An Election, You Say? The Most Relevant Precedent May Be 120 Years Old

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.

An 1896 melodrama based upon the Panic of 1893.
An 1896 melodrama based upon the Panic of 1893.

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.

How railways tied the American economy together in 1898. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

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.

A comparison of 1893 and 1983 structural change, with farms dying to pave the way for industrialism in 1890s [The Worthington Advance], and then those same factories dying in the 1980s [Ben Wojdyla].
A comparison of 1893 and 1983 structural change, with farms dying to pave the way for industrialism in 1890s The Worthington Advance, and then those same factories dying in the 1980s Ben Wojdyla.

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.

1900 poster advertising L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz, courtesy of [Wikimedia Commons].
1900 poster advertising L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“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.

At bottom, a comparison of electoral maps from 1896 [Wikimedia Commons] and 2000-2012 [Wikipedia]. At top, the campaign trail of William Jennings Bryan [The First Battle].
At bottom, a comparison of electoral maps from 1896 Wikimedia Commons and 2000-2012 Wikipedia. At top, the campaign trail of William Jennings Bryan The First Battle.

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).

On left, Bryan speaks to a crowd in Wellsville, Ohio, courtesy of his own memoir [The First Battle]. On right, McKinley on his front porch only 50 miles away in Canton, Ohio [Remarkable Ohio].
On left, Bryan speaks to a crowd in Wellsville, Ohio, courtesy of his own memoir The First Battle. On right, McKinley on his front porch only 50 miles away in Canton, Ohio Remarkable Ohio.

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.

An 1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan and his Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing his own Democratic party. Courtesy of [Wikimedia Commons].
An 1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan and his Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing his own Democratic party. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Sugar Sun series glossary term #20: insular

Georgie looked over at the weapon Pedro still held in his hand, and she shivered. No matter how she felt about Rosa, she could not send her away with this man.

She had to figure out a way to scare Pedro off. “The Insulares will come. Soldados!”

Filipinos had been put to death for far less than waving a knife in the face of an American. What good was the Insular bogeyman if she didn’t let him out of the closet once in a while?

Under the Sugar Sun

The Insular bogeyman? Is this some strange Grimm’s fairy tale you haven’t heard of?

Oh, no, it is something far more insidious: it’s a euphemism. And a legal one, no less.

Euphemisms were a whole new tongue spoken in nineteenth-century America. In fact, I should not even say “tongue” because it could give you all sorts of salacious ideas. English naval captain Edward Marryat got in trouble for asking a female companion if she had hurt her leg when she had tripped, and he was informed that proper Americans did not use that word (leg). “Limb” was specific enough, thank you very much.

So, if you cannot say leg, you probably cannot say colony. No, the word colony does not have sexual undertones—at least, not that I know of—but it is still a troubling word for a formerly rebellious colony founded upon Enlightenment ideals of self-determination and personal liberty. What, the United States an empire?

Well, Thomas Jefferson said yes, actually, but he called it an “empire of liberty” that would expand westward and check the growth of the British menace, beginning with the 1803 purchase of Louisiana from the French. Jefferson wrote to James Madison: “I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.” He saw no irony in defending, in the same breath, the right of self-government alongside the right to empire. In fact, he (like many today) believed that America’s democratic history, transparent legal system, and free market economy made it especially suited to transform the world for good and fight barbarism.

Out-of-copyright map of the American frontier.
Out-of-copyright map of the American frontier.

In the resulting growth of (mostly white) settlements across the North American continent, the word “empire” was actually avoided. These were “territories” along America’s “frontier,” and to be fair these were territories on their way to statehood, a distinction that would not be granted to later acquisitions. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontier helped preserve liberty and egalitarianism through free access to land (by taking it from the First Nations), preventing a landed aristocracy from developing. Out on the frontier, any (white) man could make something of himself, as long as he survived.

(If none of this sounds truly democratic, you’re right. You’re not the first modern reader to notice, trust me. As even Mark Twain wrote in 1901: “The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light.” [Emphasis mine.] So don’t look too closely.)

Back to our discussion of “territories.” In the Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War in December 1898, the United States purchased the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from Spain. While the western frontier had expanded slowly enough to look like natural growth, this acquisition came in one fell swoop. What makes a piece of land a colony for Spain and not a colony when purchased from Spain by America? Good question.

Illustration (and featured image above) from an 1898 E. E. Strauss advertisement. Notice the spelling errors?!

Clearly, we needed a new word. That word was insular. Geographer Scott Kirsch commented that the choice insular reflected “novel anxieties over America’s new place at the seat of an interconnected global empire.” It fit for three reasons:

First, these new possessions were islands, and the primary definition of insular is “of or pertaining to islands.” What a great way to differentiate the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from the continental territories. Interestingly, though, Hawaii will not become an insular territory, despite being a cluster of islands. Instead, in the midst of the Spanish-American War, Hawaii had been enthusiastically annexed by Congress, an about-face since the country had rejected that opportunity only five years previously. A lot had happened in those five years, as you can read here. And if Hawaii didn’t count as insular, there had to be more to the word than just geography.

A second meaning of insular is “Detached or standing out by itself like an island; insulated.” This is where the word becomes perfect for how America wants to see its new acquisitions, particularly as relates to the Philippines. In the “scramble for the Pacific,” America had found itself left out of China. Secretary of State John Hay would address this particular issue in the Open Door memos, asserting the right of all nations to trade freely and equally in China. But the truth was that the US did not want to get too involved in China. It wanted the benefit of a Pacific entrepôt without being too Sinified.

Manila had been the Spanish answer to cashing in on China while simultaneously insulating themselves from China, and the Americans thought it a brilliant idea. In a 1902 National Geographic article by the Honorable O. P. Austin, the Chief of the Bureau of Statistics of the Treasury Department, Manila would become the channel through which all of this wealth would pass, an off-shore customs and clearinghouse for goods bound for the United States. With the 1902 extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act—extended now to exclude Chinese from the Philippines, too—our new insular possessions would not be a conduit for people, just money. According to Scott Kirsch, this “coupled the virtues of proximity to Asia with a distinctive sense of separation from it.”

The insular plan of O. P. Austin.

Because, really, America wanted to be insulated from their own empire. This is the third reason the term insular fits so well. The definition of a colony is “a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state.” This implies spreading both people and ideas to the new lands. Americans were willing to do the latter. In fact, President William McKinley asserted the idea of “benevolent assimilation”—that “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.” Americans spread their language, their pedagogical ideals (see posts on Thomasites and pensionados), their sanitation principles, their political administration, and their products (Spam, anyone?) to the Philippines with gusto.

1899 Judge cartoon of Uncle Sam to Filipinos: "You're next."
1899 Judge cartoon of Uncle Sam to Filipinos: “You’re next.”

But most Americans did not intend to settle in the Philippines permanently, which meant that it was not a colony in the true sense of the word. They meant to fashion Filipinos as Americans and leave, hence the emphasis on shaping the educational system with an eye toward self-replication. Even anti-imperialists like William Jennings Bryan, the failed 1900 Democratic candidate for president, felt this way. He wanted to close the door to Asian immigration, and during the debate about Chinese exclusion, he wrote:

“Let us educate the Chinese who desire to learn of American institutions; let us offer courtesy and protection to those who come here to travel and investigate, but it will not be of permanent benefit to either the Chinese or to us to invite them to become citizens or to permit them to labor here and carry the proceeds of their toil back to their own country.”

He felt the same about the Japanese and all other Asian races. His article is a defense of exclusion and intolerance: “It is not necessary nor even wise that the family environment should be broken up or that all who desire entrance should be admitted to the family circle. In a larger sense a nation is a family.” Bryan’s English and Irish ancestors had immigrated two hundred years earlier, so you can pardon him for forgetting that he was an immigrant, too. But he was typical in wanting to turn off the tap, and a colony would not have permitted that insularity as easily.

The San Francisco Call announces the extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act in April 1902.

This was not just about race, though. Americans wanted the Philippines to remain politically and economically separate. Eventually, one had to ask as the United States grew bigger: does the Constitution follow the flag? If the people of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam are living under American government, should they have the rights of American citizens? A longer treatment of this topic is handled here, but the short answer for the Philippines was no. The Insular Cases in the United States Supreme Court maintained that the Philippines was an unincorporated territory, and while its citizens had natural rights, such as religion and property, they did not have full political rights, nor citizenship. This was an easier line to skirt when the government ruling the Philippines was part of the Bureau of Insular Affairs in the War Department, not a Colonial Office. Labels do matter.

And strangely William Jennings Bryan, no friend of the Asian immigrant in general, actually pointed out the inconsistency of Americans flooding the Philippines while not allowing the same in return:

“If…the Filipinos are prohibited from coming here (if a republic can prohibit the inhabitants of one part from visiting another part of the republic), will it not excite a just protest on the part of the Filipinos? How can we excuse ourselves if we insist upon opening the Philippine islands to the invasion of American capital, American speculators, and American task-masters, and yet close our doors to those Filipinos who, driven from home, may seek an asylum here?”

Bryan’s solution was immediate independence for the Philippines, but the Supreme Court had a different solution: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam were not a part of our republic. Insular was not inside. The justices bent over backward to draw the distinction that Americans wanted, even if they essentially made up law to do it. Since both imperialists and anti-imperialists both agreed, in the words of Andrew Carnegie, that “Americans cannot be grown [in the Philippines],” no one complained that the court had exceeded its mandate. The insular designation stuck.

Escolta, the business district of Manila, on July 4, 1899.

Another benefit of insular territories was that free trade need not be extended right away—especially if there were concerns that the islands might compete too well in certain key industries, like sugar and tobacco. It was favorable for American producers to keep them out. While American goods could enter the Philippines freely—because Americans in the Insular Government set Philippine trade policy—Filipino goods were taxed both leaving the Philippines and entering the United States because the U.S. Congress set American trade policy. That was the beauty of the insular cases.

December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.

When I teach my course on America in the Philippines, students who have at least read the course description know that the United States had its own empire—but surprisingly few adults do. They might know about Guam or Puerto Rico, and they might even call these “territories,” but if you ask them the difference between a colony and a territory, they do not have a good answer. And I do not blame them because America’s “insular” language has left its citizens deliberately insulated from clarity.

I do not think Filipinos are confused, though. They easily call the years between 1898 and 1934 the American Colonial Period, and many would also include the 1934 to 1946 Commonwealth Period (not counting the Japanese occupation of 1941-1945).

Unfortunately, if we Americans do not take a hard look at our history, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and therefore reinforce the (mis)perceptions others have of us. One of my goals in writing the Sugar Sun series was to bring this history to a general public—along with some sex, drugs, and violence to really sell it. I love romance, so it was my medium of choice, but the Philippine setting, diverse characters, and political undertones are all part of my historical mission.

The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: “There is something curious about this–curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”

— Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” 1901

Featured image of “The man behind the gun will settle this war,” from Puck.