Gilded Age and Progressive Era

The Rise of American Power in the World

Clock 180 minutes

This lesson explores the changing role of America during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  Students will explore American foreign policy and its role in the world in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the debate over the Versailles Treaty.  A historical narrative, primary sources, political cartoons, and student activities will help students debate different views regarding America’s role in the world in history and today.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Freedom of Speech image

Freedom of Speech

The freedom to express one's opinions without interference from the the government is critical to the maintenance of liberty within a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Separation of Powers image

Separation of Powers

A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.


War Message

“We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.” - Woodrow Wilson (April 2, 1917)


The late nineteenth century ushered in great changes in how the United States interacted with the rest of the world. For the first century of its existence, the United States traded with other countries, acquired territory for continental expansion, and fought in a few major wars. However, the United States was generally neutral in world affairs and focused on its domestic situation. That would change when America entered the world stage as a major global power. This expansion into world affairs led to an internal American debate regarding its international powers and responsibilities. Americans also struggled over the character of its foreign affairs—whether America would engage the world with military power or whether it would spread democracy around the world.


  • Students will trace the changes in American foreign policy in the Gilded Age and World War I era.
  • Students will identify the key causes and consequences of the United States’ shift toward a more active role in the world in the 1890s.
  • Students will analyze the debates in the U.S. surrounding the Spanish-American War, the annexation of the Philippines, entry into World War I, and entry into the League of Nations.


  • Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of American Power in the World
  • Handout B: The Evolution of American Foreign Policy
  • Handout C: Tracking Changes in Foreign Policy
  • Handout D: The Debate on the Annexation of the Philippines
  • Handout E: The Debate on the Ratification of the League of Nations Covenant

Key Terms

  • Monroe Doctrine
  • Annexation
  • Alaska Purchase
  • Yellow journalism
  • Humanitarianism
  • Alfred Thayer Mahan
  • Expansionism
  • President William McKinley
  • Spanish-American War
  • Teller Amendment
  • Platt Amendment
  • Territory
  • Empire
  • American Anti-Imperialist League
  • Philippine Insurrection
  • Progressivism
  • President Theodore Roosevelt
  • “Big Stick” diplomacy
  • Great White Fleet
  • Panama Canal
  • Roosevelt Corollary
  • President Woodrow Wilson
  • Porfirio Diaz
  • Francisco Madero
  • Victoriano Huerta
  • Tampico
  • Venustiano Carranza
  • Pancho Villa
  • World War I
  • Neutrality
  • Zimmermann Telegram
  • League of Nations
  • Treaty of Versailles
  • League Covenant
  • Article X


National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • 1) Thematic Standards
    • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    • VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
    • VII. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
    • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
    • X. Civic Ideals and Practices
  • 2) Disciplinary Standards
    • 1. History
    • 3. Civics and Government
    • 4. Economics

Center for Civic Education

  • 9-12 Content Standards
    • V. What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?

UCLA Department of History (NCHS)

  • US History Content Standards
    • United States Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870 – 1900)
    • United States Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890 – 1930)

Activities 180 minutes

Activity I » 30 minutes
Distribute Handout A: Background Essay: The Rise of American Power in the World to your students and have them read the essay and answer the review questions. This activity may alternatively be completed as homework the night before the lesson.

Activity II » 60 Minutes

  1. Distribute Handout B: The Evolution of American Foreign Policy to your students and have them read the document, taking note of the changes in foreign policy over time.
  2. Distribute copies of Handout C: Tracking Changes in Foreign Policy. Follow the directions included in Handout C.

Activity III » 60 Minutes

  1. Distribute Handout D: The Debate on the Annexation of the Philippines to your students and have them read the document, taking note of the primary arguments which were levied by individuals on either side of the debate.
  2. Prepare for a live debate in the classroom.
    • Divide students into two factions: pro-annexation and anti-annexation. Give each side fifteen minutes to prepare a five-minute speech in favor of their position, drawing from their readings. Each group should select one person to deliver this speech. The pro-annexation speaker should speak first, followed by the anti-annexation speaker. Next, give each speaker two minutes to cross-examine one another.
    • Give both teams five minutes to prepare a new, five-minute speech in which they attack the opposing side’s position and re-assert without repeating points that were made previously. Different individuals should deliver this speech. After their speeches are complete, they should cross-examine one another for two minutes.
    • With one minute for preparation time, each team will send a final speaker to deliver a final, one-minute summary of their argument in favor of their position.
  3. After the debate is finished, conduct an anonymous vote to see which side was more persuasive.

Activity IV » 30 Minutes

  1. Break the students up into small groups. Distribute Handout E: The Debate on the Ratification of the League of Nations Covenant to your students and have them read the documents. Ask the groups to read and analyze the documents and fill in the graphic organizer for each document to reflect whether it supports or opposes the United States joining the League of Nations.
  2. Discuss the answers the students give and have them justify their answers with specific evidence from the primary source quotes.

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