1898 Exhibition

Prelude to Empire

From the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies, territorial expansion was key to the formation of the United States. The gains made during the MexicanAmerican War (1846–48) extended the country’s boundaries from coast to coast. As the United States grew, the establishment of new territories and states displaced Native American nations and Native lands through treaties—but also through coercive means, purchase, and war.

The Indian Wars of the 1870s became training grounds for U.S. military personnel involved in the War of 1898 and the Philippine-American War. Twenty-six of the thirty generals who served in the Philippines between 1898 and 1902 had some military experience in the West during the campaigns against Native Americans. U.S. governance in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico was modeled on policies designed to restrict or strip away Native American rights.

Powerful politicians believed that seizing territories overseas would transform the country into a world leader. In 1898, after decades of AngloAmerican presence in Hawai‘i, and as Cuba waged its last War of Independence, naval policy makers and legislators pushed for U.S. expansion into the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Sea Power

Many U.S. policy makers believed in the theory of sea power, or the ability to access and control the seas for economic and military gain. Yet achieving sea power was easier said than done. Following the Civil War (1861–65), the U.S. Navy languished, and in 1886, it maintained only thirty-eight active ships. Spurred by the financial crisis following the Panic of 1893, however, Congress and the executive branch instituted an aggressive shipbuilding policy, aiming to bolster the economy through overseas trade.

Between 1897 and 1898, the U.S. Navy built eighty-eight warships, bringing the total to an impressive fleet of 160 vessels, ranging from new battleships and fast torpedo boats to antiquated ironclads and wooden cruisers. Before creating this superior naval force, the United States would have had little capacity to wage an overseas war against a major imperial power. However, during the War of 1898, this new naval power ensured its decisive victories against Spain.



Most countries in Spanish America had waged wars of independence by 1826. In Cuba, however, the powerful classes remained loyal to the Spanish Crown, who vowed to protect them and the sugar economy from a revolution like the one led by enslaved people in Haiti (1791–1804). Things changed in 1868, when the first of the three Cuban wars of independence broke out in reaction to new tariffs imposed by Spain, which had caused Cuba’s economy to falter. Social discontent and a burgeoning sense of Cuban national identity coalesced into a formidable force, culminating in the third Cuban War of Independence (1895–98).

By this time, the United States had long served as the main purchaser and refiner of Cuban sugar and had vested interests in Cuba’s prosperity. In 1896, people in the United States read in horror as Spain retaliated against the Cuban rebels by “reconcentrating” tens of thousands of campesinos, or peasants, into fortified towns that were subsequently ravaged by disease and hunger

The mysterious explosion and sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, was likely caused by erupting furnaces, but many in the United States blamed Spain. On April 25, war began. Assisted by Cuban rebels, the United States defeated Spain and renamed the conflict “the Spanish-American War.”

Republic or Empire?

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, claiming the lives of more than 260 sailors. Many U.S. newspapers rushed to blame the tragedy on Spain. The headline of the World asked, “Maine Explosion Caused by Bomb or Torpedo?” while the New York Journal declared, “Destruction of the Warship Maine Was the Work of An Enemy.”

“Remember the Maine!” became a rallying cry for war, ignoring those who dissented. A U.S. naval board of inquiry determined that a Spanish mine had caused the explosion, and on April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. After a ceasefire in August, the United States began to negotiate the conditions of the peace treaty. A national debate ensued around the country’s proposal to annex Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, all of which were Spanish colonies. Those who objected to annexation believed that it would turn the republic into an empire. The Anti-Imperialist League emerged as a leading voice of dissent. Some members stood for the rights of people overseas, whereas others feared “racial mixing” would degrade “the Anglo-Saxon race.” These debates extended to the annexation of Hawai‘i and the United States’ further military engagement in the Philippines, after it refused to recognize Filipino independence.


Queen Lili‘uokalani (1838–1917) became Hawai‘i’s first female monarch on January 29, 1891, and was respected by Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, and foreign heads-of-state alike. However, she inherited a throne undermined by powerful Anglo-American settlers, whose business interests influenced local Hawaiian affairs. Seeking to reestablish the primacy of the Hawaiian monarchy that had ruled since Kamehameha I had united the archipelago in 1810, the Queen introduced a new Constitution on January 14, 1893. Three days later, her opponents—assisted by the U.S. military— staged a coup, imprisoning the Queen and eventually forcing her to abdicate. The “Republic of Hawaii” was established on July 4, 1894.

On July 7, 1898, Congress approved a joint resolution to annex Hawai‘i, marking the culmination of more than a century of foreign threats to the archipelago, including those by the United States, as well as France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. By statute, the “Republic of Hawaii” was renamed the “Territory of Hawaii” on April 30, 1900, and eventually became a state in 1959. To this day, many Kānaka Maoli consider the “joint resolution for annexation” illegal, and they question the legitimacy of Hawaiian statehood, deeming it an occupation.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico and Cuba were the only remaining Spanish colonies in the Americas after 1826. Puerto Ricans bet on colonial reform, but the Spanish monarchy undercut their aspirations through strict political rule. In 1868, separatists organized an armed insurrection, El Grito de Lares (the Cry of Lares), declaring Puerto Rico independent, but Spanish authorities quelled the revolt. Thereafter, most of Puerto Rico’s political class advocated for autonomy. In 1897, their struggle bore fruit when Spain granted the island its Carta Autonómica with ample political, administrative, and economic powers. However, on July 25, 1898, the charter was rendered moot when U.S. troops landed in Guánica.

In general, Puerto Ricans welcomed the change of sovereignty from Spain to the United States in 1898. They hoped for more civil liberties, economic prosperity, and modernization. Later, against the backdrop of the First World War (1914–18), the United States granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans and established a popularly elected senate.

Puerto Ricans elected their first governor in 1948, and in 1952, a new constitution redefined the island’s status as Estado Libre Asociado, or Commonwealth. The constitution was hailed as a bilateral agreement between Puerto Rico and the United States, but Congress retained full legislative authority over the island—and still does to this day.

Consumer Culture

In the United States, the War of 1898 inspired a vibrant market for maps, whimsical trinkets, and board games that were sold for entertainment and distributed to boost national pride. People played games in which territories and coaling stations could be conquered. While reading daily news reports, they tracked military campaigns using interactive maps. Trading cards and other novelties used portraiture to heroicize the U.S. military leaders of the war.

The War of 1898 was over in a matter of months, but the production of consumer objects continued into the first decades of the twentieth century, mainly in the form of books on the “new possessions.” As time marched on, publications and other products confirmed the War of 1898 as a triumphant event in U.S. history, one reflecting U.S. military might, territorial expansion, and political power.

The Philippines

Filipinos had been rebelling against Spanish rule for two years when the United States defeated the Spanish flotilla in Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. Many Filipinos, particularly residents of the island of Luzon, officially declared their independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, and continued their uprising against the Spanish with great success. When the U.S. Army launched a campaign in the Philippines in July, Filipinos believed that the United States would assist them in their war of independence. The Spanish, who had been reluctant to surrender to their “colonial” subjects, surrendered to the United States in a “mock” battle on August 13, 1898.

In the peace treaty after the War of 1898, Spain sold the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. As in the case of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and CHamoru (the Indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, including Guam), Filipinos were not represented in the peace negotiations. Consequently, beginning in 1899, Filipinos waged a war of resistance against the United States, known as the Philippine-American War. Although the United States claimed victory in 1902, fighting persisted through the 1913 Battle of Bud Bagsak, with hostile engagements continuing even after that date. The Philippines did not attain independence until July 4, 1946.


In 1898, after three hundred years of colonization by the Spanish, the island of Guam became a U.S. territory and has remained one ever since. Part of the Mariana Islands archipelago in Micronesia, Guam is located on the seven-thousand-mile ocean route between San Francisco, California, and Manila, in the Philippines. Guam’s natural harbor made it a critical coaling station for steampowered vessels in 1898. The first of thirty-eight U.S.-appointed naval governors of Guam, Richard P. Leary, began his rule on August 7, 1898.

In 1901, thirty-two island leaders petitioned the United States for civil governance and U.S. citizenship, objecting to naval rule. More than seven other petitions were organized over the years. In 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed the Organic Act of Guam, and Guam’s naval government transitioned to a civilian one, with a governor appointed by the president of the United States until 1970, when residents of Guam began electing their governor. However, given its status as an unincorporated territory of the United States, the island remains subject to the full and complete legislative authority of the U.S. Congress.

Today, the United States maintains military installations in Guam, making approximately one-third of the island inaccessible to its CHamoru (the Indigenous people of the Mariana Islands) and Guamanian populations.

Codifying Empire

The War of 1898 ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed by Spain and the United States on December 10, 1898. The United States gained sovereignty over Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, and promised Cuba the right to independence after a period of military occupation.

As the United States assumed control of these islands and annexed Hawai‘i, the issue of empire continued to be contested, especially in the 1900 presidential election. Theodore Roosevelt defended the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, writing in 1901 that “if white people were morally bound to abandon the Philippines, we were also morally bound to abandon Arizona to the Apaches.” His opponents argued that colonialism ran against the founding principles of the United States. Both groups, however, debated the consequences of incorporating peoples of various races, languages, religions, and cultures into the U.S. political and social systems.

The 1901 Supreme Court’s decisions in the Insular Cases justified the power of Congress over the “new possessions” and the selective application of U.S. constitutional protections in lands now defined as “unincorporated territories.” The constitutionality of the Insular Cases and the colonial framework they established are still debated today.