Study Guide

Imperialism Analysis

By William Jennings Bryan

  • Rhetoric


    Who wants to see someone like William Jennings Bryan arguing for peace and civility in the spirit of Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball"?

    No one, that's who.

    He couldn't have come into this speech careening in on a demolition machine wearing nothing but the skin he was born with. (We're talking metaphorically here, by the way.)

    Bryan had to appear logical, rational, and under control. Part of his point in the speech was to paint the pro-imperialists as kind of hot-headed and bully-ish. He said,

    And so with this nation. It is of age and it can do what it pleases; it can spurn the traditions of the past; it can repudiate the principles upon which the nation rests; it can employ force instead of reason; it can substitute might for right; it can conquer weaker people; it can exploit their lands, appropriate their property and kill their people; but it cannot repeal the moral law or escape the punishment decreed for the violation of human rights. (73)

    In this quote, Bryan made an appeal to the audience's understanding of history, politics, and morality all in one tight-knit package. But logic and reason tie them all together. Those without those qualities are inferred to be violent and unreasonable. That is, they were inferred to be pro-imperialists.

    And those imperialists were definitely coming in like a wrecking ball.

  • Structure

    The Transitive Property of Empire

    We know, we know this was supposed to be about U.S. history. So, what are we doing throwing some math and logic concepts into this biz? Sit tight, there's a totally logical explanation for this.

    Bryan pulls the old switcharoo in his "imperialism" speech. And he does it using the Transitive Property of Equality. That's the one that goes like this:

    If A = B
    And B = C
    Then A= C

    There's no real structure to his speech, but Bryan wanted to convince his listeners that there was a moral justification for his arguments. He didn't want to totally scare off those Separation of Church and State folks by shooting out a religious argument right off the bat. No, he slowly and meticulously begins the speech by focusing politics and ethics. But the next thing you know, he has completely flipped the switch and transitioned to a moral argument. It's all on purpose.

    Bryan knew how to kill it when it came to speeches. And like any good assassin, he did so with intent and methodical precision.

    How it Breaks Down

    We already know that Bryan splatters his entire speech with a ton of anti-Republican Party and anti-pro-imperialist talk. But it's the structure that really proves he's one sneaky kitten.

    If A = B

    Like we mentioned above, Bryan didn't want to dive right into the deep end by starting off his talk with religion. Instead, he dips his toes in first by appealing to what every patriotic American could agree on: that America is great.

    He stated that:

    Our whole history has been an encouragement not only to the Filipinos, but to all who are denied a voice in their own government. (24)

    In other words, America rocks. He's bragging that we got so many things right over the years: politics, religion, and government. You name it. Even the Filipinos want to be like us.

    In other words, Politics in America = Totally the Best Ever. And everyone knows it...

    …except for Republicans. According to Bryan, Republicans hate everything, including puppies and candy canes. He followed that statement up with this one:

    If the republicans are prepared to censure all who have used language calculated to make the Filipinos hate foreign domination, let them condemn the speech of Patrick Henry. When he uttered that passionate appeal, "Give me liberty or give me death," he expressed a sentiment which still echoes in the hearts of men. (24)

    Even when he's giving the United States one of the best compliments ever, he still couldn't pass up an opportunity to tear into the Republican Party. Brutal.

    And B = C

    Okay, so Bryan spends the first part of his speech showing how the U.S. is the coolest kid in school—and he's really into American politics. But then Bryan asks, "You know who's another cool American politician? Thomas Jefferson."

    Read for yourself:

    Every one [sic] recognizes the obligation imposed upon individuals to observe both the human and the moral law, but as some deny the application of those laws to nations, it may not be out of place to quote the opinions of others. Jefferson, than whom there is no higher political authority, said: "I know of but one code of morality for men, whether acting singly or collectively." (59-60)

    The point here is that Bryan wants to equate American politics with moral righteousness. This is the equation that he is starting to come up with:

    Politics in America = Totally the Best Ever = Angelic and Saintly

    Throughout this section Bryan keeps making associations between the ethics of American politics and religious morality, or what he keeps calling "moral law." The reason Jefferson (and the other Founding Fathers) was such a rockstar, according to Bryan, was that he understood the connections between morality and political righteousness.

    (FYI, Bryan was deeply religious and his reading of Jefferson is definitely one of a religious man. Others might and have read his work very differently.)

    Then A= C

    By the last section of Bryan's speech, he goes for the religious jugular. Calling the Republican Party the wrong political choice is one thing, but saying that they are evil is a realm onto itself. Now, Bryan has made this a logical conclusion:

    Politics in America = Angelic and Saintly

    The conclusion he was really trying to make was that anti-imperialism's not only the right political thing to do, but the morally right thing to do. Or, in other words, the Democratic Party's both correct in their stance on the Philippines…and they're all making it through those Pearly Gates when they die.

  • Tone

    Selfless, Cold, and Composed

    Bryan's tone can be described in these three words. It's also the name of a Ben Folds Five song from the '90s, but it applies to the speech nicely.

    Who's going to listen to you if you're screaming your head off about how the country needs to be peaceful? When arguing for non-military actions, should you be alluding to the violence you will most certainly commit upon those who disagree with you? How about making the case for brotherly love by name-calling and shaking your fists in the air?

    No way!!!!!!!! (See how annoying exclamatory overuse can be?)

    And William Jennings Bryan agreed.

    Bryan wanted to come across as being as cool as a cucumber, and he wants to make it seem like he's not freaking out over the whole imperialism debate. But that's really only because he's accusing the pro-imperialists of being the ones who were freaking out.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We hate to be the ones to break this news to you, but Bryan's "Imperialism" speech is about…wait for it…imperialism.

    We doubt that surprised you very much. Here, let's fix that for you. What if we called it:

    "The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. William Jennings Bryan and His Fantastical Views on Anti-Imperial Counter-Hegemony and Other Such Curiosities"

    Better? Or maybe we should stick with "Imperialism."

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    I feel that I owe an apology or explanation to the people who are to listen for the fact that I must read what I am going to say. It would be more pleasant to me and more agreeable to you to speak without notes, but I want to address that larger constituency which we reach through the newspapers, for it is a thousand times as numerous as any crowd that could assemble here, and therefore, in order that I may speak to all throughout the land. I have committed to writing what I desire to say, and will ask for your indulgence while I read my speech. (1)

    You know how when you were a kid and you teased your sibling(s) with the resolve of someone who is on a mission? And you know how your parents probably forced you to apologize for acting like the spawn of a demon?

    If you were anything like us when we were kids, you probably faked your apology with the masterful precision of a Shakespearean actor.

    Bryan's opening lines are right up there with those moments of childhood deceit. This might be one of the most insincere apologies in all of U.S. history. He wasn't sorry. He knew that he was hijacking the Democratic Convention speech.

    He knew this because he hijacked it last time when he was nominated in 1896. Except that time he gave a speech on the Free Silver debate. So, in other words, he knew what he was doing and totally faked an apology.

    But hey, he was a politician. That couldn't have been the first or last time he did something like that, right?

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Behold a republic increasing in population, in wealth, in strength and in influence, solving the problems of civilization and hastening the coming of an universal brotherhood — a republic which shakes thrones and dissolves aristocracies by its silent example and gives light and inspiration to those who sit in darkness. Behold a republic gradually but surely becoming the supreme moral factor in the world's progress and the accepted arbiter of the world's disputes — a republic whose history, like the path of the just, "is as the shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day. (112)

    Golly gee-whiz and wee-willy willickers, aren't we just the bestest, brightest, and most beautiful country in the world?

    Bryan would be hard pressed to bring up any more flattering remarks regarding the United States. That's part of his point, though. He wanted to end his speech with a sappy love song to the country he cared so deeply about.

    And the underlining theme of the song was that it would break his poor heart if the U.S. decided to go the imperial route. That's not the country he came to love.

    Unfortunately for Bryan, the love song didn't work and the country broke his anti-imperialist heart.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Bryan wasn't called "the Boy Orator of the Platte" for nothing. His speeches were almost always easy to follow, written for a broad audience, and considered the best of his time. His "Imperialism" speech was no exception, either.

    The speech itself runs around 9,000 words and probably took well over an hour to get through in its entirety. In other words, if you were there, you might have been bored to tears and found yourself waking up in a nap-induced pool of drool because of how long it was…or you might have been open-mouthed and starry-eyed.

    Either way, chances are you still would have been impressed by the end. That's just how good Bryan was.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    The Bill of Rights (53)
    The Constitution (53, 71, 76)
    The Declaration of Independence (26, 76, 83)
    The Gettysburg Address (25)

    Historical and Political References

    Benjamin Franklin (61, 87-89)
    Congress (53, 64)
    The Democratic Party
    The Republican Party
    Admiral George Dewey (67)
    King George III (48)
    George Washington (25, 109, 110)
    Henry Clay (30, 67-69)
    Lord Howe of Great Britain (87)
    Thomas Jefferson (5, 25, 32, 59)
    William McKinley ["The President"] (15, 39)
    Daniel Webster (30)
    Abraham Lincoln (25, 28)
    Patrick Henry (24-25)

    Laws and Treaties References

    The Bacon Resolution (20-21)
    The McEnery Resolution (45)
    The Monroe Doctrine (107)

    Biblical References

    Jesus of Nazareth (100-102)
    Mammon (3)
    Samaria (101)

  • Trivia

    For those of you that are of drinking age, next time you go to your favorite watering hole, go ahead and order a Cuba Libre. It means "Free Cuba," referencing the Cuban revolutionaries and American troops that fought the Spanish during the Spanish-American War. Order one and you'll feel like a revolutionary too. (Source)

    Being the totally manly-man that he was, Teddy Roosevelt really topped the macho-meter when he was shot in the chest while giving a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Did he go to the hospital like any other mortal man? No way. He kept giving his speech anyways. He even reportedly stated that, "It takes more than one bullet to kill a moose." (Source)

    But on the other hand, Teddy Roosevelt was also super self-conscious about his manly image. He was picked on as a kid—often for being scrawny and weak. So as an adult he, dressed up like a cowboy and staged photographs of himself with fake backdrops of exotic locales.

    But who hasn't done this? Sounds like an average Saturday night here at Shmoop. (Source)

    The 1896 presidential election (i.e., William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan Part I) was the first time in the history of presidential elections that big businesses got involved by backing certain candidates. Our poor William Jennings Bryan lost that one.

     And the next one. 

    And the next one too.

    Maybe Bryan should have rethought his stance on that whole Free Silver Debate? (Source)

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