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The Meaning of ’98
Our war with Spain marked the first year of the American Century
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
That tremendous surge of national self-confidence, debouching into super-nationalism (in reality, imperialism, though most Americans would shy away from such a word), must not obscure the fact that as in every war in the history of this country, Americans were divided. On one side, which turned out to be the dominant one, were the expansionists of 1898. Of their many and increasingly vocal declarations let me cite but one or two. There was Sen. H. M. Teller of Colorado, who as early as 1893 proclaimed: “I am in favor of the annexation of Hawaii. I am in favor of the annexation of Cuba. I am in favor of the annexation of the great country lying north of us.” (He meant Canada.) The language of Sen. E. O. Wolcott of Colorado was more florid: “Who is to say that in the evolution of such a Republic as this the time has not come when the immense development of our internal resources and the marvelous growth of our domestic and foreign commerce and a realization of our virile strength have not stimulated that Anglo-Saxon restlessness which beats with the blood of the race into an activity which will not be quenched until we have finally planted our standard in that far-off archipelago which inevitable destiny has intrusted to our hands?” (He meant the Philippines.) And when the war was over, Sen. Orville H. Platt of Connecticut said: “The same force that had once guided Pilgrim sails to Plymouth Rock had impressed our ships at Manila and our army at Santiago. Upon us rested the duty of extending Christian civilization, of crushing despotism, of uplifting humanity and making the rights of man prevail. Providence has put it upon us.” On the other side of Congress were the opponents of the expansionists. There was Sen. George F. Hoar: “The Monroe Doctrine is gone.” Or Sen. Donelson Caffery: “Sir, Christianity can not be advanced by force.” What drove the expansionists was “lust of power and greed for land, veneered with the tawdriness of false humanity.”
It is at this point instructive to look at the character and the development of these divisions of American opinion. The twentieth-century terminology of “internationalists versus isolationists” does not apply. Besides the fact that “isolationism” as a category came into usage only after World War I, the expansionists of 1898 were American unilateralists, not internationalists, while their opponents were not isolationists either. What clashed were two different visions of American destiny. These were already visible well before 1898, to which I shall soon turn. More germane to the national debate of 1898 were the differing tendencies of political parties, national regions, and portions of society. With few exceptions Republicans were expansionists; Democrats were not. That was already evident earlier in the 1890s, when the Republican President Benjamin Harrison and his Secretary of State, John W. Foster (grandfather of John Foster Dulles), were in favor of the forced annexation of Hawaii, whereas the Democratic President Grover Cleveland and his Secretary of State, Walter Q. Gresham, were not. These divisions were not absolute; there were a few anti-imperialist Republicans. Yet it ought to be observed that the Republicans were the more nationalist party of the two, something that, by and large, remained true for most of the following century and is discernible even now. (In 1892 the Republican party platform called for “the achievement of the manifest destiny of the Republic in the broadest sense.” In 1956 the Republican party platform called for “the establishment of American air and naval bases all around the world.” The man who coined the term manifest destiny in the 1840s, John L. O’Sullivan, was a Democrat, who later condemned “wicked and crazy Republicanism.” He died in 1895.) It is significant to note that many of the opponents of the expansionists were Southern Democrats, including such unreconstructed populists as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman—which is interesting, since forty years earlier it was the South that had proposed the acquisition of Cuba. Many, certainly the most vocal, expansionists were Protestant churchmen; the hierarchy of American Catholics was, for the most part, not. The leaders of American finance and business (Andrew Carnegie, James J. Hill, J. P. Morgan, and most of Wall Street) opposed the war—at least for some time.
But much of this was soon swept away. Immediately after the declaration of war the businessmen’s and financiers’ opposition crumbled (another instance of the limitations of the economic interpretation of history, or of the flag following trade; the reverse is rather true). In the hot skillet of nationalist emotions, the opposition of most Catholics melted away fast. Two former Confederate generals, Joe Wheeler and Fitzhugh Lee, were now major-generals of the United States Army. Fifteen Democrats and Populists voted for the ratification of the peace treaty with Spain; only two Republicans voted against it. The vote was 57 to 27 in the Senate, one above the needed two-thirds majority. William Jennings Bryan, once an anti-expansionist, urged a speedy ratification. It did not do much for him; in 1900 McKinley beat him by a landslide. Less than a year later McKinley was dead, the President was now Theodore Roosevelt, and the American Century was on.