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 some people 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.

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.

Why a War You’ve Never Heard of Matters More Than Ever

The president of the Philippines announced a “separation from the United States” because “America has one too many [misdeeds] to answer for.” Which misdeeds? And why have so many Americans not heard of them before?

American soldiers of the 20th Kansas in trenches in the Philippines during the insurrection. Note the open baked beans can in the left foreground. Photo from the Library of Congress.

The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) was America’s first great-power conquest and its first overseas insurgency. It was first time the US tried to exert American authority and values abroad. (See my previous post on New Imperialism.)

This war was not a small one. 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.

Despite this startling fact, many Americans would have told you that they went to the Philippines with what they believed were good intentions. (They still accepted the legitimacy of imperialism and racial discrimination, though, both which have been a part of the United States narrative from the beginning. If you are looking for non-fiction on this topic, I highly recommend How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.)

An American teacher, Mary Scott Cole, is pictured with her class in Palo, Leyte. Photo from the University of Michigan Bentley History Library.
An American teacher, Mary Scott Cole, is pictured with her class in Palo, Leyte. Photo from the University of Michigan Bentley History Library.

The United States sent over 1000 schoolteachers—and not just to Manila, but to any “pacified” town in the islands. These teachers are usually regarded as the best import of all, especially by the young 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 Bais only to find her fiancé straying, her soldier brother missing, and a prominent nationalist flirting. Adventures (and love) ensue.

Girls playing basketball in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Girls playing basketball in the beginning of the twentieth century.

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.

But it was not all bailes and basketball—though basketball is still wildly popular. There was also a down side to imperialism, obviously, and this appears in my books, too. The second book of the Sugar Sun series, Sugar Moon, features a character who never wanted to be a soldier in the Philippines and will struggle with drug abuse and thoughts of self-harm. (Full content warnings available on this website.) He tries to stop some bad stuff from happening, but the events unfold as history tells us they did—to everyone’s detriment:

In 1901, the American captain of the Balangiga garrison imprisoned the men of the town and used them for forced labor. The town’s retaliatory attack left forty-eight Americans dead, the biggest loss for the Army since Little Big Horn. The American military machine 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.

editorial_cartoon_about_jacob_smiths_retaliation_for_balangiga
Smith’s order “Kill Everyone Over Ten” became a caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. The Old Glory draped an American shield on which a vulture replaced the bald eagle. The caption at the bottom proclaimed, “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.”

Samar was the My Lai—or the Abu Ghraib—of the Philippine-American War. Newspaper readers in both countries would have been fed daily reports on General Smith’s court-martial, which happened 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 such a light punishment? 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.)

General Vicente Lukbán, center, who led the revolution on the islands of Samar and Leyte. He is seated with 1st Lt. Alphonse Strebler, 39th Philippine Scouts, and 2nd Lt. Ray Hoover, 35th Philippine Scouts. Image in the public domain from the Library of Congress, scanned by Scott Slaten.
General Vicente Lukbán, center, who led the revolution on the islands of Samar and Leyte. He is seated with 1st Lt. Alphonse Strebler, 39th Philippine Scouts, and 2nd Lt. Ray Hoover, 35th Philippine Scouts. Image in the public domain from the Library of Congress, scanned by Scott Slaten.

The incident that President 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 on 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.

Bodies of dead Filipino Muslims killed at the First Battle of Bud Dajo during the Moro Rebellion.
Bodies of dead Filipino Muslims killed at the First Battle of Bud Dajo during the Moro Rebellion.

Americans fought their largest engagements against the Moros, and this meant some of the worst massacres happened against the Moros. 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 were 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.

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.

Sailors signal to an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter attached to the “Golden Falcons” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 12 as it hovers over the flight deck of the Arleigh-Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbel in the South China Sea. Photo by the US Navy.

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.

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.

Carabao photograph from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.
Carabao photograph from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.

[Featured photograph of a Filipino soldier blowing a horn to call for formation, from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.]

What’s So “New” about Imperialism?

The Gilded Age was an age of New Imperialism. The age of empires began over five thousand years ago, so 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.

New Sea Power

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 rest of the world saying: “Are you kidding me?”

Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.
Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.

Well, no, the imperialists were not kidding. In fact, they wrote poetry about how much they were not kidding. In “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling famously instructed the Americans that it was their turn to play the game in 1899, after seizing Manila in the Spanish-American War.

White-Man-Black-Burden-Comparison
A comparison of two stanzas of different burdens at the turn of the twentieth century. Rudyard Kipling’s poem (1899) is one of the most famous defenses of “New Imperialism,” but African American editor Henry Theodore Johnson’s critique entitled “The Black Man’s Burden” (1899) reflects the reality of who bore the weight of colonization.

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. African American editor Henry Theodore Johnson responded with “The Black Man’s Burden” (1899), which hit every note of opposition in the African American community, including: (1) the unnecessary nature of the war; to (2) how it fits into a long history of oppression of non-white peoples in the name of US expansion; and ends with (3) a reminder that Black Americans were already at war in their own country, not by their own choice. In the end, it would be African American regiments who would save the army in Cuba and serve in significant numbers in the Philippines, both in the US Army and in the Philippine Constabulary.

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

The authorities in the United States took up Kipling’s standard. They also believed the Philippines could be the Americans’ own foothold in Asia, an economic entrepôt to compete with the Great Powers in China. And, unlike those gauche Spaniards, the Americans would be enlightened rulers. President McKinley 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 generous 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 make a great first impression, to say the least.)

its-up-to-them-web
“It’s ‘up to’ them.” Uncle Sam gives the Filipinos the choice of either a soldier or a schoolteacher: the stick or the carrot. This Puck centerfold was published on 20 November 1901.

To be fair, there were some attempts at benevolence by the Americans. To name a few: the establishment of the first truly national and 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.

american-chastisement
From left to right: The trench of dead Moro soldiers and civilians at Bud Dajo (1906); a demonstration of the “water cure” by the 35th Volunteer Infantry; and the news headlines about General Smith’s orders to kill all Filipinos capable of bearing arms, which he defined as over the age of ten.

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.

(Side note: The only US Treasury money spent for civilian reconstruction in the Philippines was the million dollars paid to farmers to compensate for the lost of their water buffalo to the rinderpest epidemic. The disease wasn’t the Americans’ fault, but the loss of 90% of these beasts of burden would hold economic progress back. Note that the US did not reimburse loss of carabao to military action or even deliberate slaughter in counterinsurgency actions.)

The hypocrisy of New Imperialism also prompted English writer and politician Henry Labouchère to write his own version of the “Brown Man’s Burden,” which included this stanza:

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 racist visions of nationhood. 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.

In fact, some of the most vociferous anti-imperialists were racist Southern Democrats, many of them ex-Confederates. A former major in the Confederate Army, Senator John W. Daniel is quoted in the Congressional Record as saying:

We are asked to annex to the United States a witch’s caldron. . . . We are not only asked to annex the caldron and make it a part of our great, broad, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, American land, but we are asked also to annex the contents and take this brew—mixed races, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Negritos—anybody who has come along in three hundred years, in all of their concatenations and colors; and the travelers who have been there tell us and have written in the books that they are not only of all hues and colors, but there are spotted people there, and, what I have never heard of in any other country, there are striped people there with zebra signs upon them. This mess of Asiatic pottage 7,000 miles from the United States, in a land that we can not colonize and can not inhabit, we are told today by the fortune of a righteous war waged for liberty, for the ascendency of the Declaration of Independence, for the gift of freedom to an adjoining State, we must take up and annex and combine with our own blood, and with our own people, and consecrate them with the oil of American citizenship.

Images of Carnegie, Bryan, and Twain from the public domain.

Before you despair, though, let’s move onto Mark Twain, who “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.

mark_twains_american_flag_1901
The American Flag as redesigned in 1901 by Mark Twain. Image found here.

And, if that was not enough, Twain redesigned the American flag to include skulls and crossbones instead of stars. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is a brilliant piece of political satire:

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?

Both Johnson and Twain give us some faith that not every American bought into the plunder-but-call-it-progress ideology of New Imperialism. But most did.

Featured image at the top of the page is the 20 March 1901 cover of Puck.

The Gilded Age: A Romantic History

What is the chief end of man?—to get rich. In what way?—dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. God and Greenbacks and Stock—father, son, and the ghost of same—three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme…

—Mark Twain, in “The Revised Catechism,” printed in the New York Tribune on September 27, 1871

Twain didn’t hold back, especially not when criticizing society’s ills. In fact, he is the one who coined the term the “Gilded Age” to describe a time of conspicuous consumption, wealth disparity, and pervasive corruption. Sound familiar? In fact, esteemed economists (here and here) claim that we are smack dab in the middle of a new Gilded Age: the era of the one percenters.

The robber barons of Twain’s time were innovators, though, not fund managers. They were builders, not firm-breakers. They were self-made men who harnessed the raw power of the industrial age: Carnegie casted the steel, Rockefeller drilled the oil, and Vanderbilt laid the railroad track. Though not of noble birth—far from it—they were still the new kings, and they lived like them.

I recently traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, where the Gilded Age rich of New York spent hundreds of millions of today’s dollars building “cottages” that they lived in for only 8-12 weeks in the summer. Let me say that again: the equivalent of $30-200 million on a house used two months out of the year! Yeah, that’s almost criminal.

These days, the houses of Newport’s Cliff Walk and Bellevue Avenue are open to the public. Crowds mill through The Breakers, but I actually prefer The Elms, which was built by coal tycoon Edward Julius Berwind. It seems more livable—or just more endearingly excessive.

Interestingly, the Berwinds were particularly fascinated with Asian art. While the Vanderbilts built Italian palazzos and French châteaux, the Berwinds were the ones who added mahjong and black lacquer wall panels to the mix.

Some of the Asian treasures found at The Elms: lacquer panels, carved boxes, a jade collection, and mahjong tiles. Mr. Berwind’s sister did actually play mahjong—or at least the tiles seemed used and she had a well-loved instruction book. She was also one of the few to live in Newport year round, so she needed something to do when the socialites went home. But with whom did she play?

An Asian touch was fitting since the Americans were not the only ones who lived large at the turn of the twentieth century. Prominent Filipino ilustrados had risen to the top by virtue of their education, their enterprise, and their mestizo connections, and they had their own gilded treasures, as the León Gallery’s recent exhibition in Manila shows.

The gallery was able to repatriate previously unknown artwork produced by Filipinos, often for European patrons, including pieces produced by Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo for the General Exposition of the Philippines Islands, Madrid, 1887. The gallery owners wanted to show us that the Philippine Gilded Age was just as progressive and cosmopolitan as that of their arriving American conquerors. Javier Altarejos would agree.

Photos of the Filipino Gilded Age exhibition by Inquirer and Spot.ph.

Since I am stuck in New England, I had to send my always-curious friend Suzette de Borja to investigate. (Thank you, Suzette!) The furniture was beautiful. Suzette’s daughter especially loved the Manila aparador made from kamagong wood (above left), with a price tag of only P25 million, or about US$500,000.

Photographs by the intrepid Suzette de Borja.

Suzette and I have more modest tastes. I liked the bahay kubo painted on a local oyster shell, and she liked the drawing of the man with his fighting cock because it reminded her of this line of Under the Sugar Sun: “A local wag once said that in case of fire a Filipino would rescue his rooster before his wife and children—and hadn’t Georgie witnessed that with her own eyes in Manila?” You can also see a casco in the background, which is the type of boat that Della Berget comes ashore in at the beginning of Hotel Oriente. It is strange that Filipino artists wanted to immortalize such average scenes of local life because we all can agree that it is—and was—good to be rich.

But I know what you’re saying: weren’t these robber barons or hacenderos bad people? Why are we so fascinated with them?

Well, this is romance, so we romanticize them, of course. I romanticized Hacienda Altarejos, and I knew it while I was doing it. The true history of sugar in the Philippines is a story of great injustice. If you did not know that, there is a new documentary out there to guide you through that reality called Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar. The Gilded Age was fraught with labor disputes on the other side of the Pacific, as well—the Pullman Strike, the Haymarket Riots, the Coal Strike of 1902, just to name a few. This was the other reason Twain used the term Gilded Age, because all that glitters is not gold.

But historical romance has always been fascinated with the obscenely rich because wouldn’t we love to live that lifestyle? I mean we were raised on fairy tales of Cinderellas and Prince Charmings—and we hardly spared a thought about the peasants of the kingdom. I teach my students about the horrible injustices of the early industrial age, but you better believe that John Thornton of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South gets my engine going! (And, yes, it helps that he is played by Richard Armitage in the BBC version. Don’t worry, it’s on Netflix.) Gaskell wrote her novel in 1855—smack dab in the worst excesses of this period—and she still made a factory owner swoon-worthy.

BBC classics in my stable: North and South and Pride and Prejudice.

What about our Regency bookshelf? We don’t ask where Fitzwilliam Darcy got his ten thousand (pounds) a year—which, in present value, could be close to $6 million, or, in prestige value, maybe as much as $18 million. Yes, he earned interest on government bonds, but where did he get his principal wealth? From the sweat on the brows of farmers on “his” estate, of course. And, according to Joanna Trollope, Pemberly was built on the proceeds of coal mines. As a granddaughter of a coal miner, I can tell you that line of work not only sucks, but it will also kill you.

And it gets worse: men like Darcy were probably invested in another lucrative crop, one grown across the Atlantic in the West Indies. You guessed it. Sugar again! This was the “dark underbelly” of the British peerage, according to Trollope. And the sugar industry in the Caribbean and South America was the worst in the world: the average life of a slave there was five years. Hacienda Altarejos is practically a hippie commune, in comparison.

So, if we squint hard, we won’t see the nasty side of our historical romances, leaving us free to imagine the great parties, the family sagas, and the romantic intrigue. This is, after all, entertainment. (See an expanded discussion of the fabricated chronotopes of historical romance from a paper I presented at IASPR in Sydney in June 2018.)

A great thing about Gilded Age tycoons—whether American or Filipino—in comparison to our Regency heroes is that at least they had to do something to earn their money. This was the era of manliness, after all. You were supposed to roll up your shirtsleeves and get your hands dirty:

Javier placed the shovel in line with the stones, put his foot on the top of the blade, and pushed it deep. It slid into the soil. Georgie watched Javier reach down and grip the handle low, a position that gave him more control. He lifted the earth and placed it carefully to the side. When he raised his foot again to the top of the blade, the tight line of his trousers revealed a strong thigh and backside. Color rose to her cheeks. She felt a whole different kind of dirty watching him.

If you want more Gilded Age romance, Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series has a very delicious hero, Emmett Cavanaugh, whose rags-to-riches story was the embodiment of everyone’s hopes and dreams in the period.

Emmett is rough, yet gentle. Arrogant, but thoughtful. He’s that classic Type A hero we love so much, but instead of spending his excess energy whoring or hunting as a peer would do, he’s actually got shit to do. (He does box, though. Yum.)

Another recent release with a Gilded Age merchant-on-the-rise is Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas. Rhys Winterborne is a Welsh department store owner, a terrific choice of occupation since these diverse enterprises, selling all types of ready-made goods to the blossoming middle class, were an industrial age phenomenon—a true “retail revolution.”

Do not forget that all of these men would have been snubbed by the vaunted ton of London. John Thornton, Emmett Cavanaugh, Rhys Winterborne, and Javier Altarejos—none would have received an invitation to Almack’s. But, as Kleypas herself said: “There’s something invigorating about a hero who has created his own success.”

The Gilded Age can offer you something no other historical romances can: a self-made Prince Charming—what else could you want? Just relax and enjoy the fairy tale.

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.