American Imperialism in the Philippines

American Imperialism in the Philippines:A Revolution in American Foreign Policy

Carlos Macasaet

English 11
American History
17 March 2000


Thesis: In the nineteenth century, America pursued a policy of imperialism in the Philippines under the guise of protecting the world from the oppression of Spanish rule. This caused much controversy both in the political arena as well as among the citizens.

I. Throughout its development, America has crafted its expansionist policies; this expansion, however, had always been confined to the North American continent.

A. The philosophies of the ordinances of 1784, 1785 and 1787 as well as the Monroe Doctrine and the Manifest Destiny governed the acquisition of new territory.
B. In the Ostend Manifesto, America looks to acquire Cuba.

II. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, there was an urge to expand outside of the continent for various reasons.

A. Americans believed themselves to be racially superior to others.
B. America wanted a favorable balance of trade.
C. America needed to make exports exceed imports.
D. America was looking for fresh land to conquer (islands in warm oceans).
E. America sought to spread Christianity.
F. America sought to expand foreign markets.
G. There was the necessity of annexing some property.
H. America had a strong sense of nationalism during the era known in Europe as the Race for Empire.

III. When the issue of the Philippines arises, there is a stark break with past forms of imperialism. Instead of seeking to add the Philippines as a state, America sought the conquest of the Philippines as an imperialist colony that they would rule either formally or informally.

A. War with Spain.
B. Domestic motives for expansionism.
C. Debates over the issue of imperialism.

IV. Administration of the Philippines.

A. The American administration of the Philippines was a completely new experience for the nation that was once itself colonized by another nation.
B. After the election of 1900 debates over Philippine policy ensued.

V. The Philippines gains its independence in 1946 after being an imperial territory of America.

In 1898, in an effort to free Cuba from the oppression of its Spanish colonizers, America captured the Philippines. This brought about questions of what America should do with the Philippines. Soon, controversy ensued both in the American political arena as well as among its citizens. Throughout its history, America had always been expansionistic, but it had always limited itself to the North American continent. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, however, there emerged a drive to expand outside of the continent. When America expanded to the Philippines, the policy it followed was a stark break from past forms of expansionism. Despite much controversy, America followed the example of the imperialistic nations in Europe and sought to conquer the Philippines as an imperialist colony that they would rule either directly or indirectly.

Throughout its development, America has molded its expansionist policies, which it confined to the North American continent. The ordinances of 1784, 1785 and 1787 governed the acquisition and administration of new territory, which set a precedent for establishing future territorial acquisitions as states equal to those already established[i]. They were designed to settle the West in an orderly fashion while at the same time, lessening the possibility of secessionist movements. More importantly, the ordinances served to prevent the emergence of dependent colonies. In addition, by adding a new western aspect to the national identity, they set a trend for westward expansion (Henretta 181).

The Monroe Doctrine and the Manifest Destiny stated America’s philosophies regarding foreign policy. The Monroe Doctrine (1823), crafted by President Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, was a statement of America’s foreign policy. It warned Europe to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. Monroe particularly did not want Spain to attempt to reacquire its former colonies that declared their independence (Monroe).

The idea of Manifest Destiny stemmed in part from the ideas of the Monroe Doctrine. It was an intangible concept best described as a pervasive thirst for expansion in America that shaped American history. Americans believed that it was their destiny to encompass the entire North American continent (Lubbrage 1). The westward migration of American settlers and European immigrants to the Midwest in the 1840′s and 1850′s prompted this movement. Swayed by popular zeal for expansion, political leaders chose to neglect the conflicts that would ensue with Mexico and Great Britain (Henretta 360). In his document entitled Manifest Destiny (1845) — from which the movement received its name — O’Sullivan articulated the philosophies of Manifest Destiny. He envisioned in America’s future, the “defence of humanity, of the oppressed of all nations, of the rights of conscience, the rights of personal enfranchisement.” He believed that America was the chosen country to do this, as it did not have a history of conflict except in the defense of its freedom (O’Sullivan paragraph 4). Americans saw it as their divine mission to expand to spread democracy and Christianity (Henretta 360).

A critical turning point in American expansion was when America first looked to Cuba. During this period of westward expansion, the new political movement known as Young America — which consisted mostly of southerners — took Manifest Destiny to a global scale by looking southward and to the Atlantic, particularly to Cuba, a major producer of sugar and tobacco. In addition, slaves worked the plantations of Cuba. At this time, President Franklin Pierce pursued expansionist policies; in particular, he wanted Cuba. He saw Cuba as a slaveholding Spanish possession that would become a slave state if annexed[1]. He hoped the slaveholding elite in Cuba would declare independence from Spain. Once independent, he would invite it to join the Union. In 1853, he secretly sent John A. Quitman to aid in the revolution. While this was happening, he threatened war with Spain over its confiscation of an American ship. Fearing the addition of a new slave state, however, northern Democrats in the senate forced Pierce to back down (Henretta 378). This shows that at this time, domestic political pressure limited foreign expansion.

The Pierce administration, however, was still determined to acquire Cuba and so Secretary of State William L. Marcy commanded Pierre Soulé, the American minister to Spain, “to detach that island from the Spanish dominion” by purchase. Therefore, Soulé offered Spain $130,000 for Cuba. Spain, however, found this offer insulting and rejected it. In response to this, Soulé wrote a secret document, the Ostend Manifesto, which invoked the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny. In it, he said that the mere possession of Cuba by Spain was a threat to American security and America would be justified in seizing Cuba by force. The controversy that ensued over this issue left it temporarily undecided (Henretta 378-379).

Following the Civil War, expansionist ideals resurfaced and fundamental shifts in American culture and society made imperialism more appealing. These shifts occurred in economic, racial, cultural and military facets of America.
Americans had sought a favorable balance of trade since 1876 (Suzara). An economic boom, in which America’s gross national product quadrupled, “transformed America into the biggest granary on earth, a foremost manufacturer of consumer goods and a major producer of coal, iron and steel.” (Karnow 89)? Because America was still a developing country, it attracted many foreign investors while very little was invested abroad (Karnow 82). In order to balance out this unequal flow of funds, America had to make its exports exceed its imports (Karnow 82). By 1895, foreign business had drawn near the 2 billion mark and the export of manufactured goods was increasing the fastest of all (Wolff 12). While most of the production — over 90 percent — was consumed in America, foreign markets were still very important. Americans feared that its increasing production would far exceed its consumption. The solution was to ensure that there would always be a market for its surplus products. This meant the necessity for more foreign markets (Pomeroy 18-20). Richard E. Welch corroborates this in his book Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902:

Business leaders, convinced that the home market was inadequate to the needs of expanding industrial production, persuaded the administration that an island empire would increase exports and foreign commerce and provide protection and stimulus for the China trade. (3)

There was also the issue of race. Herbert Spencer’s idea of Social Darwinism, which was based on Charles Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, asserted Anglo-Saxon racial superiority (Karnow 81). America, successor to Britain as leader of the Anglo-Saxon race, believed that it had to spread its culture and institutions over the earth (Karnow 81). This was partly influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s poem White Man’s Burden[ii], which Kipling specifically wrote to encourage America to colonize the Philippines. The poem advocated imperialism by saying that it was the duty of the Anglo-Saxon race to colonize over inferior people to civilize them and make them more European-like (Fry 383). America also sought to spread Christianity. At this time, America was predominantly Protestant while the Spanish colonies were predominantly Roman Catholic. America also saw it as their duty to convert the Catholics to Protestantism (Suzara).

Americans also perceived a necessity of annexing some territory (Suzara). During the 1850′s, Americans showed a certain arrogance because of their own independence. They seized territory from Mexico and contemplated seizing Cuba and Santo Domingo (Karnow 81). In The Law of Civilization and Decay, Brooks Adams called upon the ideals of Social Darwinism asserting that “not to advance is to recede” and therefore, in order to survive, America must expand (Henretta 590). America also felt that it had to join in the European race for empire. Throughout the nineteenth century, as Britain was granting freedom to many of its territories in Canada and Australia, it was acquiring more and more territories elsewhere. Soon the other European countries followed suit. Aside from a source for creating mercantilist empires, colonies had become a symbol of stature for nations (Jantzen 570). Because of a strong sense of nationalism, America felt it had to join in the race. Also, in The Influence of Sea Power upon history, 1600-1783, Captain Alfred T. Mahan emphasized the necessity of annexing the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii and the Philippine Islands in order to create bases to protect American commerce (Chronology paragraph 3).

When the issue of the Philippines arose during of the Spanish-American War, however, America pursued an expansionist policy that broke sharply with past forms of expansion. According to Henretta, as Spain lost its South American possessions in the early nineteenth century, the Cubans also sought their independence (591). In 1895, José Martí reinvigorated the Cuban struggle for freedom that had been quelled during the Ten Years War[iii] (1868-1878). Sympathizing with the Cubans, President Grover Cleveland pushed Spain to come to an agreement with Cuba. Instead, Spain tried to pacify the Cubans by sending General Valeriano Weyler whose policy of reconcentration[2] of the Cubans greatly increased American support for the Cuban cause. This led to widespread anti-Spanish sentiment in America, which helped drive it to war in 1898 (Trask).

The most important event in propelling America to war, however, was the sinking of the Battleship Maine. The U.S.S. Maine was anchored in Havana simply to provide a naval presence in Cuba. In February of 1898, an explosion on the Maine caused it to sink, killing 266 sailors. While investigations could not prove the exact cause of the explosion, many Americans suspected a Spanish mine was to blame. Even though President McKinley strongly opposed any military intervention, he was forced to give Spain an ultimatum. He demanded that Spain grant Cuba its independence but Spain refused. On April 23, Spain ceased diplomatic negotiations and on April 24, declared war[iv] (Trask).

Immediately at the start of the war, Commodore George Dewey — who was stationed in Hong Kong in preparation for an attack against the Spanish territories — set sail for the Philippines (Henretta 594). On May 1, he defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. After this victory, McKinley allowed a small army contingent to land in Manila to maintain pressure on Spain, which many hoped would lead to an early end to the war (Trask).

McKinley, however, did not really have a plan for dealing with the Spaniards in the Philippines. This forced Dewey and Major General Wesley Merritt — who had arrived with an infantry — to improvise. Their main concern was to defeat the Spaniards and so they enlisted the support of the Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo. When Aguinaldo asked Captain Edward P. Wood of the U.S.S. Petrel — who was in the Philippines to negotiate on behalf of Dewey — what America’s intentions towards the Philippines were, Wood responded that the United States was “very great and rich, and did not need colonies.” He also said that Dewey would put such a statement in writing. Thus, Aguinaldo agreed to aid the Americans if Dewey gave him an official request as well as a written pledge of U.S. support for his cause. However, E. Spencer Pratt, the U.S. Consul in the Philippines, informed Dewey — who was in Hong Kong waiting for Aguinaldo to join him — that Aguinaldo was willing to join him without mentioning Aguinaldo’s terms. Dewey tersely responded “TELL AGUINALDO COME SOON AS POSSIBLE”. When Aguinaldo asked about the written pledge, Pratt told him that Dewey had assured him that the United States would “at least recognize the independence of the Philippines under an American naval protectorate”. He also assured him that “The words of a United States navy officer and an American consul represent a solemn pledge” and that “The United States government is a very honorable, very just and very powerful government” (Karnow 110-112).

By May, however, to prevent him from making any untoward promises to the Filipinos, the U.S. Department of the Navy ordered the recently promoted Admiral Dewey to gradually dissociate himself from Aguinaldo. Dewey’s primary objective in the Philippines was to capture Manila and he believed that this could best be achieved without the help of the Filipino “insurgents”. Towards the end of July, America’s 12,000 troops equaled those of the Filipino rebels and relations between the two soon declined (“Spanish” paragraph 4).

At the end of the war, Spain relinquished control over Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to America and agreed that America would occupy Manila until a treaty was formed (Henretta 594). In the Treaty of Paris (1899), the United States paid Spain $20 million for the Philippines. The treaty required two thirds of the senatorial vote to pass. It passed by merely one vote. This explains why Americans were unsure how to proceed with the Philippines. McKinley had several options. He could return the Philippines to Spain, but that seemed “cowardly and dishonorable”. Alternatively, he could divide the Philippines among the Great Powers but he decided that to do so would be to relinquish valuable territory to “our commercial rivals in the Orient — that would have been bad business and discreditable.” The most practical option, of course, was to grant the Philippines independence, but imperialists eventually convinced McKinley that “we could not leave [the Filipinos] to themselves, they were unfit for self-rule, and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse that Spain’s was” (Karnow 127-128).

On February 4, 1899, two days before the Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris, fighting broke out between Filipino guerrillas and American troops stationed in Manila. Faced with the prospect of American annexation, Aguinaldo — who was declared president of the Philippines in January — continued the struggle for freedom, only this time, from the Americans. This began the Philippine American War[v]. Like the Spaniards in Cuba, the Americans needed to use the same reconcentration strategy to deal with the Filipino guerrillas. Following America’s victory after three years of fighting, Judge William Howard Taft established a civilian government (Henretta 598).

After defeating Spain, America was uncertain as to what to do with the Philippines but it leaned on the side of imperialism. The arrogance that Americans exhibited in the mid-nineteenth century was still strong and this was just increased by the American victory in Manila Bay. It was like a rite of passage that elevated America to the ranks of the world powers. What began as an effort to liberate the Spanish territories from the oppression of imperialism propelled America to take the Philippines. Soon, however, this morphed into a struggle to crush the Filipino independence movement. This was the first time American soldiers fought across the ocean and the first time America acquired territory beyond its continent — the former colony itself becoming imperialist. “Because of the massive amount of European immigration into America, the nation sought unity and cohesion and found it in its patriotic expansion.” America had a high sense of moral purpose. Unlike the Europeans who merely sought profit and power through their imperialism, the Americans sought to spread the benefits of its culture to the world. McKinley was swept up by these sentiments and allowed them to affect his foreign policy decisions. The American excursions into the Philippines established an American presence in the Far East — thus expanding America’s foreign markets (Karnow 79-80). American businessmen also realized the benefit of the Philippines as an Asian trading post (Suzara).

Activities in the Philippines aroused much controversy in America. The Imperialists advanced several practical arguments. They argued that expansion abroad would yield profit and that the American economy would deteriorate without foreign markets (Karnow 82). Henry Cabot Lodge, a proponent of imperialism, declared, “We must on no account let the islands go. We hold the other side of the Pacific, and the value to this country is almost beyond imagination.” Albert Jeremiah Beveridge, who shared the same sentiments, advocated America’s imperialism for the purpose of bettering the world by asserting “We are a conquering race. American law, American order, American civilization and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted, but by those agencies of God henceforth to be made beautiful and bright” (Karnow 109).

The imperialists, however, faced much opposition. On June 15, 1898, The Anti-Imperialist League was formed to oppose the annexation of the Philippines. Its members included Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain. Mark Twain noted that Americans “have gone there to conquer, not to redeem” the Philippines (Trask). Anti-imperialists argued that the annexation of the Philippines violated the constitutional precept of government through the consent of the governed. Carnegie was worried that these foreign ventures would dissipate the nation’s wealth. People also feared the influx of Filipinos that would ensue if America annexed the Philippines. Racists were afraid that the “yellow people” would contaminate American culture (Karnow 82). ?Charles Shurz, a militant enemy of expansionism, argued that “To annex the Philippines, would not only violate America’s principles of ‘right, justice and liberty’, but also bring an influx of more or less barbarous Asiatics into the US.” (Karnow 109-110)? Workers also feared that Filipino immigrants would compete with them for jobs. Presbyterian ministers disdained the “idea that the reign of Jesus is to be widened under the protection of shells and dynamite.” (Karnow 82)? The Democratic Party used the news of the atrocities America was committing in the Philippines in its arguments against the imperialist Republican Party (Corpuz 65).

After defeating the Filipino Guerrillas, the American occupation regime began rebuilding the Philippines along the American model. According to Onofre Corpuz, the Americans “energetically embarked on constructive projects in the fields of education, health and sanitation, public works, communications, transportation, resources development, legal and juridical reform, and technological innovation.” (66) In 1935, America made the Philippines into a semi-autonomous commonwealth. The previous year, Congress passed the Philippine Independence Act, which was based on traditional imperialist rhetoric. It arranged for a preparatory period (1935-1946) in which America would prime the Filipinos for independence (Corpuz 66).

America’s administration over the Philippines also brought about much controversy[vi]. Immediately following the 1900 U.S. election was the first conflict over the formation of Philippine policy. Although the capture of the Philippines had expansionist aims, it did not necessarily mean that expansionists had full control of the administration of the Philippines. Senator John C. Spooner of Wisconsin proposed a bill to quell the Filipino resistance and assuming “all military, civil and judicial powers necessary to govern the said islands.” After the election, imperialists urged the passage of the Spooner bill. According to the Secretary of War Elihu Root “The army has brought the Philippines to the point where they offer a ready and attractive field for investment and enterprise, but to make this possible there must be mining laws, homestead and land laws, general transportation laws, and banking and currency laws.” Lodge hoped to pass the bill past the anti-imperialist opposition by reserving the right to alter it. Those who opposed the bill tried to amend it to extend constitutional guarantees to the Filipinos and to declare America’s withdrawal from the Philippines once a stable government was established (Pomeroy 118-120). Arguments over trade policy, which resulted in the Insular Cases (1899-1901), soon followed the arguments over the Spooner Bill. The Insular Cases established a colonial relationship with the Philippines (Pomeroy 121-123).

America eventually followed through with its promise to grant the Philippines full independence in 1946 after almost half a century of U.S. colonial rule. This period of colonial rule over the Philippines represented a unique era in the history of American foreign policy in which imperialism replaced traditional forms of expansionism. The race for empire that America had entered would eventually propel America into two world wars and transform the isolationism of the Monroe Doctrine into the interventionism of the Truman Doctrine[vii]. America had adopted a new foreign policy in which it sought to take an active role in the world stage.

Works Cited

Chronology. The World of 1898. The Spanish-American War. (1999). n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Jan. 2000. Available

Corpuz, Onofre D. The Philippines. New Jersey. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.

Fry, Howard T. The Breakdown of the American Democratic Experiment in the Philippines: An Historical Analysis of a Crisis in Modernization. Australian Journal of Politics and History. 23(3) (1977). 383-402.

Henretta, James A., David Brody, and Lynn Dumenil. America. A Concise History. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Jantzen, Steven L., Larry S. Krieger, and Kenneth Neill. World History. Perspectives on the Past. Lexington. D.C. Heath and Company, 1992.

Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image. America’s Empire in the Philippines. New York. Random House Inc., 1989.

Lubragge, Michael T. Manifest Destiny. The American Revolution – an .HTML project. Groningen. Department of Alfa-informatica, University of Groningen, 3 Jun. 1997. Six pp. Online. Internet. 19 Jan. 2000. Available

Monroe, James. The Monroe Doctrine. 1823. Online. The Freedom Shrine. Internet. 27 Jan. 2000. ?Available

O’Sullivan, John L. Manifest Destiny. 1839. Online. South Hadley. Ferraro, 1999. Online. Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy Pre-1898. Internet. 27 Jan. 2000. Available

Patrick, John. Lessons on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Learning Materials for Secondary School Courses in American History, Government, and Civics. (1987). n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Jan. 2000. Available

Pomeroy, William J. An American Made Tragedy. Neo-Colonialism and Dictatorship in the Philippines. New York. International Publishers, 1974.

Schoenherr, Steven. Daniel Boone and Kentucky. (1999). n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Jan. 2000. Available

Spanish-American War and Philippine Resistance. U.S. Department of the Army: Army Area Handbooks. 1993. St. Louis. Online. UM-St. Louis Libraries. Internet 12 Mar. 2000. Available gopher://

Suzara, Raul. Personal interview. 16 Jan. 2000.

Trask, David. The Spanish-American War. The World of 1898. The Spanish American War. (1998). n. pag. Online. Internet. 19 Jan. 2000. Available.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. Response to Imperialism. The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902. Chapel Hill. The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Wolff, Leon. Little Brown Brother: How the United States Purchased and Pacified the Philippine Islands at the Century’s Turn. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961.


[ 1 ] During this period before the Civil War, slaveholding and non-slaveholding states vied for influence in the political arena. The balance between slave and free states was crucial.
[ 2 ] The Cuban resistance consisted entirely of guerrillas. The key to their success was to hide among the villagers. General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau recognized this. His policy of reconcentration moved the Cuban civilians en masse to central locations under the control of the Spanish Army. The idea was to keep the civilians alive until Spain had won a victory. Unfortunately, more than 30 percent of the civilians died because of bad living conditions (Trask).


[ i ] For more information on this, see. Schoenherr, Patrick paragraphs 9-10 and Henretta pp. 180-181.
[ ii ] The full text of The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling is available online at:
[ iii ] More information on the Ten Years’ War is available online at:,
[ iv ] More information regarding the Spanish-American war is available online from the Library of Congress at.
[ v ] More information about the Philippine American War is available online at
[ vi ] More information regarding America’s administration over the Philippines is may be found in the book. Cullinane, Michael, et al. Philippine Colonial Democracy. Ed. Ruby R. Paredes. New Haven. Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1988.
[ vii ] The Truman Doctrine is available online at

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