Study Guide

Imperialism Themes

By William Jennings Bryan

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  • Imperialism

    This might surprise you, but Bryan's "Imperialism" speech was about, well, imperialism. Try to hold back your astonishment.

    By the late 19th century, the U.S. was really just beginning to dip its toes into the waters of empire building. But Americans couldn't quite decide whether they thought the water was too hot or cold to jump right into. Or maybe they just hated swimming altogether.

    Bryan tried to play the role of that lifeguard at the pool, the one screaming "Danger, swim at your own risk!" He wanted the Democratic Party (and anyone else paying attention) to know about the hazards of an imperial state and what he believed was empire's incompatibility with true-blue Americanism.

    Questions About Imperialism

    1. Bryan brought up the Mexican-American War (paragraph 70) as an example of how the U.S. avoided imperialist policy. Was the Mexican-American War not an imperialist war? Why/Why not?
    2. Using what you know about Progressive-Era politics, how did Bryan's words fit right in to the era?
    3. Using what you know about modern U.S. History (and especially the Cold War), has the U.S. continued to be an empire? Is it possible to imperialize using economics? How about imperializing someone's culture?
    4. Even after Bryan gave his speech, the U.S. went the route of empire in the Philippines? Why do you think this happened?

    Chew on This

    Reading Bryan's words you can almost imagine the Founding Fathers and Mothers scolding a young 19th-century United States with "if Europe jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?" By viewing U.S. history in this way, Bryan contributed to the whole American Exceptionalism narrative, believing that the U.S really was on a historical path that differed from that of Europe.

    Bryan may not have wanted to see the growth of American imperialism, but he sure was a proponent of American fantasy-ism. Sure that's not a real word, but Bryan did help to create an American fantasy where the nation did not view itself as an empire. Not an empire? Yeah, right. What about Manifest Destiny? What about the annexation of Hawaii? The U.S was an empire before, during, and after Bryan gave his speech. Simply put, he was wrong.

  • Race

    Bryan was a conundrum, wrapped in an enigma, and then rolled into a three-piece suit. It wouldn't be fair to call him an out-and-out racist. His writing is both kinda prejudiced and kinda not. Bryan argued for the Filipino right to self-govern when almost no one else would for Pete's sale.

    But we also can't let him off the hook completely.

    His "Imperialism" speech did contain some undertones of race-based argumentation, ideas from the Social Darwinist crowd, and seemingly innocent statements about the superiority of the United States. All of his comments were pretty tame compared to much of the racial politics of that day. But they're a little icky nonetheless.

    Questions About Race

    1. Using what you know about the Progressive Era, how were Bryan's arguments about race/ethnicity/superiority both typical and different from other movements at that time?
    2. Bryan wasn't exactly being colorblind here. How did race and ethnicity pop up in his own arguments against empire?
    3. Didn't you hate it when your parents made decisions for you without ever consulting you? That's sort of what's going on here—a debate about empire, but without the imperialized. This wasn't the first time the U.S. did something like this. Where in this speech (and in U.S. history writ large) can you see examples of this type of behavior? And how can this be seen as racist, or at least insulting?
    4. Doesn't it seem like Bryan was giving off a sense of self-righteousness or snootiness when viewing the Americans as being oh-so-superior to the Filipinos?

    Chew on This

    Bryan wasn't just trying to be the PCP (you know, the Political Correctness Police) by calling Republicans out as being racist; he genuinely believed in letting the Filipino have the right to dignity and independence.

    In a classic political move, Bryan called the Republican Party a bunch of racists. But the worst part of it was that he even said some terribly condescending (and arguably racist) things too. Typical politician…

  • Principles

    William Jennings Bryan was the guy who argued that evolution should stay out of the public school systems in the Scopes Trial. He was also a firm supporter of Prohibition since he thought drinking led to moral decay. On top of his political speeches, he also spoke on the topics of morality, religion, and the separation of Church and State (that there should be no separation, that is).

    In other words, Bryan was a deeply religious man and you better bet your bible that he brought Christian morality into his "Imperialism" speech.

    His whole point was that Americans not only have a political obligation to stay away from empire, but a moral obligation as well. That, for Bryan, would indicate the highest form of principles.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What does religion have to do with empire? Was Bryan way off the religious mark with this one?
    2. Is this just a cheap shot? How can someone argue with divine authority? Was Bryan just exploiting religion to get his way?
    3. Using the text, how did Bryan mix ideas about political ethics and religious morality?
    4. What about that whole separation of Church and State thing? Was it even appropriate to bring religion into the debate at all?
    5. Do you think it mattered to either pro or anti-imperialists that the Philippines were a primarily Catholic nation post-Spanish Empire? Do you think they ever gave any thought to the local/indigenous religions?

    Chew on This

    Sure, part of Bryan's "Imperialism" speech criticized what he called the "gun-powder gospel" (97), but his Christian Crusader rhetoric put him in the same category as the other imperialists of his era. He became a hypocrite by praising moralist and principled intervention over that of the military. Religious imperialism is still a form of imperialism.

    William Jennings Bryan was a religious man. But he was also an American. As an American who argued for compassionate moralism, he was doing the world a favor by mixing ethics, morality, and politics. He was right then, that the U.S. should be "as the shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day," (112) and his words are still right to this day.

  • Politics

    If it weren't a blatantly nasty move, Bryan probably would have called the Republican Party a gang of smelly, evil warmongers who beat up sweet little kittens on their free time. He undoubtedly would have also thrown in a few curse words, as well. But he was trying to play Mr. Nice Guy after all.

    (Despite all this, he still managed to squeeze off a few insults towards the Republican Party.)

    The "Imperialism" speech was inherently political. It was given at the Democratic National Convention. He was running on a Democrat ticket. On top of this, he was running against the guy (the Republican McKinley) he ran against (and lost to) last time. There's almost a hint of bitter resentment in those words. In other words, the point was to the make the Republicans look like the bad guys.

    And who ever said politics gets nasty sometimes?

    Questions About Politics

    1. Was it fair of Bryan to characterize the Republican Party as all imperialists? Isn't there any room for complexity here?
    2. Put yourself in the shoes of the Republican Party. How do you think they would have responded? Feel free to throw in your own insults and curse words if you want to spice things up a bit.
    3. Was there any way to get around the whole imperialism debate with getting political?
    4. How would Bryan's speech have been different if it were written for a Republican or politically mixed audience? What parts would have to be changed and why?

    Chew on This

    Bryan's speech at the Democratic Convention was not an effort to end empire; it was an attempt to demonize the entire Republican Party. Thinking this way trivialized the problems of empire and did more harm than good to the Filipino people. It's just too bad he didn't care about them as he cared about getting votes.

    Despite all the fancy rhetoric and appeals to reason, Bryan's speech was just another political lecture. We get it. Democrats hate Republicans; Republicans hate Democrats. Because, you know, life and politics is all black and white like that. Once again, the horrible misshapen head of politics reared its ugly head, like it does during every presidential election, proving Bryan was no different than the other political haters.

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