculum. This outline provides notes, additional facts, and links to entries to provide students with a deeper understanding of concepts and topics related to American Imperialism during the Gilded Age.

Gilded Age, American Imperialism, Path to Empire, Chapter 27 APUSH

This illustration depicts Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Image Source: Library of Congress.

American Imperialism in the Gilded Age

During the Gilded Age, many Americans were focused on domestic issues, such as immigration, urbanization, westward expansion, and politics — all of which brought about significant social and economic changes. There was little interest in international affairs until the end of the 19th Century. Changes in agriculture, industry, and society forced American leaders to respond to global competition with foreign policy changes. The United States broke away from its isolationist policies and looked to gain access to overseas markets and territory, which was boosted by the Spanish-American War.

1. Imperialist Stirrings

1.1 — The Need for Overseas Expansion

  • Various factors contributed to the United States’ desire for overseas expansion.
  • Farmers and factory owners started looking abroad due to the booming agricultural and industrial production.
  • Many believed that expansion was necessary to manage the country’s rapid growth in population, wealth, and production.
  • Labor violence and agrarian unrest added to the urgency of finding overseas markets as a safety valve.

1.2 — Yellow Journalism

  • The “yellow press” led by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst sensationalized foreign exploits, portraying them as exciting adventures.
  • Missionaries, inspired by works like Reverend Josiah Strong’s “Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis,” sought to convert foreign populations and spread American values.
  • Strong promoted the idea of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization and encouraged Americans to share their religion and values with “backward” peoples.
William Randolph Hearst, 1900, Portrait, LOC
William Randolph Hearst. Image Source: Wikimedia.

1.3 — American Leaders See the United States as an Imperial Power 

  • Figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge interpreted Darwinism as a justification for American expansion, believing that the strong should dominate.
  • Latecomers to colonial expansion sought to claim territories left by earlier colonial powers.
  • Africa was rapidly colonized by Europeans in the 1880s, while in the 1890s, Japan, Germany, and Russia secured concessions from China.
  • To compete in the modern world, some Americans saw the need for the United States to become an imperial power like its European counterparts.

1.4 — American Naval Power Increases

  • The development of a new steel navy played a significant role in shaping America’s overseas interests.
  • Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783” in 1890 argued that control of the sea was essential for global dominance.
  • Mahan’s book was widely read by various nations, including the English, Germans, Japanese, and Americans.
  • This led to a naval arms race among the great powers, gaining momentum around the turn of the century.
  • Americans, inspired by Mahan’s ideas, advocated for a stronger navy and the construction of an American-built isthmian canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

1.5 — America’s Big Sister Policy in Latin America

  • America’s growing international interest took several forms.
  • James G. Blaine, who served as Secretary of State under President James A. Garfield and President Benjamin Harrison, promoted the “Big Sister” policy.
  • The “Big Sister” policy aimed to unite Latin American nations under American leadership and open their markets to American traders.
  • In 1889, Blaine presided over the first Pan-American Conference in Washington, D.C.
  • The conference resulted in a loose plan for economic cooperation through reciprocal tariff reduction, paving the way for future inter-American gatherings.

1.6 — Turmoil with Foreign Nations

  • The late 1880s and early 1890s saw several diplomatic crises and near-wars in American diplomacy.
  • In 1889, there was a potential conflict between the American and German navies over the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific.
  • In 1891, the lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans brought the United States and Italy to the brink of war, but it was resolved through compensation.
  • The most severe crisis occurred in 1892 when the United States demanded reparations from Chile following the deaths of two American sailors in Valparaiso.
  • The threat of an attack by Chile’s modern navy raised concerns on the Pacific Coast, but American power eventually forced Chile to pay an indemnity.
  • Another dispute between the United States and Canada over seal hunting near the Pribilof Islands was resolved through arbitration in 1893.
  • These incidents demonstrated a more aggressive national attitude, with Americans willing to risk war over distant and seemingly minor issues.

2. Monroe’s Doctrine and the Venezuelan Squall

2.1 — Rise of Anti-British Sentiment Over Venezuela

  • Anti-British sentiment in the United States, which periodically flared up, became a significant issue in 1895–1896 concerning Venezuela.
  • The dispute revolved around the jungle boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela, which had been unresolved for over fifty years.
  • The Venezuelans, despite having extravagant claims, had advocated for arbitration to settle the matter.
  • The situation escalated when gold was discovered in the disputed area.

2.2 — President Cleveland Takes Action Regarding Venezuela

  • President Grover Cleveland, known for his strong sense of righteousness and anti-British sentiment, decided to take action.
  • Secretary of State Richard Olney was authorized to deliver a forceful protest to London, which Cleveland referred to as a “twenty-inch gun” blast.
  • Olney asserted that British attempts to dominate Venezuela in this dispute and acquire more territory violated the Monroe Doctrine.
  • He demanded that London submit the issue to arbitration and declared that the United States was now asserting its dominance in the Western Hemisphere.
Grover Cleveland, Portrait
President Grover Cleveland. Image Source: Wikipedia.

2.3 — Britain Rejects the Monroe Doctrine

  • British officials, unimpressed by Olney’s protest, took four months to craft their response.
  • They viewed Olney’s lengthy communication as a political maneuver to gain support from Irish-American voters.
  • When London’s response arrived, it rejected the relevance of the Monroe Doctrine and refused arbitration.
  • Essentially, the British argued that the matter was none of the United States’ concern.

AHC Notes

See the following for more information on the development of America’s Foreign Policy as it relates to Latin America:

2.4 — President Cleveland Threatens to Go To War

  • President Cleveland, angered by the British response, sent a strongly worded special message to Congress.
  • He proposed an appropriation for a commission of experts to determine the rightful boundary.
  • If the British did not accept this boundary, Cleveland implied that the United States was prepared to go to war over the issue.
  • The entire nation, regardless of political affiliation, was swept up in a wave of hysteria following the Venezuela crisis.
  • War appeared inevitable, despite the significant naval advantage held by Britain, which possessed 32 battleships compared to just 5 for the United States.
  • Both sides eventually exercised restraint and war was averted.
  • The British, while irritated by the United States, had no desire for conflict.

2.5 — Britain Needs to Protect Canada

  • Canada was vulnerable to American armies, and British merchant ships were susceptible to American commerce raiders.
  • The European geopolitical landscape was also worrisome, with Britain’s traditional policy of “splendid isolation” becoming increasingly insecure due to unfriendly relations with Russia, France, and the saber-rattling Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
Venezuelan Crisis, 1895, President Grover Cleveland, Political Cartoon, Puck
This 1895 political cartoon by J.S. Pugh, from Puck Magazine, depicts President Cleveland twisting the tail of Great Britain, the lion. Image Source: Wikimedia.

2.6 — Germany’s Actions Force Britain to Change Focus

  • The German Kaiser’s ill-considered actions inadvertently contributed to a peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan crisis.
  • After an unauthorized British raiding party was captured by Dutch-descended Boers in South Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm II congratulated the captors, redirecting British anger away from America and toward Germany.
  • British officials agreed to arbitrate the Venezuelan dispute, and ironically, the final decision largely favored the British, granting them most of what they had initially claimed.

2.7 — Cleveland Successfully Defended the Monroe Doctrine

  • The United States had come dangerously close to a catastrophic war, but the outcome had its positive aspects.
  • The prestige of the Monroe Doctrine was significantly bolstered.
  • While Europe was annoyed by President Cleveland’s claim to dominance in the Western Hemisphere, he had successfully asserted American influence.
  • Many Latin American republics were pleased with the United States’ determination to protect them, with some even lowering their flags to half-mast when President Cleveland passed away in 1908.

2.8 — Relations Between the United States and Britain Improve

  • The British decided to cultivate friendly relations with the United States.
  • This marked the beginning of an era of “patting the eagle’s head,” replacing a history of America “twisting the lion’s tail.”
  • This period of improved Anglo-American relations, often referred to as the Great Rapprochement or Reconciliation, became a cornerstone of both nations’ foreign policies as the 20th Century started.

3. Spurning the Hawaiian Pear

3.1 — Relations with Hawaii

  • Hawaii had drawn the interest of Americans for quite some time.
  • During the early 19th Century, the islands served as a stopover and resupply point for American shippers, sailors, and whalers.
  • In 1820, the first New England missionaries arrived in Hawaii, spreading Protestant Christianity and introducing protective calico.
  • These missionaries aimed to do good and found success; their descendants thrived. Honolulu, in some ways, started to resemble a typical New England town.
Honolulu Harbor, Hawaii, 1822, Illustration, NYPL
This 1822 illustration depicts Honolulu Harbor. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

3.2 — Establishment of the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor

  • Over time, Americans increasingly viewed Hawaii as an extension of their own coastline.
  • Starting in the 1840s, the U.S. State Department sternly warned other nations to keep their hands off Hawaii.
  • America’s influence grew in 1875 with a commercial reciprocity agreement and in 1887 with a treaty securing naval base rights at Pearl Harbor from the native government.

3.3 — Queen Liliuokalani Resists Annexation

  • Economic and political challenges emerged in Hawaii.
  • The once-profitable sugar cultivation industry faced difficulties in 1890 due to the McKinley Tariff, which imposed higher barriers against Hawaiian sugar.
  • White planters, many of whom were Americans, believed that annexation to the United States was the solution to overcome the tariff.
  • However, Queen Liliuokalani, a determined native ruler, insisted on native Hawaiians retaining control of the islands.
  • In 1893, desperate white planters, though a minority, successfully organized a revolt, with open assistance from American troops who landed without authorization under the American minister in Honolulu.
  • The minister saw this as the opportune moment for the United States to annex Hawaii, referring to it as the “ripe Hawaiian pear.”

3.4 — President Cleveland Hesitates to Annex Hawaii

  • Hawaii, much like Texas in earlier years, appeared ripe for annexation in the eyes of the ruling white Americans.
  • A treaty for annexation was hurriedly sent to Washington.
  • However, before it could be pushed through the Senate, President Harrison’s term ended, and Democratic President Cleveland took office.
  • President Cleveland, known for valuing “national honesty,” had concerns about the treatment of Queen Liliuokalani, who had been deposed.

3.5 — Revolutionaries Take Control of Hawaii

  • In 1893, President Cleveland withdrew the annexation treaty from the Senate and dispatched a special investigator to Hawaii.
  • The investigation revealed that a majority of native Hawaiians did not support annexation.
  • However, the white revolutionists who had taken control were firmly in power.
  • Removing them would require the use of armed force, which American public opinion would not tolerate.
  • While Queen Liliuokalani could not be reinstated, the sugarcoated push for annexation had to be temporarily abandoned until 1898.
Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii, 1891, LOC
Queen Liliuokalani, circa 1891. Image Source: Library of Congress.

3.6 — The Debate Over Hawaii Continued

  • The debate over annexing Hawaii sparked the first significant imperialistic discussion in American history.
  • President Cleveland faced criticism for attempting to oppose the new Manifest Destiny.
  • A popular jingle of the time reflected the sentiment, referencing Queen Liliuokalani.
  • Despite the criticism, Cleveland’s motives, in a time of international land acquisitions, were seen as honorable for both himself and the nation.
  • The question of annexing Hawaii remained unresolved for another five years.

4. Cubans Rise in Revolt

4.1 — The Cuban Rebellion

  • In 1895, the masses of Cuba, subjected to oppressive Spanish rule, rose in rebellion once again.
  • The roots of their revolt were partly economic, with some of the causes traced back to the United States.
  • Sugar production, which was vital to Cuba’s prosperity, suffered when the American tariff of 1894 imposed high duties on sugar.
  • Faced with dire circumstances, the Cuban insurgents adopted a scorched-earth strategy.
  • They believed that causing significant damage might prompt Spain to leave the island, or they might receive assistance from the United States in their quest for independence.
  • As part of this destructive approach, the insurgents set fire to sugar cane fields, destroyed sugar mills, and even detonated passenger trains.
Spanish American War, Cuban Insurgents, Illustration
This illustration depicts Cuban Insurgents firing on Spanish troops from behind barrels of sugar. Image Source: America’s Battle for Cuba’s Freedom, 1898.

4.2 — The United States Supports the Cuban Insurgents

  • American sympathies naturally gravitated towards the Cuban rebels, as the United States had a historical inclination to support those fighting for freedom.
  • Beyond sentiment, the United States had substantial interests in Cuba, including investments of approximately $50 million and annual trade worth around $100 million.
  • Additionally, Spanish misrule in Cuba posed a threat to shipping routes in the West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico, and indirectly, it had implications for the future construction of the Isthmian Canal.

4.3 — Valeriano Weyler

  • The Cuban conflict escalated in 1896 with the arrival of Spanish General Valeriano Weyler, who was infamously referred to as “Butcher.”
  • Weyler’s strategy aimed to crush the rebellion by forcibly relocating many civilians into barbed-wire concentration camps.
  • These camps were designed to prevent civilians from assisting the armed insurgents, but the lack of proper sanitation turned them into deadly disease-ridden places, leading to the deaths of many.
Valeriano Weyler, 1890, Photograph
General Valeriano Weyler, circa 1890. Image Source: Wikimedia.

4.4 — The American Public Calls for Action

  • The American public was outraged by these developments, leading to demands for action.
  • In 1896, Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging President Cleveland to recognize the belligerent status of the Cuban rebels.
  • However, as the Cuban insurgents had a government consisting of only a few fugitive leaders, President Cleveland, who was known for his anti-war and anti-imperialist stance, remained unyielding.
  • He staunchly declared that he would not issue the necessary order to mobilize the army even if Congress declared war.

5. The Mystery of the Maine Explosion

5.1 — Atrocities in Cuba Fuel Yellow Journalism

  • Atrocities in Cuba provided ideal material for the sensational “yellow journalism” of the time.
  • William R. Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, locked in a fierce circulation battle, competed to outdo each other with sensational headlines and shocking “scoops.”
  • Smaller competitors eagerly followed suit, contributing to the sensationalism.
  • In cases where atrocity stories were lacking, they were fabricated for dramatic effect.

5.2 — Frederic Remington

  • Hearst even sent the talented artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to create illustrations.
  • When Remington reported that conditions in Cuba were not dire enough to warrant war, Hearst allegedly responded, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

5.3 — The United States Sends the Maine To Cuba

  • General Valeriano Weyler, known as “Butcher,” was removed from his position in Cuba in 1897, but conditions continued to deteriorate.
  • There was some discussion in Spain about granting Cuba a form of self-government, but this idea faced fierce opposition from many Spaniards in Cuba, leading to riots.
  • In early 1898, the United States sent the battleship Maine to Cuba, ostensibly for a “friendly visit” but with the actual purpose of protecting and evacuating Americans in case of a dangerous escalation.
Spanish American War, USS Maine, Photo, v2
USS Maine. Image Source: The Great American-Spanish War Scenes by Edgar Johnston, 1898.

5.4 — The De Lome Letter

  • The already tense situation escalated sharply on February 9, 1898, when Hearst published a sensational headline featuring a private letter written by the Spanish minister in Washington, Dupuy de Lôme.
  • The letter had been stolen from the mail and described President McKinley in derogatory terms as a politician without good faith.
  • The resulting public outrage was so intense that Dupuy de Lôme was compelled to resign from his position.

5.5 — Destruction of the Maine

  • A tragic event unfolded a few days later, on February 15, 1898, when the USS Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana harbor, resulting in the loss of 260 officers and men.
  • Two investigations were conducted, one by U.S. naval officers and the other by Spanish officials, as the Americans were distrustful of the Spanish near the wreckage.
  • The Spanish commission concluded that the explosion was internal and likely accidental, while the American commission reported that a submarine mine caused the blast.
  • Despite Spanish proposals for arbitration, Washington, influenced by popular indignation, rejected them.
Spanish American War, Maine After Explosion, Photo
Wreckage of the Maine the day after the explosion. Image Source: The Great American-Spanish War Scenes by Edgar Johnston, 1898.

5.6 — Investigation Into the Explosion of the Maine

  • Various theories were proposed regarding the cause of the Maine’s explosion.
  • The least convincing explanation was that Spanish officials in Cuba were responsible, as they were under American supervision, and Spain was distant.
  • In 1976, U.S. Navy Admiral H. G. Rickover provided what appears to be the final answer.
  • He presented substantial evidence indicating that the initial explosion resulted from spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker adjacent to a powder magazine, a conclusion that aligns with what the Spanish commission had deduced in 1898.

5.7 — Remember the Maine Becomes a Popular Slogan

  • In 1898, driven by a war frenzy and influenced by the yellow press, many Americans blindly accepted the least likely explanation for the Maine’s explosion.
  • Inflamed by sensational journalism, they swiftly concluded that the Spanish government had committed unforgivable treachery.
  • The popular battle cry of the time became “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”
  • The prevailing sentiment was to remove the “disgraced” Spanish flag from the Western Hemisphere at any cost.

6. McKinley Unleashes the Dogs of War

6.1 — President McKinley Reluctant for War

  • The national fervor for war continued to intensify, even though American diplomats had already secured Madrid’s agreement to Washington’s two main demands: ending the reconcentration camps and agreeing to an armistice with Cuban rebels.
  • President McKinley, known for his cautious approach, was reluctant to enter into hostilities.
  • Critics labeled him “Wobbly Willie” McKinley, while Theodore Roosevelt, known for his belligerent stance, derided him as lacking the “backbone of a chocolate éclair.”
  • The president, dealing with shaken nerves and requiring sleeping pills, even faced effigy hangings. Critics often failed to recognize that displaying backbone was essential to avoiding war, not plunging into it.
William McKinley, 1897, Portrait, Benziger
President William McKinley. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

6.2 — McKinley is a Civil War Veteran

  • McKinley’s desires clashed with the prevailing public opinion.
  • He did not desire war, having experienced enough bloodshed as a major in the Civil War.
  • Figures like Mark Hanna and Wall Street were also against war, fearing potential disruptions to business.
  • However, public pressure, fueled by sensational journalism and appeals from Cuban exiles, pushed for military action.
  • Recognizing the inevitability of war, the president eventually yielded to public demands.

6.3 — McKinley’s Dilemmas

  • Public pressures alone did not explain McKinley’s actions.
  • He had little faith in Spain’s promises regarding Cuba, as Madrid had broken them in the past.
  • McKinley believed in the democratic principle of responding to the will of the people, even if it might not be in their best interest.
  • He also understood that resisting war could be exploited by the Democrats for political gain, potentially leading to Bryan’s victory in the next presidential election.
  • Therefore, he chose to support the war, preferring to preserve the Grand Old Party and deal with the remnants of Spain’s empire.

6.4 — McKinley’s War Message

  • On April 11, 1898, McKinley sent a war message to Congress, advocating armed intervention to liberate the oppressed Cubans.
  • Congress enthusiastically responded, essentially declaring war.
  • In an act of self-righteousness, they also passed the Teller Amendment, which asserted that once the United States had ousted Spanish misrule, it would grant Cubans their freedom—an assertion that skeptical Europeans viewed with doubt.

7. Dewey’s May Day Victory at Manila

7.1 — Americans Celebrate War with Spain

  • The American people enthusiastically embraced the war with a sense of lightheartedness, akin to schoolchildren heading to a picnic.
  • Bands played popular tunes like “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” and “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here,” creating the impression to outsiders that these were the national anthems.
  • However, European observers viewed this jubilation with skepticism.

7.2 — Limitations of the American Army and Navy

  • The regular American army, led by older officers from the Civil War, was ill-prepared for warfare in tropical conditions.
  • It consisted of only 2,100 officers and 28,000 men, while Spain had around 200,000 troops in Cuba.
  • Some experts even perceived the American navy as slightly less powerful than Spain’s.
  • Most European powers were friendly to their Old World ally, with the notable exception of the British, who were actively seeking an alliance with their American cousins.

7.3 — Spain’s Logistical Disadvantage

  • Despite appearances, Spain’s apparent military superiority was deceptive.
  • Its navy, although formidable on paper, was in a dismal state and faced the challenge of operating thousands of miles from its home base.
  • On the other hand, the relatively new American steel navy, about fifteen years old and ranking fifth among the world’s fleets, was in relatively good condition, though the war would expose some serious deficiencies.

7.4 — Theodore Roosevelt Orders the Attack on the Philipines

  • The readiness of the American navy owed much to two key figures: Navy Secretary John D. Long and his assertive assistant secretary, Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Secretary Long was cautious and often reluctant to leave his desk, fearing that his energetic subordinate might provoke controversy.
  • On February 25, 1898, during one of Long’s weekend absences, Roosevelt cabled Commodore George Dewey, who commanded the American Asiatic Squadron in Hong Kong.
  • Roosevelt instructed Dewey to launch an attack on Spain’s Philippines in the event of war. 
  • These instructions were later confirmed by President McKinley, despite the unconventional strategy of attacking a distant target like the Philippines to free nearby Cuba.
Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Riders, Spanish American War, LOC
Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. This photo was taken after he returned from Cuba. Image Source: Library of Congress.

7.5 — The Battle of Manila Bay

  • Commodore George Dewey executed his orders admirably on May 1, 1898.
  • Sailing boldly into the fortified harbor of Manila at night with his six warships, Dewey positioned his guns against the Spanish fleet the next morning.
  • The Spanish fleet consisted of ten ships, one of which was merely a moored hulk without functioning engines.
  • Dewey’s fleet quickly and decisively destroyed the antiquated and outmatched Spanish vessels, resulting in nearly four hundred Spaniards killed and wounded, while not a single life was lost in Dewey’s fleet.
  • An American consul who witnessed the victory noted that the only thing American sailors needed was cough drops for their raw throats from cheering.
Spanish American War, 1898, Battle of Manila Bay, LOC
This illustration depicts the Battle of Manila Bay. Image Source: Library of Congress.

8. Unexpected Imperialistic Plums

8.1 — George Dewey is Hailed as a Hero

  • George Dewey, typically reserved in demeanor, became an instant national hero following his victory.
  • He was swiftly promoted to the rank of admiral, reflecting the surge in the demand for flags in celebration of his achievements.
  • An amateur poet even composed a verse in his honor, emphasizing the “dewy” morning of May 1st and the successful outcome in Manila Bay.
  • Despite the victory, Dewey faced a precarious situation. While he had eliminated the enemy fleet, he could not assault the forts of Manila with his naval forces.
  • Anxious and under considerable strain, he had no choice but to endure the sweltering conditions in the bay while awaiting the gradual assembly of troop reinforcements from America.

8.2 — European Nations Respond to the Battle of Manila Bay

  • Foreign warships began to congregate in the harbor of Manila under the pretext of safeguarding their nationals in the area.
  • The Germans dispatched five vessels, constituting a more potent naval force than Dewey’s, and their assertive admiral openly challenged American blockade regulations.
  • Several unpleasant incidents transpired, leading Dewey to lose his temper and issue a war threat to the arrogant German admiral.
  • Thankfully, tensions eventually subsided, and a conflict was averted.
  • In contrast, the British commander successfully implemented London’s new policy of friendliness.
  • A false story later circulated, suggesting that the British had dramatically intervened to prevent the Germans from attacking the Americans.

8.3 — American Forces Capture Manila

  • American troops eagerly anticipated and arriving in significant numbers, captured Manila on August 13, 1898.
  • They collaborated with Filipino insurgents led by Emilio Aguinaldo, a well-educated leader with a partial Chinese heritage.
  • Dewey, in hindsight, regretted bringing Aguinaldo from exile in Asia, as it was intended to weaken Spanish resistance.

8.4 — The Annexation of Hawaii

  • The events unfolding in the Philippines drew attention to Hawaii, with the perception that the archipelago was necessary as a coaling and provisioning way station to support Dewey.
  • However, the United States could have used these islands without annexing them, given the willingness of the white-dominated Honolulu government to compromise its neutrality and risk Spain’s retaliation.
  • Nonetheless, a grateful American public was determined not to abandon Dewey.
  • Congress hastily passed a joint resolution for annexation, which President McKinley approved on July 7, 1898.
  • With annexation, the residents of Hawaii gained U.S. citizenship and achieved full territorial status in 1900.
  • These developments in the picturesque islands, while seemingly abrupt, were the culmination of nearly a century of Americanization driven by sailors, whalers, traders, and missionaries.

9. The Confused Invasion of Cuba

9.1 — The Spanish Fleet is Dispatched to Cuba

  • Following the outbreak of the war, the Spanish government ordered a fleet of warships to Cuba.
  • Admiral Cervera, who commanded the fleet, expressed concerns about the dire condition of his ill-prepared ships, feeling that they were headed for disaster.
  • Eventually, four armored cruisers embarked on the journey, one of which lacked its primary battery of guns.
  • These cruisers were accompanied by six torpedo boats, but three of them had to be abandoned during the voyage.

9.2 — Americans on the East Coast Feel Threatened by the Spanish Fleet

  • Panic gripped the eastern coast of the United States in response to the arrival of Cervera’s fleet.
  • American vacationers hastily deserted their seaside cottages, and anxious investors moved their securities to inland repositories.
  • The government received numerous demands for protection from concerned citizens, prompting the Navy Department to deploy outdated Civil War-era ships to seemingly futile locations for morale-boosting purposes.
  • Cervera eventually sought refuge in Santiago harbor, Cuba, where he found himself blockaded by the more formidable American fleet.

9.3 — General William R. Shafter

  • The sound strategy appeared to be sending an American army from the rear to dislodge Cervera.
  • General William R. Shafter led this invading force, but he was notably overweight and afflicted with gout, requiring assistance to move about.
  • The ill-prepared American troops were ill-equipped for warfare in the tropical climate, having been provided with heavy woolen underwear and uniforms designed for subzero operations against Native American tribes.
Spanish American War, 1898, Spanish Surrender, LOC
This illustration by William J. Glackens depicts Spanish forces surrendering to General Shafter. Image Source: Library of Congress.

9.4 — The Rough Riders

  • The “Rough Riders,” a distinctive regiment of volunteers, emerged as a significant part of the invading American army.
  • Comprising individuals short on discipline but overflowing with bravery, the unit was primarily composed of western cowboys, tough characters, and even a few former polo players and ex-convicts.
  • Led by Colonel Leonard Wood, this group was mainly organized by the ambitious Theodore Roosevelt, who resigned from his position at the Navy Department to serve as lieutenant colonel.
  • Despite lacking any prior military experience, Roosevelt utilized his considerable political influence to secure his commission and bypass physical fitness requirements, carrying multiple pairs of spectacles due to his severe nearsightedness.

9.5 — American Forces Assemble in Florida

  • In mid-June, an American army of 17,000 troops set sail from the congested port of Tampa, Florida, amidst chaotic scenes.
  • The Rough Riders, fearing they would miss out on glory, commandeered one of the transports and held their position courageously for nearly a week under the scorching tropical sun.
  • Eventually, roughly half of them reached Cuba without most of their horses, earning the moniker “Wood’s Weary Walkers” due to their bowlegged appearance.

9.6 — American Forced Land Near Santiago, Cuba

  • General Shafter’s landing near Santiago, Cuba, encountered minimal resistance, as the disorganized Spanish defenders could muster only around two thousand troops.
  • Intense fighting erupted on July 1 at El Caney and San Juan Hill, where Colonel Roosevelt and his horseless Rough Riders charged uphill with significant support from two elite African American regiments.
  • Despite suffering heavy casualties, the charismatic colonel relished the experience, even shooting a Spanish soldier with his revolver and observing the man’s reaction with delight.
  • Roosevelt later penned a book chronicling his exploits, humorously commented upon by the famous satirist “Mr. Dooley,” who suggested it should have been titled “Alone in Cubia.”
Battle of El Carney, 1898, Spanish American War, Illustration
This illustration depicts the Battle of El Carney. Image Source: Pictorial History of Our War with Spain by Trumbull White, 1898.

10. Curtains for Spain in America

10.1 — American Forces Advance Across Cuba

  • The American army, rapidly advancing towards Santiago, presented a dire situation for the Spanish fleet.
  • Admiral Cervera, who had previously expressed reluctance due to the apparent suicide mission, received a firm order to engage in battle and defend the honor of the Spanish flag.
  • The odds stacked against Cervera were overwhelming; for instance, the USS Oregon’s firepower alone exceeded that of his four armored cruisers combined.
  • Following a prolonged pursuit, on July 3, the Spanish fleet, plagued by flammable wooden decks, faced total annihilation, as the ships caught fire and were run aground.
  • The engagement resulted in the loss of approximately five hundred Spanish lives, in stark contrast to just a single American casualty.
  • In the aftermath of the decisive battle, Captain Philip of the USS Texas cautioned against celebrating the victory, reminding his men that the Spanish sailors were also suffering. Shortly thereafter, Santiago surrendered.

10.2 — Preparations to Invade Puerto Rico

  • Immediate preparations were initiated for an invasion of Puerto Rico before the war’s conclusion.
  • General Nelson A. Miles, renowned for his previous involvement in conflicts with Native Americans, led the American army during this campaign.
  • The invading force encountered minimal resistance, and the local population largely welcomed them as liberators.
  • A humorous reference was made by “Mr. Dooley,” who dubbed the operation “Gin’ral Miles’ Gran’ Picnic an’ Moonlight Excursion.”

10.3 — Spain Signs an Armistice

  • Spain, having satisfied its honor, signed an armistice on August 12, 1898.
  • Had the Spanish forces held out in Cuba for a few more months, the American army might have disintegrated.
  • Severe health issues plagued the troops, with diseases like malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and yellow fever taking a heavy toll.
  • Hundreds of soldiers were incapacitated, leading to the term “an army of convalescents.”
  • Another challenge faced by the troops was the consumption of poor-quality canned meat known as “embalmed beef.”
  • Colonel Roosevelt, known for his fiery and insubordinate nature, played a leading role in submitting “round-robin” requests to Washington, urging the relocation of the army before it suffered further.
  • Approximately 25,000 men, with 80 percent of them suffering from illnesses, were moved to the colder climate of Long Island, where their lightweight summer attire eventually arrived.

10.4 — American Forces Suffered Heavy Casualties

  • One of the most significant scandals of the war was the high mortality rate due to diseases, particularly typhoid fever.
  • Typhoid was widespread in the unsanitary training camps within the United States.
  • In total, nearly 400 soldiers lost their lives to enemy bullets, while over 5,000 succumbed to various illnesses and causes.

11. McKinley Heeds Duty, Destiny, and Dollars

11.1 — The United States Gains Key Locations in the Pacific

  • In late 1898, negotiators from Spain and the United States convened in Paris to begin contentious discussions.
  • President McKinley had appointed five commissioners, including three senators who would have the final say on the agreement.
  • As anticipated, war-ravaged Cuba gained its independence from Spanish rule.
  • The United States easily secured Guam, a remote Pacific island, which they had captured early in the conflict.
  • Puerto Rico, the last vestige of Spain’s once-vast New World empire, also came under American control.
  • Over the ensuing decades, American investments in Puerto Rico and the immigration of Puerto Ricans to the United States would make this acquisition a significant outcome of the war.

11.2 — McKinley Eyes the Philippines

  • The most challenging issue was the fate of the Philippines, which sparked debate.
  • The islands encompassed a landmass larger than the British Isles and were inhabited by a population of approximately 7 million, vastly different from the Americans.
  • McKinley faced a difficult decision. He believed that returning the Philippines to Spanish rule after fighting to free Cuba would be dishonorable.
  • Additionally, he thought it would be cowardly to abandon responsibilities by simply withdrawing.
  • McKinley saw other potential problems with alternative courses of action. Leaving the Filipinos to govern themselves might lead to anarchy.
  • Furthermore, there was a risk that one of the major powers, such as Germany, might seize the islands, potentially triggering a global conflict in which the United States would be drawn.
  • Thus, acquiring the entire Philippines seemed like the least problematic option, consistent with national honor and safety, even if it meant granting the Filipinos their freedom at a later date.

11.3 — McKinley Assesses the Situation

  • President McKinley paid close attention to public sentiment, which appeared to favor acquiring the entire group of Philippine islands.
  • Protestant missionaries were eager to convert the predominantly Spanish Catholic population, adding to the desire for possession.
  • Mrs. McKinley, who held great importance in the president’s life, expressed concern for the welfare of the Filipinos.
  • Wall Street, initially opposed to the war, saw potential profits in the Philippines after Dewey’s victories, leading to a shift in opinion.
  • Mark Hanna, a prominent political figure, embraced the idea of commercialism in the Philippines.

11.4 — McKinley Decided to Keep the Philippines Under American Control

  • McKinley, tormented by the decision, was said to have sought divine guidance through prayer.
  • He received an inner prompting to take control of the Philippines, Christianize, and civilize the inhabitants.
  • This decision seemed to align with the desires of the American people and the McKinley-Hanna perspective.
  • A historian later humorously summarized McKinley’s rationale: “God directs us—perhaps it will pay,” reflecting the blending of spiritual and material considerations.
  • The prospect of profits intertwined with religious mission.

11.5 — The United States Buys the Philippine Islands

  • Contentious negotiations resumed with the Spanish representatives in Paris after McKinley decided to retain the Philippines.
  • As Manila had been captured a day after the armistice was signed, the islands could not be considered war spoils.
  • The deadlock was eventually resolved when the American side agreed to pay Spain $20 million for the Philippine Islands.
  • This transaction was regarded as one of the best deals the Spaniards ever made, and it represented their last significant gain from the New World.
  • House Speaker “Czar” Reed sarcastically commented on America’s acquisition of millions of Malays at three dollars per head and resigned in protest against the nation’s new imperial endeavor.

12. America’s Course (Curse) of Empire

12.1 — Expansion of U.S. Territory

  • The signing of the pact of Paris triggered a passionate debate in American history.
  • Until then, the United States had acquired mostly contiguous territory on the continent, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Pacific atolls primarily for whaling stations.
  • These previous acquisitions were thinly populated and had the potential for eventual statehood.
  • However, the Philippines posed a different challenge: it was a distant tropical region with a dense Asian population, culturally, linguistically, and religiously distinct from the United States.

12.2 — Anti-Imperialist League

  • The Anti-Imperialist League emerged in opposition to the expansionist policies of the McKinley administration.
  • Prominent figures, including university presidents, philosopher William James, and novelist Mark Twain, were members of this league.
  • Surprisingly, even individuals like labor leader Samuel Gompers and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie joined the anti-imperialist cause.
  • William James, known for his mild-mannered demeanor, strongly criticized the United States for its actions in the Philippines.
  • The annexation of the Philippines was seen as a violation of the “consent of the governed” principle in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Concerns were raised that despotism abroad could lead to despotism at home, and annexation would embroil the United States in Far East politics and military affairs.
Mark Twain, 1905, Portrait, LOC
Mark Twain. Image Source: Library of Congress.

12.3 — Expansion Provides Economic Opportunities

  • Expansionists, or imperialists, presented a different viewpoint.
  • They appealed to patriotism and the idea of annexation glory, urging not to let anyone dishonor the flag.
  • Economic opportunities and potential trade profits were emphasized, with the suggestion that Manila could become another Hong Kong.
  • The wealth of natural resources in the islands was seen as inversely proportional to the capability of the Filipinos for self-government.

12.4 — William Jennings Bryan Supported the Treaty

  • In the Senate, the Spanish treaty faced strong opposition, appearing likely to be defeated.
  • Unexpectedly, William Jennings Bryan, a prominent figure in the Democratic Party, emerged as its champion.
  • Bryan, who had served as a Democratic volunteer colonel and was kept out of Cuba by the Republicans, had no apparent reason to support the McKinley administration.
  • At this point, the issue of free silver had lost its political relevance.
  • Some believed that Bryan’s support for the treaty was a strategic move to label the Republicans as imperialists and position himself as an anti-imperialist presidential candidate in 1900.

12.5 — Bryan’s Arguments in Support of the Treaty

  • Bryan had plausible reasons to support the treaty.
  • He argued that the war would not officially end until the United States ratified the pact.
  • Given that the United States already controlled the islands, accepting the treaty would expedite the process of granting independence to the Filipinos.
  • After Bryan used his influence with certain Democratic senators, the treaty was approved on February 6, 1899, with only one vote to spare.
  • However, the primary responsibility for its passage rested with the Republicans.

13. Perplexities in Puerto Rico and Cuba

13.1 — Puerto Rico

  • Many of Puerto Rico’s 1 million residents lived in poverty, and the island’s population growth outpaced its economic development.
  • In 1900, Congress passed the Foraker Act, granting Puerto Ricans a limited degree of self-government.
  • In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship.
  • While the American administration made significant improvements in education, sanitation, transportation, and other areas, many Puerto Ricans still desired independence.
  • A substantial number of Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City, contributing to the city’s immigrant culture.

13.2 — Application of the United States Constitution

  • Legal questions arose regarding whether the U.S. Constitution applied to the newly acquired territories and whether American laws, including tariffs and the Bill of Rights, applied fully.
  • Starting in 1901 with the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court, deeply divided, effectively ruled that the Constitution did not fully extend to these new territories.
  • Filipinos and Puerto Ricans, under American rule, did not enjoy all the rights granted to Americans.

13.3 — Challenges in Cuba

  • Cuba, after experiencing devastation and chaos, presented its own set of challenges.
  • An American military government, led by General Leonard Wood, known for his role in the Rough Riders, achieved significant improvements in governance, finance, education, agriculture, and public health.
  • Dr. Walter Reed and other medical professionals conducted experiments on American soldiers to identify a specific mosquito as the carrier of yellow fever.
  • Efforts to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds led to the eradication of yellow fever in Havana and reduced the risk of epidemics in southern and Atlantic seaboard cities.

13.4 — The United States Withdraws From Cuba

  • The United States withdrew from Cuba in 1902, per the 1898 Teller Amendment.
  • This decision surprised European imperial powers.
  • The U.S. government was concerned about fully relinquishing control of Cuba due to its strategic importance and the potential threat posed by powers like Germany.

13.5 — The Platt Amendment

  • The Platt Amendment was introduced into the Cuban constitution in 1901.
  • The amendment imposed significant restrictions on Cuban sovereignty.
  • Cubans agreed not to impair their independence through treaties or excessive debt.
  • The United States was granted the authority to intervene with troops to maintain order and provide mutual protection.
  • Cuba also committed to selling or leasing coaling or naval stations to the United States, with Guantanamo being the chosen location.
  • The U.S. still holds control of Guantanamo under an agreement that can only be revoked with the consent of both parties.

14. New Horizons in Two Hemispheres

14.1 — A Short War that Put America on the World Stage

  • The Spanish-American War did not make the United States a world power; it merely showcased the nation’s existing global influence.
  • Dewey’s naval actions during the war highlighted that the U.S. was already a significant world power.
  • The war was short, lasting only 113 days.
  • Despite some bungling, it was highly successful with relatively low casualties.
  • American prestige grew, and European powers begrudgingly showed more respect.
  • Prince Bismarck of Germany reportedly commented on America’s favorable outcomes in the war.

14.2 — Rise in Nationalism Over the “Splendid Little War”

  • The United States experienced a sense of national pride and enthusiasm, fueled by its victories in the war.
  • The popularity of military marching band music by John Philip Sousa added to the national spirit.
  • The war was referred to as a “splendid little war” by John Hay.
  • The enthusiasm from these triumphs made it easier for the U.S. to move toward imperialism.

14.3 — The United States Did Not Intend to Acquire Territory

  • The United States did not initially enter the war with imperialistic motives.
  • However, the nation ended up with imperialistic and colonial acquisitions after a bout of idealism.
  • Britain, already engaged in imperialism, was pleased by the newfound friendship with the U.S.
  • Germany was envious of America’s success, and Latin American neighbors were suspicious of American motives for territorial acquisition.
Spanish American War, Uncle Sam's Picnic, Political Cartoon, LOC
This 1898 print by Louis Dalrymple is called “Uncle Sam’s Picnic.” It depicts Uncle Sam helping four girls labeled Philippines, Ladrones, Porto Rico, and Cuba. On the old man’s hat are the words, “Monroe Doctrine.” Image Source: Library of Congress.

14.4 — Territories in the Pacific Ocean Were Targeted by the Japanese in World War II

  • The United States, by acquiring the Philippine Islands, solidified its status as a significant Far Eastern power.
  • However, this move would later prove problematic, as the islands became a vulnerability during World War II, with Japan taking control in 1941.
  • The U.S. made commitments it was unwilling to properly defend in terms of naval and military resources.

14.5 — The War Department Introduced Reforms After the War

  • The experience of unpreparedness during the Spanish-American War led to some lessons.
  • Captain Mahan’s advocacy for a stronger navy was justified, leading to increased support for battleship construction.
  • Elihu Root, a skilled organizer, made significant improvements at the War Department, including establishing a general staff and founding the War College in Washington.
  • These reforms proved valuable during the later involvement of the United States in World War I.

14.6 — The War Helped Smooth Relations Between the North and South

  • The Spanish-American War had a positive impact on reconciling differences between the North and South in the United States.
  • Many patriotic Southerners supported the U.S. during the war.
  • General Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate cavalry hero from the Civil War, was given a command in Cuba and famously expressed his allegiance to the United States during battle.

The Path of Empire APUSH Resources

This outline is based on the 16th edition of The American Pageant and connects to Unit 5: 1844–1877 and Unit 6: 1865–1898 of the AP US History curriculum. We are working on guides for each of these APUSH Units. When they are completed, the links will be added here.

APUSH Chapter Notes and Outlines

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Path of Empire
  • Date 1890–1899
  • Author
  • Keywords Path of Empire, Imperialism, Yellow Journalism, Spanish-American War, Monroe Doctrine, Big Sister Policy, Hawaiian Pear, Cuban Rebellion, Annexation of Hawaii, Rough Riders, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Anti-Imperialist League, William Jennings Bryan, Platt Amendment
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 28, 2024

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