Industrialization and Imperialism

Changes in Society

From 1865 to 1900, great changes occurred. The foundations of modern America were built-in the factories, mills, mines, and cities of the Midwest and the East. Businessmen in the Northeast had gained wealth and experience from the Civil War. After the war, they changed the way goods were produced. In doing so, they put the United States on the road to industrialization. This is the process of changing the country from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Large industry became the most important factor in economic growth.

Inventions revolutionized all areas of life. The national railroad system expanded greatly. The telegraph established nationwide communication. The invention of new processing techniques led to the creation of a giant steel industry. New coalfields opened, and oil-well drilling developed. An electrical generator capable of delivering the large amount of power needed for industry was invented.

Industrialization caused huge growth in the population of cities and towns. Americans moved so they would be where the jobs were. The population shift from rural areas to cities is called urbanization. In addition, large numbers of people moved west to settle in new states and territories.

Industry centered around sources of raw materials, energy sources, and good transportation. New industry was needed to build housing and transportation for the new urban areas. A boom in immigration from Europe helped US cities grow. About 25 million Europeans were recruited, or enlisted, to work in US mines, mills, and forges. Many of these immigrants had faced hard economic times and political problems in their homelands. They came to the United States to find a better life. However, the new immigrants often faced poverty and discrimination in their new homeland.

FDR Political Cartoon

A powerful group of businessmen developed during this period of industrialization. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and others controlled giant companies that ruled the US economy. They created monopolies, businesses that owned nearly all of the market for one particular type of goods or services. The power of these business leaders was often misused to keep prices high and wages of their workers low. Because they controlled large sectors of US industry, these business owners were able to influence politics so laws would be passed that were favorable to their businesses.

Workers and Farmers Respond

Workers and farmers saw very little of the new riches that resulted from rapid industrialization. Factory, rail, and mine workers often worked more than 12 hours each day for extremely low pay. In reaction to these conditions, workers began to organize. The Knights of Labor was the first national federation of trade unions.

Union organizers, however, were only mildly successful. A few unions made up of skilled workers survived to form the American Federation of Labor (AFL), but most attempts to organize unskilled and semi-skilled laborers failed. Meanwhile, high credit costs and steep railroad freight rates led to protests throughout rural areas. Mechanization (the use of machinery) had increased farm production. However, the bankers and the monopolies were the ones profiting from this increased production. Across the country, farmers organized Farmers’ Alliances to fight for their interests.

Protests against the power of the monopolies led to the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890). Nevertheless, the influence of the monopolies was great. The antitrust, or anti-monopoly, law was enforced more frequently against unions and farmers than against the monopolies.

The failure of reform laws such as the Sherman Act led to strong public support for the Populists (People’s) Party in the 1890s. This third-party movement wanted government to have greater control over monopolies. The Populist Party won more than a million votes in 1892. In 1896, its demands were added to the Democratic Party platform. However, Republican candidate William McKinley, who was supported by big business, defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Later many of the Populists’ ideas were adopted by both parties.

In the last 30 years of the nineteenth century, industrialization and urbanization changed America. The social and political problems created by these changes were not solved. They would come up again in conflicts during the twentieth century.


The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared that the United States would not tolerate any new European colonization or interference in the Western Hemisphere. At that time, though, the United States was not very interested in foreign affairs, so the policy was not enforced.

By 1890, when the West was largely settled, European countries were building up large colonial empires in Africa and Asia. The United States did not want to be left out, and Americans became interested in taking over lands outside the United States. The country began a policy of imperialism, a plan to increase power by taking over foreign land.

Spanish-American War

Beginning in 1895, Cuba fought a violent war against Spanish rule. The US press published newspaper articles describing the horrors of the war. Some of the articles were exaggerated, showing only the Cuban point of view. This style of one-sided reporting is called yellow journalism. It encouraged Americans to support the fight against Spain. The Cuban struggle for independence from Spain gave US imperialists the opportunity they wanted. In 1898, the United States decided to help Cuba in its fight against Spain. US troops fought a three-month war in Cuba. However, the first battle between US and Spanish forces occurred in the Philippines, another Spanish colony ·that wanted its independence. At the end of the war, Cuba became independent, but it was under US control for a number of years. The Philippines were surrendered to the United States. The Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Guam both became US territories.

Hawaiian Islands, Latin America, China, and the Caribbean

In 1898, the United States took over the Hawaiian Islands. After 1900, the United States helped Panama become independent from Colombia in exchange for the right to build and control a canal across Panama. During the next few years, US troops were sent to Mexico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. Americans believed these actions were necessary to protect US interests.

After acquiring Hawaii, the Philippines, and Guam, the United States became interested in China. In the late 1890s, a weakened China was overtaken by foreign powers that had spheres of influence, or control over parts of China. The United States, which had no sphere of influence, wanted to tap into China’s vast natural resources, but US leaders were worried that the nations occupying China might shut them out. Secretary of State John Hay proposed the Open Door policy in 1899. This policy would require all spheres of influence in China to keep trading with other nations. This ultimately prevented one foreign power from having too many advantages within the occupied territory.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt was concerned that political problems in the Caribbean would cause European forces to intervene in Latin America. Roosevelt introduced a policy known as the Roosevelt Corollary. A corollary is a follow-up to something. In this case, the corollary was a follow-up to the Monroe Doctrine. In the Roosevelt Corollary, the United States asserted its right to intervene in the affairs of Latin American nations in times of economic or political crisis.