Study Guide

Imperialism Main Idea

By William Jennings Bryan

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  • Main Idea

    William Jennings Bryant badly wanted America to be the nice guy of the world. He wanted it really, really badly.

    You could almost imagine him giving this speech while holding up a peace sign and sporting some groovy long hair. But he was no hippy. He was a devout Christian who believed that American republicanism did not allow for imperialist policies.

    These were the values that he wanted to convey in his speech. (Maybe people would have been more persuaded if he had been wearing a tie-dyed shirt that said "Give peace a chance, man.")

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Sometimes it might seem like there's no difference between colonialism and imperialism. A tomato vs. tom-ah-to type of situation. But not for Bryan. How does he see these two as very different?
    2. Were the Founding Fathers really that against imperial expansion, or was Bryan just manipulating history to argue his point?
    3. Why didn't Bryan want to emulate Europe? How could someone possibly dislike the continent that brought the world bratwursts and baguettes?
    4. How and why does Bryan differentiate the situations in Cuba and in the Philippines?

    Chew on This

    When William Jennings Bryan gave a speech to a room full of people, everyone listened. That is…if the room was full of Democrats. Bryan's "Imperialism" speech was an act of political propaganda coded into enlightened rhetoric, empty moralism, and insincere concern for anyone overseas. What a jerk.

    William Jennings Bryan's "Imperialism" showed the American people a political style rarely seen: one of compassion and ethical rationalism. It's not accurate to say that Bryan was the Cowardly Lion. He was the Tin Woodman, concerned mostly with the heart.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. got one of those awkward gifts from Spain. You know, the kind that you don't really want but can't just give back?

    Well, the problem was that the gift was the island nation of the Philippines. What were they to do?

    The Text

    Bryan tries everything to convince America that getting all involved in the Philippines is a terrible, terrible idea:

    • He tries saying that Americans don't play that empire game.
    • He says that Thomas Jefferson, pretty much the coolest American ever, thought imperialism was lame.
    • He says that Jesus never built an empire, so why should America?
    • But, hey: he's a Democrat so he also throws in some insults towards the Republican Party. Just for good measure.

    He does everything but get on his hands and knees to beg the U.S. to do the right thing.


    William Jennings Bryan pretty much sings John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" to an American audience debating whether to go to war and annex the Philippines.

  • Questions

    1. Was it a total copout for Bryan to have not considered Manifest Destiny an instance of American imperialism? What about the annexation of Hawaii?
    2. Are Bryan's arguments legitimate, or is he just engaging in another mudslinging political campaign? This was an election year after all, and we all know how election years can get…
    3. Would you consider the United States, right now, an empire? If it helps, you can imagine the president wearing a Darth Vader suit and the U.S. army as Storm Troopers.
    4. The U.S. has engaged in more than its fair share of international intervention since the Spanish-American War. Can Bryan's speech apply to any of these? How about the Cold War's proxy wars?
    5. Was it fair for Bryan to use religion in the way he did? Isn't it a little hard to lose an argument when God is on your side? Or should he have separated Church from State?
    6. Bryan mentions so many places it could make your head spin from looking at the map so many times. But why does he distinguish places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines? Why did the U.S. treat each scenario so differently?
    7. Does Bryan get a little too happy with his name-dropping? We get it; he took U.S. history in school too. But using what you know about events like the Constitutional Convention and the Gettysburg Address is he correct in his claims?

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