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Gloom, Gloom, Gloom, And Scarce One Ray Of Light
Ruminations of E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
By 1895 Godkin and Norton had come to sound increasingly like men who were close to abandoning all hope for their country. From the Nation and from Harvard they watched the ailing American Experiment falter and fail. It was the Spanish-American War and the expansionism that accompanied it that administered the coup de grâce. Godkin and Norton were angry and saddened but not surprised, for they had expected all along that something of the sort would happen. The times had long been out of joint, and imperialism was but another blow—albeit the heaviest—against the America they had known. Only one question remained for them: was the blow fatal?
For thirty years Godkin had been an opponent of expansionism, hammering away against every annexation scheme that dared to raise its head. Three months before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, when the Senate was considering the annexation of Hawaii, Godkin had summarized his objections to a policy of territorial annexation in a Nation editorial:
The sudden departure from our traditions; the absence from our system of any machinery for governing dependencies; the admission of alien, inferior, and mongrel races to our nationality; the opening of fresh fields to carpetbaggers, speculators, and corruptionists; the un-Americanism of governing a large body of people against their will, and by persons not responsible to them; the entrance on a policy of conquest and annexation while our own continent was still unreclaimed, our population unassimilated, and many of our most serious political problems still unsolved; and finally the danger of the endorsement of a gross fraud for the first time by a Christian nation.
At the close of the war in August, 1898, Godkin remained firmly opposed to all annexation schemes, and throughout the rest of that year and all of the next he repeatedly emphasized the difficulties the United States would face if it became an imperialist power. He believed that the establishment of a colonial administration would necessitate a drastic overhaul of the American government, “a complete change in our destiny, political, military, and naval.” If the United States annexed the Philippines and had to defend them from the covetousness of other powers, it would be necessary to arm to the teeth with naval and military forces capable of being “instantly” mobilized and dispatched to any danger spot on the globe. And we would need a “permanent” colonial service:
It will not do to vote money and build ships, simply, and drill armies and sailors. If we are going to annex and rule over countries the population of which differs from us in race, religion, language, in history and every variety of antecedent, and who will probably hate us and treat our rule as a “yoke,” we shall have to get administrators ready, as well as guns and ships. We shall have to do what the other conquering and colonizing nations do, what England does, what Russia and Germany do.
In his anger Godkin railed at the expansionists for their betrayal of American principles. In the Philippines, he charged, McKinley, “drunk with glory and flattery,” had substituted “keen effective slaughter for Spanish old-fashioned, clumsy slaughter.” When eager missionaries began planning new translations of the Bible in the various tongues of the Filipinos, the Nation derisively commented that they should read: “Mow down the natives like grass and say unto them, the Syndicate has arrived.” But there was no longer much heart in Godkin’s protest, for he had concluded that the fight was virtually lost. In late 1898 and early 1899 he gave way to utter despair, publicly declaring that “the old American republic is in a bad way.” In private letters he poured out his full sorrow:
I am, heart and soul, an American of the vielle roche. American ideals were the intellectual food of my youth, and to see America converted into a senseless, Old World conqueror, embitters my age. [May, 1899]
I came here fifty years ago with high and fond ideals about America.… They are now all shattered, and I have apparently to look elsewhere to keep even moderate hopes about the human race alive. [Late 1899]
I have suffered from seeing the America of my youthful dreams vanish from my sight, and the commencement on this continent of the old story. … [November 13, 1899]
Godkin suffered a stroke in February of 1900. Fifteen months later he left his adopted country and returned to England. Occasionally the bitter humor of former days would return to him, as when he wrote James Bryce: “Do come over soon, and we’ll lie under a tree at Dublin while you abuse Great Britain and I abuse the United States.” He died in Devon on May 21, 1902, and was buried in the Hazelbeach churchyard, Northampton, to rest forever in England. In America, the country he had abandoned, the Nation published a fitting epitaph: