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The Domestic Politics of World Power: Explaining Debates over the United States Battleship Fleet, 1890–91

  • Benjamin O. Fordham
Abstract

The United States' 1890–91 decision to begin building a battleship fleet, an important point in its development as a world power, can illuminate the domestic sources of foreign policy ambition. An analysis of roll-call votes in the House of Representatives indicates that socioeconomic divisions arising from industrialization strongly influenced support and opposition to the battleship fleet. This relationship worked mainly through trade policy interests: members of Congress from import-competing states tended to support the effort, while those from export-oriented states tended to oppose it. The patriotic symbolism of battleships at a time of labor unrest also helped motivate support for the program, though evidence of this pattern is less conclusive. Although party affiliation was crucial, it was also partly a function of economic structure, which shaped the two parties’ electoral fortunes. The impact of trade interests during this period is a mirror image of what previous research has found concerning the post-World War II era, when export-oriented interests tended to support American global activism and import-competing interests to oppose it. The reason for the difference is the Republican Party's commitment to trade protection, which strongly influenced both the goals of the policy and the identity of its supporters.

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I thank Michael Colaresi, Brian Crisher, Rex Douglass, Chris Farriss, Erik Gartzke, Patrick James, Katja Kleinberg, Michael Lee, David Lindsey, Carla Martinez Machain, Michael Mousseau, Paul Poast, Mark Souva, William Thompson, and participants in colloquia at Binghamton University and the University of California, San Diego, for comments on earlier versions of this paper. I am especially grateful to Michael Flynn, who has been involved in research related to this project from its beginning, and to Jonathan Markowitz, who talked me into revisiting it. Research for this paper was funded in part by the National Science Foundation Political Science Program through grant SES-1022546.

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