The Enemies Of Empire

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At the peak of the League’s activities in 1899, it claimed thirty thousand members and “half a million contributors” in branches located in a dozen large cities from Boston to Portland, Oregon. One of its conferences, in Chicago on October 17-18, 1899, attracted ten thousand delegates; and by 1900 the League claimed to have distributed four hundred thousand pieces of literature. This spreading of its work enhanced its prestige, no doubt, but it proved to be a handicap in exerting political influence. For what leader could be found who could win and keep the confidence of quite so many kinds of followers?

The first political battle fought by the anti-imperialists was the one in which they came the closest to victory: the heated conflict over the ratification of the treaty of peace with Spain in January and February, 1899. The only controversial section in the document was the article providing for the cession of the whole Philippine archipelago to the United States. As Peace Commissioner Whitelaw Reid put it: he and his associates were accused of “overdoing the business, looking after the interests of the country too thoroughly …” Since a two-thirds vote was required for ratification in a Senate composed of forty-six Republicans, thirty-four Democrats, and ten members of minor parties, it was evident that a substantial number of Democratic senators would have to be won over.

Fresh from his discharge from the Army, William Jennings Bryan announced in an interview at Savannah, Georgia, on December 13, 1898, that although he was firmly anti-imperialist, he believed that the treaty should be ratified and the issue of imperialism settled by resolution at a later date. The less politically minded anti-imperialists (Carnegie, Schurz, and Storey) regarded this as a sacrifice of principle in order to secure a campaign issue to go along with free silver (which they detested) in the election of 1900. Ten Democratic senators helped to ratify the treaty by only one vote more than the necessary two thirds, and although two or three of them may have been swayed by the outbreak of fighting, two days earlier, between Filipino and American soldiers, Bryan has generally been credited with influencing the key votes. Many senators were undoubtedly influenced by Lodge’s argument that failure to ratify would be a repudiation of McKinley and a continuation of the war. If there could have been a clear-cut decision regarding the retention of the Philippines, “the imperialists,” says the diplomatic historian Thomas A. Bailey, “would almost certainly have failed to obtain a two-thirds majority.” A few days later the Bacon amendment, pledging ultimate independence to the Filipinos, resulted in a tie vote, decided in the negative by the vote of Vice President Garret A. Hobart.

Despite this setback, the movement grew, rather than declined, as the 1900 election approached, although Bryan had created an amount of distrust in the minds of the “true” anti-imperialists, which led to talk of a third-party ticket designed to split the McKinley vote. Bryan agreed to make anti-imperialism “the paramount issue” of his campaign, and was finally endorsed by the League’s Liberty Congress in Indianapolis in August, 1900. But many of the anti-imperialists refused to stomach Bryan’s continued insistence upon free silver, and either voted for McKinley or held aloof from both candidates. Bryan secured fewer votes in 1900 than in 1896, and his defeat “marked the end of anti-imperialism as an important factor in American politics.”

Political failure did not prevent literary success for the cause, although most of the blows struck by the pen came too late to turn the tide of public opinion. The one man whose emotional response to imperialism became enduring literature was the poet William Vaughn Moody. He risked his position as teacher of English at the University of Chicago by publishing several anti-imperialist poems in the Atlantic Monthly. In contrast to its noble sacrifices in the Civil War, Moody saw his country engaged in “ignoble battle,” but protested:

We have not sold our loftiest heritage/The proud republic hath not stooped to cheat and scramble in the market place of war … /                                                                   That so our hand with better ease/ May wield the driver’s whip and grasp the jailer’s keys.

Warning the country’s leaders to “tempt not our weakness, our cupidity,” the poet declares that “save we let the island men go free,” our soldiers will have died in vain. In a shorter poem entitled “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines,” (Atlantic Monthly, February, 1901), Moody makes use of the poignant contradiction between the honor due to the fallen and the dishonor of his cause: