The foreign affairs issue that dominated the late nineteenth century was overseas expansion. With the acquisition of the New Mexico territory and California, the United States had rounded out its continental boundaries, but the notion that America had a mission to spread its institutions and mores to the less fortunate peoples of the world remained a powerful part of the American psyche. The Industrial Revolution initially diverted the nation's attention from foreign affairs, but by the 1890s it had become a powerful force for overseas expansion. As the United States advanced from fourth to first among the manufacturing nations of the world, industrialists became convinced that under truly competitive conditions they could outsell their foreign rivals anywhere in the world. As the century came to a close, industrialists and financiers began pressuring various administrations and their State Departments to help them secure markets abroad that would absorb surplus capital and products. Especially attractive were the underdeveloped areas of Asia and Latin America. And finally, Americans were extremely conscious of the fact that they had reached the status of a great power in terms of population, agricultural output, and industrial production. In the late nineteenth century, colonies were the badge of great power status.
There were many obstacles to American expansion. Anti-imperialist groups, led by Senator Carl Schurz, writer Mark Twain, and newspaper editor E. L. Godkin, argued that the nation ought to concentrate on improving its own institutions and social conditions rather than acquiring overseas territories. Some Americans simply opposed the addition of dark-skinned peoples to the United States. Others argued that the establishment of colonies necessarily ruled out self-government and led to competition that caused wars. Up until the 1890s, the Democratic Party generally remained the party of expansion with the Republicans exhibiting reservations or outright opposition. There were exceptions. Lincoln's secretary of state, William H. Seward, was an ardent expansionist who brought Alaska into the Union.
That began to change in the 1890s, as the Republican Party (founded in the 1850s when the Whigs disintegrated as the party of economic nationalism and free soil) became increasingly the party of big business. The social Darwinists and naval expansionists found a receptive audience in a group of young, ambitious Republican politicians who decided to use overseas expansion as a vehicle to carry them to national prominence. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to accede to the presidency, and Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Albert Beveridge worked energetically and successfully to sell the Republican Party and the American people on the idea of using naval power to build an empire. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continued to draw its strength primarily from farmers, large and small; its supporters were concentrated in the South and rural Midwest. The economic calamities of the 1890s spawned the Populist Party, which railed against a conspiracy by Republicans, Wall Street, and the federal government to oppress and exploit farmers and workers. Racism was a strong component of both the Democratic and Populist parties, with the latter strongly supporting immigration restriction and the former racial segregation. Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat to sit in the White House between 1861 and 1914, was not an expansionist; indeed, he and the Democratic Party fought against the annexation of Samoa and Hawaii during the late 1880s and 1890s. The Populists saw overseas empire as just an extension of the exploitive polices of the GOP-business coalition, policies that held no advantage for farmers and working people. In 1896, with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan on both the Democratic and Populist tickets, the former effectively swallowed the latter. In the national debate over the treaty with Spain ending the Spanish-American War, in which the United States would annex the Philippines and Guam and supervise Cuba as a protectorate, Bryan led the anti-imperialist opposition. He did so in vain, however, as Roosevelt, Lodge, and influential manufacturers rallied behind the McKinley administration and ratification. In matters of tariff and trade, however, the Republicans were the nationalists, favoring high protective tariffs, and the Democrats the internationalists. Farmers, who depended upon world as well as domestic markets, and business owners, who depended upon trade with developed nations, favored low tariffs. Imperialism, then, was hardly the same as internationalism.