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The Shift to Imperialism


For an extended period, the U.S had been a colony of Great Britain, and this meant that the nation was under its control. The U.S. found its colonial position reasonably abnormal with its belief in symbolic government. At the end of the 18th century, the novel pact with France assisted the country in overthrowing colonial control. However, the support from the European powers was inherent with entanglements that the U.S. administration so at risk as it hampered its growth and development. Having witnessed the outcome of foreign alliances and being separated from the travails of Europe, the U.S. silently grew into a vast and productive nation as wars, droughts and upheavals in other areas pushed immigrants to its shores. Heeding George Washington’s advice, the U.S pursued a policy of Isolation, avoiding pacts and international agreements. However, in the late 19th century, all this policy drastically shifted from “isolationism” and “continental expansion” to imperial power. This move saw the nation claim territory over more than five islands beyond its territorial boundaries. There were crucial reasons and drivers for this shift, including economic, exploratory, political, religious and ethnocentric.

Economic Motives

Colonists provided inexpensive raw resources and assured markets for European and United States and monopolies. In the late 19th century, imperialism was condemned as a capitalist system where the colonies depended on pure commercial benefits from big businesses. These claims echo individuals such as Vladimir Lenin, a revolutionist and the leader of the Bolsheviks, and J. A Hobson, a British philosopher. Economic reasons were one of the fundamental reasons that saw the United States shift from “isolationism” and “continental expansion” to imperialism.” During the industrial age, the United States had grown into a production nation; hence they sought novel markets inspired by amplified autonomy. The nation’s business commenced the development of marketplaces and production abilities in Latin America.

In this process, the country applied empire-building and expanded to novel regions to conduct business. Individuals were competing for these opportunities to optimize and leverage on the available resources, market avenues and trade. Finding avenues to capitalize on profits was fundamental for imperial administrations and big businesses. The colonist was providing raw materials to the European industries to produce goods. Therefore, governments and big businesses sought cheap labour and markets for their produced goods. Thus, economic expansions were a significant motive where the raw material for industries and novel lands was in high demand. Many nations sought these avenues where imperial merchants could provide trading and distribution infrastructure, storage facilities and trading markets. The American country wanted to create novel markets for trading its produced goods. They expanded their colonial control beyond its boundaries to gain these new markets and nations. This meant opening and engaging in opening trading with Asian regions, including China and even opening a colony in the Philippines. Therefore, their motive to trade with other countries globally pushed them to move from “isolationism” to “imperialism”.[1]

Exploratory Motives

Additionally, exploratory reasons were another critical element that pushed America to shift from “isolationism” and “continental expansion” to “imperialism.” In this period, “Manifest Destiny” served as a critical inspiration where individuals were enthused to discover, pursue and identify unexplored territories. People were motivated to identify and experience indefinite places for adventurous purposes. Some people and nations accomplished this motivation for imperial expansion for destiny, while others accomplished this for national or personal gains. Discovering, mapping and claim of territories were imperial voyagers’ objectives. Their motivation was to be the primary conquerors and discoverers of new parts before their rivals. Samoa was among the lands that Americans discovered and halfway conquered because it was an excellent harbour. The American soldiers wanted to establish an operational base; however, Germany and Great Britain had already arrived before America.[2] This led to a clash among the countries that eventually resulted in a peaceful agreement dividing Samoa, each nation gaining some segments of the pacific region. Also, the outcome of the Spanish American battle made the U.S. gain Puerto Rico as one of its novel territories. The United States ambitions to discover novel lands enabled her to attain new grounds as it evolved into diplomacy.

Political Motives

Like many imperial nations, the United States felt there was a need to enhance its internal security for its nationals to prevent external threats and preserve the prestige of imperial power. A reason why political causes regularly arose as responses to imperial power. Sovereignty was brawled with rivalry as nationalism agitated up. Numerous empires focused on advancing their barricades and increasing their territories. They sought more avenues and routes for their militaries and pacts; one way to achieve this was to establish tactical grounds. This unlocked the “Monroe Doctrine” and the “Open Door Policy.” Europeans were interposing the new free, self-governing Latin American colonies. As a result, the United States created the “Monroe Doctrine”, a foreign dogma whose purpose was to deter and caution them from interfering with their matters or wedge for war. Also, the “Open Door Policy”, a canon established in 1899, provided security to China while preventing the European powers from interfering with their territories and taking advantage of their markets. China, the United States, and the imperial powers maintained good trading associations. The United States’ objective was to retain china’s trade and safeguard its dominion and territories. These foreign policies led the United States to engage in WW I. They aimed to shape the Panama Canal to link the pacific and Atlantic oceans, expand their control on Latin America, and create a faster route for their navy troops.

Religious Motives

Religious motives were another cause for America to move from “isolationism” and “continental expansion” to “imperialism.” Religious groups, including Christians, would travel for missions to gain novel members, convert their spiritual principles, and become part of their empire. Varied missionaries characterized the imperial expansion period. The “European Christian missionaries” emphasized spreading their cultural and Christian values and made foundations for their churches. Others, including France and Great Britain, had missionaries. Their connections exposed the new lands to their imperial state languages through religion or education. The “American Missionary Association” was created for African Americans that made schools for educating them.[3] These religious groups, apart from implementing cultural and religious values in the regions they expanded, enlightened these people on matters such as war engagements and racial issues. This was a promising avenue for spreading American culture.

Ethnocentric Motives

Ethnocentric motives were another critical cause for America to isolationism” and “continental expansion” to “imperialism.” The principle behind this was that people felt that some cultures were superior to others. The imperialist saw their beliefs were more potent than other sets where the strongest would increase their affluence and wisdom and the weakest are lazy and would become uninformed and unfortunate. This was based on social Darwinism, where the strong groups outdo the vulnerable groups socially and politically for the survival of the fittest. Therefore, the United States believed that by expanding their territory, their people would create wealth for their people. A notable element of this foundation was the Eugenics movement was prominent in the 1920s and 30s. This rapid transformation from the nation’s initial policy, “isolationism”, to “imperialism” was progressively changed and represented by its involvement in political matters of other countries.[4] The U.S based their justification for imperialism on the self-acknowledged impression of dominance over inferior races in the necessity for liberty from colonists. For instance, the Panama Canal initiative started as a political intervention from the U.S. that helped the Panamanians declare independence. This saw the U.S. gain control of the Panama Canal region. This gave America a geo-political and strategic position providing significant economic benefits and making the country powerful.


The late 19th century saw America change its thriving extended policy “isolationism” and “continental expansion” to imperial power motivated by numerous economic, exploratory, political, religious and ethnocentric reasons. A fast-growing and developing nation, they sought new avenues for raw materials, the market for their produced goods and strategic positions that could facilitate trade with other imperial members. They were also motivated to explore new lands before their competitors could. Political motives were another agenda that saw America shift to imperialism as they needed to create numerous empires focused on advancing their barricades and increasing their territories for effective organization and operation of their troops. The religious and cultural influence was another motive that imperial nations used to influence and gain control of other new territories. Like many imperial nations, America saw their culture more superior to other countries; hence this perception could help safeguard and make its people more successful.


Healy, David. U.S. expansionism: the imperialist urge in the 1890s. University of Wisconsin Pres, 2011.

Ninkovich, Frank. “Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz.” The Historian 73, no. 4 (2011): 825-827.

Wrobel, David M. Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression. UNM Press, 2013.

Schlesinger, Arthur. “The missionary enterprise and theories of imperialism.” In The missionary enterprise in China and America, pp. 336-374. Harvard University Press, 2013.

American Foreign Policy: The Turning Point, 1898-1919 | Ralph Raico.” The Independent Institute. Accessed September 25, 2022.

[1]Ninkovich, Frank. “Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz.” The Historian 73, no. 4 (2011): 825-827.

[2] Wrobel, David M. Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression. UNM Press, 2013.

[3] Schlesinger, Arthur. “The missionary enterprise and theories of imperialism.” In The missionary enterprise in China and America, pp. 336-374. Harvard University Press, 2013.

[4] American Foreign Policy: The Turning Point, 1898-1919 | Ralph Raico.” The Independent Institute. Accessed September 25, 2022.


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