Back to History2 Main Page
U.S. History Curriculum

Courtesy of George Burson, Aspen School District, Aspen, Colorado
Return to
Table of




Understand the status of agriculture in America at the end of the nineteenth century.

After the Civil war agriculture began to decline while the cities and factories surged forward. Farmers knew they were being left behind, and they suspected government indifference and hostility to their interests. American farmers did not understand that they were caught up in an international crisis that afflicted agriculture in many parts of the world.

The crisis for farmers of export staple crops (e.g. wheat & cotton) resulted from the communication and transportation revolution that created a worldwide market for agricultural products. Ships first steamed through the Suez Canal in 1869, the year locomotives first steamed across the North American continent. In addition, vast new tracts of land were brought under cultivation in South America, Australia, and Canada, as well as the trans-Mississippi West, and simultaneously a new technology of mechanized cultivation increased productivity enormously. The invention of the mechanical reaper in 1831 increased grain production six-fold.

Farmers were forced to compete in a world market without protection against their competitors or control over world output. Thus, prices of agricultural products declined as productivity mounted. In 1867, U.S. farmers produced 211 million bushels of wheat on 17 million acres of land and they received an average price per bushel of $2.01. In 1868, U.S. farmers produced 246 million bushels of wheat on 19 million acres of land and they received and average price per bushel of $1.46. In 1869, U.S. farmers produced 290 million bushels of wheat on 21 million acres of land and they received an average price of $.91 per bushel. From 1870 to 1873 cotton had averaged about 15.1 cents a pound; from 1894 to 1898 it dropped to an average of 5.8 cents per pound. In 1889 corn was selling for 10 cents a bushel in Kansas, and farmers were burning it for fuel. Georgia farmers were getting 5 cents a pound for cotton when it cost about 7 cents per pound to produce it.

The gap between income and expenses forced many farmers to mortgage their land or borrow money. Nearly a third of the U.S. farms were mortgaged by the end of the 1890s. Fewer and fewer farmers owned the land they worked. The number of tenant farms increased from 25.8 percent of all the farms in 1880 to 35.3 percent by 1900. In the South the lien system was the rule. Under this system merchants advanced supplies to the farmer in return for a mortgage or "lien" on his future crop. The farmer pledged an unplanted crop for a loan of unstipulated amount at an undesignated rate of interest. Once a lien was executed to a merchant, the farmer was bound to him until the debt had been repaid. The lien system fostered the persistence of the one-crop system; for the merchant would advance credit only against such cash crops as cotton or tobacco. As the most rural section of the nation, the South was especially hard hit by the decline in agriculture. In 1860, the income of the average free Southerner was about 72% of the national average, by 1900 it had declined to 51%.


Understand the Populist movement.

Since the farmers did not really understand the new world market that they were competing in, they tended to blame others for their problems. The railroads were singled out as the archenemy. Most southern and western farmers could only get their crops to market on the railroad. Thus, railroads charged what ever the traffic would bear. It took one bushel of wheat or corn to pay the freight on another bushel. Rates in the South and West were frequently two or three times what they were between Chicago and New York. Railroads favored large over small shippers. Since the large shippers often had the choice of more than one railroad line, they often forced the railroads to give them rebates. In addition, the railroads often controlled the State legislatures.

The national banks were also a target for agrarian abuse since they were located and run for the convenience of city people, not countryfolk. Farmers believed that they manipulated banknote currency against agricultural interests and were indifferent to the seasonal needs of farmers. In addition, many western farmers had borrowed from banks to buy land when farm prices had been high and they could not pay back their loans--thus they tended to resent the banks when they foreclosed on their mortgages.

The farmer bore the brunt of the tax burden. Stocks, bonds, and business profits could easily be concealed from the view of the tax collector, but not livestock and land. Railroads and corporations could pass the taxes on to the consumer, but the farmer could not pass on his taxes. The tariff also worked against the farmer; as sellers in a free trade market and as buyers in a protected market. Since in their mind, the entire economic and political system was in array against them, farmers came to the conclusion that it was all one vast conspiracy. While agrarian theorists were wrong in attributing their plight to a conspiracy, they were right in their contention that they had a number of legitimate grievances against a system that worked so consistently to their disadvantage.

Until the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, debate over the money supply and banking regulations occupied an enormous amount of the national government's attention. Farmers in particular pressed for an expanded money supply in order to combat the long-run deflationary trend during this period. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 required the Treasury to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver each month (not coincidentally this amount was about what the silver mines in the U.S. produced) at the market price and to pay for it with paper money redeemable in either gold or silver. President Cleveland blamed this act for the Panic of 1983 (he believed that it debased the currency of the country) and it was repealed in 1893 -- thereby ruining Aspen economically until skiing saved the town in the late l950s. During the Populist campaign of 1892 and the 1896 presidential contest, the proposal to coin silver in unlimited amounts in order to expand the money supply dominated political debate on the national level. An influx of gold from Alaska and South Africa halted the deflationary spiral and drove the issue of an expanded currency out of politics.

In 1892 the disgruntled farmers formed the Populist party. The party platform called for the following: 1) A "Subtreasury System." This would permit farmers to store nonperishable crops in government warehouses or elevators and receive Treasury notes lending them up to 80 percent of the local market value of the grain or cotton deposited. The government loan was secured by the crops and repaid when they were sold, thus enabling the farmer to hold his produce for the best price. 2) abolition of national banks; 3) free coinage of silver with a corresponding increase in the money supply; 4) a graduated federal income tax -- in 1892 the Supreme Court had declared the income tax unconstitutional (19th amendment -- 1919); 5) the reduction of tariff rates; 6) the direct election of senators(17th amendment -- 1912); and, 7) "rigid" control of railroad and telegraph companies -- and if that did not work, "government ownership" of both.

In 1892 the Populists nominated an exGreenback, General James B. Weaver of Iowa, for President, and, to balance the Union general with a Confederate one, chose General James G. Field of Virginia as his running mate. Eastern conservatives were frightened by the Populist tone and built up a distorted image of the movement as an insurrection of hayseed anarchists or hick communists. The Populists tried to bridge the cleavages between parties, sections, races, and classes that kept apart the forces of change that they wished to unite. First they sought to revive the old agrarian alliance between South and West that had been destroyed by the Civil War. Second, they tried to unite farmers of the South who were divided by racial barriers, and both whites and blacks worked hard at the effort. Finally, the Populists sought to create an alliance between farmers and labor.

The Populists enjoyed some success with these alliances, but sectional animosities were kept alive by the bloody-shirt issue, old party loyalties were hard to break, racial antagonism was inflamed by white-supremacy propaganda, and labor did not always see eye to eye with the farmer. In 1892 the Populists received a little more than a million popular votes and 22 electoral votes for Weaver. They also elected 10 representatives, 5 senators, 3 governors, and about 1,500 members of state legislatures. The Democrat Grover Cleveland won the election of 1892 with 5,555,426 popular votes and 277 electoral votes. The Republican Benjamin Harrison received 5,182,690 popular votes and 145 electoral votes.

In 1893 the worst depression the nation had experienced up to that time struck. By the end of the year 500 banks and more than 15,000 business firms had gone bankrupt. President Cleveland believed that the only way that prosperity could be restored was to put the country back on the gold standard by repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. Under this law the Treasury had to purchase 4 1/2 million ounces of silver per month. The law had been passed with the idea of expanding (inflating) the national currency. Under relentless pressure by Cleveland, Congress finally repealed the Sherman Act. It had absolutely no impact upon the depression. The silver issue inflamed the nation since each side believed that if either silver or gold backed the nation's money the economic crisis would be solved.

By 1894 as many as 3 million workers, perhaps 20 percent of the work force, was unemployed. In the off-year elections of 1894 the Populists increased their vote over 1892 by 42 percent. The Democrats suffered severe defeats in this election. The elections of 1894 brought about the largest congressional gains and one of the most widespread political realignments in the nation's history. This election marked the beginning of the Republican ascendancy that lasted until 1930.

Early in 1895 prominent Democrats in the South and West set to work systematically to use the silver issue as a means of taking over control of their party and unseating Cleveland and the eastern conservatives. For the Presidential campaign of 1896 the Democrats nominated 36 year old William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. Bryan supported free silver and many of the farm programs of the Populists. The Republicans nominated William McKinley, ex-congressman and governor of Ohio. The Republican platform called for a high protective tariff and maintenance of the gold standard.

The Populist party held its convention after the Democratic convention and the silver-leaders of the Democratic party persuaded the Populists to make Bryan their candidate as well. The proposal deeply divided the Populists who neither wanted to split the silver/agrarian forces nor give up their own party identity. Western Populists were eager to nominate Bryan, but Southern members wanted a separate Populist ticket and no compromise. Since there was no Republican party in the South, any fusion with the Democrats would be the same as joining with the enemy. The Populists only agreed to accept Bryan when the Democrats promised to make Tom Watson, a Georgia Populist, and a leader of the party, their vice presidential nominee. The Democrats went back on their word after the Populists nominated Bryan and they kept Arthur Sewall of Maine as their vice presidential candidate.

McKinley won the presidential election of 1896 with 7,102,246 popular votes, a plurality of 609,687 over Bryan, and an electoral vote of 271 to 176. Bryan did not carry a single state north of the Potomac or east of the Mississippi above its juncture with the Ohio. He carried no industrialized, no urbanized state. The election of 1896 destroyed the Populist party. Fusion with the enemy party and abandonment of principle for the sake of silver had demoralized the Populists to such an extent that they never recovered. In the South, the race issue insured that the Democratic party would remain the only political party until the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s.


Understand race relations in America after Reconstruction.

After the Compromise of 1877, reconciliation between the North and the South became the goal of national politicians. This reconciliation came at the expense of blacks. When President Hayes visited Atlanta in 1877, he told the freedmen that their "rights and interests would be safer" if Southern whites were "let alone" by the federal government. "Let alone" became the watchword of government policy in race relations as well as in industrial and business affairs. Since the vast majority of blacks lived in the South (as late as 1930, 80% of all blacks lived in Dixie), white Northerners viewed race relations as a peculiarly "Southern problem."

With the official approval of the federal courts, the acquiescence of many Northern liberals and Radicals, and the cooperation of the Republican party, blacks were relegated to an inferior grade of citizenship. There was little they could do in response. Although blacks were often coerced, intimidated, or defrauded, they nevertheless continued to vote in large numbers in many parts of the South until around 1900. They also continued to hold minor political offices. The "Conservatives" that had "redeemed" the South from the hated Yankees used the black vote to stay in power. Blacks turned to the Southern Conservatives not out of love for their old masters, but out of a real need for protection against their worse enemies. They had nowhere else to turn.

This arrangement lasted until the Populist movement. In order to defeat the Populists, who were appealing to blacks along class lines, the Conservatives lifted the cry of white supremacy as they had in their struggle to overthrow the carpetbaggers. In the election of 1896, the Conservatives in the "black" counties (so named because of the fertility of their soil and the number of Negroes used to farm it) through fraud and intimidation controlled enough black votes to defeat the Populists. This action caused the Populists to turn against the blacks. They believed that the black vote would always be controlled by the Conservative Democrats and the only way for the poor-white man to gain power was to disfranchise the blacks. This they proceeded to do with a vengeance.

By 1900 all the Southern states had instituted some segregation (Jim Crow). Eventually it would spread to all public services and institutions. Little protest came from the North, where blacks also suffered increasing discrimination. In 1896, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court sanctioned segregation by declaring "separate but equal" facilities constitutional. This would be the law of the land until the Brown case of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1890, Mississippi disfranchised blacks by using a poll tax, a literacy test, and residence requirements. Each state added minor variations to the "Mississippi plan," but everywhere the result was the same. By 1900 the work of Reconstruction was undone. The constitutional amendments guaranteeing equality before the law and the ballot box had been practically nullified, and life itself was jeopardized by the spread of lynching. Between 1884 & 1900 at least 2,500 blacks were lynched in the South.


Understand why Booker T. Washington and his philosophy were accepted by whites during the era of segregation.

Most blacks had not gained economic advancement through emancipation. In 1900, 75 percent of the black farmers in the South were croppers or tenants. Under segregation blacks were driven out of some skilled trades they had traditionally monopolized and they were excluded almost entirely from certain of the newer industries, such as textiles. During this period of repression, black leadership faced serious difficulties. The largely illiterate black population, scattered throughout the rural South, was hard to reach and even harder to organize. Leadership depended largely upon the ability to mobilize relatively small black groups and often upon the consent and support of the white community.

Black leaders proposed two sharply different responses to the plight of blacks. Booker T. Washington represented the response most whites preferred. Washington had been born a slave. He obtained an education after the Civil War by working as a school janitor. In 1881 he became the president of Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. With the help of northern philanthropists he made Tuskegee into a black institution that combined formal education, self-help, and vocational training. Washington also had a large say in the patronage of the Republican party in the South. By 1880 the Republican party was virtually non-existent in the South. Yet, the Southern states still sent delegates to the Republican national convention. And, government jobs were available. His influence over these government jobs gave Washington considerable influence in the Republican party. Given the nature of the times though, he, and the party, had to be circumspect about his power. When President Roosevelt had Washington to dinner at the White House in 1901, the resulting uproar was intense.

The black population of the South developed social classes and institutions which paralleled those of the whites in many ways. At many points, however, respected blacks such as teachers and business people were dependent upon the approval of whites. To violate this approval was to endanger their positions among whites. To seek it too eagerly was to threaten their respect in the black community (students, preachers and undertakers were not dependent upon white support. In the 1960s many of them were the leaders of the civil rights movement -- they had the least to fear economically from white retaliation). Caught in this dilemma, black leaders such as Washington walked a tight line. They often managed to become the instrument of white racism. The willingness of blacks to control each other contributed to the stability and peace of southern society. There was no open race war, but the cost of this peace was borne primarily by blacks.

In 1895 Washington spoke at the Atlanta Cotton States and Industrial Exposition. In this speech before a segregated audience, Washington set forth a philosophy of race relations that came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise, and was widely supported by whites and middle-class blacks. He conciliated the white South by claiming that blacks did not want social equality. Instead he emphasized economic opportunities for blacks. To his own race he preached patience, conservatism, and the primacy of material progress.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a mulatto who was born free in Massachusetts, offered a different solution. Du Bois had a Ph.D. from Harvard in history. In 1905 he called for an organization of people who believed in "Negro freedom and growth." In 1909, after several years of organizing, Du Bois and his followers merged with an organization of white liberals to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois became the Association's director of publicity and research and the editor of its magazine, The Crisis.

Du Bois demanded that blacks be given the franchise, civic equality, and the chance for an equal education. He especially demanded that the "talented tenth" of blacks be given equal treatment. His argument was that even if 90 percent of blacks were illiterate and unable to participate equally in American society, the upper 10 percent could function perfectly well. In-other-words, Du Bois was demanding that blacks be given the opportunity to prove themselves. Those that could meet the challenge (the "talented tenth") should be rewarded. Du Bois and Washington were bitter enemies and Washington did everything in his power to discredit Du Bois. Du Bois eventually became so disappointed with American racism that he became a Communist and moved to Africa.


Understand why the United States went to war with Spain in 1898.

Cuba was a Spanish colony. The Cubans had revolted against the Spanish from 1868-1878. The revolution revived again in 1895. In addition to all the former causes of unrest, a collapse in raw sugar prices, precipitated by the high American tariff of 1894 and the Panic of 1893, rekindled the desire for rebellion. The conflict was bloody, with both sides resorting to brutalities.

President Cleveland, a Democrat, firmly resisted pressures to involve the U.S. in the Cuban war, although he appreciated the American economic stake in the island. American business had invested $150 million in Cuba; the U.S. consumed at least 75 percent of Cuban sugar, and American manufactured goods had a flourishing market on the island. Estimates indicated that by the 1880s trade with Cuba was about 25 percent of America's total world trade.

When William McKinley, a Republican, became President in 1896 he hoped to continue Cleveland's course of neutrality toward the Cuban revolution. In 1897 he sent a message to Spain that reminded that country of American interests in the restoration of peace in Cuba for the following reasons: 1) the disruption of trade and the destruction of property caused by the war; 2) the costs of enforcing neutrality; and, 3) the natural sympathy of the American people for the Cubans who were fighting for their independence. Internal Spanish politics and nationalism caused the Spanish government to not seek a compromise with the U.S.

On February 9, 1898 a letter written by the Spanish Minister to the U.S., Dupuy de Lome, to his government was stolen and published in the New York Journal. In the letter de Lome bitterly castigated McKinley as a weak politician, and he also indicated that recent Spanish moves to institute autonomy and other reforms in Cuba had not been made in good faith. While this incident was still the topic of the day, the battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor, killing 266 American sailors. McKinley had sent the Maine to Havana in an attempt to pressure Spain into speedily ending the war. The causes for the explosion remain unclear at the time, but most Americans blamed Spain. A 1976 inquiry into the incident found that "no technical evidence in the records examined that an external explosion initiated the destruction of the Maine. The available evidence is consistent with an internal explosion alone . . . The most likely source was heat from a fire in the coal bunker adjacent to the 6-inch reserve magazine."

Diplomatic reports indicated that the Spanish government was merely stalling for time, hoping to delay American intervention while making every effort to crush the rebels by the fall of 1898. On March 27, 1898, the U.S. sent the Spanish government an ultimatum. It demanded an immediate cease fire, and if a peaceful settlement could not be arranged by October 1, the President of the U.S. would act as the final arbiter between Cuba and Spain. The note clearly implied mediation based on Cuban independence since the rebels would accept no less. Spain rejected U.S. mediation, and on April 11, 1898 McKinley sent a war message to Congress. After bitter debate in which the Teller amendment was passed that pledged non-annexation of the island, war was declared on April 21.

America went to war over Cuba for numerous reasons: 1) the Panic of 1893 had caused economic unrest. An overseas adventure would take the American people's mind off the depression and stimulate the economy. 2) The Cuban revolution gave the U.S. an opportunity to acquire ports and markets in both the Caribbean and the Pacific--the U.S. government understood that industrialization was creating a world-wide market and that the country would need both ports and raw materials to effectively compete against other industrialized nations. 3) The 1895 defeat of China by Japan opened up the China market. Ports in the Pacific would help U.S. penetration of this market. 4) The official closing of the frontier by the census bureau in 1890 caused Americans to look outward for "new frontiers." 5) The U.S. wanted to end an expensive and disruptive uprising 90 miles from its coast, and it did not want a strong foreign power to get control of Cuba if Spain lost it. 6) America wanted to protect its investments in Cuba. 7) American's sympathized with the Cuban rebel cause on humanitarian grounds and in the belief in the virtues of independence and democracy.

The war was over in less than four months (August 12, 1898). Disease took more American lives (5,200) than battle casualties (460). In addition to taking Cuba, the Americans also captured the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The U.S. also demanded, and got, Wake and Guam Island. The Spanish were paid $20 million in compensation.

In the Philippines the U.S. immediately found itself involved in a nasty colonial war. A Filipino insurrection against Spain had erupted in 1895, but it had been suppressed. The rebels, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, realized that Filipinos had merely obtained a new foreign master and they turned on the Americans in 1899. The U.S. sent 70,000 troops to suppress the revolt. It required two years of brutal fighting to subdue the insurrection. The U.S. lost more men in this war than in the Spanish-American War.

Even though the U.S. army left Cuba in 1902 the so-called Platt Amendment kept Cuba under U.S. control. The amendment was incorporated into the Cuban constitution. Under its provisions the U.S. could intervene in Cuba to restore order and preserve Cuban independence and it gave the U.S. a naval base at Guantanamo Bay in perpetuity. Puerto Rico was made a U.S. colony.


Understand how the United States acquired Hawaii.

The U.S. had signed a treaty with Hawaii in 1875 and 1887 that guaranteed that Pearl Harbor would remain an exclusive American naval base. Hawaii's sugar economy was completely dependent on the American market and it expanded rapidly. To supply cheap labor Chinese and Japanese workers were brought in. In the words of President Cleveland, Hawaii served as an "outpost of American commerce and the stepping-stone to the growing trade of the Pacific."

The McKinley Tariff of 1890 dealt Hawaiian prosperity a heavy blow by removing the duties on foreign raw sugar imports and by giving American domestic producers a bounty of two cents a pound, thus eliminating the advantages previously enjoyed by Hawaiian sugar. In 1893 the Hawaiian Queen attempted to establish an absolute monarchy and the American planters on the island used this as an excuse to stage a revolt. With the help of the U.S. navy, they overthrew the queen, established a provisional republic, and requested incorporation within the U.S.

President Cleveland opposed annexation because the American sugar industry pressured him to not bring Hawaii in, because the island was a hodgepodge of native Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese and other races with only 2,000 Americans, and because he thought that Americans played an improper role in the revolution. President McKinley reopened the issue of annexation in 1897, and ostensibly as a war measure, Congress in July, 1898, annexed the islands.


Understand United States policy toward China prior to World War I.

The acquisition of the Philippines logically led to the Open Door Notes. After its defeat by Japan in 1895 China was quickly divided up into spheres of influence by the Europeans, Russians, and the Japanese. In 1899 Secretary of State John Hay issued a proclamation aimed at protecting U.S. interests in China while avoiding dangerous entanglements with any other power. The notes, addressed to all the major powers, requested assurances that within their spheres of influence in China no power would interfere with treaty ports or vested interests or discriminate against the commerce of others. Hay neither condemned spheres of influence nor referred to territorial integrity and independence of China. Even though the major powers either rejected the notes or ignored them, on March 20, 1900 Hay announced that all the great powers had agreed with the American position.

In 1900 a wave of anti-foreign violence known as the Boxer Rebellion swept China (see the unit on China). An allied expeditionary force of 20,000 troops, including 2,500 Americans, rescued the foreigners in Peking. Hay and President McKinley were aware that foreign powers might use the rebellion as an excuse to increase their power in China at the expense of the U.S. A second note stated that U.S. policy would be to preserve Chinese integrity and safeguard commercial equality of opportunity in all parts of China. The balance of power among the great powers enabled U.S. policy to prevail.


Understand how and why the United States acquired the Panama Canal.

The Spanish American War gave a new urgency to the centuries-old dream of a canal to bridge the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through Central America. During the Spanish-American War the battleship Oregon was caught on the west coast at the outbreak of hostilities. It took the Oregon 68 days to steam around Magellan Strait; a canal would enable the navy to move rapidly from one ocean to the other as international crises might require. In addition, a canal would greatly facilitate American commerce.

Two routes were considered for the canal: Nicaragua and Panama. A French charter firm, the New Panama Canal Company, was in the process of building a canal through Panama. Disease and mismanagement caused the company to offer to sell its rights to the Panama route to the U.S. for $40 million. In January, 1903 the Colombian chargé in Washington (Panama was a province of Colombia) signed an agreement that would lease to the U.S. for 100 years, and renewable at America's option, a canal zone six miles wide across Panama, for which the U.S. would pay $10 million and an annual rent after the first nine years of $250,000. The Colombian Senate rejected the treaty because of internal politics, the apparent diminution of Colombian sovereignty, and resentment at receiving only one-fourth as much money as the Panama Canal Co. Apparently Colombians hoped to force the U.S. to raise the offer to $15 million, or to wait until the charter of the French company expired and thereby obtain some or all of its share.

President Roosevelt was anxious to get construction under way and eager to garland his forthcoming race for the presidency. He became outraged at the Colombian rejection. He wrote Secretary of State Hay, "I do not think that the Bogota lot of jack rabbits should be allowed permanently to bar one of the future highways of civilization."

A revolt in Panama solved Roosevelt's dilemma. Encouraged by American officials, rebels funded by the French Canal Co. revolted in Panama City in November 1903. American warships prevented Colombia from landing additional troops to suppress the revolt. Three days later the U.S. recognized the new government, and 12 days later the government of Panama and the U.S. concluded a canal treaty. America's actions left a heritage of ill will in Colombia and later throughout Latin America. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the U.S. a ten-mile wide canal zone in perpetuity, and other rights that made Panama essentially a protectorate, for the same financial terms previously offered Colombia. In 1921, After Roosevelt's death, Colombia was paid $25 million for her loss--by that time Latin American goodwill, possible Yankee oil concessions in Colombia, and American honor, seemed to make some kind of an apology necessary.


Understand U.S. Relations with Latin America prior to World War I.

In 1904 the government of the Dominican Republic defaulted on its foreign debt. Rumors that the great powers of Europe planned to use armed intervention in behalf of their citizens with claims against that country alarmed President Roosevelt. The U.S. feared that temporary occupation might turn into attempts at permanent control or annexation. This action would jeopardize the security of the Panama Canal as well as the traditional prohibition of the Monroe Doctrine. A protocol concluded with the Dominican government in 1905 provided that the U.S. would supervise the collection of Dominican customs and would use 55 percent of the revenues to pay foreign creditors. The rest would be turned over to the Dominican government. Thus the "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine was born. Roosevelt had inverted the prohibition of the Monroe Doctrine against European intervention to justify U.S. intervention.

President Taft followed the basic course outlined by Roosevelt in the Caribbean. He too believed that the security interests of the U.S. required the promotion of more stable governments in the Caribbean. Taft concluded that the safest way to guard against European interference was to supplant European capital with American. Moreover, he hoped that financial supervision would promote order -- "dollar diplomacy" was born. In 1912, Taft landed 2,700 marines in Nicaragua to protect a pro-American regime against rebels. A small force of the marines remained until 1933. "Dollar diplomacy" on the whole ended up as failure. The armed intervention in Nicaragua was particularly regrettable. It represented the first use of U.S. military power to suppress revolution and to maintain a friendly government in power. The presence of U.S. marines in Nicaragua probably discouraged revolution in other Central American countries, at least for a few years, but it aroused fear and distrust of the U.S. among the peoples of the region and fed Yankee-phobia throughout Latin America.

President Wilson came to power in 1913 and he continued the policy of Roosevelt and Taft. In July, 1915 a revolution broke out in Haiti. The U.S. government feared that a foreign power would get control of the country (and its strategic naval base site at Mole St. Nicholas). Wilson sent in the U.S. marines. They remained until 1934. The Americans maintained a facade of native government, but the U.S. military actually ruled Haiti. When an insurrection broke out in the Dominican Republic in 1916 American forces occupied that country. The occupation regime suspended the Dominican Congress and administered the country until 1924 through marine detachments and cooperative natives.

By 1917, the Caribbean had become an American-controlled lake. In addition to the five protectorates of Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, and the colony of Puerto Rico, the State department in 1911 discouraged a Japanese company from operating a concession in Mexico's Magdalene Bay (the so-called Lodge Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine), and for $25 million purchased the Danish West Indies (the Virgin Islands) from Denmark in 1916, as a security measure.


Understand American involvement in Mexico under the Presidential administration of Woodrow Wilson.

In 1876, Porfirio Diaz, a Mexican army general, seized power in a coup. He would control Mexico until 1911. Diaz, with his cronies, transformed his regime into an oligarchy. Diaz suppressed political rights in the name of economic development and foreign investment. He ruled using the principle of pan o palo (bread or the stick) -- the stick could range from unemployment, exile, prison, murder or ley fuga (shot while trying to escape).

Under Diaz economic development was the great object, the key to the solution of his own personal problems and those of Mexico. Economic development required political stability; Diaz promoted a policy of conciliation that consisted of offering a share of the spoils to all influential opponents, no matter what their political persuasion. As Diaz observed: "A dog with a bone in his mouth neither kills nor steals." In effect, Diaz invited all sections of the upper class and some members of the middle class, including prominent intellectuals and journalists, to join with him in ripping-off the country -- only the poor and humble were barred.

From the ranks of bandit chieftains and their followers Diaz created the rurales. Aside from chasing unrepentant bandits, the major function of the rurales was to suppress peasant unrest and break labor strikes. Opponents who refused Diaz's bribes were beaten up, murdered or arrested. By such means, Diaz virtually eliminated all effective opposition to his reign. Under Diaz the cost of government soared by 900 percent. In the army there was an average of one officer to every ten soldiers, a general for every 300 men.

The Catholic church became another pillar of Diaz's dictatorship. In return for the church's support Diaz suspended all the previous anticlerical laws that the liberal governments had passed. monasteries and nunneries were restored, church schools reestablished, and wealth again began to accumulate in the hands of the church. Faithful to its bargain, the church turned a deaf ear to the complaints of the masses and taught complete submission to the authorities.

Under Diaz the concentration of landownership in a few hands continued. In 1900, 77 percent of the Mexican population of 15 million still lived on the land. Landless peons and their families made up 9.5 million of a rural population of 12 million. By the end of Diaz's reign, 834 people owned 25% of Mexico's land area. Those in power appointed their friends and relatives to government jobs. These government jobs were among the few middle-class jobs available. People would hold these jobs until they died and this cut-off upward mobility for the next generation. Foreigners controlled the mining, oil, and industrial wealth of the country. This control gave rise to a popular saying: "Mexico, mother of foreigners and stepmother of Mexicans."

Thanks to an influx of foreign capital, some quickening and modernization of economic life did take place under Diaz. The volume of foreign trade greatly increased (by 1911 Mexico was the world's third largest oil producer), a modern banking system arose, and the country acquired a relatively dense network of railways. But these successes were achieved at a very high price: a brutal dictatorship, the pauperization of the mass of the population, the stagnation of food agriculture (foodstuff production barely kept pace with the growth of population, and per capita production of such basic staples as maize and beans declined near the end of the 19th century), a concentration of land in fewer hands, and the survival of many feudal or semifeudal vestiges in Mexican economic and social life.

By 1910 Mexico was ripe for revolution. The Diaz regime had grown old and weak. The middle-class resented the fact that government jobs were closed to them. The working class resented that the best industrial jobs went to foreigners and that foreigners doing the same job (in mining, railroad, and oil for example) were paid more. Peons and rural workers resented the concentration of land in a few hands and they wanted land reform. Many Mexicans resented the government's close ties with foreigners and they wanted "a Mexico for the Mexicans."

Thus, when revolution broke out in 1910 under the leadership of Francisco Madero, a wealthy landowner from northern Mexico, the Diaz regime collapsed by June 1911. Diaz fled the country and Madero took over. Madero, an idealist -- "the people of Mexico do not want bread, they want freedom" -- could not control the chaos in his country. In February 1913 he was overthrown and murdered by general Victoriano Huerta.

The American ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, had given Huerta the idea that the U.S. would approve of Madero's overthrow. Wilson wanted a strong government to protect U.S. economic and political interests. But, the murder of Madero caused both the Mexican people and the U.S. and Great Britain to oppose Huerta. Wilson was recalled to the U.S. and resigned in disgrace.

The United States, under president Woodrow Wilson (D), refused to recognize the Huerta government. Wilson, and his advisors, had little knowledge of Latin America in general, and Mexico in particular. Wilson believed that U.S. foreign policy could be used to "reform" other "backward" nations.

In Mexico, the opposition to Huerta organized itself into "The Constitutionalists," under the leadership of Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa. Huerta was a drunk and a vicious leader (he had a Mexican Senator shot for making a speech against him on the floor of the Mexican Senate). President Wilson gradually came to believe that Huerta was unredeemable and that the U.S. should never recognize his government. Wilson allowed arms shipments to cross the U.S. border to the Constitutionalists and these arms tipped the balance of power to the rebels.

Huerta began to import arms from Europe and Wilson sent the U.S. navy to blockade the Mexican coast. Huerta clung to power until an incident at Tampico offered Wilson the opportunity for show of force. On April 9, 1914, during a military confrontation between Huerta forces and the Constitutionalists around Tampico, some sailors from an American warship, who had landed to buy supplies, were arrested. Although the local governor quickly released the men and apologized, the commander of the American squadron demanded a formal apology and a 21-gun salute to the U.S. flag. Huerta refused to comply with such humiliating demands. He realized that if the U.S. fired on Tampico he could emerge as a patriot and the Mexican people might unite behind him. Wilson used the incident as an excuse to have American naval forces seize the port of Veracruz on April 13 (Tampico had important American oil producing facilities and control of Veracruz would stop future European arms shipments to Huerta). The attack cost 27 American and 300-400 Mexican lives. The "affair of honor" further weakened Huerta and he fell from power in July, 1914.

When Carranza came to power he faced a revolt within his own movement led by General Pancho Villa. The U.S. was not sure who to support. In October 1915, Carranza's army decisively defeated Villa and the U.S. recognized the Carranza government and cut off arms shipments to Villa. Villa turned to guerrilla warfare. He attempted to bring U.S. troops into Mexico to show the Mexican people that Carranza could not protect Mexican sovereignty and to bring about the government's downfall. He killed a number of Americans in northern Mexico and launched raids across the international border. After Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, in March, 1916, killing 19 Americans, Wilson ordered an expedition led by general Pershing to cross the border and to capture and or kill Villa.

Villa retreated south pulling the U.S. forces deeper and deeper into Mexico. The futile pursuit of Villa aroused Mexican tempers. Finally Carranza had to act. In April, 1916 he demanded that the American army leave his country. Wilson refused. Twice there were serious skirmishes between American and Constitutionalist soldiers. A Mexican-American joint commission finally ironed out most of the difficulties between the two countries. Carranza bought Villa off by giving him a large pension and a hacienda (Villa was later murdered). The Wilson administration also realized that it would soon be involved in the European War, and that it needed to secure its southern border before that happened. In January 1917 American troops withdrew from Mexico.

Go on to  Ch. IX.  The Progressive Movement & the 1920s

Return to Table of Contents

                 Back to History2 Main Page