American Imperialism as a British Echo

By Luke Wiley

During the last decade of the 19th century, various political actors shifted the United States foreign policy towards a system known as “imperialism.” Imperialism as a system of governance involves the extending or expansion of a nation’s power or authority over another country for cultural, economic, or territorial gains. However, the rapid expansion of the system of American imperialism did not happen in a vacuum; one of the reasons often attributed to the speedy colonial acquisitions perpetrated by the United States is the competition against their own former colonial masters, Great Britain. While a good portion of the developed part of the European world was taking part in empire building, the American system emerged as a global player, despite the fact that the country was still relatively new. However, American imperialism did not simply appear out of thin air; the blueprint used by our nation for empire expansion was set before them by their bygone controllers. By crafting their imperialist plans out of the British system, the United States had a leader to follow in the world of empire. While the American system of imperialism was a direct descendant of Great Britain’s, the United States Empire eventually took on a life of its own after emerging out of the British shadow. Civilization Image.png

(Joseph Keppler, “From the Cape to Cairo,” Puck, 12/2/1902)

This cartoon displays an angelic woman, draped in an all-white robe, appropriately labeled “Britannia,” flying the flag of civilization. This woman leads the “civilized” gun-toting British soldiers (red coats) and potential colonists (craftsmen with tools) into battle against the banner-flying “Barbarians,” characterized by their spears and lack of clothing, who are of African heritage (the Cape and Cairo, two locations in Africa). This piece is an adequate introduction into what Imperialism is all about. The cartoon displays what is perceived by the viewer to be the noble and heroic endeavor that pervades imperialism. In this cartoon, “civilization” as an ideal is being brought to a people that have lived the entirety of their lives in a backward and savage state, even at the expense of numerous dead (splayed out in front of Britannia) that pave the way. The British saw their government’s attempts at educating and developing the African peoples’ way of life as beneficent, which, in reality, it hardly was. The United States saw these efforts of the British and decided to take them a step further, performing similar actions in gaining colonies but also acquiring strategic military bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. This notion is seen throughout the Amy Kaplan article, “Where is Guantanamo?” about the United States’ extralegal way of colonial base incorporation.


White Man's Burden Image

(Victor Gillam, “The White Man’s Burden,” Judge, 4/1/1899)

This cartoon displays two individuals trudging up a hill with large loads of perceived “savage” peoples on their back, ultimately trying to reach the peak, labeled “civilization.” The two individuals are the personification of the British nation, John Bull, and his United States counterpart, Uncle Sam. Each of their loads is stuffed with racist caricatures of the people they hold sovereignty over (Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, and Cubans). Each painstaking stride by John Bull and Uncle Same keeps those in their basket, the people they are sheltering, away from the dangers of the rocks, labeled “vice,” “ignorance,” and “barbarism.” As suggested in lecture, the mindset that these “savage” individuals need nations like the United States and Great Britain to achieve “civilization” was persistent throughout the dominating countries (Lecture, 10/2). Gillam’s cartoon shows the American model of Imperialism, focused in the Caribbean and Pacific islands, as a literal follower of the British system, focused in Africa and Asia. American shadowing of British Imperialism was mostly based in the vastness of their Empire and the shared commonality of their languages (Kramer, 1320). In a show of good faith to their old colonial rulers, the United States labors to keep their “protected” peoples safe, an endeavor that would be smiled upon by their former subjugators.


School Begins Image

(Louis Dairymple, “School Begins,” Puck, 1/25/1899)

The final cartoon displays the most significant stage in the transformation of a unique American Imperialism. In this cartoon, Uncle Sam lectures his new students, natives of nations that the United States has annexed during the Spanish-American War. Uncle Sam tells the students to follow the example set by the class before them in order to gain a place in American society. A key factor in the class scheme is the blackboard in the back which states that the best Imperialists, England, did not wait for the groups they were attempting to civilize to consent, an important aspect of American Imperialism. Even though the United States was ceded a majority of these colonies by Spain, they still had to fight alongside the Cuban revolutionaries, creating a bond that did not exist between an empire like Great Britain and her colonies. However, the continually subjugated factions of the American populous (African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese) occupy different secondary positions in the room and outside the building, whether they are workers or students that are lagging behind. This cartoon shows American Imperialism in its final form; the nation attempts to bring oppressed people into their folds through means of cultural suppression. As a nation, the United States strips people of what makes them unique in an attempt to assimilate them into a homogenous society with the promise of eventual self-government.

Kramer, Paul A. “Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880-1910.” The Journal of American History, Mar. 2002, pp. 1315–1353.



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