Study Guide

Imperialism Introduction

By William Jennings Bryan

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Imperialism Introduction

America at the turn of the 20th century was having an existential crisis of Inception-style proportions.

You may have heard that the explosion that completely destroyed the U.S. battleship USS Maine helped to spark what we've come to know as the Spanish-American War. But did you know that that war started another war, the Philippine-American War? Or that there was a war within that war over how America should even go to war?

By the late 1890s, Americans were so entangled in a war within a war within a war that they couldn't tell which part of the American way of life was real anymore.

But before anybody fell too deep into that philosophical rabbit-hole, William Jennings Bryan showed up on the scene to tell the country to wake up or they'd be late to school.

When the United States defeated the Spanish Empire in 1898, they inherited all sorts of headaches. Cuba and the Philippines were two of those problems and the U.S. was now responsible for them. What are you supposed to do when entire nations are dropped into your lap? (This is not a problem that we at Shmoop have ever had to deal with…although we know exactly what to do when we drop a burrito into our lap—eat the dang thing anyway.)

An entire war of words broke out over what to do. Some wanted to exploit the islands for resources and profit. Others wanted to get all authority-figure on them with a "you can't do this or you can't do that without my permission" kind of attitude. And anyone who's ever been a rambunctious child knows how well that kind of parenting approach works out. Spoiler alert: not well.

That's where Bryan's "Imperialism" speech came in. The speech itself was meant to be a warning: that if the U.S. started acting like the empires of Europe it would lead to terrible places. Plus, imperialism is simply not very nice.

…oh yeah—and that it also stated that Republicans were terrible human beings for believing in American empire. Ouch.

Bryan wrote this speech for the Democratic Party in 1900. It's political. It takes some cheap shots. But it's also remembered for its elegance, respect for the imperialized, and logical articulation.

Plus he wasn't the only one throwing the political dirt. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, created the character "the Cowardly Lion" to make fun of Bryan's stance on empire.

And not unlike the movie Inception, the U.S. woke up from its war with Spain to find itself ensnared in another war. On top of that, the country was left with a nagging paradoxical and philosophical question: is it possible to be both an imperialist and an American?


What is Imperialism About and Why Should I Care?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

Sound familiar? It should—it's the opening crawl from Star Wars: A New Hope.

Dum, dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum—sorry. We can't help it. It's so stirring.

But it's also an insight into how Americans have typically interpreted imperialism in popular culture—especially after the influences of individuals like William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan's "Imperialism" speech was for sure less dramatic than the Star Wars movies—fewer Stormtroopers and Cinnabon hairstyles—but many of the premises are strikingly similar. Empire is seen as immoral/evil, the events themselves took place in exotic/otherworldly locales, and cute little teddy-bear mammaloids nearly single-handedly take down the intergalactic empire. (Okay, maybe we wish that that last one existed in real life.)

But the "Would George Lucas' Star Wars been different or even not exist at all without the likes of anti-imperialists like Bryan?" is a legit one…and not just because there's no such thing as a wrong question.

When Bryan wrote his "Imperialism" speech in the late 19th century, the U.S. was seriously debating taking on the role of the imperialist. And the Filipino people were increasingly playing the part of the rebel forces intent on taking the empire down.

By characterizing the American way of life as being somewhat antithetical to its imperial aspirations, Bryan helped to create a narrative where the empire was to be seen as the dark side of the force and the rebels as the light.

Now, if only we had adorable little BB-8s to follow us around and give us a thumbs-up with its lighter whenever we needed a quick pick-me-up. Sci-fi always seems much more fun than the real world. Oh well.

Imperialism Resources


The Free Silver Movement
And for those with a serious Bryan problem, go check out this great explanation of the Free Silver Debate.

Bryan College's Bryan Bio
What better way to learn about William Jennings Bryan then from the Bryan College named after Bryan himself? And who said there's no such thing as too much William Jennings Bryan?

Movie or TV Productions

Crucible of Empire: The Spanish American War
This video will show you all the ways that George Dewey wasn't the only guy sporting a mean handlebar moustache. Plus, that the story of American empire can be a little complicated.

The Conquest of Hawaii
If you were thinking about going to Hawaii for your next perfect vacation, let us ruin your chances at having fun and relaxation. Watch this video on how the U.S. annexed Hawaii in the name of empire. FYI we're just joking about ruining your vacation. You should go. It's beautiful.

Articles and Interviews

McKinley Defends U.S. Expansionism
If being accused of having "no more a backbone than a chocolate eclair" wasn't bad enough, McKinley spent this interview chickening out of his entire decision to go to war with the Filipinos.


Spanish-American War by Shmoop
Manly men, soft rabbits, and exploding ships. What else do you need to know about American imperialism?

A People's History of American Imperialism
He's definitely on the anti-imperialism side of the debate, but like William Jennings Bryan Howard Zinn was another important critic of the U.S.'s imperial history. Actually, he was faaaarrr more critical.

Thomas Edison's Spanish-American War
The technology was brand-spanking new, but here's some of the first wartime video coverage ever filmed. It was this kind of stuff that made Edison famous.


Bryan's Closing Lines
Sure this site contains audio for only the closing lines, but considering the fact that most households didn't have electricity in 1900, this ain't so bad.


The Filipino's First Bath
If you don't think this is racist, then we need to talk…

Roosevelt's Big Stick Theory
It's hard to disagree with someone when they're threatening to beat you with a giant club. This probably was not the most peaceful presidential policy in American history.

If Normal School Wasn't Bad Enough, Here's the School of Imperialism
Nearly every American imperial exploit is represented here—and so is nearly every bigoted, authoritative, and condescending assumption about empire. This isn't America at its classiest, folks.

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