Study Guide

Imperialism Historical Context

By William Jennings Bryan

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Historical Context

The Doubtful Guests

Have you ever had that annoying houseguest or friend who just sticks around well over their welcome? This is the kind of person who hangs around on your couch all day long, eats your all of your best food…oh and they use your family's labor for profit and they threaten you with violence when you start asking for your home back. And then you want to go to war with this new frenemy.

You know the kind of friend we're talking about, right?

Well, this was how the Philippines felt about the United States when William Jennings Bryan gave his "Imperialism" speech in 1900.

The Philippine Islands had been under Spanish Imperial rule since the 16th century. Actually, all sorts of places were colonized by the Spanish around that time. But a lot like Walter White in Breaking Bad, by the late 19th century, Spain was totally in over their heads and falling apart at the seams.

Since Spain's empire started looking a bit shabby and beaten up, Cuba and the Philippines decided to jump on the opportunity. Just a small revolution here and there in the name of freedom was the plan. No biggie.

But then they thought to themselves, "You know who totally kicks butt at revolutions in the name of independence and liberty? The United States, that's who. We should get them in on this freedom train."

The U.S.'s response? "Eh, we'll see what happens…"

To War Or Not To War…That Is The Question.

That was the official response, paraphrased. All sorts of people at home in America were getting riled up over whether or not to go. That's when the insults started flying.

Even L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz, created the character "the Cowardly Lion" to mock William Jennings Bryan's anti-war and anti-imperialism stance. (Source)

Numerous newspapers accused pro-war politicians like Teddy Roosevelt of being "hotheads" that were just looking for a fight. (Hoganson, Kristin L. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Page 71)

And the best one yet, President William McKinley was accused of having "no more a backbone than a chocolate eclair" because he wasn't sure the U.S. was ready for another war. (Source)

Despite all of this, the U.S. did decide to join the war against Spain in the end. Everything seemed to turn out perfectly: the U.S. totally destroyed Spain, Spain began to break down its imperial holdings, and by 1898 they reached an agreement to end the war.

Part of that agreement, however, was that Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines all became possessions of the United States. Possessions, mind you. These weren't exactly pieces of fine jewelry. People lived there. And some of those people were angry that they continued to be possessions.

Especially the Philippines.

To them, it mattered very little if they were under the control of the Spanish or the Americans. Control was still control. So, they continued their war after Spain left the picture, except that they fought the Americans this time around.

This was why, when William Jennings Bryan decided to run for president (again) in 1900, he hijacked the Democratic National Convention to give his opinion on imperialism.

And his opinion? He hated the idea of an American empire.

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