Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire
Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire

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Late nineteenth-century Britain and America: The people and the empire

2 The Americans and imperialism

If many questions must remain unanswered concerning popular responses to imperialism in Britain, this is doubly the case when we turn to the United States. Enough work has been done, however, to make it possible to make some useful comparisons.

While the British readily acknowledged their imperialism, the Americans have always denied theirs. The invisible nature of its empire and a determined anti-imperialist ideology made it possible for America to maintain such a position even in its decade of imperialist territorial acquisition – the years 1898 onwards. Whatever the topic of study, the historian is faced with the problem of penetrating what people say they thought and did, to discover what they, in reality, thought and did. The problem is, however, particularly acute when we attempt to assess the commitment of the American people to imperialism. For, even more than the British, Americans have sought officially to lay the onus for the Spanish-American War upon popular demand. Gareth Stedman Jones put it neatly in his essay on ‘The History of US Imperialism’:

Incursions into the Caribbean and Philippines were not in any sense determined by real economic interests, but were the result of the machinations of the cheap yellow press. The war was necessary to satisfy the frenzied and hysterical emotions of the people. The United States was forced to intervene to prevent new colonial incursions into the American hemisphere. America had not engaged in a determined war of economic expansion but had reluctantly assumed the Anglo-Saxon burden of helping backward peoples forward to liberty and democracy.

(Stedman Jones, 1972, pp. 208–9)

It was because of its anxiety to avoid charges of economic expansionism that the American government made so much of the war frenzy of the people. This, of course, raises questions concerning the propensity of strong governments to engage in wars which they consider both morally indefensible and unbeneficial on popular demand and, also, the balance of influences and motivations operating in this particular case. More important to our immediate purpose is this question: is it true that the American people wanted war and, specifically, a war of deliberate expansionism?

The received opinion is certainly that the people welcomed the Spanish war:

The American people accepted the war with a light-hearted patriotism. Every band played Sousa's new air, The Stars and Stripes Forever, and every piano strummed the ragtime march, There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight. Party lines were forgotten as Bryan served as colonel of a Nebraska regiment. The last vestiges of wartime antagonism between North and South melted away in the fire of national feeling; and Joe Wheeler, the famous Confederate Cavalry leader, fighting before Santiago, exclaimed that a single battle for the Union flag was worth fifteen years of life. From Boston to San Francisco whistles blew and flags waved on the hot July day when word came that Santiago had fallen. Newspapers rushed their correspondents to Cuba and the Philippines to see the fun, and these writers trumpeted the renown of a dozen new national heroes. There were ‘Fighting Bob’ Evans of the Iowa, who took Cervera aboard after his defeat; Captain Philip of the Texas, who as a Spanish vessel sank said, ‘Don't cheer, boys; the poor fellows are dying’; … It seemed an ideal war. Its casualty lists were short, it cost no great debt, it raised American prestige abroad, and the nation emerged with its pockets full of booty.

(Nevins and Commager, 1967, pp. 364–5)

This view deserves careful criticism, however. For several points can be made which point to the conclusion that the American people who called for war and supported it when it came were not necessarily expansionist. During the 1880s and 1890s floods of European immigrants entered the United States. American society was faced with an acute problem: how to integrate these non-English-speaking immigrants, from a number of very different cultural traditions, into the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking society of nineteenth-century America. There was the added problem that the flood of immigrants during a period of economic depression was the cause of intense feeling against the immigrants, even in the formerly ‘internationalist’ organised labour movement as represented by the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. The answer was found in a very deliberate programme of Americanisation of the immigrants – using the public schools as community education centres which taught not only English to the immigrants but also American ways and standards (for example, of child care and housewifery) – and a wave of xenophobia. The schools laid great stress upon inculcating patriotism in their pupils, with sessions of flag exercises and citizenship classes; the well-to-do founded patriotic societies; belligerent attitudes to foreign governments were encouraged. Not for nothing have these years been dubbed the ‘nationalist nineties’. The new American ‘nationalism’, then, was very jingoistic. The popular press – William R. Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in the fore – made capital out of this fact and made sure that public feeling against foreign powers remained high. There is good reason to believe that the American people at this point would have welcomed any war – imperialist or not – and that the question of expansionism scarcely needed to be raised. Moreover the war was not portrayed as an aggressive, expansionist venture but as a defence of the oppressed. There was also every reason for Americans – especially new immigrants – to make their allegiance to America and their enthusiasm for its wars beyond doubt. Immigrants felt very insecure in this atmosphere of nativism – they had to place their loyalties beyond doubt. Hence the wild demonstrations in favour of the war and, perhaps, the absence of popular argument against it. Many immigrants, of course, were not citizens and spoke no English: their participation in civic life (and especially elections) was presumably minimal.

There seem to be good reasons for doubting whether the American people at the time of the Cuban war were necessarily very interested in the question of whether or not America, the first ex-colony, should have an empire. But they were certainly out to prove their patriotism and displayed a jingoistic mood. They may have been nationalistic and xenophobic rather than imperialistic, but the end result was that they proffered vocal and unequivocal support for an imperial war, much to the politicians' satisfaction.

Some contemporaries outspokenly identified the Spanish war as a welcome tool in the Americanisation campaign. The National Education Association rejoiced that it brought solidarity to a people riven by internal dissension before its coming. The French ambassador in Washington commented: ‘More than one American hopes that the war will definitely create a Nation out of the mass of heterogeneous populations’.

It is true that there was one voice of dissent – the voice of the American organised labour movement which was interested in the imperialism issue and, before the war, was declaredly anti-imperialist. But it is also true that the pressures which ensured that the people as a whole did not resist the imperial war also made their mark upon the stance of the labour movement.

Before the outbreak of war over Cuba, the labour organisations and the labour journals were outspoken in their condemnation of imperialist expansion and militarism. The basis of this opposition was, without doubt, the internationalism of the labour movement. The concept of the brotherhood of the workers, the identity of their interests as a class, crossing national boundaries, suffused labour pronouncements on expansionism. It was as American labour leader Samuel Gompers declared to the New York Central Labor Union:

Labor is never for war. It is always for peace. It is on the side of liberty, justice and humanity. These three are always for peace … Who would be compelled to bear the burden of a war? The working people. They would pay the taxes, and their blood would flow like water. The interests of the working people of England and the United States are common. They are fighting the same enemy. They are battling to emancipate themselves from conditions common to both countries. The working people know no country. They are citizens of the world, and their religion is to do what is right, what is just, what is grand and glorious and valorous and chivalrous. The battle for the cause of labor, from times of remotest antiquity, has been for peace and for good-will among men.

(Quoted in Foner, 1977, p. 406, italics added)

War was a device used by despots to drown the legitimate complaints of their subject peoples. In 1897 Gompers wrote an article in the American Federationist entitled ‘Let us have peace’ in which he foresaw an age in which workers from all countries would unite and make peace. Time and time again before the war, American labour leaders spoke out against the war and expansion on the grounds that it was against the practical and the ideological interests of the workers. For instance, when President McKinley asked the Senate in 1897 to approve the treaty of annexation with Hawaii, the American Federationist argued that workers would gain nothing ‘from vainglory of territorial expansion … for behind this cry for glory there exists real danger to the liberties of our citizens, perhaps the decadence of our republic and the degeneration of our people’. When the destruction of the American ship, Maine, in Havana harbour in January 1898 produced a clamour for war, many labour papers tried to stem the tide of jingoistic feeling. The Coast Seamen's Journal, for example, described the projected war as an ‘expensive proceeding that the working class pays for and gains least from’. For the war would mean retrogression in terms of social reform at home:

A war will put all social improvements among us back ten years … If there is a war, you will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory. Speculators will make money out of it – that is, out of you. Men will get high prices for inferior supplies, leaky boats, for shoddy clothes and pasteboard shoes, and you will have to pay the bill, and the only satisfaction you will get is the privilege of hating your Spanish fellow-working-men, who are really your brothers and who have had as little to do with the wrongs of Cuba as you have.

(Quoted in Foner, 1977, p. 411)

The internationalist and humanitarian emphases of the labour opposition to imperialism put the labour movement in a quandary when war was declared. For the American government laid great stress upon the need to save the Cuban people from oppression as the prime motivation for the American involvement. Moreover, workers were anxious, given the prevalent jingoistic mood, not to appear un-American. In the early stages of the war, therefore, there was a tendency for labour to remain silent on the issue. A very few unions even came out in favour of the war – for example, the Typographical Union favoured acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish colonies because this would benefit the printing industry.

When labour leaders did speak out against the annexation of Spanish colonial territories, the imperialists certainly made every effort to brand them as traitors to the nation. For example, between December 1898 and March 1899 there were 31 petitions to Congress opposing annexation as well as thousands of individual petitions and some joint petitions to the president from the American Federation of Labor and the Anti-Imperialist League. Imperialists tried to denigrate all as traitors and singled out Gompers.

The Anti-Imperialist League, in which many American labour leaders were active, continued to agitate against imperialism after the ratification of the treaty. The distinctive voice of American labour, characterised by internationalism, a concern for the working class and an acknowledgement of the economic basis of imperialism, was, however, drowned by the voice of American industrial capitalists like Andrew Carnegie who financed the movement. The league stressed the religious, constitutional and humanitarian objections to imperialism, rarely mentioning its other aspects. And labour leaders, especially Gompers, were happy to go along with this programme because by this time they identified the chief enemy as labour competition from colonial peoples and not the monopoly capitalists who had wanted expansion in the first place.

The trade unions and the labour press were more faithful to their traditions. Although they often neglected the connection between imperialism and capitalism, they did continue to draw attention to the common oppression of American workers and colonial peoples. In 1899 the American Federation of Labor was only too pleased to draw parallels between the slaughter of 3,000 Filipino soldiers (during this island people's liberation) and the treatment of striking workers at Coeur D'Alene, Idaho: ‘When the Cuban, the Porto Rican, and the Philippinos [sic] are deprived of the right of self-government by our ruling class, it is our political rights which are in jeopardy.’ Similar sentiments were expressed when the military governor of Havana broke up a strike in September 1899 simply by casting its ringleaders into gaol: ‘The Spaniards did not treat Cuban labour in a more arbitrary manner. This is one of the incidents of military rule.’

But, despite this declared opposition to imperialism and militarism, labour leaders were opposed to mobilising workers at the ballot box. Ironically enough, the few socialists who did want to found a workers' party were less than interested in fighting on the issue of imperialism because they saw it as a peripheral issue. It was left to the Anti-Imperialist League to found a third party, which it did in January 1900. However, when Carnegie withdrew his support and finance, the initiative was dulled and labour failed to rescue the new party because it was not wholehearted in its support.

In 1900 McKinley was returned to the presidency largely because there appeared no viable anti-imperialist alternative. William Jennings Bryan, the leader of the Democrats, was not really an anti-imperialist. After this, even the American Federation of Labor capitulated: while the trade unions did not endorse aggressive imperialism, they accepted that America's colonial acquisitions were permanent and the American Federation of Labor as usual resisted the more radical call to attack the capitalistic forces which some saw behind imperialism.


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