System of expansion, system of contradiction

The history of America in its Gilded Age and beyond
Principal author:
John L. Clark

If the period of American history between the end of the US Civil War and World War I—perhaps called the Gilded Age—does not contain events that register strongly in the emotional consciousness of many Americans, it is not because this period did not contribute to major changes in the world of the time. With such intensely violent conflicts serving as bookends, the intervening years may seem like an intermission providing a lull between compelling stories, rather than part of a much larger drama that was, itself, punctuated by violence. Instead, this period demonstrated a larger pattern of aggressive activity, insecurity, and unrest; these were all closely bound up in the ongoing struggle for progress and prosperity, though, and the American ideal highlights the latter glory and dismisses the former distress. It is good to see the full truth. Studying this period allows us to see an example of how persistent economic expansion rapidly sets the stage for systemic shocks and conflict.

That most historians of this period agree on dramatic economic growth as the driving force behind the rapid changes that took place provides a strikingly useful basis for additional analysis. Historians have differed in the scope and outcomes that they have considered as they study this period, but they repeatedly note the connections between the pursuit of prosperity through wealth and other events and trends as the American 19th century gave way to the 20th. This allows us to understand the basic constraints under which the society operated and struggled. As Emily Rosenberg writes in Spreading the American Dream, while “[d]isputes have always existed in both public and private sectors and have often been bitter”, “[a] broad consensus of liberal-developmentalism … has generally provided the boundaries within which significant debate has occurred.” Rosenberg emphasizes that this consensus is rooted in “the political economy of expansion.”[1] American policies, even in their apparent diversity, rested on an unshakable faith in the necessity of expansion. Historians have reflected this core in their own varying perspectives on this period.

As historians attentive to Marxist theories of history, it is not surprising that Charles and Mary Beard emphasized the economic dimensions of society, and in the second volume of their broad survey of American history, The Rise of American Civilization, they argued that the US Civil War was a result of two contrasting economic systems, both of which wanted to continue their expansion. The war cleared the way for one of these systems to continue accelerating in its progress of dominating the continent, and beyond: that of Northern industrial capitalism. This book ably reviews the mechanisms by which the Northern—and ultimately the American—economic system was able to efficiently set to the task of casting capital towards promising projects in order to convert abundant resources into further capital. Their book is remarkably thorough in its treatment of the manifold effects of this expansive circulation of capital, including social unrest and even war, although the Beards inject a substantial dose of rhetoric into their history, which can at times hinder the reader from processing the significance of the events directly.

What is surprising, perhaps, is how astutely the Beards connect economic considerations with the political realities of the time. At several points this book looks carefully at the ways in which the law, and its interpretation by public officials, were oriented towards the interests of capital. This includes, early on in this volume, a compelling analysis of the political economy of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution and the way in which Northern capitalists leveraged the military victory in order to establish robust protections for corporations and property.[2] Their analysis of American political economy in the 19th century also looks at the ways in which capital influenced elections by investing in both parties in order to maintain and enhance favorable policies. “Indeed all things seemed possible now that jurisprudence was brought into line with the political economy of giant industry.”[3] In this way their history makes the political process appear rather one-sided, but later historians will find more nuance to the story, particularly at this point. Nonetheless, the Beards clearly establish the link between political power and economic reality.

Directly influenced by this trend of exposing the economic roots of American history, Matthew Josephson wrote The Robber Barons a few years after the second volume of The Rise of American Civilization was published. In it, Josephson explores the specific ways in which individual American capitalists in the latter third of the 19th century competed, even fought, to benefit from speculation; to identify and seize opportunities for investment; and to consolidate and protect wealth and power. This book continued to emphasize the way in which the American political system operated first on the assumption of eager expansionism. It points out that as a way of negating “the political tradition of a two-party alignment with presumed differences of principle between the two, the barons as a class actually showed no sentimental allegiance to one as against the other over a long period of time.”[4]

Josephson alternately glorifies and vilifies the industrialists and financiers who dominate his account. At some points he proposes that much of the industrial organization of the country in the 19th century depended on the relentless will to succeed that drove men such as these. The vast majority of this book, however, is spent describing how these figures lured investors onto the rocks, took advantage of governments in many ways, and attacked competitors (who logically include laborers and even consumers) with every tool from price controls to violence. In the end, the result is a far larger, more grandiose national economic system, but one that as much as ever etched the bitter logic of competition onto the hearts of its people. “For in truth a people who gave themselves as in a crusade … to the exploiting and the organizing of the material resources of their continent, saw the grand social result achieved only in measure with the vigorous self-seeking of individual appetites.”[5]

As with all historians, the interpretation associated with the Beards has itself undergone the crucible of history. Charles Beard allowed his research to directly inform his politics, and he was punished for it. Concluding that imperial expansionism led to war, Beard advocated for the United States to avoid being involved in either. As Emily Rosenberg points out, though, “[t]he nationalist critique of globalism, which had garnered considerable support in the 1930s, faded during the war and was almost completely discredited in the postwar period. Some of its adherents, especially Charles Beard, lost credibility because of their opposition to World War II.”[6] As fear and unrest continued to grip the US even after the formal conclusion of that war, other historians recognized the explanatory value of examining the expansionist economic forces that had shaped and were continuing to shape the morass of crises in which the nation was entangled. These historians worked to rehabilitate the economic arguments that the Beards had established, even as they extended and deepened them.

Around the start of the 1960s, there was growing interest in trying to explain the severe, global, and costly enmity and conflict that persisted between the United States and the Soviet Union. To address this, some historians, including William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber, realized the importance of reconsidering the impact of economic pressure on US foreign policy.

Williams raised the issue sharply in his strong critique of American foreign policy, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. He uses this book to evaluate American diplomatic efforts in the decades following the turn of the 20th century. He asserts that Americans “believed deeply in the ideals they proclaimed”, ideals of freedom and independent prosperity. The mechanism to accomplish this in the larger world was to establish the American economic system broadly. “Either implicitly or explicitly, … the idea pointed to the practical conclusion that expansion was the way to stifle unrest, preserve democracy, and restore prosperity.”[7]

What this actually meant, though, was a system of American intervention and control. “But America, just because it was the elect among the trustees of the world, had both a right and an obligation to use force “to do justice and assert the rights of mankind.”[8]

Relying on expansion worked to sabotage the stated ideal that Americans offered as their justification. Areas under American control grew resentful of American interference and ongoing hardship. This led to a wave of revolutionary fervor which Americans came to associate and eventually identify with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but this came into clear and sharp conflict with the gradualist progressive strategy that propped up American economic expansionism.

It thus seems clear that the great majority of American leaders were—like President Wilson—concerned so deeply with the Bolshevik Revolution because at bottom they were so uneasy about what Wilson called the “general feeling of revolt” against the existing order, and about the increasing intensity of that dissatisfaction. From this it follows that the Bolshevik Revolution was only the symbol of all the revolutions that grew out of that discontent. And that is perhaps the crucial insight into the tragedy of American diplomacy.[9]

Although American leaders asserted that they were aligned, the nation could not resolve the fundamental contradiction between its diplomatic ideals and the economic goals that it hoped would accomplish them.

In his book The New Empire, Walter LaFeber took a step back and focused wholly on late 19th century expansionism in order to establish a basis for understanding the United States as a global imperial power. Although this book aims at explaining how a national concern with expansionism and finding a market for goods culminated in the 1898 war with Spain, establishing this context provided a way to follow the thread of American expansionist interests into the 20th century. The idea of America as an imperial power was gaining traction, even as the general American ideology fiercely resisted the associations that that term implied.

After the Civil War, 19th century diplomatic policy proceeded from a concern for domestic economic issues. Policy makers were eager to secure opportunities for national interests abroad, particularly access to markets to export surplus products. This concern was exacerbated as production dramatically increased as part of the accelerated industrialization process, and then it was further aroused by the general awareness that the internal frontier had closed. Leaders were particularly sensitive to the potential for trade to solve problems during the fairly frequent periods of civil unrest and economic depression.

LaFeber extensively explores the writings of leading thinkers to demonstrate the way that obsession with the frontier—and its demise—pervaded both public and official thought throughout the second half of the century. He also highlights pressure from commercial and industrial journals, as well as the recorded comments of public officials, to connect the fear of public unrest with the search for trade. For example, with respect to a particular instance of business pressure, he notes that “the importance of the article lay in the fact that the spokesman for a vital segment of the business community realized that the political penalty would be severe if the American economy continued to appear bankrupt.”[10]

National officials increasingly projected US influence throughout the hemisphere and westward into Asia. This influence was backed up by a growing military force, as these officials recognized that the nation would need to be able to defend its own expanded interests. When crises emerged, then, in both Latin America and Asia, they were partially precipitated by existing US pressure in these regions, and policy makers worked to resolve them based on the policy that itself led to this pressure. LaFeber examines several key incidents in the 1880s and 1890s to show how carefully and consistently US leaders considered and executed interventions.

Such crises as the Chilean affair of 1891, the Brazilian and Nicaraguan problems of 1893–1895, and the more dangerous Venezuelan episode of 1895–1896 convinced administration and congressional leaders that American claims in Latin America would only be as strong as the military force behind them.[11]

Public rhetoric conspicuously disavowed any interest in formal colonial control, but economic interests led the United States to exercise increasing power in a variety of territories.

With the book America's Outward Thrust, published eight years after The New Empire, Milton Plesur explicitly reinforces LaFeber's argument.

LaFeber has placed the whole question of America's emergence on the world stage into proper perspective by demonstrating the continuum of history. While great power status came in 1898, the preceding years formed the incubation period: vigorous commercial expansion eventually necessitated political dominion overseas.[12]

Where LaFeber focused on high profile political and commercial sources to demonstrate this continuum, Plesur emphasizes how Americans were increasing their direct contact with the world outside the borders of the United States in the decades following the Civil War. He shows how this is reflected in a shift in the focus of American culture that gave more attention to other societies and areas.

LaFeber, supported by historians such as Milton Plesur, makes a strong case that American imperial adventures towards the end of the 19th century reflected a continuity with existing expansionist thought and interests, but writing two years after The New Empire, Ray Ginger establishes the reason that Americans came to be so devoted to expansion. A profound contradiction that Ginger explores, in his book Age of Excess, is the way that the economic system could be overwhelmingly successful, producing great excesses, and yet that very success led so precipitously to depression and unrest. Rather perversely, the major economic fears of Americans in this period concerned how to manage these excesses. In the face of this, broad segments of society latched onto continued expansion as the cure to this problem, although this expansion would continue to draw the nation into further conflicts.

With this book, Ginger fills in important details about the effect of the unfettered expansionism on American society of the time. When not experiencing depression, American wealth was increasing so quickly that large and politically concentrated sectors of the population were augmenting their standard of living, even as this wealth and power continued to concentrate more tightly in general. “The crux of the matter is that, in most American cities from 1877 to 1893, the entire social structure was moving upward rapidly.”[13] By viewing the depressions as tragic and isolated exceptions, then, Americans could deceive themselves into believing in this time as one of generally unalloyed success, rooted in expansion.

Historians writing in the last two decades of the 20th century found ways to deflate earlier moral emphasis on expansion being fundamental to the character of the nation in the 19th century, both domestically and abroad. Even so, economic growth still lurked near the base of their analysis. As we saw, in her book Spreading the American Dream, Emily Rosenberg nicely summarizes the way in which policy debates were bounded by the hard assumption of economic expansion. Nonetheless, Rosenberg explicitly and without explanation rejects the possibility of evaluating the implications of the American Dream. “This book does not detail the effects of Americanization on others. … Obviously, the impact of the American Dream has varied widely. Some people have benefited; others have been none better or worse off.”[14] In a similar way, writing towards the end of the 20th century, Walter Licht deflected those who would try to duplicate the American experiment. His book Industrializing America looks at causes instead of effects, but still warns that they are too complex to attempt to fully understand. “The only conclusion to be drawn is that the causes of industrialization are complex. … There is no single recipe.”[15]

For Rosenberg, American expansionism provided an opportunity for the United States government to grow and change in its response to the world. To this end, her book usefully describes how the US government mediated a variety of avenues for expansion of the American ideal, including cultural expressions, and in this way her book nicely complements America's Outward Thrust in scope. Her concentration on the adaptability of the American expansionist ideal leaves it disconnected from its consequences. While she covers a very similar time period as Williams does in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, for example, she stops right at the end of World War II and manages to sketch that war effort without highlighting American concerns about Soviet expansionism.

As the title suggests, Licht's Industrializing America identifies industrialization as the most important trend shaping the United States in the 19th century. He argues that changes toward an economic basis in manufacturing—although not pervasive—guided the key changes in other aspects of the American polity. With this approach, Licht is explicitly looking for the keystone to these changes, and while industrialization and technology certainly made a significant contribution, it was a tool of economic activity, rather than a driver of it.

Focusing on industrialization as the core of the story evades certain fundamentally important aspects of 19th century American history that cannot be connected directly to the shifting character of the economy. Unlike every other historian reviewed here, Licht does not mention Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis and its symbolic significance in reflecting the broad expansionist ambitions of American society in general. Nor does he provide any analysis of American imperial adventures, which would increasingly bind American interests with foreign affairs. These weaknesses make this sort of analysis a poor platform for understanding both the full scope of events of the time as well as the transition into the 20th century.

As the 20th century transitioned to the 21st, historians studying 19th century American society once again renewed their interest in expansion as the main driver of change in this period. But they also looked more deeply at how that expansion manifested in the lives of people who contributed to its progression. Historians in the first decade of the century focused on emphasizing the continuity of the expansionist impulse as well as making a seemingly abstract and disconnected economic theory more approachable through the use of recent strategies within the practice of history.

While it purports to explore imperial expansion as it manifested throughout US history, the book Habits of Empire by Walter Nugent actually focuses most of its attention on the 19th century. With it, he explores the use of aggression and force not as an explanatory tool in its own right, but rather as a set of symbols in a longer and larger narrative. Looking mainly at the diplomatic and military consequences of the expansionism, though, Nugent largely elides the economic motivation and impact involved with that expansion, which makes this a useful companion piece to other histories that provide this important explanation behind the pursuit of growth. Habits of Empire does provide a neat and concise way to establish the continuity with which Americans, from the legal beginning of the United States, aggressively pursued every opportunity to expand their influence; a side benefit of this effort is that linking together separate thrusts provides a nearly comprehensive and nicely accessible summary of how the United States came to possess its territory.

A stunning web of interlocking stories forms the core of the presentation of American Colossus by H. W. Brands, and in so doing it really presents late 19th century America vividly to the reader. In some ways this book comes closest to the original spirit of the work of the Beards. It provides a compelling amount of detail, and in particular with respect to geographic coverage and environmental analysis, to show the effects of economic expansion on the country. Brands uses microhistories to good effect in several places, providing extremely focused examples that greatly aid understanding the much larger trends. Brands also incorporates those leaders that Josephson referred to as robber barons, but places them alongside, instead of above, other Americans in contributing to the motion of the nation. Brands does choose a narrower period of time for his story than the Beards, however, which excludes considering economic impacts on the Civil War and World War I and makes it more modest in its argument.

The colossus that Brands elevates to the title of his book is capitalism, and he tracks the ways that it came into conflict with the principles of democracy. As is evident from the subtitle to his book, The Triumph of Capitalism, Brands argues that capitalism was the dominant political force, proving able to co-opt or overwhelm public officials as it also crushed popular uprisings. In no small part Brands attributes this to the raw power that capitalism was able to bring to bear in converting abundant resources into commodities. Brands also reveals this power as being episodic, revealing the way that these decades operated under a general “gold-rush mentality”, continuously looking for new opportunities to exploit in the pursuit of wealth.

Expansionism is clearly at the core of all of these variously overlapping histories, many of which emphasize the critical relationship between the pursuit of security through economic prosperity and this expansion. They overlap as they emphasize different periods, taking earlier events into account or projecting forward, and their varying scopes reveals a broader and deeper continuity to the policy and consequences of the economic gospel. As many of these histories demonstrate, expansionist policies rapidly and recklessly dominated the continental United States. These policies then led Americans to seek out foreign markets, which required a corresponding projection of American power that resulted in exporting unrest alongside American commodities. Expansionist policies, and the economic systems that depend on them, demand careful reconsideration in the face of these realities, these contradictions.


Charles Beard. Mary Beard. The Rise of American Civilization. Macmillan, 1930.

H. W. Brands. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865–1900. Doubleday, 2010.

Ray Ginger. Age of Excess: The United States from 1877 to 1914. Waveland Press, Inc., 1965.

Matthew Josephson. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934.

Walter LaFeber. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898. Cornell University Press, 1963.

Walter Licht. Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Walter Nugent. Habits of Empire: a history of American expansion. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Milton Plesur. America's Outward Thrust: Approaches to Foreign Affairs, 1865–1890. Northern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Emily S. Rosenberg. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945. Hill and Wang, 1982.

William Appleman Williams. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1962.


[Ros1982, p13]


[BeaBea1930, p114]


[BeaBea1930, p343]


[Jos1962, p350]


[Jos1962, p151]


[Ros1982, p192]


[Wil1962, p24]


[Wil1962, p63]


[Wil1962, p100]


[LaF1963, p185]


[LaF1963, p229]


[Ple1971, p9]


[Gin1989, p96]


[Ros1982, p13]


[Lic1995, p41]

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