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Stephen Rendahl


The Rhetoric of Imperialism: William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt on the Philippine War


Between 1898 and 1902, after the Spanish-American War, the United States was engaged in a war with the Filipinos to decide whether the Philippine Islands would be independent or a colony of the United States. During the presidential campaign of 1900 the Philippine War became an issue. This paper analyzes the speeches that Theodore Roosevelt, Republican vice presidential candidate, delivered in North Dakota during that campaign. Using a Burkean approach to compare their positions, this paper discovers the differences between Roosevelt's views and the views of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.


After the Spanish-American War which freed Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippine Islands from the Spanish, the U.S. engaged the Filipinos in a war in the Philippines from 1898 to 1902. The result was that the Philippines became a U.S. colony until it was given its freedom in 1948. The U.S. presence in the Philippines was a major issue in the U.S. during the war with the Filipinos.

The Philippine question became an issue during the presidential campaign of 1900 between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley. Bryan devoted his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention to discuss his views on the Philippines. Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's vice presidential candidate, made a campaign tour through the western states and at least in North Dakota, similarly devoted most of his speeches to the consideration of the Philippines. It was an important issue in 1900 and these words of the nation's premier politicians need to be reconsidered in light of the recent 1998 Philippine centennial of independence from Spain.

Studying the words of politicians of one hundred years ago sheds light on the conception of the world at that time. Rhetorical analysis can help develop insights into persuasive techniques, but it is also a method of discovering history.

The campaign of 1900 was the only "formal battle" over the Philippines (Welch, 1979, p. 64). Early in the campaign, the issue drew the attention of the major participants. Each party considered the Philippines a major plank in their platform. According to Welch:

The Republican platform declared that with the destruction of Spanish authority in the Philippines it became the duty of America "to provide for the maintenance of law and order, and for the establishment of good government and for the performance of international obligations. Our authority could not be less than our responsibility to confer the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples." (p. 64)

The Democratic platform proclaimed imperialism "the paramount issue" of the campaign and declared: "We favor an immediate declaration of the nation's purpose to give to the Filipinos, first, a stable form of government; second, independence; and third, protection from outside interference such as has been given for nearly a century to the republics of Central and South America" (p. 64).

But the Philippine issue was a "confrontation without a climax" (Welch, 1979, p. 63). Before the campaign was over, the focus shifted to economics and the Philippine issue was not considered a decisive factor in the outcome of the election.

McKinley won the election of 1896 even though Bryan won all of the western states except California, Oregon and North Dakota. North Dakota, a solid Republican state, was also the home of Theodore Roosevelt for several years in the late 1800s. Roosevelt knew the state and its people quite well and his rhetoric shows his adaptation of the Philippine issue to the voters of North Dakota. It is unclear whether all of Roosevelt's campaign speeches devoted so much time to the Philippine issue or if he used it because he knew that the metaphors would relate to the Dakotans and so he capitalized on the issue. But all of his speeches in his campaign trip across North Dakota focussed on the Philippines.

Comparing and contrasting Bryan's and Roosevelt's views on the Philippine issue will shed some light on the views of the major politicians of the times. These two prominent politicians probably established the arguments that were discussed by the populace and by the newspapers. Veeder (1974) analyzed the Philippine issue in the Red River Valley (North Dakota) press and Shafer (1997) analyzed the media coverage of the North Dakota National Guard as it participated in the war. This analysis will narrowly focus on the speeches of two principal politicians who disagree about the course of the Philippine policy: Bryan's August 8, 1900, speech entitled "Imperialism," which was delivered to the Democratic convention when he was nominated for president, and Republican vice presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt's speech on his campaign trip through North Dakota, September 14-16, 1900. This discussion will illuminate the participants' conceptions of the world, the purposes, the people, and the meaning of the U.S. presence in the Philippines.

A Burkean approach to rhetorical criticism will be used to analyze the speeches. Burke said that rhetoric is "the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents" (Burke, 1950, p. 41). He introduced and defined the dramatistic pentad to explain how people use words to change impressions:


We shall use five terms as generating principles of our investigation.

They are: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose. In a rounded statement about motives you must have some word that names the act (names what took place, in thought or deed), and another that names the scene (background of the act, the situation in which it occurred); also, you must indicate what person (agent) performed the act, what means or instruments he used (agency), and the purpose. (Burke, 1945, p. x)


Burke states that one or more parts of the pentad may be emphasized or combined to paint different rhetorical pictures (Brock, 1972; Ling, 1970; Brummett, 1979). Both Bryan and Roosevelt agree that the act is the war in the Philippines, but their words demonstrate that they have strong disagreements about the other parts of the pentad. This essay will examine how Bryan and Roosevelt differ in their views of the scene, purpose, agents, and agencies.



William Jennings Bryan defined the U.S. actions in the Philippines as "imperialism" and Theodore Roosevelt defined the action as "expansionism." They reached different conclusions about the Philippine question because they viewed the scene in different ways. Bryan narrowed the scene to continental America as he argued that the Philippines were different from the earlier expansion of the United States. In contrast, Roosevelt considered the world the scene as he argued that colonizing the Philippines was no different from the earlier settling of the United States.

In order to make his case, Bryan argued for a distinction between expansion and imperialism. He said that expansion "enlarges the area of the Republic and incorporates land which can be settled by American citizens, or adds to our population people who are willing to become citizens and are capable of discharging their duties as such" (p. 26).

Imperialism, however, as applied to the Philippines, seizes "upon distant territory already more densely populated than our own country and… force[s] upon the people a government for which there is no warrant in our Constitution or our laws" (p. 27).

Furthermore, Bryan argued that expansion meant that the land would be used for establishing territories that American citizens would inhabit.

Colonizing the Philippines was imperialism, he argued, because American citizens would not go there to till the soil. "The white race will not live so near the equator" (p. 27), he believed, and as proof of his assertion he cited Java, which was controlled by the Dutch for 300 years, but very few people of European birth lived there. He also invoked India, where few people of English birth were living after a century and a half of colonization. But his strongest argument was the Philippines itself, which he used as his powerful last example, "Spain had asserted title to the Philippine Islands for three centuries and yet when our fleet entered Manila Bay there were less than ten thousand Spaniards residing in the Philippines" (p. 27). His argument may make sense to an audience in 1900 where cold had been dissipated by artificial heat, but at that time heat could not be dissipated by the widespread use of air conditioners 100 years later.

On the contrary, as he adapted his argument to his audience, Roosevelt claimed that expansion into the Philippines was similar to the U.S. expansion into the west, particularly North Dakota, as part of the Louisiana Purchase. He stated that as part of the Louisiana Purchase, North Dakota was owned by Spain in 1802, just as the Philippines belonged to Spain in 1897. "Then," he said,


It was sold by Spain to France, because Spain thought, quite properly, that we would be apt to take possession of it and as France was under the great Napoleon they thought he, with his tremendous military reputation, would keep it as a barrier between themselves and Mexico and California, which then still belonged to Spain. It is an interesting fact that in the beginning of this century the major part of what is now the United States was Spanish territory. Napoleon made up his mind that he would either have to sell the territory to us or fight for it, and as he had a good deal on his hands in Europe he thought he would sell it and President Jefferson purchased it. He paid $15,000,000 for it, the purchase money being paid just as President McKinley paid the purchase money for the Philippines…. The land was acquired by treaty and was purchased in the one case as in the other. That is all there is to it. (p. 18)


Bryan, however, did not believe it was that simple. He believed that title to the Philippines was clouded by the question, "Do we hold them by treaty or by conquest?" (p. 32). First, the U.S. fought with the Filipinos to free them from Spain, then they purchased Spain's title to the Philippines. He asked if that meant that the U.S. owned the Philippines by war or by treaty? Everyone knew, he believed, that when the U.S. was fighting with the Filipinos against Spain, everyone had "full knowledge that they were fighting for their own independence," but if the U.S. refused to allow their independence "we now substitute our yoke for the Spanish yoke" (p.33).

Roosevelt knew that there was a treaty, purchase, and fighting in each case. However, contrary to Bryan, he did not seem to make the distinction between whether the fighting occurred before the treaty or after. In the case of the Louisiana Purchase, he said, after the treaty was signed "President Jefferson at once sent an armed force of United States regulars and United States volunteers to prevent any outbreak here just exactly as an armed force was sent to the Philippines when Aguinaldo threatened an outbreak" (p.18).

Furthermore, Roosevelt believed, there were objections to the U.S. expansion into the Louisiana Purchase, just as Bryan objected to the expansion into the Philippines. He referred to a John Quincy Adams speech which predicted the destruction of the country if the Purchase became part of the United States. However, Roosevelt said, "Notwithstanding all these predictions, the constitution took care of these new possessions, of which North Dakota is a part" (p. 19). By implication, apparently he meant that the constitution would take care of the Philippines in a similar manner.

Because they viewed the scene differently, the same act, militarism in the Philippines, was defined as "imperialism" by Bryan but as "expansionism" by Roosevelt.



Bryan summarized his view of the purposes of "imperialism" in the Philippines. According to him, the principal arguments were:


First--That we must improve the present opportunity to become a world power and enter into international politics.

Second--That our commercial interests in the Philippine Islands and in the Orient make it necessary for us to hold the islands permanently.

Third--That the spread of the Christian religion will be facilitated by a colonial policy.

Fourth--That there is no honorable retreat from the position which the nation has taken.

The first argument is addrest [sic] to the nation's pride and the second to the nation's pocket-book. The third is intended for the church member and the fourth for the partizan [sic]. (p. 39)


Perhaps these were false characterizations since Bryan refuted each of the arguments while Roosevelt ignored the first three (as they related to the issue of pride) and often argued for the fourth: that there was no honorable retreat from the position which the nation has taken.

In response to the first argument, which was addressed to pride, Bryan asserted that the U.S. was already a powerful influence in the world. He did not use any examples to support that conclusion, but he did address the pride issue by appealing to the glory of self-government. The principle of self-government, he said, "has made this nation conspicuous among the nations and given it a place in history such as no other nation has ever enjoyed" (p. 40). He concluded that the country's greatest pride was in its assertion of the right to self-government. Thus, if the principle of power replaced the principle of independence, pride would be placed on secondary accomplishments and would change the self-conception of the U.S. citizens.

The commercial argument, Bryan believed, was based on the theory that "war can be rightly waged for pecuniary advantage, and that it is profitable to purchase trade by force and violence" (p. 41-42). But Bryan claimed that the US had exceeded the economic development of the imperial nations through free trade. Thus, colonizing would do little to expand the country's economic position. Furthermore, he argued, it would cost money to maintain a position in the Philippines by force. This might benefit some parts of the US economy, but would benefit the wrong people. It would benefit the ship owners and the army contractors but not the farmers and the laborers. He said, "the laboring man will be the first to suffer if oriental subjects seek work in the United States; the first to suffer if American capital leaves our shores to employ oriental labor in the Philippines to supply the trade of China and Japan; the first to suffer from the violence which the military spirit arouses and the first to suffer when the methods of imperialism are applied to our own Government" (p. 43).

Bryan characterized the religious purpose as varying "from a passive belief that Providence delivered the Filipinos into our hands, for their good and our glory to the exultation of the minister who said that… 'every bullet sent, every cannon shot and every flag waved means righteousness'" (p. 43). Instead, he believed that "imperialism finds no warrant in the Bible, …love, not force, was the weapon of the Nazarene; sacrifice for others, not the exploitation was His method of reaching the human heart"; and "missionaries are seeking souls instead of sovereignty" (p. 44-45).

Finally, Bryan refuted the partisan purpose that because the United States had begun to control the Philippines, it should not quit. Bryan stated, "The shedding of American blood in the Philippine Islands does not make it imperative that we should retain possession forever" (p. 45). He argued that American blood was spilled in Cuba but they were allowed independence.

The same result should be sought in the Philippines. He concluded that section of his speech with the assertion that it is "better a thousand times that our flag in the Orient give way to a flag representing the idea of self-government than that the flag of this Republic should become the flag of an empire" (p. 46).

In speeches in Valley City and Jamestown, Roosevelt tried to persuade the audience to maintain the fight to control the Philippines. He appealed to pride in previous national accomplishments such as the Civil War and the settling of the West. In Valley City he received applause when he stated that continued fighting to control the Philippines was the only way that each of us maintain the right we now have to hold up our heads with pride, because of the deeds that have been done by Americans in the past. Each generation has its allotted task and according to the way in which the present generation does or does not perform that task will the next generation have cause for pride or shame. (p. 20)

In Jamestown, he said,


Our duty is perfectly plain. We do not want to go away. As the result of the bitterness of war, we have found ourselves there and have found ourselves face to face with the task. Are we going to shirk it?

It lies with the people of this country to decide for themselves whether we are going to continue to do the task that has been so well begun. Are we going to shame ourselves in the face of the nations of the earth? Are we going to cast discredit upon the memory of the men who fought to a finish the great civil war by flinching our lesser duty today? (p. 21)



Bryan and Roosevelt also disagreed about the character of the agents, those who are acting in this grand drama. Even though they have similar racial assumptions that are unacceptable today, they have conflicting views about both the character of the Filipinos and the Americans. Roosevelt compared the Philippines to the settling of the west, North Dakota specifically, when he stated that Jefferson


said it was nonsense to the push the theory of [the Constitution] to such an extreme as to make it apply to a population that were absolutely as unfit for self government as children. These were the words that he used about the original inhabitants, these territories [the west] as they then were and they apply today in the same way to the Philippines. If you had tried to introduce self government among the Indians of that day… this would yet be a land of savages. (p. 19)


Furthermore, he said to the Fargo audience,


You here who knew of the conditions which existed twenty-five years ago know what a perfect absurdity it was to insist on self government for this country. Where would North Dakota have been now if Sitting Bull had been treated as a citizen of the original thirteen states or a New Englander? (p. 19)


He used similar words in his Jamestown speech, but made it more clear that he was referring to the fighting between Custer, who began his last excursion from North Dakota, and the Sioux, who populated much of North Dakota, which occurred only twenty-five years previously.

Bryan disagreed with Roosevelt and argued that the Filipinos were capable of self-government. Bryan agreed that "There are degrees of proficiency in the art of self-government," but God did not make people incapable of governing themselves. He said, "…it was God himself who placed in every human heart the love of liberty. He never made a race of people so low in the scale of civilization or intelligence that it would welcome a foreign master" (p. 24). Later he said, "I am not willing to believe that an all-wise and an all-loving God created the Filipinos and then left them for thousands of years helpless until the islands attracted the attention of European nations" (p. 37). Bryan also claimed that Admiral Dewey reported that the Filipinos were more capable of self-government than were the Cubans and since the U.S. had given the right of self-determination to them, the Filipinos should receive that right as well.

Bryan also questioned the role of the Filipinos. He limited it to two choices: "Is he to be a citizen or a subject?" (p. 29). Then Bryan considered the implications of the two choices: If the Filipino were a citizen, he would help shape the destiny of the U.S. because the U.S. Government must adapt to its citizens; however, if he were a subject, he also shaped the U.S. because it would endanger the current form of government. Of the first choice, Bryan argued that the Filipinos could never be "amalgamated" into America because their "race and history" were so different. In this way, Bryan concurred with the Democratic platform which said that "Filipinos cannot be citizens without endangering our civilization" (p. 29). On the other hand, Bryan argued that if the Filipinos are subjects it also endangers the U.S. form of government. He stated, "A republic can have no subjects. A subject is possible only in a government resting upon force; he is unknown in a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed" (pp. 29-30). Furthermore, even though the Republican platform promised to give the Filipinos good government, Bryan asked, "Did not the English government promise a good government to the colonists? What king ever promised a bad government to his people? Did not the English government promise that the colonists should have the largest measure of self-government consistent with their welfare and the English duties?" And he concluded that section of his speech with the statement: "In a monarchy the king gives to the people what he believes to be a good government; in a republic the people secure for themselves what they believe to be a good government" (p. 30).

Thus, Bryan argued, the manner in which we characterize the Filipinos affects the way that the audience must conceptualize themselves: Are the members of the audience similar to the British who colonized the U.S. or are they similar to those who revolted against the British and demanded the right of self-government?

In contrast, Roosevelt stood for the Republican platform when he clearly stated, "We will give them as much liberty and self government as they can stand. They are now enjoying more real liberty than they have ever enjoyed in their previous history, and that under a flag that has always meant liberty" (p. 19). His statement ignored the dilemma posed by Bryan, and he did not respond to those arguments.

In his speech, Bryan did not disparage the Filipinos who were fighting for their independence. But Roosevelt criticized those Filipinos who were fighting against the Americans. Of Aguinaldo, one of the leaders of the fight, Roosevelt said, "Emilio Aguinaldo, whom Mr. Bryan refers to as a second Washington, is a Chinese half-caste" (p. 20 ). In several of his speeches in North Dakota, Roosevelt referred to a proclamation that came from Aguinaldo's cabinet which said that "when the insurgents of the Philippines were to rise they were to put to death every white man and his family and also every Filipino who did not sympathize with them" (p. 23).

He also told of how the Americans had "rescued a body of friendly Filipinos, who had been taken off by the insurgents for the crime of being in a town that refused to revolt. They had been tortured in ways which I dare not mention. They had been mutilated and forced to sit on red hot coals and tortured in unmentionable ways…" (p. 20 ). These agents, Roosevelt implied, were incapable of self-determination.

Roosevelt also implied that the actions in the Philippines affected the characterization of Americans as well. Referring to the American actions in the Philippines, he stated, "It would show ourselves weaklings and to be guilty of a foul wrong to manhood and to civilization at this time to break faith with these people in the islands, who have been our best friends" (p. 20 ). In Jamestown, Roosevelt asked his audience if they were going to "shirk" their duty and abandon the task of setting up a government in the Philippines. "Are we going to shame ourselves," he asked," in the face of the nations of the earth? Are we going to cast discredit upon the memory of the men who fought to a finish the great civil war by flinching our lesser duty today?" (p. 25). While Bryan considered the question of citizens or subjects, Roosevelt asked the audience if they were honorable or dishonorable. Each of their choices was posed in a manner such that if the audience accepted the distinctions, the answer would be clear.

So, in essence, Roosevelt argued that for the U.S. citizens to respect themselves, the U.S. had to maintain a presence in the Philippines to provide a good government for the people who were too undeveloped to govern themselves and Filipinos who were so vicious that they needed to be resisted. On the contrary, Bryan argued that in order for the people of the U.S. to consider themselves committed to democracy, not monarchy, the U.S. needed to withdraw its troops from the Philippines and let the democracy loving, though underdeveloped, Filipinos govern themselves.



Roosevelt expanded the scene, while Bryan contracted it. Bryan developed four purposes for the imperialism, and Roosevelt responded to only one.

Concerning the agents, the people, Bryan argued that Filipinos could be neither citizen nor subject without changing the character of the U.S. citizens, while Roosevelt argued that to abandon the battle in the Philippines would make the U.S. citizens dishonorable.

But both Bryan and Roosevelt agreed that the means of accomplishing the colonization of the Philippines was the army. Of course, they differed on the implications of those actions. Bryan argued that the size of the army would need to increase, especially if the voters accepted McKinley's policy at the polls in the impending election. The large standing army would cost money to maintain and "if accompanied by compulsory service, [it will be] a constant source of irritation" (p. 28). Furthermore, he argued, "The army is the personification of force and militarism will inevitably change the ideals of the people and turn the thoughts of our young men from the arts of peace to the science of war" (p. 28). Bryan concluded that this type of militarism was not in the best interests of the U.S. citizens.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, made no apologies for the military. He associated himself with Major White from the North Dakota National Guard and candidate for Lieutenant Governor of North Dakota (who was present at the Bismarck speech), and proclaimed, "if there is one lesson that is good for a private citizen to learn just as well as a nation, it is, don't hit at all if you can help it, but if you do hit, don't hit soft" (p. 22).

Later in the same speech he said, "You never once heard of any instance where one man earned the friendship of another by only striking him a little. The only effect is, if you hurt him a little you make him angry" (p. 23 ). His conclusion was that as long as Dewey had destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila, the fight must be carried through to the end.



In summary, both Bryan and Roosevelt were talking about the act of war in the Philippines. Bryan named the scene "imperialism" because he believed that the Philippines were too far from the U.S. shores and Americans would never become residents to be considered "expansionism." On the contrary, Roosevelt believed that the colonization of the Philippines was similar to the Louisiana Purchase so he called it "expansionism," not "imperialism."

These politicians also disagreed on the purpose of the U.S. in being in the Philippines. Bryan believed that the purposes were (and he disagreed with each of them): 1) to demonstrate that the U.S. was a world power, 2) to expand our economic wealth, 3) to spread religion, and 4) to maintain the country's pride. But Roosevelt argued that the purpose of the U.S. presence in the Philippines was pride: A fight begun should not be cut short and it was the duty of the U.S. to put order to the Philippine government. Bryan and Roosevelt also disagreed in their characterizations of the agents, the people. Bryan believed that all people can and should govern themselves, while Roosevelt argued that the Filipinos were like children who could not govern themselves. Finally, Bryan discounted the agency, the military, which would carry out the imperialist or expansionist policy and believed that a standing army would harm the U.S. On the contrary, Roosevelt embraced the military and believed that they were necessary to wield the big stick that would hit the enemy hard and finally conquer them.

Roosevelt and McKinley won the 1900 Presidential election and even though the Philippine issue did not determine the outcome, their policies prevailed: war continued in the Philippines. Bryan's arguments, though they may have prevailed today, did not prevail in 1900 and the war continued until 1902.

The words of Bryan and Roosevelt appeared to be echoed during the Vietnam war and many of the statements that were made in 1900 could have been made in the 60s or even in the Bosnian 90s. Many words, though, particularly those of Roosevelt would never pass the political-assumption tests of the 1990s. However, Bryan's speeches, with a few exceptions, could be said today. Because they are the words of the principal politicians, these speeches of Bryan and Roosevelt capture the debate over the Philippines. In the shadow of the 1998 Philippine Centennial celebrating their independence from Spain, these speeches demonstrate their views and also demonstrates that even in 1900, events in the Philippines, halfway around the world, affected the discussions in North Dakota.



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