Against American Imperialism

Schurz observed that the United States “cannot long play the king over subject populations without creating within itself ways of thinking and habits of action most dangerous to its own vitality.” Do you agree with Schurz that the acquisition of foreign territory distorts the character and habits of the American people? How important was race in terms of Schurz’s rejection of imperialism? What did he mean when he claimed “their tropical climate” would prove a barrier to the Spanish speaking population of the Caribbean “becoming assimilated to the Anglo-Saxon” way of life? What did he mean by comparing the United States of 1899 with the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte? How did Schurz react to the argument that the United States had a role to play in “civilizing” the world? What was Schurz’s definition of a genuine “world power”? What did Schurz mean when he lauded “citizens patriotic and brave enough to defy the demagogues’ cry and to haul down the flag”?
What did Schurz have to say about George Washington’s Farewell Address? Did Schurz believe in American exceptionalism— the idea that the United States is a “City upon a Hill”? How do you think Schurz might have reacted to America assuming the role of the “world’s policeman” in the twentieth century, “the American century”? How do you think Schurz might have responded to those who argued America should make the world safe for democracy? (See Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine, Thomas Jefferson to Roger Chew Weightman, Market Speech, The Ostend Manifesto, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, The Acquisition of Hawaii, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain.)

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For many Americans, Carl Schurz (1829–1906) personified the American dream. Schurz immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1852 and eventually settled in Wisconsin, where he practiced law. An avowed opponent of slavery, Schurz became active in the newly created Republican Party and campaigned throughout the Midwest on behalf of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The newly elected president rewarded Schurz with an appointment as the American ambassador to Spain, where he played a role in keeping that nation from recognizing the Confederacy. He returned home to the United States and in 1862 was appointed a general in the Union army, thanks once again to the intervention of President Lincoln.
Schurz settled in Missouri after the war and was elected to the Senate in 1868, becoming the first German-American U.S. senator. In that capacity, Schurz was one of the more outspoken opponents of President Ulysses S. Grant’s proposal to annex Santo Domingo and became a target of Grant’s wrath for his role in defeating the annexation treaty. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him secretary of the interior in 1877; following that service Schurz settled permanently in New York, where he became a newspaper editor and a prominent opponent of imperialism. Schurz opposed the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, claiming that it was “an act of selfish ambition and conquest.” He was outspoken in his opposition to the Spanish-American War, in part fearing the acquisition of territory in the Caribbean and the Pacific would lead to “the moral ruin of the Anglo-Saxon republic.” Schurz correctly predicted that the United States would never give the newly acquired territories the full voice given to American states. “This means government without the consent of the governed. It means taxation without representation. It means the very things against which the Declaration of Independence remonstrated, and against which the Fathers rose in revolution.”
This address, delivered at the convocation for the University of Chicago in January 1899, captures the essence of anti-imperialist sentiment on the verge of the twentieth century, “the American century.”

—Stephen F. Knott

Carl Schurz, “Against American Imperialism,” January 4, 1899, Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 6, ed. Frederic Bancroft (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913), 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 14–15, 26, 27, 29, 30–31, 35–36, available at

It is proposed to embark this republic in a course of imperialistic policy by permanently annexing to it certain islands taken, or partly taken, from Spain in the late war. The matter is near its decision, but not yet ratified by the Senate; but even if it were, the question whether those islands, although ceded by Spain, shall be permanently incorporated in the territory of the United States would still be open for final determination by Congress. As an open question therefore I shall discuss it.

. . .It behooves the American people to think and act with calm deliberation, for the character and future of the republic and the welfare of its people now living and yet to be born are in unprecedented jeopardy. . . .

. . . According to the solemn proclamation of our government, [the Spanish-American War] had been undertaken solely for the liberation of Cuba, as a war of humanity and not of conquest.1 But our easy victories had put conquest within our reach, and when our arms occupied foreign territory, a loud demand arose that, pledge or no pledge to the contrary, the conquests should be kept, even the Philippines on the other side of the globe, and that as to Cuba herself, independence would only be a provisional formality. Why not? was the cry. Has not the career of the republic almost from its very beginning been one of territorial expansion? . . .

Compare now with our old acquisitions as to all these important points those at present in view. They are not continental, not contiguous to our present domain, but beyond seas, the Philippines many thousand miles distant from our coast. They are all situated in the tropics, where people of the northern races, such as Anglo-Saxons, or generally speaking, people of Germanic blood, have never migrated in mass to stay; and they are more or less densely populated, parts of them as densely as Massachusetts—their populations consisting almost exclusively of races to whom the tropical climate is congenial—Spanish creoles mixed with negroes in the West Indies, and Malays, Tagals, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Negritos, and various more or less barbarous tribes in the Philippines. . . .

. . . Whatever we may do for their improvement the people of the Spanish Antilles will remain in overwhelming numerical predominance . . .some of them quite clever in their way, but the vast majority utterly alien to us not only in origin and language, but in habits, traditional ways of thinking, principles, ambitions—in short, in most things that are of the greatest importance in human intercourse and especially in political cooperation. And under the influences of their tropical climate they will prove incapable of becoming assimilated to the Anglo-Saxon. They would, therefore, remain in the population of this republic a hopelessly heterogeneous element—in some respects more hopeless even than the colored people now living among us. . . .

If we [adopt a colonial system], we shall transform the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, for which Abraham Lincoln lived, into a government of one part of the people, the strong, over another part, the weak. Such an abandonment of a fundamental principle as a permanent policy may at first seem to bear only upon more or less distant dependencies, but it can hardly fail in its ultimate effects to disturb the rule of the same principle in the conduct of democratic government at home. And I warn the American people that a democracy cannot so deny its faith as to the vital conditions of its being—it cannot long play the king over subject populations without creating within itself ways of thinking and habits of action most dangerous to its own vitality. . . .

. . .Conservative citizens will tell [the American people] that thus the homogeneousness2 of the people of the republic, so essential to the working of our democratic institutions, will be irretrievably lost; that our race troubles, already dangerous, will be infinitely aggravated, and that the government of, by, and for the people will be in imminent danger of fatal demoralization. . . .The American people will be driven on and on by the force of events as Napoleon was when he started on his career of limitless conquest. This is imperialism as now advocated. Do we wish to prevent its excesses? Then we must stop at the beginning, before taking Puerto Rico. If we take that island, not even to speak of the Philippines, we shall have placed ourselves on the inclined plane, and roll on and on, no longer masters of our own will, until we have reached the bottom. And where will that bottom be? Who knows? . . .

What can there be to justify a change of policy fraught with such direful consequences? Let us pass the arguments of the advocates of such imperialism candidly in review.

The cry suddenly raised that this great country has become too small for us is too ridiculous to demand an answer, in view of the fact that our present population may be tripled and still have ample elbow room, with resources to support many more. But we are told that our industries are gasping for breath; that we are suffering from overproduction; that our products must have new outlets, and that we need colonies and dependencies the world over to give us more markets. More markets? Certainly. But do we, civilized beings, indulge in the absurd and barbarous notion that we must own the countries with which we wish to trade? . . .

“But the Pacific Ocean,” we are mysteriously told, “will be the great commercial battlefield of the future, and we must quickly use the present opportunity to secure our position on it. The visible presence of great power is necessary for us to get our share of the trade of China. Therefore, we must have the Philippines.” Well, the China trade is worth having, although for a time out of sight the Atlantic Ocean will be an infinitely more important battlefield of commerce.

. . . But does the trade of China really require that we should have the Philippines and make a great display of power to get our share? . . .

“But we must have coaling stations for our navy!” Well, can we not get as many coaling stations as we need without owning populous countries behind them that would entangle us in dangerous political responsibilities and complications? Must Great Britain own the whole of Spain in order to hold Gibraltar?3

“But we must civilize those poor people!” Are we not ingenious and charitable enough to do much for their civilization without subjugating and ruling them by criminal aggression?

The rest of the pleas for imperialism consist mostly of those high-sounding catchwords of which a free people when about to decide a great question should be especially suspicious. We are admonished that it is time for us to become a “world power.” Well, we are a world power now, and have been for many years. What is a world power? A power strong enough to make its voice listened to with deference by the world whenever it chooses to speak. Is it necessary for a world power, in order to be such, to have its finger in every pie? Must we have the Philippines in order to become a world power? To ask the question is to answer it.

The American flag, we are told, whenever once raised, must never be hauled down. Certainly, every patriotic citizen will always be ready, if need be, to fight and to die under his flag wherever it may wave in justice and for the best interests of the country. But I say to you, woe to the republic if it should ever be without citizens patriotic and brave enough to defy the demagogues’ cry and to haul down the flag wherever it may be raised not in justice and not for the best interests of the country. Such a republic would not last long. . . .

We are told that, having grown so great and strong, we must at last cast off our childish reverence for the teachings of Washington’s Farewell Address4— those “nursery rhymes that were sung around the cradle of the Republic.” I apprehend that many of those who now so flippantly scoff at the heritage the Father of his Country left us in his last words of admonition have never read that venerable document. I challenge those who have, to show me a single sentence of general import in it that would not as a wise rule of national conduct apply to the circumstances of today! What is it that has given to Washington’s Farewell Address an authority that was revered by all until our recent victories made so many of us drunk with wild ambitions? Not only the prestige of Washington’s name, great as that was and should ever remain. No, it was the fact that under a respectful observance of those teachings this republic has grown from the most modest beginnings into a union spanning this vast continent; our people have multiplied from a handful to seventy-five million; we have risen from poverty to a wealth the sum of which the imagination can hardly grasp; this American nation has become one of the greatest and most powerful on earth, and continuing in the same course will surely become the greatest and most powerful of all. Not Washington’s name alone gave his teachings their dignity and weight. It was the practical results of his policy that secured to it, until now, the intelligent approbation of the American people. And unless we have completely lost our senses, we shall never despise and reject as mere “nursery rhymes” the words of wisdom left us by the greatest of Americans, following which the American people have achieved a splendor of development without parallel in the history of mankind. . . .

Thus [if the United States abandons imperialism] we shall be their best friends without being their foreign rulers. We shall have done our duty to them, to ourselves, and to the world. However imperfect their governments

may still remain, they will at least be their own, and they will not with their disorders and corruptions contaminate our institutions, the integrity of which is not only to ourselves, but to liberty-loving mankind, the most important concern of all. We may then await the result with generous patience—with the same patience with which for many years we witnessed the revolutionary disorders of Mexico on our very borders, without any thought of taking her government into our own hands.

Ask yourselves whether a policy like this will not raise the American people to a level of moral greatness never before attained! If this democracy, after all the intoxication of triumph in war, conscientiously remembers its professions and pledges, and soberly reflects on its duties to itself and others, and then deliberately resists the temptation of conquest, it will achieve the grandest triumph of the democratic idea that history knows of. It will give the government of, for, and by the people a prestige it never before possessed. It will render the cause of civilization throughout the world a service without parallel. It will put its detractors to shame, and its voice will be heard in the council of nations with more sincere respect and more deference than ever. The American people, having given proof of their strength and also of their honesty and wisdom, will stand infinitely mightier before the world than any number of subjugated vassals could make them. Are not here our best interests moral and material? Is not this genuine glory? Is not this true patriotism?

I call upon all who so believe never to lose heart in the struggle for this great cause, whatever odds may seem to be against us. Let there be no pusillanimous yielding while the final decision is still in the balance. Let us relax no effort in this, the greatest crisis the republic has ever seen. Let us never cease to invoke the good sense, the honesty, and the patriotic pride of the people. Let us raise high the flag of our country—not as an emblem of reckless adventure and greedy conquest, of betrayed professions and broken pledges, of criminal aggression and arbitrary rule over subject populations—but the old, the true flag, the flag of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; the flag of the government of, for, and by the people; the flag of national faith held sacred and of national honor unsullied; the flag of human rights and of good example to all nations; the flag of true civilization, peace and good-will to all men. Under it let us stand to the last. . . .

  1. 1. See Requesting A Declaration of War with Spain.
  2. 2. Having a similar nature or shared characteristics. Schurz viewed the U.S. population as overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, and he considered that a hallmark of the nation’s strength. A lack of shared cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds, Schurz believed, would ultimately destroy the nation.
  3. 3. A British fortress and naval base located at the southern tip of Spain.
  4. 4. George Washington's Farewell Address.
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