The Meaning of ’98

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A blend of Darwinism and racism and Protestant Christianity sounds strange today. In the 1890s it was not.

In 1898 the Spanish-American War was the culmination of a great wave of national sentiment that had begun to rise many years before. There was a change, less in the temperature of patriotism than in the national vision of the destiny of the United States, after the end of the first century of its existence. In sum, the time had come for the United States to expand not only its light and its example but its power and its institutions all around the globe. When the Chicago world’s fair opened in 1893, Chauncey M. Depew gave the speech of dedication. “This day,” he said, “belongs not to America but the world. . . . We celebrate the emancipation of man.” No one had spoken in such tones at the Centennial in 1876 in Philadelphia. But now in March 1893 the Philadelphia Press proclaimed, “Our nation stands on the threshold of a new policy as surely as it did in 1803, when Jefferson annexed Louisiana and the United States realized it must govern it.”

It is wrong to think that this rise of a national sentiment was nothing but emotional, fueled by war fever and declamatory rhetoric. What had begun to change the course of the mighty American ship of state was a change of mentality, including a powerful intellectual impulse. Its proponents included some of the most intelligent, and learned, Americans of a generation. The usage of the noun intellectual (adopted from the Russian, designating a certain kind of person) had hardly begun to appear in the American language in the 1890s, but the adjective was properly applicable to the capacities of such men as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Hay, Whitelaw Reid, and Albert J. Beveridge. Far from being provincial, they looked around the world and saw how the European powers had embarked on their imperialist expansion. For the United States to opt out from a course of spreading its influence beyond its continental boundaries would be a sickening symptom of a materialist small-mindedness.

And what were the ingredients of this philosophy—for a kind of philosophy it was. It amounted to more than a mere emulation of the other Great Powers of the present. One principal ingredient was the belief in sea power. That was the key to modern history, as Alfred Mahan wrote in his famous book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890, and it was more than coincidental that a Republican President and Congress embarked on a Big Navy program in the same year, the first substantial American military expenditure since the Civil War. There was a racial ingredient: the belief that the most advanced, indeed the ruling, people of the globe were of Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic stock. Besides the Roosevelt-Lodge-Mahan-Hay-Reid coterie of progressive imperialists, there were prestigious professors in the leading American universities whose eulogies of the Teutonic-Germanic races were influential as well as popular: John W. Burgess, for example, whose Political Science later acquired a foreword by Nicholas Murray Butler, the much-respected president of Columbia University. Very similar were the advocacies of John Fiske of Harvard. The Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong wrote as early as 1885 about the American Anglo-Saxon destined to be his brother’s keeper: “If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move . . . down upon Central and South America, or upon the islands of the sea . . . and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be ‘the survival of the fittest’?” Not many people know that Rudyard Kipling’s “Take Up the White Man’s Burden” was written for Americans; even fewer are aware that in The Descent of Man Charles Darwin wrote about America: “the heir of all ages, in the foremost files of time.” Such a concordance of Darwinism and of racism and of Protestant Christianity sounds strange now. In the 1890s it was not. In 1894 Mahan wrote: “Comparative religion teaches that creeds which reject missionary enterprise are foredoomed to decay. May it not be so with nations?” Many of the shrill proposals for American imperialism in the name of Protestant Christianity were reconstructed later by historians, foremost among them Julius W. Pratt. Thus the editorial of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in April 1898: “God is stronger than either the Romish Church or the Catholic powers of Europe. We should pray not only that Cuba be free, but that these fair Eastern isles shall become scenes of gospel triumphs and the salvation of countless souls. . . .” And The Christian Standard : The time has arrived “to crack the Monroe Doctrine like a shell, and to introduce the nation to an enlarged mission. . . . The Lord has not raised up this mighty people to dwell in selfish contentment, indifferent to the wrongs and oppressions of other lands. . . . The magnificent fleets of Spain have gone down as marvellously, as miraculously, as the walls of Jericho went down.”