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Struggling Against Empire

July 2024
3min read

A little less than three quarters of a century ago America had a presidential election marked by a passionate argument over American involvement in Asia. As a result of the “splendid little war” with Spain, the country found that it possessed an empire in the Far East; found also that it was deeply involved in the international politics of the Orient, was fighting to suppress a guerrilla war waged by men of a different color,∗ and altogether was following a course that seemed to have very little in common with American traditions, American ideals, or the precepts of the Founding Fathers.

∗ One aspect of that war is described in “Pershing’s Island War,” beginning on page 32 of this issue.

It was perplexing and disturbing, and a number of prominent Americans correctly believed that it would have long-range consequences that some subsequent generation would find extremely difficult. As members of the subsequent generation most painfully involved in these consequences, we today can perhaps learn something by examining the anti-imperialist campaign that accompanied the election of 1900.

A stimulating text is at hand—Robert L. Beisner’s thought-provoking book Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898–1900 , which reviews that unavailing effort to check an irresistible tide and succeeds admirably both in showing what the anti-imperialists were fighting against and why at last they failed.

The hard core of the anti-imperialist movement was provided by the Mugwumps—those public men, mostly wellborn and well-heeled, like William James, E. L. Godkin, Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and Carl Schurz, who ever since the abolition of slavery had been reformers in search of a cause. They were joined by such Republican dissidents as Senator George F. Hoar, Andrew Carnegie, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas B. Reed, united, more or less, in the 1900 campaign by a conviction that “the very purpose and destiny of the nation” were now at stake.

They saw America entering the perilous stream of power politics. In their eyes this ended a century of “free security” for America and marked “the beginning of a new epoch of war and international crisis.” They were convinced that if the Republic followed this course it could not be true to its heritage, and they were fond of repeating the Mugwump saying that “Dewey took Manila with the loss of one man—and all our institutions.”

Politically, their campaign never had a chance. The cards were all stacked the wrong way. The Republican candidate was President William McKinley, under whose guidance (or at least with whose acquiescence) the whole expansionist program had come to flower; and McKinley’s running mate was Theodore Roosevelt, who seemed to be the very high priest of rising imperialism. The Democratic candidate was William Jennings Bryan, who blew both hot and cold: he opposed annexation of the Philippines, then from some foggy notion of smart political tactics supported the treaty which confirmed annexation, returned to his original position, and in the campaign devoted himself chiefly to the domestic issues about which he had been so eloquent four years earlier. Besides, McKinley was defending the full dinner pail, Bryan still believed in free silver, imperialism was only one of many issues, and it does not take a political expert to see why the electorate went Republican.

Beyond that, as Mr. Beisner makes clear, the Mugwumps themselves abysmally lacked the talent for mass leadership. They had an irritating way of standing above the battle. They believed that they spoke for the best thought and the best culture in the land, they made no attempt to conceal this belief, they actually had little political influence, and in the end they sadly concluded that “America had lost much of its fineness” because it rejected their counsel. At times they looked altogether too much like men who wanted to lead a revolt of the upper classes against the rising power of America. They lacked the common touch chiefly because they had no understanding of the common people.

Furthermore, as reformers born and bred, they wholly neglected the crucial domestic problems of the day—the central social and political issues that racked post-Civil War America. As William Allen White once unkindly remarked, they wanted reform “only in a certain vague, inarticulate, bullfrog fashion.” And, finally, they were just a little confused about the basis for their opposition to the American presence in the Philippines. It was never entirely clear whether they thought we ought to be out of the islands because it was morally wrong for us to be in them or just because the islands were so infernally far away. They consented readily enough to American expansionism in the Caribbean. As Mr. Beisner remarks, without the Philippines the whole anti-imperialist move probably would never have got off the ground. It failed, in short, to answer the question that is still bothering us today: do we propose to get out of Asia on high moral grounds or because staying there is just too big a job for us to handle?

Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898–1900 , by Robert L. Beisner. McGraw-Hill Book Company. 294 pp. $6.95.

Nevertheless, the anti-imperialists were right on the basic issue: going fully armored into the international arena, America was fated to become something different than it had been before, with grave risk to its ancient traditions. The splendid little war that was won so easily left us in permanent possession of Pandora’s box, and when we went into the Philippines we took the lid off it. We are still looking for a way to get the lid back on.

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