Moran on Moore, 'American Imperialism and the State, 1893-1921'

Colin D. Moore
Katherine Moran

Colin D. Moore. American Imperialism and the State, 1893-1921. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xviii + 286 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-60658-2.

Reviewed by Katherine Moran (Saint Louis University) Published on H-SHGAPE (May, 2018) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (H-SHGAPE Book Review Editor; The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version:

In recent years, historians of US empire have built an impressive body of scholarship, identifying traces of empire not only in military actions and presidential speeches, but also in a wide range of cultural artifacts, including sermons, novels, architecture, and photography. However, as Colin D. Moore demonstrates in his deeply researched and cogently argued new book, American Imperialism and the State, 1893-1921, scholars would do well to look more carefully at the imperial state itself: at its nature and trajectory, and at the people, institutions, and decisions that made it what it was.

Moore is a political scientist with a historical focus: as a state-centered, institutional history of formal empire, his work intervenes in a cross-disciplinary conversation about US state formation among historians and political scientists, reaching back to the work of Stephen Skowronek, Theda Skocpol, and Daniel P. Carpenter, while also drawing on histories of so-called Dollar Diplomacy and early twentieth-century US colonial empire, particularly the work of Emily Rosenberg and Julian Go. His book’s main contention is that the history of US colonies, dependencies, and protectorates between the Spanish-Cuban-American War and the end of the Wilson administration constitutes “a formative moment in American state development” (p. 272).

To make this argument, Moore has traced legal and policy debates and has also immersed himself in the archival records of institutions such as the Bureau of Insular Affairs (the War Department agency in charge of most American colonies) and the personal papers of key officials such as Elihu Root (secretary of war under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and, later, secretary of state under Roosevelt). This archive allows him to reach beyond the history of public discourse and legal argument to focus instead on the sometimes hidden story of the bureaucratic institutions and officials who shaped the imperial state, broadly defined. He traces, in an introduction, conclusion, and six thematically and chronologically organized chapters, the history of state formation and the projection of US power in Hawai’i, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti and engages in shorter, comparative discussions of US engagement with Honduras, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa.

Moore cautions his readers that American Imperialism and the State is not the history of an aggressive American external state supported by a powerful executive and a well-organized colonial service. It is, in fact, quite the opposite: at the end of the nineteenth century, Congress rather than the president dominated foreign policy, and external state bureaucracies were both inefficient and corrupt. “Even by the relatively low standards of the American patronage state,” Moore notes wryly, “the consuls stood out as particularly incompetent” (p. 49). After the Spanish-Cuban-American War, colonial bureaucrats had to contend with a lack of domestic public support for colonial empire, made manifest in Congress’s reluctance to financially support the colonies through appropriations or tariff reform. This lack of support was itself, Moore argues, rooted in American anti-imperialism, white racism, and American fears of economic competition from their own colonies. The story of early twentieth-century empire-building is, then, the story of how a cadre of ambitious and Progressive-minded imperial officials, with the help of Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, pioneered “innovative and adaptive responses ... to congressional opposition,” responses that led, eventually, to the successful pursuit of bureaucratic autonomy (p. 6).

Moore describes these responses as involving two main strategies. First, colonial officials pursued a strategy of what he calls “inconspicuous action.” “Rather than work to build favorable constituencies and to increase the salience of their policies,” Moore writes, “inconspicuous action prevails when bureaucrats actively pursue strategies to stay off the political agenda” (p. 21). Through the cultivation of a loyal civil service within an administrative structure well insulated from oversight, the (unsuccessful) attempt to shape public opinion through public relations campaigns and the (more successful) control of information through censorship, and a pronounced reluctance to petition Congress for financial support, colonial officials were able to operate largely outside of congressional notice. Furthermore, strategies of inconspicuous action were quite visible to imperial subjects themselves. Moore compellingly argues that some people—those pursuing independence in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, for example—were able to use this knowledge to their own advantage, publicly embarrassing the US imperial state and thus attracting the attention of Congress, making the empire quite conspicuous indeed.

Moore argues that colonial bureaucrats were able to avoid asking Congress for financial support because, when it became clear that Congress was unwilling to provide that support, these officials pursued partnerships with Wall Street bankers. This second strategy, what he calls “state building through collaboration,” involved the creation of public-private financial partnerships to support colonial development projects. What began as an initial experiment with floating bonds on Wall Street to fund railroads and other projects in the Philippines eventually inspired a turn away from colonial empire and toward Dollar Diplomacy, as private money was used to refinance sovereign debt—under the supervision of Americans—in places like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. While others have directed attention to the close ties between Wall Street and the Progressive-Era US empire, Moore is careful to note that economic expansionism was not driving foreign policy: rather than acting as agents of financiers, imperial officials were pursuing financial partnerships to achieve their own ends.

American Imperialism and the State also takes ideas seriously as a motive force. Turning away from models of historical causality that privilege power politics and material interests, Moore argues that Progressive ideas drove imperial bureaucrats. These ideas, he explains, were the “road maps” and “focal points” that drew diverse individuals together toward a common imperial project and guided their way forward (p. 18). Progressive convictions about the value of civil service, public health, railways, road-building, policing, and education motivated colonial bureaucrats to seek autonomy from congressional oversight and establish public-private financial partnerships in the first place. For them, these reforms would anchor the exceptional American empire by drawing American capital to the colonies. That capital would fuel industrial development and foster a domestic constituency for colonial empire, while supporting ongoing social engineering efforts that would advertise American benevolence to the world. In fact, throughout the book, Moore dwells on the moments when colonial bureaucrats acted in ways contrary to their own financial interests. He points, for example, to colonial governor W. Cameron Forbes’s personal financial support for a railroad-building project in the Philippines—including one $5,000 personal check that Forbes sent to the railroad in 1912—to argue that Forbes did not see the railroads as a way to make a fortune, but rather used his own money to support the railroads because he believed infrastructure was vital to colonial development.

Moore’s focus on ideas, in particular, invites his readers to consider how American Imperialism and the State can speak to intellectual and cultural histories of US empire, many of which Moore cites. Scholars like Amy Greenberg and Paul Kramer, for example, have not only illuminated constructs of gender and race as providing the “background conditions of American imperialism,” in Moore’s words (p. 9). They have also interrogated the ways gendered and raced understandings of human difference and behavior were instrumental in the shaping of colonial and imperial policy, and shown that these understandings were multiple, overlapping, and often in conflict (with one another and with notions of gender and race among imperial subjects). Additionally, they have argued that formations of race and gender were themselves shaped by the pursuit of empire and colonial state-building in ways that returned to inflect domestic discourse, belying a simple export-oriented model of imperial ideas. Bringing Moore’s invaluable work into closer conversation with this historiography, future scholars might explore how Progressive ideas—understood as multiple, protean, and constantly traveling back and forth between the domestic United States and its possessions—both motivated and were transformed by colonial officials’ efforts to control information flows, for example, or to present colonies, dependencies, and protectorates as sound investments to Wall Street investors.

In the end, the increase of bureaucratic autonomy in the imperial state is both a short story and a long one. Moore ends his book at the end of the Wilson administration, arguing that by then the pursuit of formal empire was on the wane, and Progressive dreams for colonies like the Philippines and for Dollar Diplomacy in places like Haiti and the Dominican Republic were actually doomed by the shady financial partnerships, and lack of checks on bureaucratic authority, that they had birthed. The 1920s provide an apt end to Moore’s study, with its emphasis on the pursuit of US formal empire as a distinct aspect of the broader imperial experience of the United States. Yet the ongoing legacies of this process of imperial state formation nonetheless remain. Most obviously, they remain in the continuation of US rule over Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands. One might wonder how a similar book with a more intensive focus on Puerto Rico or Samoa, for example, might tell a different story about the legacy of Progressive-Era imperial state formation. (Relatedly, more attention to the position of naval officers as colonial bureaucrats in places like Samoa might also complicate the picture that Moore has drawn for us.) And, finally, Moore ties imperial state formation in the period from the 1890s to the 1920s to the eventual rise of the imperial presidency and the national security state—an intriguing suggestion that will likely inspire future scholarship.

In short, American Imperialism and the State, 1893-1921 is an important book, filled with cross-disciplinary insights that bring the history of formal overseas empire to the study of US state formation, while also bringing a precise attention to the shape of the imperial state to the burgeoning historiography of early twentieth-century US empire-building.

Citation: Katherine Moran. Review of Moore, Colin D., American Imperialism and the State, 1893-1921. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. May, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.