Study Guide

Imperialism Compare and Contrast

By William Jennings Bryan

  • "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" by Mark Twain (1901)

    Imagine for a second, a Hunger Games-type scenario where the great empires of the world (Great Britain, Germany, the United States, etc.) were thrown into an arena with the nations that they imperialized (South Africa, Cameroon, the Philippines, etc.) to play a game characterized by violence and domination.

    Rules don't exist, while alliances can be made or broken. And spectators sit in the dark, like total creeps, waiting to see what happens.

    This is the gist of Mark Twain's essay, "To the Person Sitting in Darkness."

    Twain wrote this essay as a satirical critique of imperialism. He likens the world of empires to a game of sorts. A game where the U.S. tries to play by European rules but fails miserably in the process. Ultimately, it's a harsh criticism. And he's not afraid to name names, calling out folks like William McKinley and Joseph Chamberlain of England for basically ruining the world.

    It's easy to remember Twain for his more lighthearted works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but he also spent a significant chunk of time writing dark-themed essays like this one criticizing American imperialism.

    Compared to Twain's anti-imperialism stuff, Bryan's speech looks like sparkle rainbows and happy sunrays. Despite Twain's disturbing imagery though, the messages of the two were pretty much the same: don't act like a European empire when the American way of doing things is so much better.

  • "Cross of Gold Speech" by William Jennings Bryan (1896)

    Did you think that William Jennings Bryan's "Imperialism" speech was the first time he hijacked the Democratic National Convention to give crazy long speech on a topic that (probably only) he found interesting?

    Well, it wasn't.

    His "Imperialism" was actually more like the Bryan 4 President 2.0 speech than an isolated incident. Bryan had the irritating habit of using his presidential runs as opportunities to start ranting and raving about whatever was politically important to him at the time.

    Kinda like Facebook.

    In 1900, Bryan was all into imperialism, but in 1896 he was obsessed with the getting rid of the gold standard. He wanted to make both gold and silver the center of the economy as a way to go after those one percent-ers.

    But true to the Bryan way, he lost the 1896 election to William McKinley. The 1900 election turned out to be complete déjà vu in that regard since he lost that one too—to the exact same guy.

    The "Cross of Gold" speech made Bryan famous due to its eloquence and sense of conviction. The problem was that he would not shut up about it. He even brings it up as "bimetallism" (9) in his "Imperialism" speech even after it had been a bit irrelevant for some time.

    Just let it go, man. Let it go.

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

    Lions, tigers, and Williams Jennings Bryan. Oh my!

    You may be asking yourself: what does the innocent childhood tale of Dorothy in the wonderful Land of Oz have to do with the military occupation of the Philippine islands? Well, dear Shmoopers, did you know that L. Frank Baum's tale of twisters, wicked witches, and magical slippers was full of buried messages of political innuendo and infighting?

    According to historians, Baum's story contains all sorts of commentary on the social, political, and economic state of America in 1900.

    Baum was active in the political scene at that time and even support William McKinley's run for the presidency. He did this mostly because he couldn't stand William Jennings Bryan. And what better way for a writer to express his hatred of a politician than to write him into one of your books?

    Baum thought that Bryan was acting like a complete coward by being so anti-imperialism, so he made the character the Cowardly Lion to criticize Bryan and his ideas. It's even been argued that the Yellow Brick Road of the book acts as an allegory for Bryan's views on the whole "Cross of Gold" debate.

    With all the political imagery written into the book, we can't help but wonder who the Wicked Witch of the West and her hordes of flying monkeys represented. (Maybe we don't want to know.)

  • "The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands" by Rudyard Kipling (1899)

    You might know Rudyard Kipling as the author of The Jungle Book, but the Philippines will probably always remember him as the guy who encouraged the United States to get all imperial with their nation.

    Have your parents ever given you the old "We're your parents therefore you have to do what we say"? How about, "We're the ones in charge until you've earned our trust"? Or maybe "You're too young and naïve to make your own decisions"?

    And they're your parents. They're the weirdoes who get misty-eyed when you don't want to watch Die Hard with them on Christmas afternoon.

    Imagine what it's like when someone—especially a when a prolific and popular author like Rudyard Kipling—takes that logic against a nation. That's not annoying. That's infuriating.

    This poem told the U.S. that they needed to start taking up "the White Man's Burden" by looking over all affairs of the island nation and to judge them as inferiors. And if they start complaining, just remember that they're like a bunch of children and don't know how to appreciate all the work you're doing.

    But the Filipinos weren't children, of course. The poem was racist, patriarchal, and a total jerk move. But it did work. The U.S. colonized the Philippines.

    Between Mark Twain's darkly sinister political writing, L. Frank Baum's hidden political allegories, and now Rudyard Kipling's terribly racist poems you probably think we're trying to kill all of your childhood literary heroes. But that's what historical analysis is all about, y'all.

  • The Winning of the West by Theodore Roosevelt (1889)

    This book (actually it's a three volume series of books) is kinda like if Captain America, Rambo, and the Rock all got together and made a baby. An amazingly buff and manly baby that could snap your neck with two fingers.

    The Winning of the West was ultimately Roosevelt's love letter to the American pioneers and Westward expansionism. In it, he traced the history of those settlers that increasingly pushed the border of the United States westward and even more westward until there was no more land left. He thought that these were the manliest men of all time and that we should all be more like them.

    You might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with William Jennings Bryan's "Imperialism" speech? Roosevelt's writings were hyper-masculine. They were violent. They were borderline racist. And they supported American imperialism in the form of westward expansion.

    Roosevelt was definitely aware that manliness and imperialism went together like PB and J back in the 19th century. And he loved it.

    But Bryan totally didn't. Bryan was trying to push against this form of American masculinity. He wanted them to be more compassionate. More Christian. Less violent. And less warlike.

    (We still think it would be cool if Captain America, Rambo, and the Rock had a baby, though.)