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Outlooks and Empire: Personal Motivations and the Philippine-American War


I wrote this one for a class called US International History, which was taught by Paul Kramer. He wrote a great book about the Philippine-American War that you can buy here. Please leave any feedback about my portfolio below.

Continentalism and civilizationism are names for the basic American positions on U.S. Imperialism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In broad terms, the civilizationists were in favor of establishing an overseas empire and generally involving the U.S. in international affairs. The continentalists were opposed to that idea and thought the U.S. should keep to itself. However, these groups were composed of many smaller factions, each with their own motives and demographics. In some cases, different goals were stated by opposing sides. In others, the goal was agreed upon, but the best means to achieve it was controversial. In yet other cases, groups with conflicting goals used different lines of reasoning to reach the same conclusion. This is an excellent example of strange bedfellows, though it is not an uncommon situation in politics. Here, I will explore some of the groups and their outlooks in relation to the Philippine-American War and the rhetorical strategies they employed.

As generally happens in such situations, economic concerns took the forefront in politics. This point of view essentially saw the potential colonies as a prospective investment. Here, there was unity in the basic objective: maximization of U.S. wealth. Though many thought this was an important argument, there was massive division in their predictions about the impact on U.S. finances. In short, would an international empire cause the U.S.’s wealth to flow out to be squandered in wars or spent on building up infrastructure with little hope of return or would the colonies give the U.S. untapped riches to be developed for great profit? What sort of investment strategy was appropriate for a nation such as the U.S. to play? The latter is as much a question of national character as economics.

The pro-empire arguments tended to focus on monetary wealth and military advantage. Albert Beveridge’s speech1 before the senate in regards to the Philippines focused on both these points. The Philippines were not only potentially valuable for mining farming and manufacturing, but most importantly as a port. This would make for far easier trade with the lucrative Asian markets and give the U.S. considerable Pacific naval power. In his speech, “The Strenuous Life”2, President Theodore Roosevelt argued against the criticisms of the expense of the war saying far more money was to be made from the results. Roosevelt argued explicitly, as Beveridge and others had implicitly, that an empire was the bolder, riskier and therefore manlier strategy. Playing it safe and keeping what you have was the womanly strategy. As men are charged with running countries, countries should behave in a manly fashion and seek adventure and fortune.

The expense of the war was not just money, of course, but human life, which is, after all, a sort of wealth and a prerequisite to obtaining any other material wealth. Chandler3, writing as a representative of women who were in danger of losing their husbands and sons to war in the Philippines, pushed the point of losses not just of money and life, but quality of life for those maimed or driven insane in the war. To her, some theoretical future benefit was irrelevant. She did not even specifically address it because it could not be worth this cost.

While she implicitly agreed to some degree with Roosevelt’s assessment of gender, despite the fact that she was writing to a female audience and appealing to values like family and risk avoidance as a reason for women to oppose war, she argued that there are multiple forms of masculinity. The violent sort for which Roosevelt argued was brutish, uncivilized and implicitly emotionally driven (a charge frequently used to dismiss women’s views) while her own appeal to calm rationalism was ultimately the mark of great manhood. If she was writing for “Woman’s Tribune”, why was she concerning herself with issues of masculinity? Presumably, this was not an important part of her readers’ self-image. Also, why was the magazine covering political topics when its readers could not vote and thus had no direct influence on politics? Chandler understood that women had significant politcal power through indirect influence. Almost all the women reading would have had a husband or son or brother or pastor or boss or some man who man who cared what she thought. She was providing her readers with talking points. Her audience was told why they should oppose the war in arguments that would appeal to them and provided with arguments that they could use to persuade men as well.

Acacible4, a Filipino writing on the subject to an American audience, also argued on economic grounds that war destroys people and resources. Like Chandler, he could not vote in the U.S. and had no direct say in the matter, but he sold his male audience a self-image that they should find desirable, an image which aligned them with his position. Not only was avoiding war good for business, it was also more noble. He made appeals to masculine icons like the Founding Fathers of the U.S. and values such as integrity to make this point.

Filipinos weren’t entirely on their own to look out for their interests. A humanist influence was apparent across society as most sources at least paid lip-service to their welfare, though their ideas about what was best for Filipinos often vary wildly from Acacible’s. The philosophical underpinnings of government were important here. Like Acacible, though he doubtless would disagree with him on almost everything as to the nature of Filipino people and civilization, Samuel Gompers made reference5 to the Declaration of Independence, arguing that even the lowliest savage has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Chandler3, apparently seeing parallels with the suffragists, argued that all people, including the Filipinos, had a natural right to sovereignty.

Alice Plodgeon6 argued that, regardless of any theory, the U.S. government couldn’t be trusted to improve the lives of Filipinos, regardless of stated intent. While apparently accepting the idea the Philippines may not be ready for self-rule, she argued that the U.S., like all previous empires, would put its own concerns first and thus not improve their situation. This was the cause for some division within the continentalist ranks.

A letter-writer to the “Washington Bee,” a black newspaper in 1898 complained of hypocrisy7 in people who lament the loss of the Confederacy in the Civil War, where they tried to expand slave territory and now were opposing empire on the basis that Filipinos have the right to rule themselves. The writer seems to share Plodgeon’s concerns that expansion of empire leads to slavery and exploitation, but is primarily concerned that many people advancing this argument did not really care about self-government for people other than themselves and were trying to put a nice face on more selfish motives. This is one of the results of odd political alliances. People will espouse arguments they don’t believe in or are inconsistent with their own because they think they are effective for winning the minds of others who disagree with their basic goals and thus good for winning specific political points.

While continentalists relied largely on appeals to the rights of foreigners, the civilizationist arguments on this topic focused more on their needs. The Report of the Philippine Commission to the President laid out at great length the inadequacy of the Spanish institutions, particularly the schools, and called for the U.S. to invest greatly in infrastructure and education to improve the lot of the natives. Like Beveridge, it did not seem to regard the Filipinos as capable of self-rule, therefore it was incumbent on a superior civilization to assist them.

Closely related to this were the missionary arguments from Evangelical Christians. These was an appeal to the Great Commission, promoting an empire as a means of enabling missionary work to the heathens in far-off lands both to win their souls and to save them from the degradations of an uncivilized world. 9 Continentalists also made religious arguments, however. Gompers5 argues that war was in itself bad for national morality because it took the focus off issues at home leading to “decadence and utter ruin.” Furthermore, empire would lead to an influx of Asian immigrants, whose immoral ways would corrupt the nation.

So there were a number of competing narratives: Was a masculine character an essential characteristic of an admirable nation? What was the place of women within it? Were the Filipinos essentially the same as whites, irredeemable savages or just an uncivilized group that needed instruction in the ways of modernity? Was society’s moral duty to spread morality abroad or protect it at home? One’s position did not actually imply a given answer to any of these questions and a specific answer to many of the questions did not imply a particular position of the war. They interacted in complex ways and were given different weights for personal reasons. Similarly, very different arguments were used to sway different demographics to the same position. These odd alignments and misalignments are at the root of political thought.



  1. Congressional Record. 56th Cong., 1t sess., pp 704-712.
  2. Gompers, Samuel “Imperialism—Its Dangers and Wrongs.” In Republic or Empire?: The Philippine Question, edited by Bryan, William Jennings. Chicago: The Independence Company, 1899.
  3. United States Philippine Commission. American Report of the Philippine Commission to the President. Government Printing Office: Washington D.C., 1900. Pp 31-34
  1. Roosevelt, Theodore. Chicago, Illinois, April 10th, 1899
  2. Chandler, Lucinda B. “Women Against War,” Woman’s Tribune, Vol. 17, No. 6 (March 24, 1900), p. 24.
  3. Acacible, G. Toronto, Ontario, June, 1900
  1. Plodgeon, Alice. Brooklyn, New York, “A Thought on Government,” The Woman’s Tribune, Washington, DC, Saturday, January 14, 1899.
  2. “Southern Anti-Expansionists Hypocritical,” Washington Bee. December 17th, 1898.
  1. Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. “Zenanas and Girlless Villages: The Ethnology of American Evangelical Women” The Journal of American History, Vol. 69, No. 2. (Sep., 1982), pp. 347-371.

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