What motivated the US to try to get its own empire during the 19th century?
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Perhaps the initial motivation of empire building provinces in the Jeffersonian ideology of expansionism. This however gets altered and molded to meet the economical needs of a growing nation as the 19th Century came to a close. The most traditional belief or cause the US mentality of this nature is that of Manifest Destiny. This is the John O'Sullivan's belief that the nation had God given right to take land westward to the Pacific. This was reinforced with the spreading of Christianity and democracy. As industrialization intensified and world trade became more essential to the economy this concept spread to lands beyond the west coast. One last and perhaps interesting way to analyze this question to go back even to the founding of Massachusetts Bay; the main driving force there was John Winthropes' belief in establishing a "city upon a hill." If such a belief is fast forwarded to encompass your question one could very much so argue that the US foreign policy has been to promote itself for the better glory of humanity; this was then reasserted by John Quincy Adams with the announcement of President James Monroe to police and/or protect (prevent) colonization of European nation in the Eastern Hemisphere known historically as the Monroe Doctrine.
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