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How the U.S. moved from continental to global empire

July 6, 2023

This is the second part of a series reviewing historian William Appleman Williams’ final book, Empire as a Way of Life. This post reviews the growth of the U.S. empire through the 19th century. 

Ed. note: You can find Part 1 of this series on here.

Avoiding the fundamental challenge

Radical historian William Appleman Williams struck a consistent theme through his decades of writing on U.S. history. When confronted with a choice between building a society based on communitarian values or expanding to dodge the difficulties that would have entailed, the U.S. consistently chose imperial expansion. First, across the continent, and then around the world.

Wrote Williams.

“ . . .  the history of the United States is . . . the account of the power of empire as a way of life, as a way of avoiding the fundamental challenge of creating a humane and equitable community or culture.”

Williams fittingly titled his final work, published in 1980, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts About an Alternative. In this short book Williams, known as the dean of revisionist school of U.S. history, condensed the conclusions of a decades-long career in which he and his students revolutionized understanding of U.S. growth and development. It has continuing relevance to the predicaments facing the U.S. today.

Also known as the Wisconsin School, named after the university where he taught most of his life, the revisionist school debunked the notion of a uniquely virtuous American exceptionalism. Williams and his students illustrated how the U.S. grew and acted much as any other empire in history, even before its independence serving the interests of its own ruling class. In the institution of its Constitution, the framers created a strong federal government designed for imperial expansion. (I tell that story in the first part of this series here.)

The Civil War: What kind of expansion?

The first great crisis of the United States, the Civil War that threatened to split it apart, was rooted in the drive for expansion. That drive had led the U.S. to take the northern half of Mexico in the war of 1846. The war itself was a product of the U.S. thrust to Asia and the Pacific, to gain the natural harbors of the California coast, San Francisco Bay and Coronado at San Diego. The Empress of China had departed Boston Harbor immediately after the conclusion the Revolutionary War in 1784 to begin securing the China trade. As Williams documents, the navy made its first official foray into the Pacific in 1812 and asserted U.S. rights to all west coast ports in 1829. By 1835 it had ships on station in the far east.

(Williams’ last pursuit, about which he told me in a 1982 interview at his later academic venue of Oregon State University, was the maritime history of the U.S. The walls of his office were decorated with paintings of sailing ships. Unfortunately, illness and pain plagued the latter years of Williams’ life before his death in 1990 and we never got to see whatever he had in mind.)

“ . . . the campaign of conquest against Mexico led inexorably to the Civil War,” Williams writes. “For in a peaceful political and economic competition to control the new acquisition, the superior population and resources of the northern states ensured their ultimate victory.”

The Southern leaders wanted to expand the slave system to the Southwest. Anyone who doubts this would have been possible only need examine the near slavery conditions under which migrant farm labor works there today. If new slave states could not be admitted, the South would lose economic power as well as the even balance in the Senate, already lost in the House of Representatives to the more populated North.

Lincoln well understood this, and enacted a containment policy in the South reminiscent of what, as Williams notes, it would later employ against the Soviet Union and China, and which it explicitly continues today against China and Russia. Though against slavery, Lincoln saw abolition as a slow process. He would have accommodated slavery’s continuation in the South as long as it could not expand to those new territories.

“Contain the South, prevent it from expanding, and it would wither and die,” Williams writes. “Thus southerners not illogically concluded that secession offered them the most likely chance to sustain the South as the South. Being expansionists, they understood the logic of empire: no growth implies death.”

It was only the war, and honestly, the need for Black troops, that drove Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. Even then, he still left slavery in place in the border states which had not seceded. The Civil War was very much about who would define the terms of expansion. The rising North, with its superior economic power and population, prevailed. Over subsequent decades it accommodated near enslavement of the southern Black population through sharecropping and segregation, enforced by the terrorist regime of lynching. True Black freedom, to the extent it exists today, was not secured by the Civil War but by the struggles of Black people themselves.

The agricultural roots of global empire

Through the history of the U.S. the vast lands of the west offered a safety valve to reduce the pressures of growing eastern populations. Writes Williams, “Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin put it this way: the surplus of free land ‘will postpone for centuries, if it will not forever, all serious conflict between capital and labor.’” That land made the U.S. into an agricultural giant. In this development Williams sees the origins of the global empire.

“The evidence very strongly suggests that the agricultural majority of the population, largely composed of small to medium-sized dirt farmers, was the dynamic element in the shift from continental to overseas empire,” Williams writes. “However paradoxical it may appear, the essence is simple: the American farmer was a capitalist businessman whose welfare depended upon free access to a global marketplace, and who increasingly demanded that the government use its powers to ensure such freedom of opportunity . . . once they moved beyond the subsistence level of farming they found themselves in a highly competitive surplus-producing marketplace economy that increasingly operated as part of a world system.”

Farmers that prospered during the Civil War faced a downturn afterwards, and then were pummeled by the 1873 depression, the greatest to date in U.S. history. Williams in this book summarizes the extensive story he told in The Roots of the Modern American Empire. The collapse of European farm production due to weather and connected diseases gave the farmers and U.S. as a whole a fortuitous opportunity to pull out of the depression. Farmers organized politically to push the federal government to break down trade barriers in Europe and elsewhere, a story that continues with modern free trade agreements.

(It is to be noted that the Seattle Round of the World Trade Organization collapsed in 1999, even as thousands protested outside the meeting hall during the Battle in Seattle, because global south nations were unwilling to open their markets to the subsidized agribusiness of the north.)

“There were other solutions to the problem, such as cooperatives and diversification, or even an imaginative form of socialism,” Williams writes, “and even a few farmers advocated those alternatives.”

The populist movement of the 1880s reflected that.

“But the American agricultural tradition, save for a few exceptions during the early colonial years, was viscerally and fiercely capitalistic.”

The crisis of the 1890s

What the farmers started, the rising industrial leadership of the cities took up and carried forward during the next depression that broke out in 1893, again the greatest to date.

“ . . . metropolitan leaders recognized the necessity of expansion for the capitalist political economy – industrial and financial as well as agricultural – and deployed their more concentrated and efficient power to define and control the new idiom of empire as a way of life . . ,” Williams writes.

“No one knows the name of the first metropolitan capitalist who recognized the validity of the agricultural argument for overseas economic expansion,” he continues. “But we do know that John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil was busy, as early as the later 1870s, exporting kerosene oil to Asians in order to survive.”

He quotes Rockefeller,

“We were forced to extend our markets and seek for export trade.”


“Andrew Carnegie worked overtime to unload railroad iron anywhere in the world.”

The 1890s depression brought massive challenges to U.S. capitalism. An 1892 strike at Carnegie’s own Homestead Steelworks near Pittsburgh resulted in a firefight between strikers and Pinkertons detectives. The strike was only broken when the governor of Pennsylvania sent in 6,000 state militiamen. In 1894 Jacob Coxey led a march of unemployed on Washington, DC demanding public works spending. Coxey’s Army as it was called drew no response. But some say it inspired author L. Frank Baum, who witnessed the march, to write The Wizard of Oz, which was actually a populist allegory. Also that year, a strike against rail car manufacturer Pullman spurred a national rail strike. It ended when President Grover Cleveland ordered in troops and strike leaders including Eugene Debs were imprisoned for violating a court injunction against it.

Meanwhile, in 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the frontier at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 arrival in the Americas. Positing that frontier expansion had shaped the character of the U.S., Turner

“simply and boldly asserted that imperial expansion was the foundation of liberty, prosperity and democracy,” Williams writes.

That was not long after U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan identified naval forces as the key to global power in his 1890 The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Theodore Roosevelt, who would become undersecretary of the navy under the McKinley Administration, was greatly influenced by Mahan. It was Roosevelt who would order the navy to steam for the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

The developments beginning with the farmers and extending through the industrialists and politicians, focused by the 1890s depression and social turmoil, coalesced the idea that freedom at home required empire abroad. The idea was based on what Williams identifies as cultural fundamentals:

“  . . . political, social and intellectual freedoms were dependent on the economic system. Economic freedom was the foundation of all freedom . . . the system had at all costs to be maintained through expansion. Growth was the key to economic welfare and hence to all other good things.”

The Spanish-American War

That all came to the fore when insurrection against Spanish rule broke out in Cuba in 1895. From Franklin and Jefferson on, U.S. leaders had long coveted Cuba and saw possession in some form as vital to the security of the U.S. itself.

“ . . . Cuba needed to be controlled, if not literally occupied, to protect the southern approach to the vast Mississippi Basin  . . ,” Williams writes, reflecting a “definition of security” as “control of the world.” “ . . . the only way to avoid trouble with neighbors is to acquire or dominate them . . . “

By the 1890s, U.S. firms already had substantial investments in Cuba. In the context of the upheavals of that decade, which “created fears that the capitalist political economy might collapse and spawn socialism or anarchy,” while increasing global trade was seen as a solution, the Cuban insurrection created a sense of threat. Control of the Caribbean was seen as crucial to protect the coming canal through Panama. William McKinley, elected president in 1896,

“announced that Spain’s failure to cope with the upheaval was responsible for turmoil in the United States. Thus, if Spain could not control Cuba, America would exercise its right to intervene to preserve its domestic tranquility.”

At the same time, U.S. leaders were also looking for economic solutions in the vast market of China, and worried that European powers and Japan were moving to cut it into pieces, excluding U.S. economic interests in favor of their own. Williams writes,

“Given the depression of the 1890s, it was impossible to deal calmly or abstractly with the revolutionary turmoil in Cuba or the situation in Asia.”

The U.S. moved inexorably to war with Spain in 1898, taking control of Cuba and colonial possession of Puerto Rico that remains to this day. In the Pacific, it acquired the Philippines and Guam as jumping off points to China. To fortify its Pacific power the U.S. annexed Hawaii, already under de facto U.S. control after an 1893 coup against Queen Liliuokalani by the U.S. sugar aristocracy and Marines. While the new colonial empire was humble compared to those of other powers, it reflected a logic, Mahan’s vision of a global network of bases that would enable projection of naval power. It was the beginning of today’s “empire of bases” now numbering at least 800 around the world. Military bases in Guam and the Philippines remain keystones in the emerging U.S. military confrontation with China.

Opening the door to U.S. power

Military power secured, U.S. leaders now needed to leverage the global power of what had already grown to be the world’s largest economy. The immediate issue was China. European powers including Britain, France, Germany and Russia had already marked out spheres of influence, along with Japan. A more formal division of the country was threatened. In response, Secretary of State John Hay in 1899 and 1900 issued what came to be known as the Open Door Notes.

In this book, Williams summarizes the conclusions he made in his seminal 1959 work, the founding work of the revisionist school, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. The Open Door Notes were a fundamental declaration to the world of the kind of empire the U.S. would pursue, one not based primarily on territorial acquisition but on its superior economic power.

In the Notes,

“Hay was concerned to clear the way for American power to penetrate and dominate the global marketplace.” The Notes called for “perfect equality of treatment” for U.S. economic interests throughout China,” knowing that the economic heft of the emerging U.S. economic colossus would prevail over all competitors.

“The map of the world has never been splashed with a color keyed to the continental United States in the way it has been washed with the hues used for Great Britain, France or Germany,” Williams writes “ . . . American policy-makers never undertook to create that kind of empire . . . a map colored to show primary or major economic, political, and military power and influence (author’s italics) would reveal the United States as a global empire.”

The Notes also demanded that China be preserved as a unified territorial and administrative entity. That included “affording all possible protection everywhere in China to American life and property,” Williams quotes the Notes.

“In sum, Hay’s policy was to establish principles, or rules of the game, which Americans considered essential for the immediate and long-range effectiveness of the expansion of their political economy . . .  it committed the United States to deploy its power in behalf of those principles.”

Thus, the Open Door Notes were very much the origin of what U.S. leaders today call the “rules-based order.” While they focused on China, they expressed the policy the U.S. would pursue around the world through most of the time up to the present. Though it is perhaps the greatest or ironies that as China today emerges to economically overtake the U.S., the latter is beginning to close the door it opened, challenging the U.S. empire as a way of life based on endless expansion as it has never been before.

In the next installment I will cover how Williams saw empire as a way of life unfolding through the 20th century, through World War I, the 1930s depression, World War II, and the Cold War.


Teaser photo credit: The explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in 1898 triggered the Spanish-American War, marking the full emergence of the U.S. as a global empire. Public Domain.

Patrick Mazza

Progressive activist and journalist since 1981. Lived in Seattle since 1998, and the Pacific Northwest, aka Cascadia, since 1977.

Tags: American empire, revisionist history