In Search of a New Abroad: Contextualizing Developments in U.S. Foreign Policy in the Late 19th Century

by | Jun 20, 2023

In Search of a New Abroad: Contextualizing Developments in U.S. Foreign Policy in the Late 19th Century

by | Jun 20, 2023

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Was America Destined to be an Empire?

While Murray Rothbard is correct in Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy that “the great turning point of American foreign policy came in the early 1890s, during the second Cleveland administration,” this needs qualification; for though, as Rothbard continues, “it was then that the U.S. turned sharply and permanently from a foreign policy of peace and non-intervention to an aggressive program of economic and political expansion abroad,” an examination of the wider context reveals that this was less an aberration attributable to the personalities involved than the natural extension of existing policies to a new abroad.

First, consider the obvious: it took a conservative sixty-odd wars against various Amerindian nations and confederations to take the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast over the course of the nineteenth century. Second, and lesser well known, consider that there were previous intimations of this inclination towards expansion outside the territory of the continental United States during that time: popular filibustering expeditions in the 1840s and 1850s to Central America and the Pierce administration’s schemes to acquire Cuba (1853-57), the adoption of explicitly expansionist planks to the 1856 Democratic Party platform, the use of force to open unwilling East Asian markets (China in 1858, Japan in 1853, Korea in 1871), and the interference in the affairs of small island nations (Samoa in 1879 and Hawaii in 1887).

Third, consider that between his administrations (Cleveland is as yet the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) something frankly pivotal happened: the project of westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, was declared officially over in 1890. Having populated and secured its desired frontiers, in the twenty years prior to 1890 the United States Army had engaged in an almost continuous pacification campaign, some fifteen in total, to subdue the remaining tribes, expansion abroad began apace.

In the words of the President of the U.S. Naval War College, Alfred Thayer Mahan, in his 1890 Atlantic Monthly article, “Whether they will or no, Americans must now begin to look outward.”

And they did—or at least their government did.

In the years that followed, the U.S. government would invade Mexico (1914 and 1916), occupy multiple of its neighbors (Nicaragua from 1912-1933, Haiti from 1915-1934, the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924, Honduras seven times between 1903-1925), and fight a brutal counterinsurgency to lockdown its new possession in the Philippines (1899-1913).

Lastly, rounding out the necessary qualifications to Rothbard’s assertion that it was specifically the presence of Wall Street men in the Democratic Cleveland’s second cabinet that suddenly revolutionized American foreign policy, consider that the presence of organized, eastern, monied interests at the highest levels of the executive branch had become commonplace since the Civil War. As a northern dominated party, with a particular presence in New York, the rise of the Republican Party, and its virtual lock on the White House in the decades that followed the Civil War, had firmly ensconced Wall Street, bankers, and burgeoning corporate America more generally, in the innermost corridors of power.

To take just a few examples: Salmon P. Chase (Secretary of the Treasury, 1861-64), Hamilton Fish (Secretary of State, 1869-77), and John W. Foster (Minister to Mexico, Russia, Spain then Secretary of State, 1873-93) all had serious connections to Wall Street, banks, and corporate interests desirous of aggressively expanding abroad. And while there were exceptions during the period between the Civil War and turn of the twentieth century, such as Thomas F. Bayard (Secretary of State, 1885-89), Walter Q. Gresham (Secretary of State, 1893-1895), or Thomas Brackett Reed (Speaker of the House, 1895-99), it is clear that the battle over the future direction of American foreign policy was being carried by a coalition of groups set on expansion and under conditions favorable to it.

This is not, of course, to say things could not have been otherwise. It is, however, to say that the deliberate human actions eventually undertaken during the second Cleveland administration took place within the context of a long series of expansionist moves, with the backing of powerful, coordinated interest groups, and amidst an intensifying rush in the decades before World War I to secure markets by the other European imperial powers.

So it is true, as Rothbard says, that there was a shift in American foreign policy during the second Cleveland administration; though, as has been shown, this was less a revolution in kind than an expansion, further development and more intensive application of means. The battle for supremacy on the North American continent, frankly the cheapest conquest in all human history—largely small volunteer forces on shoe-string budgets battling generally outgunned Amerindians for control of contiguous territory—was to give way to so-called “Saltwater Imperialism,” requiring the prolonged projection of force over oceans to lands thousands of miles distant against perceived rival powers.

While many contemporaries understood something terrible was taking place, such as William Graham Sumner, whose essay “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” (1899) accurately forecast the way in which pursuit of so-called “great power” status would result in what remained of the old Republic being shed in favor of European imperialist institutions and methods, the final word today goes to his Harvard colleague, author and social critic Charles Eliot Norton. Writing in response to Secretary of State Richard Olney’s belligerent message to the British over the first Venezuela crisis in 1895, Norton wrote in part, “The United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” He forecast presciently and succinctly, “I fear that America is beginning a long course of error and wrong and is likely to become more and more a power for disturbance and barbarism…a barbaric spirit of arrogance and unreasonable self-assertion.” (see pg. 140).


About Joseph Solis-Mullen

Author of The Fake China Threat and Its Very Real Danger, Joseph Solis-Mullen is a political scientist and economist at the Libertarian Institute. A graduate of Spring Arbor University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Missouri, his work can be found at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Libertarian Institute, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Journal of the American Revolution, and You can contact him via or find him on Twitter @solis_mullen.

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