Edgar Lee Masters: The Philippine Conquest
Edgar Lee Masters
Member of the Anti-Imperialist League
The Philippine Conquest (1904)
Since then the constitution and the declaration have been duly ravished. The country has settled down to hear the reports of pillage, murder and rapine in the islands in the great work of destroying an Asiatic republic.
Conquest cannot be left to a citizen soldiery, because volunteers fight for a principle. They fight for their rights and their homes. Such were our soldiers before imperialism became a national dream.
So long as imperialism can intercept the interchange of ideas by the modern methods of ostracism and starvation and by the prevention of discussion and publicity in all the ways in which it is done imperialism may flourish. But against reason in a fair and open field it stands no chance of success.
The constitution is a plastic receptacle into which either democracy or despotism can be poured. The insular acquisitions furnished the opportunity for a gigantic stride toward despotism….If these islands were under the constitution then special privilege could not enjoy its spoils in the form of tariff laws, and then a more astute set of reasoners, greedy for power, saw the long-looked-for chance to greatly centralize the government, and not only the government, but the executive branch of it. The Spooner bill which invested the executive with powers equal to any sovereign on earth was the proper sequence of the plan.
Imperialism is anti-humanitarian; the conquest of people is anti-humanitarian; the taxing of people as the Filipinos are taxed is anti-humanitarian.
During the campaign of 1900 the argument advanced against the Philippine aggression was the repudiation of the fundamental principles of the republic involved in that aggression. And coupled with this was the claim of injustice being perpetrated against a helpless people. The problem now seems to be what guarantees have the people at home against infractions of their liberties and why may not the limitless power of a “sovereign” nation be directed against them when the apparent exigency arises in favor of those who control the government? For when a principle is once undermined the principle can no longer be looked to for security. It is then a question of chance as to the means of redress and protection.
Since then the constitution and the declaration have been duly ravished. The country has settled down to hear the reports of pillage, murder and rapine in the islands in the great work of destroying an Asiatic republic. Plutocracy proceeds with solemnity and dispatch to gather in the insular concessions or to obstruct all policies when the concessions are not readily granted. The people at large are paying the taxes and undergoing the obvious moral decline which has set in. In short it is discovered that the United States have embarked on a colonial policy, but not the colonial policy of England today. It is the colonial policy of the England of 1776, maintained to build up a nation of customers for the benefit of a favored class at home. And so we find American ideas sacrificed not merely to commercialism but to special privilege. The people furnish the soldiers; the people pay the taxes; the people build the ships, and the trusts gather in the spoils.
This revolution in our government and ideals has been accomplished by wrenching the fundamental law and the fundamental sentiments of a whole people once devoted to liberty. The whole of society has been shaken. The evil passions, the evil ambitions of men are kept down in a large measure by the unwritten law of ideals which have become intrenched by centuries of indoctrination. There is no written penalty affixed to selfishness, cruelty, lying, hypocrisy, greed, dishonor or hatred or the other demons of human nature exorcised or controlled by the power of civilization. But when the rigor of those ideals is loosened at the top the whole system of morals suffers a relaxation and a relapse. A president may initiate the catastrophe, but its impulse will recoil upon him. The congressman and the senator will feel released from the strict course of rectitude. The judge on the bench will see in the life about him and the policies about him excuse for yielding to the gathering pressure.
All other officials will be similarly affected. The influence will creep into private life. It will dominate the relations between men in business and in society. All principles, whether of government or of individuals, become affected. The highwayman in the alley knows what is going on and merely raves at the system that marks him out for sure punishment At last it is only a mask that conceals the bloated face of society. There is nothing left but organized hypocrisy.
We all expect men as individuals to be more or less illogical. Life is illogical. History is illogical. Governmental policy is still more illogical. But there is a limit to its illogic. When it reaches that point morals are prostrated upon their foundations. A president may change his mind – but not from the right to the wrong. He may contradict himself – but not in the same breath. He may preach one thing and do another – but circumstances must change. There must be reason for such alterations; there must be sound sentiment for them. If these are absent it will not be long until the humblest man in the land will understand. And if the president may do such things why not himself? It is a question of example.
If there ever was an irrational war it was the war with Spain. Americans deride the French as mercurial, sentimental, unsubstantial. And yet what appeared to be the American people demanded war with Spain. The Spaniards were governing without the consent of the governed, but they were willing to concede more than we have conceded. Weyler had instituted the reconcentrado camps, but Spain had yielded on that point. The homes of the islanders were being burned, the people were being butchered and the horrors of war hovered over the desolate land. But they promised to end the war. Spain confessed the objections to her course. And yet there must be war. The Maine incident was eliminated from the controversy by a court of our own selection. And yet there must be war. And the war came.
Then the American people beheld the United States move up and occupy the place vacated by Spain. We took their war and their methods. We tricked the Filipinos, we shot them, we burned their homes. We adopted Weyler’s reconcentrado policy. We taxed them without representation. We put ourselves in the position where a combination of powers could drive us out for the same reason that we drove out Spain, and thereby make us a theme for epic laughter as long as the world should stand. Does the whole of history furnish so illogical a chapter? It seems too puerile to believe of a great nation which traces its liberties to the time when our ancestors were wild men in the north of Germany and when, as barbarians in the British Isles, they resisted Caesar and threw off the yoke of benevolent assimilation. The moral effect of such a course of shuffling and hypocrisy cannot be calculated because it is likely to affect untold generations.
At the very outset of the scheme of conquering the Filipinos it was known that the theory of the army had to be changed. Conquest cannot be left to a citizen soldiery, because volunteers fight for a principle. They fight for their rights and their homes. Such were our soldiers before imperialism became a national dream. With the volunteers we had twice driven back the hosts of monarchy. With volunteers we had met and defeated the greatest Anglo-Saxon army that ever took the field. And yet for the purpose of conquering a people armed in part with primitive weapons the creation of a regular soldiery many times its former size was demanded. This is what Gibbon wrote about the two kinds of armies:
“In the purer days of the (Roman) commonwealth the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of the citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend and some share in enacting the laws, which it was their interest as well as duty to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest war was gradually improved into an art and depraved into a trade.”
There is no trouble about the size of the army. It is too large for legitimate purposes. But it is not large enough to be a necessary menace. The trouble is that the theory of our soldiery has been changed. Small in comparison as it is, it is the army of an empire and not of a republic. Our soldiers in the Philippines are not fighting for any principle. They are not defending their homes. They are not staying aggression. They are not repelling an attack upon liberty. There is no sentiment in the struggle. There is no conscience in the fight. It is of no consequence to our soldiers whether they win or lose, except as a matter of honor, advancement and money. For these they are there to conquer, as the Arabs were in Spain, as Spain was in Peru and Mexico, and as Great Britain is in south Africa. To conquer for spoils not for themselves, because they are only hired men, but for the trusts at home – as the Spanish regulars fought for gold for the sovereign, as the Englishman is fighting for the banks of London.
We have been assured by those who have made this army that it is too small to be dangerous to the people at home. But the real danger lies in the change of our ideals. For if a small army can be created for oppression and conquest a large army can be created for the same purpose when a large army is required. And the precedent is already established for the use of such an army at home against the sullen discontent that has already been sown among the people.
This unaccountable revolution was not accomplished without fraud and force, and that more subtle form of coercion known as freedom with starvation. Professors were driven from their chairs, the pulpit was silenced, the press gagged, officials were retired to private life and a spirit of falsehood and misrepresentation pervaded the atmosphere. Imperialism cannot succeed without the satanic influences of life, and these came to the front with promises and threats, with dissimulation and with bribery, with every art that will persuade, silence, repress or purchase. And so as consequences of such an initiation it has followed that freedom of speech is denied; that debate is frowned down as tiresome and intolerable, and that the post-office department has become a censor of the press invested with unbridled despotism. So long as Spain and France could repress discussion by cutting out men’s tongues their forms of monarchy and privilege flourished. So long as imperialism can intercept the interchange of ideas by the modern methods of ostracism and starvation and by the prevention of discussion and publicity in all the ways in which it is done imperialism may flourish. But against reason in a fair and open field it stands no chance of success.
With steam, electricity and the printing press eliminated from the world it would require no great degree of prescience to foretell the ultimate fate of the United States. For up to this time the trend of affairs with us bears such a resemblance to the march of events in the Roman republic up to the reign of Augustus Caesar that the similarities cannot be overlooked.
The constitution is a plastic receptacle into which either democracy or despotism can be poured. The insular acquisitions furnished the opportunity for a gigantic stride toward despotism. These islands, according to historic precedents, according to the spirit of the constitution, which is the declaration of independence, were bound to be treated as territories advancing toward statehood. But those who had become strong through special privilege overthrew the ideals of the republic. If these islands were under the constitution then special privilege could not enjoy its spoils in the form of tariff laws, and then a more astute set of reasoners, greedy for power, saw the long-looked-for chance to greatly centralize the government, and not only the government, but the executive branch of it. The Spooner bill which invested the executive with powers equal to any sovereign on earth was the proper sequence of the plan. And, moreover, it was brought about by the congress as the Roman senate surrendered its powers to Augustus. True, the congress might repeal the Spooner bill, but the executive might veto the repeal. So how is the congress to retrieve its constitutional vigor.
Heretofore the United States have been humanitarian in their spirit, but now they are governmental. Imperialism is anti-humanitarian; the conquest of people is anti-humanitarian; the taxing of people as the Filipinos are taxed is anti-humanitarian. In short, the republican party now stands for might, for power, for glory, not realizing – or if realizing not caring – that the anti-humanitarian spirit and the passion for glory and power destroyed the governments of the past and is hastening the destruction of those of the present. That at the bottom was the real trouble, and that is the virus that has found lodgment among us. For while life is essentially selfish as a condition of self-preservation it consists with the passion for justice which both men and nations must observe or suffer the sure penalty. At last it will fully leak out and be understood by all men that the supreme court upheld the new policy on apparent grounds of expediency. It will be generally understood that the influences which had set in and which had affected every department of the government were too powerful for so worldly a tribunal to resist. For that court said in about so many words that the Porto Rican tax must be constitutional, because otherwise the United States could not safely retain the islands, and, besides, any other construction might obstruct future acquisitions. The supreme court asks how can the Porto Rican tax be unconstitutional, since to hold it so would be to deprive the government of that discretionary power absolutely necessary to profitably hold to the islands. The spirit of this reasoning will eventually produce wide national consequences.
All things having worked out so well to this pass, the accession of Mr. Roosevelt to the presidency was dramatically fitting. If made to order it could not have been better. He will pass into history as the contemporary of Kipling and William of Germany. He is of them and of their spirit and day. Some hoped that Mr. Roosevelt would throw his power on the side of idealism and progress. But they should have remembered that he repudiated his literary productions in the campaign of 1900. All his fine pretensions went the way of the world; nor in any event is he the man to stand out against the accumulated influences of imperialism. He has and will add to them. For, unspeakable as was the assassination of Mr. McKinley, it was not political, and it cannot in candor be made the popular opportunity for suppressing the freedom of speech. It is very significant also that Mr. Roosevelt should inform us that such tragic episodes will merely result in the accession of men to the presidency who are merciless and resolute. How is such a deplorable change to come about? How shall we descend from a Washington to an Alexander of Farnese? And why should he tell us that the one lurid moment of anarchistic triumph would be followed by centuries of despotism? Is the republic on so rocking a foundation as this?
And how is that despotism to come about? Will he be a party to it, or will he in any supreme moment of moral trial return to the apothegms of his books and say, as he has often said, “We have work to do and the only question is whether we will do it well or ill?” It is now his time to invoke the humanitarian spirit and turn from power and glory if he would give the world the moral impulse that men of his own race gave to the world centuries ago. Otherwise, if centralization in government continues and the people are more generally deprived of the chance to obey the better instructions of their natures what may be expected? Not merely a return to the method of selecting presidential electors by the legislatures, as was formerly done, and the rise of a man merciless and resolute to the presidency. A greater reaction than this may be expected.
There is a commonplace optimism which insists that either everything is for the best or that the right is predestined to triumph. Both propositions are false. Very many things are for the worse. Whole nations have gone down to destruction as the result of the excesses, the follies and the villainies of aristocracies.
That nothing can be hoped for from the present administration; that its ideals are wholly wrong; that its desires are selfish, reactionary and despotic, and that it is capable of any perfidy, is a pardonable pessimism. The optimism to be cherished consists in the belief that democracy is not the battle cry of a fraction of men, but that it is a passion, a philosophy, an ineradicable aspiration of the human heart. Armies and navies may be created and the people may be taxed to support them; expensive flummery and glitter may be maintained out of the sweat of labor. All of this may be used to trample down justice and to despoil a helpless race. And yet in the heart of the humblest man there remains the belief that he has a right in this world to live, to labor, to earn and be free. The most ignorant tribes of the Filipinos are equal in intelligence to the natives of Britain in the days of the glorious Julius. Who knows what use the Filipinos may make of our ideals and the spirit of freedom which vibrates in their hearts today? And who knows what will be the relative positions of the Philippine islands and what we now call the United States 1,000 years hence? The thought should teach humility. For did Augustus imagine that the unconquerable Belgae would found a great republic, or that the savages in the worthless islands north of Gaul would produce those great luminaries of civilization before whom Cicero and Virgil pale their ineffectual fires?