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Chapter 3 Populism and Imperialism, 1890–1900
Four main developments occurred during the last decade of the nineteenth century. The first was the spectacular growth of cities. The transformation of urban America accelerated in the 1890s as port cities specializing in connecting the countryside with world markets gave way to the development of factories and financial centers throughout the nation. The second was the growth of a third-party movement known as Populism. Farmers and some urban workers united to form a class-based movement because they believed that their interests were not being met by the nation’s two political parties. Although the Populists would be a political force for only a brief moment, their ideas would greatly influence ideas about government and the nature of American politics. The third development was the growth of institutionalized racial discrimination. Segregation of white and black Americans moved from custom to law in the 1890s. This development illustrated a hardening of racial prejudice, but also demonstrated that black Americans were becoming wealthier and more assertive. Although segregation had existed in the past, by the 1890s Southern legislatures began passing ordinances that compelled racial separation by law. These laws were a response by racial conservatives who feared that black women and men were progressing in ways that might threaten the racial hierarchy. They were especially concerned that the new generation who had never known the “civilizing” effects of slavery must be compelled to keep “their place” at the bottom of Southern society.
The fourth development was the physical growth of the nation and the acquisition of overseas territories. In 1800, the nation was a loose confederation of sixteen states with a total population of 5 million souls. By 1900, 75 million Americans belonged to a global empire that stretched across the continent and effectively controlled much of Alaska, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Guam. Ever aware of their own historic struggle against colonialism, American leaders claimed that they had no interest in creating an empire. The history of Western expansion demonstrated otherwise, even if few of the nation’s leaders considered the acquisition of land from Native Americans in these terms. In addition, Americans pointed out that the newly acquired islands in the Caribbean and Pacific had requested US assistance in their revolution against Spain. The United States promised that it was unique from all the other world powers. In some ways, America would live up to these promises by granting limited self-government to these areas or incorporating them into the nation and extending citizenship to inhabitants. When it came to the nonwhite peoples of the Caribbean and Pacific, however, the United States believed it could not grant full independence until the inhabitants proved that they were “ready” for democracy. In places like the Philippines, the inhabitants demonstrated an unwillingness to wait for self-government. Perceiving US troops as occupiers rather than liberators, Filipinos rose in armed rebellion. In other places, American imperialism was dominated more by a desire for commercial development and military bases. In these islands, inhabitants enjoyed a higher degree of autonomy even if their claims to national independence remained unfulfilled.