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Catalog No. —
Oregonian, December 20, 1898
Date —
December 20, 1898
Era —
1881-1920 (Industrialization and Progressive Reform)
Themes —
Government, Law, and Politics, Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality
Credits —
Oregon Historical Society
Regions —
Portland Metropolitan
Author —

News Article, Empire and Freedom

The years 1898 and 1899 were turning points in the history of the United States. During those two years, the U.S. exploded outward in a burst of territorial expansion, sending troops to fight against the Spanish in Cuba and annexing outright Hawai’i, the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, and several uninhabited islands in the South Pacific. The United States had extended its possessions from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean, rising to world power status in the process.

During this period Americans engaged in an active and often bitter public debate over the country’s future in a rapidly changing world system. Historians generally group the various positions into two camps—the imperialists and the anti-imperialists—though many Americans fell somewhere in between.

As the December 20, 1898, editorial reproduced here suggests, the Oregonian sided primarily with the imperialists, who advocated the establishment of overseas colonies following the British model of empire. They were driven by a variety of motives. Many thought that America had a divinely inspired mission to extend the “empire of freedom” to “benighted” populations around the globe. Others had more pragmatic concerns about the nation’s deepening economic problems. A lingering depression and the rise of large corporations had led to popular opposition movements and increasing labor unrest. To some, expansionism offered a solution to economic stagnation and growing social strife.

The anti-imperialists, on the other hand, argued that empire-building ran contrary to the ideals of American republicanism. The American Anti-Imperialist League, for example, suggested in 1899 that “imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism,” an argument that the Oregonian takes issue with in the editorial reproduced here. Some anti-imperialists were also concerned with racial issues, worrying that it would be impossible to “assimilate” tens of millions of non-European peoples.

The debate between the imperialists and the anti-imperialists mostly died down after the election of 1900, which was widely viewed as a referendum on imperialism. President William McKinley, who had guided America through its recent expansionistic burst, won a resounding victory over the perceived anti-imperialist candidate William Jennings Bryant. Nevertheless, with the exception of the Panamanian Isthmus (a portion of which the U.S. purchased in 1903 in order to build the Panama Canal), the push to acquire new territories had mostly dissipated by the early 1900s.

Further Reading:
Loy, Edward H. “Editorial Opinion and American Imperialism: Two Northwest Newspapers.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 72, 1971: 209-224.

Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, Volume 1: To 1914. Lexington, Mass., 1989.

Written by Cain Allen, © Oregon Historical Society, 2004.