How did the United States become a global imperial power?
First Edition. May 2021.
PREVIEW THIS UNIT. The preview includes the table of contents, a student reading excerpt, and one lesson plan. PREVIEW ALL UNITS. Additional unit descriptions for the U.S. History Series that summarize key events, people, and terms, as well as underrepresented histories and skill development are available, along with a timeline, on this MIRO BOARD.

Teachers: Are you still using Reluctant Colossus: America Enters the Age of Imperialism OR Beyond Manifest Destiny: America Enters the Age of Imperialism? We retired those units and recommend that you no longer use them. This unit serves an updated and improved replacement for those units. Please contact our office at if you have any questions.

The history of U.S. imperial expansion at the turn of the twentieth century has often been taught as if it were a major departure from the nation’s historical record both before and since. In contrast, Imperial America: U.S. Global Expansion, 1890-1915 shows how the United States’ acquisition of overseas colonies after the War of 1898 was actually part of a much longer history of U.S. imperialism. In this curriculum, students explore the historical connections between the United States’ creation of a settler colonial empire in North America (what is often called “westward expansion”) and the nation’s acquisition of an overseas colonial empire following the War of 1898. Students learn about the history of U.S. colonial rule in the territories acquired at the turn of the twentieth century. Students also examine the various ways U.S. imperial power continued to expand in the early twentieth century—even without the acquisition of additional colonies. Resistance to U.S. imperialism is a key theme throughout this curriculum. Students examine various forms of political, legal, social, cultural, and armed resistance movements to U.S. imperialism in North America, the nation’s overseas colonial territories, and beyond. The unit is divided into three parts. Each part includes:

  • Student readings
  • Accompanying study guides, graphic organizers, and key terms
  • Lessons aligned with the readings that develop analytical skills and can be completed in one or more periods
  • Videos that feature leading experts

This unit includes additional synthesis lessons that allow students to synthesize new knowledge for assessment. You do not need to use the entire unit; feel free to select what suits your classroom needs.

“Choices curriculum provides depth in international content that is easily accessible for high school students so they can then consider United States history, its place in the world, and foreign policy options.” – Rhonda, Social Studies Teacher, Montana

Part I: Empire and the Making of the United States

Part I recounts the history of U.S. settler colonialism. It also covers the rise of the U.S. imperialist movement in the 1890s and the attempt to annex Hawai‘i in 1893. There are two lessons aligned with Part I: 1) American Progress: Analyzing a Portrayal of Manifest Destiny, and 2) Native Hawaiian Resistance to Annexation.

Part II: The War of 1898 and the Philippine-American War

Part II focuses on the War of 1898, the Philippine-American War, and the debate within the United States between imperialists and anti-imperialists. There are two lessons aligned with Part II: 1) U.S. Soldiers’ Experiences in the Philippine-American War, and 2) Cartoon Analysis: Race and Empire in U.S. Political Cartoons.

Part III: Empire With and Without Colonies

Part III examines how the United States governed its newfound overseas colonial empire. It also explores the expansion of U.S. imperial power in the early twentieth century through military interventions and the creation of U.S. protectorates. There are two lessons aligned with Part III: 1) The Insular Cases: Deciding the Constitutional Status of the Colonies, and 2) Historical Memory at San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba.


American Progress: Analyzing a Portrayal of Manifest Destiny

In this lesson, students examine John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress, analyze its symbolic imagery, and contrast its portrayal of “manifest destiny” with what they have learned about the actual historical process of U.S. settler colonial expansion. A mini lesson with a short video and graphic organizer accompany this lesson (see below under Materials).

Native Hawaiian Resistance to Annexation

Students analyze different types of primary sources to deepen their understanding of Native Hawaiians’ resistance to U.S. annexation. Students also consider the value of using multiple perspectives to analyze historical events.

U.S. Soldiers’ Experiences in the Philippine-American War

Students examine excerpts from U.S. soldiers’ letters and diaries and assess the range of opinions and experiences of white and Black U.S. troops fighting in the Philippine-American War.

Cartoon Analysis: Race and Empire in U.S. Political Cartoons

Students analyze the techniques political cartoonists use to express opinions. Students then evaluate a cartoonist’s racist depiction of U.S. imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century and reflect on the personal and social difficulties of confronting racist primary sources in the present.

The Insular Cases: Deciding the Constitutional Status of the Colonies

Students compare, contrast, and analyze Supreme Court majority and dissenting opinions in Downes v. Bidwell, one of the 1901 Insular Cases that decided the constitutional status of U.S. colonies. Students also assess the role racism played in an influential Supreme Court ruling still in effect today.

Historical Memory at San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba

Students examine a slideshow of photographs of historical memorials built between 1898 and 1998 at the San Juan Hill memorial park in Santiago de Cuba and explore the ways in which public commemoration of historical events is politicized and changes over time.

Getting to Know an Influential Anti-Imperialist

Synthesis Lesson: Students gain insight into the lives, ideas, and aspirations of a wide range of anti-imperialists from various countries and historical eras who have resisted U.S. imperialism in numerous different ways.

Puerto Rico’s Political Status and the Legacies of Colonialism

Synthesis Lesson: Students explore the more than 120-year-long colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico and examine historical and contemporary Puerto Rican calls for change to their colonial status.

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