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The following review appeared 8 August 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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To borrow from the snarky syntax of modern political debate, Mark Twain was for American Imperialism before he was against it. Twain's evolving views during the emergence of American Imperialism in the 1890s reflected the evolving views of Americans in general. The roots of American imperialism, beginning in the early seventeenth century, generated a set of core concepts from which an American identity was constructed. The fundamental concepts were American exceptionalism, racial and religious superiority, and a fervent sense that it was America's destiny and duty to lead the world. These unquestioned articles of faith provided the underpinning of the arguments both for and against the annexation of the Philippines, and the racial, religious, and economic issues that were raised by those debates at the turn of the nineteenth century are all still with us today. In God's Arbiters, Susan Harris explains the historical events that led up to that war, does a masterful job of explaining how America's self-image had evolved in such a way that it framed the debate on both sides, uses Mark Twain's writings on the subject as a barometer along the way, and finally relates the events of the 1890s to events in the twenty-first century, although by the end of the book the parallels are obvious.
In history books the Spanish-American War overshadows the Philippine War. Everyone remembers the sinking of the battleship Maine and Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge up San Juan Hill, but Emilio Aguinaldo, Admiral Dewey, and the Treaty of Paris arouse at best only flickers of recognition. To understand why the annexation of the Philippines sparked such fierce debate, we must understand how America's national identity was shaped, and Harris, without actually using the acronym WASP, traces how a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant national identity was firmly in place by the 1890s, and how Twain himself engaged most of those values in his writings. That national identity can be traced all the way back to John Winthrop's famous speech in 1630, A Model of Christian Charity, in which he painted a vision of America as a "city on the hill" -- an example for others to follow. With time, the temptation to spread this bounty (rather than sit proudly in your own city on your own hill minding your own business) evolved into a moral imperative. Americans came to think of themselves as nothing less than God's arbiters, who must fulfill their mission to share their freedoms (dominate inferior races incapable of self-government), spread the economic bounty (exploit the natives), and spread the Good Word (at gunpoint when necessary).
Twain embodied this national identity as a result of his upbringing. As Harris says:
Mark Twain's own contradictions reflect the contradictions that characterized white Americans generally. . . . Growing up among Protestants who took white supremacy for granted, regarded Catholics as dangerous aliens, and taught children that America's civil liberties were invented during the Protestant Reformation . . . [and] came to his anti-imperialism only after judging that America was betraying its own principles by forcibly annexing the Philippines. But he did not relinquish his belief that the country, by virtue of its own history and institutions, should serve as a moral model for the rest of the world (p. 7).
As events unfolded in the 1890s it looked as though the United States would be liberating the Philippines from centuries of Spanish colonial rule, and Twain and most Americans were supportive. As Twain said, "I thought that the rescue of those islands from the government under which they had suffered for three hundred years was a good business for us to be in" (p. 5). As events unfolded further, the United States' intentions came into question, and opinion divided, and Twain then explained, "We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . . . And, so, I am an anti-imperialist" (p. 4).
The United States had economic interests in the Philippines and Cuba in the early nineteenth century. The Philippines were a gateway to Asian and Chinese trade, and Cuba had been important to the sugar and slave trades. The United States had tried to buy Cuba from Spain in 1848 and again in 1854, but Spain refused. By the late 1880s Cubans were discontent and wanted liberation from Spain, but not annexation by the United States. In the Philippines, Nationalism was also on the rise, and after peaceful attempts to gain autonomy failed, armed insurrection began in 1896, and in 1897 Filipinos declared themselves a Republic with Emilio Aguinaldo as their President. In February 1898, when the battleship Maine was mysteriously blown up and sank in Havana, the United States made plans to invade Cuba. The Cubans were seen as colonists rebelling against Spain the way American colonists had revolted against English tyranny. Shortly after the invasion of Cuba, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt ordered then-Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. Dewey sank the entire fleet and Filipinos assumed they would now be independent--the only reason they had agreed to American aid. A month later the United States annexed Hawaii, and by December 1898, the Treaty of Paris forced Spain to give up Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The treaty was hotly debated before it was ratified in February 1899. The Teller amendment blocked the annexation of Cuba, but under the treaty Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for twenty million dollars, and when the Filipinos realized they'd had simply traded one colonial master for another, a guerilla war began. In this war, the enemy fighters were dubbed "insurgents," approximately 200,000 Filipino civilians were killed, 4,500 American soldiers were killed, 26,000 Filipino "insurgents" were killed, and American soldiers were condemned for torturing prisoners using the "water cure" (water-boarding). Beginning with those ratification debates and continuing for several years as the Philippine American War dragged on, the American "mission" in the Philippines was argued in Congress, in pulpits, and in print. It was Twain who described this war as a quagmire (p. 204).
It is these passionate discussions that raged from 1898 to 1902 (and after) that are the core of Harris's study. During these debates some revealing reversals took place. William Jennings Bryan and Mark Twain became anti-imperialists, but President William McKinley, at first opposed to annexation, came to support it on religious grounds, arguing that it was America's Christian duty to educate and uplift Catholic Filipinos (p. 15). His language is explicitly religious, but it would seem that another equally compelling reason would be protecting this Pacific gateway to Asian and Chinese trade and keeping it out of the hands of Europeans (pp. 17-18). Harris traces this duty to educate and uplift racially and religiously inferior cultures back to the Anglo-Saxon myth that the Puritans invented individualism, consumerism, freedom, and democracy, and that only Americans are capable of demonstrating these values in everyday life; this explains why such cultures must be governed rather than be allowed to govern themselves (p. 19). She then invokes Twain's "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" for the first of many times to expose the hypocrisy of this persistent WASP mythology (p. 22).
Harris also draws on the writings of two Senators whose speeches and writings best represent the two opposing sides in this debate, Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana and Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina. Beveridge argued for annexation because the United States had a religious duty, a divine mandate, to expand its influence because Americans were "God's arbiters." (p. 25). Tillman agreed with the notion of a divine mandate, but opposed annexation because annexing the non-white Filipinos would dilute the national bloodstream. Neither man questions American whiteness, Protestant values, Anglo-Saxon roots, or Puritan mythologies. The Senators are not alone; even Twain, when denouncing General Funston in his satiric "A Defence of General Funston" (1902), invokes Anglo-Saxon patriotism and religion when he declares that Funston's treachery in capturing General Aguinaldo was an insult to the example set by George Washington and spoiled our heretofore unsullied record of having the "only clean hands in Christendom" (p. 34). The year before he publicly denounced General Funston, Twain had expressed his profound disillusionment with America's betrayal of her WASP principles in his highly allegorical "The Stupendous Procession," which he did not publish during his lifetime (p.41-4).
Harris reminds us that America's national identity was in flux when it came to non-whites. The question of citizenship and voting for Filipinos excited sharp words and brought the subject of race to the fore, usually focusing on whether a Filipino could move from a "savage into a patriot" (p. 64), the same way Mexicans and Hawaiians had done so (pp. 63-4). The United States established schools in the Philippines, sending over 1,000 American teachers who quickly found out that American textbooks were useless, so textbooks were then rewritten for Filipino students using American historical figures to teach American values (instead of Filipino history) on the theory that only a homogenous population like America could ever be capable of self-government (pp. 89-99). In 1906 came a moment rivaling the death and destruction devised by Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee when American troops attacked and killed more than 600 Muslim villagers in the Moro Crater Massacre because their General thought those villagers were too fanatical to be uplifted or redeemed.
Harris cites numerous American textbooks that helped shape the American identity beginning with Noah Webster. Textbooks like the famous blue-back speller and McGuffey's Reader used numerous Bible quotes to illustrate lessons. Harris cites two late nineteenth century writers (Frederick Dobell and Edward Mansfield) who recognized the problem with heavy-handed religious instruction in public schools (p. 108), but points to none other than the writings of ex-slave Frederick Douglass as an example of how successful this educational system had been in shaping American identities (p. 111).
Harris also cites four popular novels that reflect these same themes that reached broad audiences, some of them stirring race into the mix. The first, Charles Sheldon's In His Steps (1896) poses the question "What would Jesus do?" and then answers it in various situations. This book has sold over 30,000,000 copies in one hundred years and has never gone out of print (pp. 111-12). The other three novels deal with the Philippines. In one, resistance to American values is seen as proof of Filipino inferiority (p. 113). In another, an American male befriends a Filipino female and takes home bits of Filipino language to America, certain evidence of racial corruption (pp. 117-18). The last novel, Ernest Crosby's Captain Jinks, Hero (1902), is a satirical anti-imperialistic novel that may have influenced some of Twain's writings. It was illustrated by Dan Beard, who had illustrated some of Twain's work, and Crosby served a term as president of the Anti-Imperialist League, where Twain served for several years as vice-president. Crosby was a friend of Twain and they shared an important mutual friend, William Dean Howells. Crosby attacks Chinese missionaries and Christian ideology, and his heavy-handed satire has an almost cartoon quality at times (pp. 120-24). His book has not sold 30,000,000 copies and has not stayed in print for one hundred years.
If Americans used a common set of WASP values to argue both sides of the debate over annexation of the Philippines, they likewise read Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden," both for and against annexation (p. 131). Kipling published his poem just two days before the Senate debate on annexation, and urged the United States to annex the Philippines. Twain maintained a firm silence on Kipling's poem, but others quoted Kipling directly or borrowed his language or imagery to support annexation.
The rest of Europe and Latin America did not share a common race, culture, or history with the United States and reactions in those countries don't spring from any common roots and shared prejudices, and Twain's own observations sometimes correspond closely to these other views. Harris examines the writings of three Latin American authors who understood the flawed American identity: Jose Marti, Ruben Dario, and Jose Enrique Rodo. Two of these men had spent time in the United States and their writings display clear-eyed views of American religious hypocrisy, cultural arrogance, racism, and materialism (pp. 154-76). Harris also examines the works of three Filipino writers, one of whose works inspired some of Twain's own writing. Jose Rizal's book, An Eagle Flight (1886; 1900 in English translation) [Harris mistakenly cites it as An Eagle's Flight] was read by Twain, who borrowed the title of one of Rizal's poems in that book as the title for his own poem, "My Last Thought," the rueful dramatic monologue of a dying President whose annexations betrayed and dishonored his country (pp. 154-58). Left unpublished, it did not appear in print until the 1960s. The other Filipino writers Harris treats at length include President of the Philippine Republic Emilio Aguinaldo who wrote one book condemning American actions, but lived long enough to change his mind on some issues when he wrote his second book in the 1950s (pp. 186-87). The other writer, Apolinario Mabini, served as Prime Minister under Aguinaldo, wrote the Filipino Constitution, and penned many writings whose criticisms of American policies and actions parallel Twain's writings (pp. 188-92).
In her Epilogue, the past becomes present and the present becomes
past as Harris turns an honest critical eye to several writings from recent
memory: President George Bush's 2002 State of the Union speech, President
Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech, and President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush of May 8, 2006. Harris concludes, "The
sense of national mission that animated Twain and his contemporaries endures:
Americans cannot relinquish the conviction that they are God's arbiters, appointed
to mediate the destinies of mankind" (p. 204). This last chapter and
Harris's last words may make for hard reading for some readers. While it is
easy to see the failings of generations past, it's quite another thing to
admit our own failings, even as they resonate annoyingly with the ghostly
echoes of American imperialists of bygone days.
One aspect of Harris's study that deserves further exploration is a comparison of Twain's anti-imperialist writings that were published during his lifetime and those that he suppressed. While Harris makes clear the original publication date of each of Twain's works that she cites, she does not explore Twain's decisions to keep some of his opinions out of public view while rushing others into print. Since Twain was well aware that publication of his views on racial, social, or political matters could effect the sales of his literary output, would a close study of his two groups of political writings--published and unpublished--yield some interesting results?
Harris provides an ample bibliography of excellent relevant sources and readings on American culture and history. Harris's hope is that her book "will help us understand some of the conversations that we are having in the twenty-first century, especially as those conversations rest on assumptions about religion, race, and what it takes to be an "American." Her hopes echo those of the late Jim Zwick, whose two books on Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings, Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire (1992) and Confronting Imperialism (2007), are gratefully acknowledged and frequently cited by Harris. Twain scholars should read both of Zwick's books as preambles for Harris's definitive book.