Building an American Empire

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National Railway Publication Company. 1914. “General Railway Map: The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba” New York City, NY.

Railway and navigation maps are particularly illuminating when analyzing the economy and business strategies of America at the turn of the 19th Century as the majority of American domestic commerce was driven by railway expansion and steam power (Foner 2017).  At this time in particular, one of the major goals of American Business was to connect the East and West coast by rail line through the ‘transcontinental railroad.’  The National Railway Publication Company map picture above shows the completed transcontinental lines, bu includes Canada and inserts of train lines in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba in addition to the American lines.  Considering an analysis of the drive for expansion from U.S. business during this same time period, one can clearly identify the most important regions for the U.S. domestically and in the Northwestern Region of the globe  (Santamarina 2000).  Furthermore, this map allows the viewer to contextualize U.S. expansionist goals at the end of westward expansion as railways connect the East and West coast by the time of publication.

“When next I realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands perhaps also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France or Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves— they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our mapmaker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States [pointing to a large map on the wall of his office], and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!”

Rusling, General James. 1903. “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate 22 January 1903, 17.

Following the Spanish American War, President William McKinley received some criticism for his decision to assume control over the Philippines, especially following the outbreak of war in order to keep them under U.S. control (Malchow 2016).  In response to these criticisms, President McKinley argues that he had no choice but to annex the Philippines for the United States (Johnson 2005).  In his opinion, following Spanish withdrawal, a new government would need to take over to ensure the successful development of the Philippines who could not redevelop their nation or self-govern.  While this argument was extremely hypocritical, as the U.S. had just fought Spain in part due to the colonial policies in Cuba, many people at the time accepted this argument and even supported the efforts to ‘develop’ the Philippines (Johnson 2005).  When considering the location of the Philippines, however, one cannot ignore the strategic importance of the countries location in the Pacific for the transportation of goods across the Atlantic, which inevitably influence the American decision to expand there.

American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. 1901. “25th Infantry.” Jersey City, NJ. Alexander Street: America in Film. Film: 68 seconds.

This clip of film showing the 25th Infantry during the Philippine War has two levels of importance in analyzing the influence of American Economic Principles and American Business in expansionist movements.  First, this film clip allows one to observe actual U.S. troops deployed to the Philippines during the war, declared by McKinley as he justifies above, on their march back from a battle in a war to acquire more territory for America.  Despite many arguments by the United States government that they were forced to govern the Philippines following the Spanish American War, the use of force by the Americans clearly illustrates that the United States made a conscious decision to expand their empire against the will of the Philippines (Santamarina 2000).  In addition, this regiment in particular is made up almost entirely of African American soldiers commanded almost entirely by white officers and certainly does not include any of the business men lobbying Congress to fight the war (Foner 2017).  Again this displays the efforts of the United States to promote the interests of the wealthy by exploiting African American soldiers who would not benefit from the war they were fighting.

Office of the Chief Signal Officer. 1937. “The Construction of the Panama Canal [1913-1914], (Reel 1-5 of 5)” National Archives and Records Administration.

When considering expansion by the United States to territories in South America and the Pacific, the efforts to create the Panama Canal represent the peak of the U.S. expansionist movement as the United States annexed the ‘Canal Zone’ in the newly formed country of Panama that the United States itself largely created (Missal 2008).  Not only does this project display territorial expansion into South America, it also represents one of the most ambitious and expensive infrastructure projects administered by the United States, which almost entirely occurred to promote American business interests (Johnson 2005).  Not only does this film in particular display the size and scope of this massive project, it also shows the brutal conditions that the laborers were forces to work in while constructing the canal with not much more than dynamite, pickaxes, and steam shovels.  In addition when considering the workers in the film, one can clearly note that the majority of the workers are South American and the only Americans working on the project are found in supervisory roles or at the opening ceremony once the canal was completed.  As a result of these factors, the goal of completing the Panama Canal was to expand opportunities for U.S. business that sought expansion into foreign markets in order to continue to grow (Cutter 1927).

“School Begins,” 1899. Puck. American Yawp Reader.

Similarly to the images of the 25th Infantry in the Philippines war, this cartoon emphasizes the overtly racist practices of the United States in the areas taken under U.S. control during the expansionist period (Colby 2011).  In this image from Puck, America (represented by a large and imposing Uncle Sam) begins class for a room full of students holding books labeled with the names of their respective states and territories.  In one section sit all of the states of the Union quietly reading their books on their own, while the front and separate section of the class features all of America’s overseas territories, such as Guam.  Each of the students appears terrified of Uncle Sam as he leans forwards from a desk containing documents such as the Constitution that one can infer he will soon attempt to teach to the territories despite their fear and disinterest in the lesson (Colby 2011).  Considering this image in the context of the American expansion being driven westward and eventually overseas by business, one can clearly identify the expansion of American principles abroad as well in an effort to allow business to expand more easily (Cutter 1927).  Through this process of ‘teaching’, Americans hope to expand their values of democracy and free trade to other regions of the world (by force) in an effort to expand business opportunities (Colby 2011).