Joseph R.


March 20, 2000

Anti-imperialism, 1900


As sometimes noted here, many historians see the beginnings of American imperialism in the Spanish-American War. A war fought ostensibly for the freedom of the Cuban people allowed the United States to relieve Spain of its Pacific possessions, Guam, the Marianas, and the Philippines. We took Puerto Rico as well and Cuba became an American protectorate, or informal colony, down to 1959. The Pacific assets fit into a grander scheme of things – the "large policy" of Open Door empire worked out by Brooks Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and others.

There were a few bumps in the implementation of the new policy. The biggest of these was the refusal of a good many Filipinos to accept the Americans as their new landlords in place of the Spaniards. It took a costly war to make good this part of the real estate deals made in the Treaty of Paris. The war – which the Americans chose to call "the Philippine Insurrection" – quickly became a war against the Philippine people generally, that is, a counter-insurgency comparable to what Spain had been running in Cuba before US intervention and what the British had going in South Africa against the Boer-Afrikaner nation down to 1903.

Ultimately, the war and the costs of administering the islands soured American leaders on formal colonies like the Philippines or British India. Thereafter, they would pursue neo-mercantilist empire on an "informal" basis by ruling through apparently independent local leaders – as in Cuba, Nicaragua, etc. – bought and paid for by the US taxpayer. This allowed greater flexibility and was cost-effective when it worked, but led, sometimes, to awkward episodes in which a foreign employee of the Americans – Batista, Somoza, the Shah, there may be others – "suddenly" was seen to be a despot from whom the Americans must distance themselves minutes before his overthrow by an unhappy populace. In other cases, employees have misunderstood or disobeyed their instructions – Noriega, Saddam Hussein – and have to be corrected. Even informal empire has its drawbacks.


In response to the bloody counterinsurgency in the Philippines, critics founded the American Anti-Imperialist League. Their goal was to combat the "large policy," empire, and colonialism. For the most part, the Anti-Imperialists were classical liberals who espoused free markets and free trade. Many had ties to the old antislavery movement.

V. I. Lenin called the Anti’s the "last of the Mohicans of bourgeois democracy" – which is true enough. Prominent members of the League included industrialist Andrew Carnegie, Boston textile magnate Edward F. Atkinson, former Senator Carl Schurz, writer Mark Twain, and philosopher William James. Former President Grover Cleveland was at least a sympathizer. Atkinson stirred up all kinds of trouble when he sent anti-war pamphlets to American troops in the Philippines. To stop this "sedition" the government seized the pamphlets before they arrived in the field.

It has been suggested that the upper class character of the League kept it from leading the broad public against overseas imperialism. Certainly, there were critics of empire – generally referred to as "expansion" – outside the League, but neither the League nor anyone else welded them into an effective opposition to empire. Nor was the election of 1900, which pitted the incumbent McKinley against the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, much of a "referendum" on the policy of empire. Bryan made little use of the issue, having apparently decided that it wasn’t much of a vote-getter.1


With McKinley safely elected, along with his ineffable new Vice President Teddy Roosevelt, the pacification of the Philippine Islands dragged on. Whole districts were declared combat zones – "free-fire" zones in effect – and US troops were allowed to follow the positivist rules of warfare drawn up by Francis Lieber for Lincoln’s War Department in 1862. Under these rules, inhabitants of such areas were assets to the enemy and their lives, rights, and property at the mercy of US commanders, who were sole judge of the "convenience" of letting the people enjoy continued use of those things.

Given the difficulty of distinguishing the insurgents from the population, American soldiers began killing Filipinos wholesale. Stories of indiscriminate warfare, mass graves, "concentration" of civilians into camps (cf. "strategic hamlets"), and atrocities like the "water torture" began trickling home. In the end, about 220,000 Filipinos perished in the war. The greater number of these died from disease, disruption of food supplies, and other causes linked to the war, rather than from actual combat. The overall "tone" was that of an overseas Indian war, a circumstance doubtless connected with the fact that many US officers in the Philippines were veterans of the last such wars.2

The islands were "pacified" and American proconsuls, Progressive bureaucrats, and anthropologists could get on with the important business of finding willing local collaborators within the Filipino elite, the ilustrados, and getting Philippine resources such as timber, coconuts, and cattle into the hands of deserving US corporations. In Cuba, US occupation authorities oversaw a virtual "enclosure movement," alienating land from smaller landholders – a task made easier because departing Spanish bureaucrats took all the land records with them. Whether this overall approach to expanding commerce, which shifted the costs of finding, rigging, and holding new markets onto the taxpaying public, was the best possible one, went unanswered. Anti-imperialists inside and outside of the League sought to supply answers.


As the administration set forth to govern overseas subjects without their consent, the Anti-imperialist League remarked that "it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is ‘criminal aggression’ and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government."3

In Our New Departure (1901), Moorfield Storey observed that an inhabitant of Puerto Rico had "no American citizenship, no constitutional rights, no representation in the legislature which imposes the important taxes that he pays, no voice in the selection of his executive or judicial officers, no effective voice in his own legislature…. This is government without the consent of the governed. This is what is meant by ‘imperialism.’"

Further: "To impose our sway upon them [the Filipinos] against their will, to conquer a nation of Asiatics by fire and sword, was the abandonment of every principle for which this country had stood."4

From the relative safety of Toronto, English classical liberal Goldwin Smith, an ally of the Anti-Imperialists, also wrote of the Americans’ new departure: "When the people of the United States, after recognizing the Filipinos as their allies, bought them with their land [from] Spain, as they would buy the contents of a cattle-ranch or a sheep-fold, and proceeded to shoot them down for refusing to be delivered to the purchaser, they surely broke away from the principles on which their own polity is built, and compromised the national character formed on respect for those principles." The then-prevalent atmosphere of Jingoism was a factor, along with a misreading of Darwin, "as if the strongest were the fittest, which, though true in the case of brutes, is untrue in the case of the moral and intellectual being, Man."

Economic motives also entered in, Smith said: "Over-production, which seems to prevail in the manufacturing countries, begets a general craving for new markets." Hence, the recent actions of the powers in China and the late South African (Anglo-Boer) War. We can forgive Smith for accepting the "over-productionist" rationalization at face value when he writes that "commerce" achieved by empire was a snare and a delusion: "Will the Chinese market, for instance, be improved by a carnival of slaughter and destruction, with inevitable famine in its train? Will not the price of conquest itself be a formidable offset to the profit? Last year’s profit of trade with the Philippines is miserably small as compared with the expenditures on the conquest." But some people did gain from imperialism: "It is true, the expenditure falls on the public, the gain accrues to the trader, who is active in support of a policy which serves his interest, while the public yawns over the dry details of national finance."5


The turn-of-the-century anti-imperialists made arguments from classical liberalism, republican theory, and constitutional principles. They argued that liberal/republican principles were incompatible with ruling overseas populations without their consent. The Constitution could not be stretched that far without serious damage to its intellectual integrity. In their search for constitutional ground, some critics of empire even quoted Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that "no power [was] given by the constitution to the Federal Government to establish or maintain colonies… to be ruled and governed at its own pleasure, nor to enlarge its territorial limits in any way except by the admission of new states." For Anti’s to cite Taney was a little ironic, since they were heirs of the antislavery cause and Taney had been denying the power of Congress to exclude slavery from continental territories. Nevertheless, the point itself was sound enough as republican theory.

The Anti-Imperialists warned of executive dominance in government, of militarism, constitutional decay, and all the rest. And, of course, on the expansionists’ own premises the process looked to be endless. As William Graham Sumner, laissez faire liberal and Yale sociologist, put it: "We were told that we needed Hawaii in order to secure California. What shall we now take in order to secure the Philippines?.… We shall need to take China, Japan, and the East Indies, according to the doctrine, in order to ‘secure’ what we have. Of course this means that, on the doctrine, we must take the whole earth in order to be safe on any part of it, and the fallacy stands exposed. If, then, safety and prosperity do not lie in this direction, the place to look for them is in the other direction: in domestic development, peace, industry, free trade with everybody, low taxes, industrial power."6


Sumner’s most famous essay was entitled "The Conquest of the United States by Spain." By this he did not mean that Spain had won the late war but that the Spanish principles of overseas imperialism had conquered the minds of the US leadership. In different ways, critics of war and empire have made the same argument over and over again. It is interesting that Harry Elmer Barnes edited a series of books on US imperialism in the 1920s and ‘30s and that John T. Flynn had, as a young man, listened to the debates in Congress on Philippine annexation. However weak it may be in institutional continuity, there is indeed an American anti-imperialist tradition. In that tradition the anti-imperialists of 1900 played an important part, even if their League disbanded within a few years of its founding.


  1. On imperialism in the 1900 election, see Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 479, and William F. Marina, "Opponents of Empire" (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Denver, 1968), pp. 194-203.
  2. On casualties, see Walter LaFeber, The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), p. 202; for the Philippine exercise as an Indian war, see Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (New York: New American Library, 1980), pp. 307-351.
  3. Quoted in G. J. A. O’Toole, The Spanish War: An American Epic – 1898 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), p. 386.
  4. Storey in Louis Filler, ed., Late-Nineteenth-Century American Liberalism: Representative Selections, 1880-1900 (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), pp. 234-242.
  5. Goldwin Smith, Commonwealth or Empire: A Bystander’s View of the Question (London: Macmillan, 1902), pp. 36-39.
  6. William Graham Sumner, War and Other Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914), p. 351.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Monday on

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