Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year—and not just because I am a good eater. The real directive of this day is to look at our glass and see it is half full—and then, yes, drink it down. I write romance for the same reason. As Alisha Rai tweeted, “Remember our basic genre requirement today: there’s no black moment that love can’t overcome.”
It is fitting, therefore, that this national holiday was born out of a time of war—the Civil War.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. George Washington first proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in 1789, but he did not designate when it had to be commemorated. Each state was left to honor the holiday on a day of its own choosing—when they honored it at all.
The regions of the country honored it differently, too—and the variations were featured in a 1824 novel called Northwood: A Tale of New England. An entire chapter was devoted to a New Hampshire-style celebration, complete with carved turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and lots and lots of pie.
Mr. Hallock and I live in New Hampshire, and I have to admit that we buy our pie, not make it. Before you judge us, know that Just Like Mom’s pies are the best. They have many awards to prove it. We will be picking up our pumpkin and apple pies early tomorrow (Wednesday) morning, in fact.
We have already completed our first stage of official holiday observation, though. Because our official “friends-giving” in New Hampshire will be vegetarian—as per our guests’ dietary needs—Mr. Hallock and I ate our traditional dinner tonight, Tuesday, with ingredients delivered by Blue Apron. I made cranberry sauce from scratch people. Eat my shorts.
Okay, back to the Civil War. You see, Northwood was more than a manual on a proper Thanksgiving—it was an abolitionist tract that proudly touted the New Hampshire way as the way of prosperity and progress. Its author, Sarah Hale, also known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to tell him that he needed to create a united celebration of the blessings of the nation in order to mend the rifts of the Civil War. Apparently all we needed to get along was tryptophan. Hale argued:
You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.
Whether in direct response to Hale’s pleas or not, President Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863.* Lincoln claimed the turkey menu was his favorite, fitting in with Hale’s vision. His proclamation, originally penned by his Secretary of State William Seward, said:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and Union.
May your thanksgiving bring the warring sides of your family together again. And, in case that does not work, go somewhere quiet and read a romance novel!
Featured image: Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing turkey and football player, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
* (Notes for history geeks: Both President Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson had previously declared days of thanks—or days of fasting—depending on recent victories or losses, respectively, on the battlefields. But the declaration of 1863 (and Union victory in 1865) made the custom permanent throughout the United States. Interestingly, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to draw out the shopping period before Christmas. He had hoped to give the economy a fiscal boost, but when 16 states refused to change the date, he was left with “dueling Thanksgivings.” He backed down again two years later.)
By now you have heard the results of the 2016 election: marijuana won. Well, at least in four states. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada legalized recreational use. Also, Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota legalized certain medical uses. You can see which way the smoke is blowing. Maine’s marijuana question passed by less than one percent of the vote, but that ambivalence does not express the sea-change in American attitudes towards pot. According to the Washington Post, more than 1 in 5 Americans now “now live in states where the recreational use of marijuana is, or soon will be, legal.”
But how long has it been illegal? Would it surprise you to know only 80 years, since 1937? In fact, would it surprise you know that during the colonial era, cannabis was not only legal but—in 1619— required of all farmers in Virginia to plant? And that cannabis served as legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland? This may be stretching the truth a little, but only a little. I am conflating two strains of plants: hemp and marijuana. What is the difference? Well, both are the same species—cannabis sativa—but marijuana has significantly higher levels of the intoxicant delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, until recently, hemp has been more commercially productive. Its strong fibers can be used for rope, paper, textiles, plastic, food, biofuel, and animal feed.
In the colonial era, it was cordage and textile uses that made cannabis so versatile. Not that people throughout history did not know of the more recreational properties, of course. Throughout Asia and Europe, cannabis was used for pain relief, spiritual escapes, and a nice little high after work. But we do not need to go that far back. After all, this blog focuses on the Gilded Age at the turn of the twentieth century—and this is when attitudes towards marijuana changed.
You see, in the Edwardian era, cannabis was legal. That is what they called it, too: cannabis. Or, if one wanted to be a little more flash: Indian hemp, ganja, or (in a more potent preparation) hashish. One of the most popular Edwardian uses for cannabis was as a foot soak for corns. But it was also sold as a cure for consumption, bronchitis, asthma, veterinary indigestion, and simple coughs. It was not until 1906 that over-the-counter products had to declare any cannabis on their labels, but before then any number of “remedies” could have given a nice tipple. Keep in mind that this was also the era when cocaine was sold for toothaches, heroin was advertised in medical journals, and tincture of opium (laudanum) was packed in doses for infants. So, there was that.
At this point, cannabis customers considered themselves more “cosmopolitan” than the average drug user. Some men believed cannabis to be a female aphrodisiac: “It is just the thing to rouse the wild demimondaine instinct that lurks in the back of the heads of some romantic girls.” A more broadminded pot philosopher said: “It has been contended by an astute philosopher that true happiness will only be possible when time and space are abolished. Well, this is what hashish temporarily accomplishes.”
Hemp had its partisans, too. At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a worldwide shortage of naval cordage. When the United States took the Philippines as a colony, they found a local substitute: abaca, or Manila hemp. This is an entirely different species—a type of banana plant, actually—but its fibers were similar to cannabis sativa. This was the only export of the Philippines that the American colonial government allowed to be freely traded, as long as it was sold only to the States. (Later, during World War II, another hemp shortage so threatened the naval war effort that the government handed out seeds and gave draft deferments for farmers willing to grow it. They even made a film called “Hemp for Victory.”) The problem for Mr. Hemp, though, was that his cousin ruined the party, at least in the United States.
If everyone was so happy with their cannabis—both plants—in the Edwardian era, what happened? The 1910 Mexican Revolution! Um, what? No, really. The unrest south of the border sent large numbers of refugees into the United States. Cue the xenophobic backlash. What better evidence of the insidious social ills brought by these new immigrants than a dangerous new drug that turned American children into imbeciles?
That is when the name of the intoxicant changed. It was no longer cannabis, or Indian hemp, or ganja. It was marijuana—an Anglicization of the Latin American term marihuana, which itself came from either Chinese immigrants, Angolan slaves, or just a spontaneous combination of Maria and Juana. We don’t really know. The point was to portray the drug as something new, something wicked, something “loco” that would cause “incurable insanity.” The delivery system used by Mexicans—smoking—was evidence of this distinction.
After three or four puffs the beginner’s mind becomes confused. There is, at first, a harmless sort of mental exhilaration. All the worries and sordidness in the user’s life fade away. He finds himself floating through space as if on a cloud and doing everything, in fancy, that he ever wanted to do….Then comes a period in which hallucinations dominate the addict. Motive-less merriment or maudlin emotion usually follows, after which a pugnacious attitude ensues.
Pugnacious? Yep. Others agreed. They said that marijuana was “more ruinous in its effects than cocaine, heroin, opium, morphine, or any of the others.” Another suggests curing a marijuana addiction with cocaine, which he believes is less habit-forming. It may be true that the drug then was not the same as the drug today, but racism was also a factor, at least in the late 1910s and the 1920s. The irony is that Mexico banned marijuana in 1920—17 years before the United States—and yet Americans still blamed the “infection” on them. For example, a Mohave County sheriff wrote up a public account of a run-in he had with a “bad Mexican,” a man appropriately named Marijuana for the substance that he sold. This kind of tale filled the papers.
But the anti-marijuana movement really gained traction in the Great Depression. This may be because this is when the drug became more popular with white Americans, or it may be because of the breakdown in social norms that came with high unemployment and population dispersal. And then a movie called Reefer Madness hit the screens in 1936. In the movie, a group of young smokers see their enjoyable evening go from casual fun to promiscuous sex to crushing depression to suicide. Within a year, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, “restricting possession of the drug to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses” (PBS).
That’s not the same thing as totally illegal, right? It took the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s to do that. But maybe we have come full circle to the Summer of Love—or, as the case may be, to the Winter of Love. But, who knows? Pot is still illegal under federal law, and though the Obama administration adopted a policy of noninterference with the states in 2013, President-Elect Donald Trump might not feel the same way. As a boarding school teacher in Massachusetts, I am not terribly excited about the idea of patrolling dorms in a pot-accessible state. But maybe I will buy some for my mother for her corns…
It’s like déjà vu—from 120 years ago. In this last week before the 2016 election, let’s take a look back to 1896. This way, as you listen to sound bites about jobs, banks, industrialism, and trade in the next few days, you’ll know that we’ve been here before.
Back then we did not call economic downturns “recessions” or “depressions”; we called them “panics,” which has a refreshing honesty to it. The Panic of 1893 was a “war of wealth,” a pivotal event in a period known as the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain. Like today, the late nineteenth century was a time of growing divide between rich and poor—contrast the tenements of South Boston to the “cottages” of Newport. It was a global trend. Some economists have pointed out that we are in a new Gilded Age now, as modern wealth disparity approaches nineteenth-century levels.
And like now, the Panic of 1893 was tied up in the new interconnectedness of the American economy—only they were talking about railroads and the telegraph, not Uber and the Internet. But, as is the case today, people were not sure what this would mean for the “old economy.” In the 1890s agriculture suffered, much like industry has in the last thirty years.
Banks, if they were lucky enough to survive the 1893 Panic, foreclosed on farms in the South, Midwest, and West. Our recent mortgage-crisis-fueled recession was countered by the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates to essentially zero, which they did by flooding our system with money. “Expansionary monetary policy” is pretty standard fare in economic textbooks these days, but this theory did not exist in 1893. And, by the way, neither did the Federal Reserve. But that did not make money supply any less of an issue. In fact, it made it more of one. Coinage was the election issue of the day in 1896 and 1900. You voted for a president based upon what you wanted to happen to the money supply. It was such an important topic of conversation that it even found a place in children’s literature.
“Follow the yellow brick road!” In the original text version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s slippers are silver. Silver eases Dorothy’s way along the “road of yellow bricks,” a metaphor for the gold standard. In other words, author L. Frank Baum showed that both precious metals, silver and gold, should be used for coinage in the United States, not just gold. This would expand the money supply, lower interest rates, and cause inflation—all policies that would help indebted farmers who were being crucified on a “cross of gold,” in the words of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate for president in both elections. Eastern industry opposed bimetallism because both owners and low-wage laborers stood to lose from inflation. This conflict—the rural heartland versus the East Coast elite—is a refrain you’ve heard before. In fact, the electoral maps of 1896 and 1900 predict the red-state-blue-state divide of today. In between then and now, the electoral maps bounced all around between Democrats and Republicans, but we have come full circle to the same structural change of the early 1900s.
Maybe the most important innovation Bryan brought to his candidacy, though, was his campaign itself. Bryan emerged out of the ashes of a Democratic Party he torched himself with populist and inflammatory rhetoric. He carried his message in person on a campaign tour through the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states that lasted until two days before the election. Behaving in a way that most politicians and establishment figures considered “undignified,” Bryan went to the voters instead of waiting for them to come to his front porch—literally—and wait for a chance glimpse of him, which was Republican William McKinley’s strategy. (Some would say it was also Hillary Clinton’s strategy, given her comparatively restrained public speaking schedule in recent months).
By Bryan’s own account, he traveled nearly 18,000 miles and made nearly 600 speeches—about 20-30 a day, with Sundays off—and spoke to around 5,000,000 Americans, more than a third of the number who would cast a vote come November. Bryan wrote:
Friday was one of the long days. In order that the reader may know how much work can be crowded into one campaign day, I will mention the places at which speeches were made between breakfast and bedtime: Muskegon, Holland, Fennville, Bangor, Hartford, Watervliet, Benton Harbor, Niles, Dowagiac, Decatur, Lawrence, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Marshall, Albion, Jackson (two speeches), Leslie, Mason, and Lansing (six speeches); total for the day, 25. It was near midnight when the last one was finished.
Partly because of the silverite policy, which not all Democrats had supported, and partly because of this populist campaign style, a rival National Democratic Party (Gold Democrats) was founded, with its own nominating convention in Indianapolis. They put forward a former Union general and a former Confederate general on their ticket, but by the end of the campaign these men actually began to turn votes toward their Republican rival. At his last stop in Warrensbury, Missouri, presidential nominee John Palmer said: “I promise you, my fellow Democrats, I will not consider it any very great fault if you decide next Tuesday to cast your ballot for William McKinley.” To some, this might feel like a certain third-party ticket of two former Republican governors—also from opposite sides of the country—who recently said that among the two-party candidates, they hoped people did not vote for Trump. Some saw this as a pseudo-endowment of Hillary Clinton, though the Libertarian Party quickly denied it.
There is more that ties 1986 to 2016, including the similarities seen between William Jennings Bryan and Donald Trump. Bryan spoke in a rhetorical style that elitist politicians snubbed but his audience loved. In March, Daniel Klinghard wrote:
…like Bryan, [Trump] does have a long history of drawing audiences in the private sphere, an ear for the common tongue and an ability to paint complex problems in blindingly simple terms. Like Bryan, Trump is happy to play to paranoid impulses and vague conspiracies….Like Trump, Bryan appealed to what he deemed to be common sense and warned his listeners that anyone preaching moderation only intended to keep the common man in the dark.
Unlike the 1896 election, though, the institutional candidate, Hillary Clinton, has her own problems hounding her, such as the recently discovered emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s computer. It is a scandal that not even William McKinley’s shadowy political advisor, Mark Hanna, could have engineered. Buckle up, folks. It’s going to be a wild few days.
Featured images: Republican William McKinley (left, from his own campaign poster) and Democrat William Jennings Bryan (right, in a critical Judge magazine cover). Both images found at Wikimedia Commons.
The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) is one reason why the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has announced his “separation from the United States” and his dependence on China. “America has one too many [misdeeds] to answer for,” Duterte said. Which misdeeds? And why have we not heard of them before?
The Philippine-American War was America’s first great-power conquest and our first overseas insurgency. It was first time we tried to exert American authority and values abroad. (See my previous post on New Imperialism.) And this war was not a small one. It was your great-great grandparents’ Vietnam. As a percentage of the contemporary population, three times as many American soldiers died in the Philippine-American War as did in the recent Iraq War. More than three-quarters of a million Filipinos died from war and related causes, nearly 10% of the population.
And there were some good aspects to American rule, some of which were the inspiration behind my own fiction writing. For example, the Americans sent 1000 schoolteachers to the islands—and not just to Manila, but to the boondocks, too. (By the way, the word boondocks comes from the Filipino (Tagalog) word bundok, or mountain.) These teachers were regarded as the best American import of all, especially by the women of the islands who had been only sparingly educated by the Spanish—and that only if they were wealthy enough to afford it. In my novel Under the Sugar Sun, I reimagined one of these teachers as a Boston schoolmarm named Georgina Potter. Georgie is sent to the boondocks of Bais only to find her fiancé straying, her soldier brother missing, and the local sugar baron flirting. Adventures (and love) ensue.
There were other investments in infrastructure and human capital made by the Americans, from roads to ports to the development of the Philippine Supreme Court. Philippine universities founded in this era have become regional attractions, particularly for their science and medical educations. (American sanitation and medical teaching in the colonial period was generally good, but sometimes things went awry.)
But it was not all bailes and basketball—though basketball is still wildly popular. There was also a down side to imperialism, and this appears in my books, too. The second book of the Sugar Sun series, Sugar Moon, will feature a character who survived a surprise attack at a town named Balangiga in 1901. Forty-eight Americans died there, the biggest loss for the Army since Little Big Horn. The Americans retaliated disproportionately. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith told his men to turn the whole island of Samar into a “howling wilderness”:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.
When asked the limit of age to respect, General Smith said “Ten years.” Smith declared the coasts of Samar to be “safe zones,” but anyone inland was assumed hostile to the United States and therefore a valid target. The entire island was embargoed. Cities grew crowded and diseased, and many starved. There is still a lot of debate about the number of Samareños who died in this period, with figures ranging from 2500 to 50,000. A reasonable judgment is about 15,000, according to historian Rolando O. Borrinaga.
Samar was the My Lai—or the Abu Ghraib—of the Philippine-American War. Your counterpart in 1901-1902 would have read daily reports on General Smith’s court-martial. (Yes, he was court-martialed, but only after a round-about investigation of a totally different incident.) With the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, people could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. As a result, even though General Smith received only a slap on the wrist, popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement. Why so light still? The dirty secret was that Smith’s commanding officers wanted this “chastisement” policy because they agreed with him that “short, severe wars are the most humane in the end. No civilized war…can be carried on on a humanitarian basis.” And the leaders of the insurgency in Samar did surrender in April 1902, only seven months after the attack at Balangiga. The Americans thought the ends justified the means. (Keep in mind that while General Orders No. 100 did allow for severe war, much of what Hughes, Chaffee, Smith, Waller, and Glenn did in Samar violated this code of conduct.)
The incident that Duterte likes to talk about the most was not in Samar, though. The president is from the island of Mindanao, where the United States fought its first war against Muslim separatism. Islam was the primary Filipino religion before the arrival of the Catholic Spanish, and still today about five percent of Filipinos are Muslim. Ninety-four percent of Filipino Muslims, dubbed Moros by Spanish, still live the large southern island of Mindanao. When the Americans first arrived in the Philippines in 1898, they had enough problems on their hands with the Filipino Christians, so they made a “live and let live” agreement with the Moros. Once the rest of the islands were pacified, though, the Americans tried to extend their rule over Mindanao. They wanted to issue identity cards, collect taxes, outlaw slavery, and disarm the population.
Not all of these are bad things—I’m thinking mostly of the abolition of slavery—but to the Moros these laws struck at the heart of local autonomy. In the resulting fight, young warriors attacked anyone considered an enemy of Islam—and though they were not specifically bent on suicide, they were not afraid of death, either. They were so relentless, in fact, that the American Army had to requisition a whole new firearm, the .45-caliber—the only pistol with enough stopping power to fight Moros armed only with knives. This pistol, named the 1911 after the year it was adopted, was a standard-issue firearm until 1985, and it still remains a favorite of many in the military today.
Americans fought their largest engagements against the Moros, and this meant some of the worst massacres happened against the Moros, as well. At Bud Dajo in 1906, the Moros had retreated to the interior of an extinct volcano and were surrounded by American forces who had the high ground. Instead of a slow siege, the Americans fired down into the crater and killed 900 Moros, including women and children. Reports of the event shocked Americans at home, but it did not stop the war, which would rage on for seven more years, until 1913.
Part of the reason the Moro War stretched on so long was that it was all “chastisement” and relatively little “attraction.” In other words, there was a lot less “benevolent assimilation” here—fewer hospitals, almost no teachers, less infrastructure, and so on. Today, the Moros have the same complaint against the majority Catholic government of the Philippines—they are not getting the public works and development projects they see in the rest of the islands, but they cannot run their own affairs, either. Though part of Mindanao has been made an autonomous region, such a compromise has not brought an end to the violence. Some groups aim for legitimate political goals, some groups are professional kidnappers-for-hire, and a few are eager hangers-on of the latest Islamist terror organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS.
Yep, those guys. Did you know the dress rehearsal for 9/11 was in the Philippines? Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Muhammad, masterminds of the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, respectively, both operated out of the Philippines in the 1990s. The Philippine National Police thwarted an attempt of these men to fly a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. This is why, only ten years after the Philippine Congress evicted the Americans from leased naval and air force bases in the islands, the Yanks were back. Special Forces operated continuously out of Mindanao from 2001 until 2016. Now Duterte wants the US Army out. He claims this is for the Americans’ protection, but it may also be that he wants to tone down the fighting in order to put forward a federalist plan. (There is a lot of irony in the fact that a politician known for encouraging vigilante squads wants to pursue a peaceful political solution to this conflict, but Mindanao is his home, so we’ll see.)
Rest assured: Duterte has not cut off ties with the United States. According to the Agence France-Press:
A frequent pattern following Duterte’s explosive remarks against the United States, the crime war and other hot-button issues has been for his aides or cabinet ministers to try to downplay, clarify or otherwise interpret them.
And within a few hours of Duterte’s separation remarks, his finance and economic planning secretaries released a joint statement saying the Philippines would not break ties with Western nations.
Moreover, the White House insists no one has officially asked for a change in relations. The real test will be to see if the Philippines really buys weapons from China and Russia, settles its legal dispute with China over the Spratly Islands bilaterally (cutting out the United States and United Nations), and ceases joint exercises with the US military in the South China Sea. None of these things are good for the strategic interests of the United States—but to many in the Philippines, this is exactly what they like about Duterte.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. It is more like a family dispute, where discussions and disagreements today are affected by the baggage of our shared history over the last 120 years. If we approach the news only with an eye on today and ignore the way that relationships have developed over time, we miss all the important subtext.
I have an illustrated talk—“America in the Philippines: Our First Empire”—that shows how our experience in Asia fundamentally changed the U.S. role in the world and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot. I will tell you more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship has been so strong for so long. I will also show how recent stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and national security are actually reprises from the turn of the century. Finally, I have a few stories of my own from living in the fabulous Philippines, many of which have shaped what and how I write.
Tell your local librarian, community college, high school, veterans group, historical society, book club, or other non-profit. My talk is free to these groups…as long as I can get there. I’m not traveling by carabao, though…
In my last post for the Edwardian Promenade, I called the Edwardian Era an age of New Imperialism. What was so “new” about imperialism, you ask? Well, there were new players: Germany, Japan, and the United States, to name three. And there were new technologies: industrial transport and communication opened up the interiors of Africa and India, as well as tying together the disparate islands of the Pacific.
But one of the most puzzling aspects of New Imperialism was its doctrine: “Yes, we are here in your country, ruling your people, and pilfering your resources—but it is all meant to help you, not us.” Cue the world’s oppressed people saying: “Are you kidding me?”
Well, no, the imperialists were not kidding. In fact, they wrote poetry about how much they were not kidding. Here is Rudyard Kipling telling the Americans that it is their turn to play the game:
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child….
Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
The people may hate you for it, Kipling was saying, but it is the Americans’ duty to colonize the Philippines and refashion the islands in the mold of Anglo-American civilization. You see, it was 1899. The previous year, as the opening salvo in the Spanish-American War, the United States had seized Manila. One small problem: they did not know what to do with it. Could this be the Americans’ own foothold in Asia, their economic entrepôt to compete with the Great Powers in China?
President William McKinley thought so. And, unlike those gauche Spaniards, the Americans would be enlightened rulers. He proclaimed:
…we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights….[The American military must] win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines…by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule. [emphasis mine]
William Howard Taft, the first civil governor of the Philippines (and eventual President of the United States), was credited with saying that the Filipinos would be our “Little Brown Brothers,” which—get this—was too nice for the tastes of most Americans. U.S. soldiers on the march in the Philippines sang in response: “He may be a brother of Big Bill Taft, but he ain’t no brother of mine.” (The ditty was eventually prohibited by officers because it did not give a great impression, to say the least.)
To be fair, there were some attempts at benevolence by the Americans. To name a few: the establishment of the first secular, coeducational public school system in the islands; the creation of American university scholarships for the brightest Filipino youth; the building of ports, roads, telegraph lines, irrigation systems, hospitals, schools, and universities; the creation of a Filipino National Assembly; several Filipino Commissioners to advise the American governors; and a Supreme Court of the Philippines, led by a Filipino chief justice. This was not really democracy, but it was not the Belgian Congo, either.
Still, there were plenty of ugly aspects to American rule in the Philippines, as you can see above. Occupation is always dirty. There was the Moro War, the water cure, and the Howling Wilderness of Samar. And, of course, there were the double-standard economic policies of the insular regime. The Americans set up a system by which American goods were sold in the Philippines tariff-free, but Filipino goods were taxed twice, both when they were exported from the Philippines and when they arrived in the United States. Where did that tariff revenue go? To pay the tab of the American administration, of course.
The hypocrisy of New Imperialism prompted English writer and politician Henry Labouchère to write the “Brown Man’s Burden”:
Pile on the brown man’s burden
To gratify your greed;
Go, clear away the “n—”
Who progress would impede;
Be very stern, for truly
’Tis useless to be mild
With new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child…
Pile on the brown man’s burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don’t hesitate to shoot.
Before you pat Labouchère on the back for his progressive skewering of Kipling’s motives, do know that he was a homophobic campaigner whose most lasting legacy was the Labouchère Amendment that made all sexual activity between men a crime. (This is the law that Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under.) And Labouchère was not the only anti-imperialist who might disappoint our modern sensibilities. Both Andrew Carnegie and William Jennings Bryan were anti-imperialists, but their opposition was actually based on racism of all things. Carnegie wanted us to only take land that would “produce Americans, and not foreign races,” and Bryan worried about Chinese and Filipino immigration “exciting a friction and a race prejudice” that would damage America’s homogeneity.
Before you despair, though, let’s move onto Mark Twain, whose essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is one of the best pieces of political satire ever published, in my opinion:
Shall we? That is, shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest? Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, loud, pious way, and commit the new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first? Would it not be prudent to get our Civilization-tools together, and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade-Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion), and balance the books, and arrive at the profit and loss, so that we may intelligently decide whether to continue the business or sell out the property and start a new Civilization Scheme on the proceeds?
In a similar vein, Twain also “updated” the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Howe’s abolitionist hymn, to more properly reflect what he felt Americans had been doing in the Philippines:
Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.
And, if that was not enough, Twain redesigned the American flag to include skulls and crossbones instead of stars. Twain gives us some faith that not every American bought into the plunder-but-call-it-progress ideology of New Imperialism.
Featured image at the top of the page is the 20 March 1901 cover of Puck.