On July 4, 1776, the United States committed itself to a set of principles. It did not always live up to those words. But the words exerted their own power.
By David Frum | The Atlantic | July 4, 2021
When my wife and I were young parents living in Manhattan, we rented an apartment above a psychiatrist with many wealthy patients. Through each hour of the working day, a succession of limousines and drivers would wait on the curb for one patient after another to exit the office. I once had the opportunity to ask what brought his clients to his door. He answered that they all presented versions of the same complaint: They thought they were frauds. I followed up: How did he treat them? “I try to help them see with the eyes of others,” he told me.
Listening to many Americans talk about their nation’s history, these days, is like an encounter with a depressed person. There seems to be no restraint upon the appetite for self-reproof, no patience for context or comparison. If one reminds the depressed person of how much he or she means to others—how many admire and even love him or her—that seems to only make things worse. That just proves how deluded those others are! How ignorant of the ghastly reality!
So on this national birthday, let’s interrupt the self-critique for a moment of external observation.
July 4 is the anniversary not only of American independence, but of the independence of a former American possession. On July 4, 1946, the United States acceded to the treaty that granted full independence to the Philippines after almost half a century of American colonial rule.
The Fourth of July, 1946, is of course important in the history of the country that received its freedom that day. It is equally important to the history of the country that granted that freedom. It is perhaps especially important on this Fourth of July, 2021, a day when so many leading Americans are otherwise likely to be overwhelmed by attention to faults and failures.
The story starts in a familiar way, in the 1890s, the decade of the closing of America’s western frontier, the decade that the United States overtook Great Britain as the world’s largest economy, the decade of Plessy v. Ferguson and Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech. American leaders sought to impress their power upon the world, and they knew one sure way to do that: acquire a colonial empire. Fortunately, such an empire was tottering near at hand—Spain’s.
In the mid-1890s, Spain was fighting insurgencies in two of the last fragments of its once-global empire: Cuba and the Philippines. Americans sympathized especially with the Cuban rebellion. By 1898, the U.S. and Spain were at war, and as everybody remembers, the war ended in decisive American victory: a “splendid little war,” in the famous phrase of Secretary of State John Hay.
The imperialism and anti-imperialism of 1900 do not map very well onto present-day attitudes. You might imagine, for example, that imperialism would appeal to racial chauvinists who regarded non-Europeans as inferior. That would be true. But it was also true that many such people ended up as anti-imperialists, for the same reason. Campaigning for president in 1900, William Jennings Bryan denounced the acquisition of the Philippines as a threat to America’s white identity: “Are we to bring into the body politic eight or ten million Asiatics, so different from us in race and history that amalgamation is impossible? Are they to share with us in making the laws and shaping the destiny of this nation?”
When the American Anti-Imperialist League was formed, its membership included both egalitarian-minded figures such as Jane Addams, Mark Twain, and Oswald Garrison Villard—and white racial chauvinists such as Charles Francis Adams Jr., E. L. Godkin, and David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University and also one of the most aggressive eugenicists of his day. The first group opposed overseas expansion as unjust and oppressive; the second opposed it as racially polluting.
The anti-imperialists lost the argument over the future of the Philippines. The islands were annexed; an anti-U.S. uprising was harshly suppressed. The defeat of the Philippines insurrection was followed by a spasm of American military interventions in the Western Hemisphere—the most protracted of them being the U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
Those things all happened, and they have to be faced without denial. So, too, does this have to be faced:
On July 4, 1776, the United States committed itself to a set of principles and declarations. It did not always live up to those words. Often it did not. But it could never wholly turn its back on them either. The words exerted their own power, in all kinds of unexpected ways.
In 1776, the United States sought to escape the rule of one empire. On its way out the door, its representatives proclaimed that just governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed. After 1898, the United States acquired an empire of its own. And between that latter outcome and the former words gaped an uncomfortable contradiction. That contradiction was no less apparent a century ago than it is today. And eventually, Americans were driven to resolve it.
In the elections of 1910, Democrats regained the majority in the House of Representatives, after a decade and a half in the minority. Among the results of the election was the elevation of a Virginia lawyer named William Atkinson Jones to the chairmanship of the House Insular Affairs Committee: in effect, the man who made laws for America’s overseas empire.
As a boy of 16, Jones had fought in the defense of Richmond against Ulysses S. Grant. He was elected to the House in 1890 as a more or less standard-issue post-Reconstruction Democrat. (See the tributes to him gathered here.) But the words consent of the governed in the Declaration of Independence rankled him. He thought they meant something. And he acted to ensure that they did.
Two great laws bear Jones’s name. The second, enacted in 1917, conferred U.S. citizenship on the residents of Puerto Rico, following the precedent already established for Hawaiians—and that would later be followed for the American Virgin Islands, Guam, and other offshore possessions of the United States. Jones’s previous major law, passed the year before, pledged the U.S. to grant independence to the Philippines. The Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916 also ensured the Philippines a wholly elected legislature. In 1934, another U.S. law established a directly elected Philippines presidency and promised full independence within 10 years. Fulfillment of that promise was interrupted by the Second World War and Japanese occupation—but was accomplished at last in 1946.
A few days before the end of U.S. rule, President Manuel Roxas delivered a speech summarizing Filipino history since 1898.
We did not attain our full freedom then. The United States, feeling a deep sense of responsibility for our enduring welfare, and an international obligation for our security, took upon herself the task of gradually training and preparing us for self-government. Our forces valiantly resisted the forcible imposition of this strange benevolence. We had no way of knowing that those professions of good intention were sincere. Our resistance was overcome and we laid down our arms, but in the act of acquiescing to American rule, we accepted American protestations of good intentions. We put our faith in the American declaration that she had come not as conqueror, but as liberator, not to exploit but to help us husband our resources and to develop them for the benefit of our countrymen. We soon discovered that that faith was well placed …
At first our country was governed by Americans with the help of Filipinos, later, by Filipinos with the gradually diminishing intervention of Americans. Today our government is practically in our own hands …
As we are about to reach the end of the road we have traveled under the guidance of the United States, and to attain the fulfillment of our aspirations, there is nothing in our hearts except gratitude to America and the abiding hope that she will continue to assist us in the trying days ahead.
Roxas’s statement was surely influenced by his country’s desperate need for continued U.S. assistance. The city of Manila had been smashed to pieces in house-to-house fighting in January 1945. The newly independent Philippines state faced food shortages and a financial crisis. Six weeks before Roxas’s speech of gratitude, U.S. President Harry Truman had signed a bill that granted the Philippines $620 million in aid to restore war-damaged public and private property. (Per person, that’s more U.S. aid than the Marshall Plan delivered to West Germany, the single country most essential to U.S. postwar economic and security goals.)
In return, the United States was accorded military basing rights and a trade agreement by which U.S. corporations were assured equal access to local markets and resources with domestic-owned concerns. In 1951, the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty, the basis of U.S. assistance to suppress the Hukbalahap communist insurgency on the island of Luzon. (The success of the anti-Huk effort in the Philippines biased the U.S. to dangerous overoptimism in South Vietnam. The chief adviser to the Philippines government, Edward Lansdale, was transferred in 1954 to head the U.S. mission in Saigon, with instructions from CIA Director Allen Dulles to repeat in Vietnam what he had previously accomplished in the Philippines.)
Yet Roxas’s words cannot be waved aside as flattery only. The approach he took in 1946 expressed a broad and lasting national consensus. The postwar U.S.-Philippines relationship was obviously not an equal one. The U.S. was the senior partner, as it was in all its Cold War alliances. Yet a nimble and astute junior partner could maneuver for crucial benefits for itself and its people. In addition to providing direct aid, the U.S. extracted $550 million in Japanese reparations to the Philippines under the terms of the 1951 peace settlement between the Allies and Japan. The relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines also continued to evolve. The economic agreements of 1946 were revised in the Philippines’ favor in 1955, then allowed to lapse altogether in 1974.
The self-accusation in the American mind questions whether America’s great power was used for the right purposes. Influential voices are telling Americans that their country is and was nothing more than a structure of domination at home and abroad—and specifically of racial domination at home and abroad. Influential voices are telling Americans that domination is the essential truth of American history, that the nation’s declared principles are fraudulent, illusions to conceal a harsh legacy of exploitation. That’s the charge to answer on this Fourth of July, 2021—and that’s a charge answered to some degree by the Fourth of July, 1946.
Those same influential voices will tell you that American realities exposed Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent words of 1776 as a lie. The truth is that those words challenged American realities. The words themselves instantly became a reality in their own right: a reality that triggered a process of change that continues to this day.
The words that people say reshape the people who say them. The words of a country’s creed become the measure by which a country judges itself.
The words of the American creed convinced a former soldier for the Confederacy that the United States should have no subjects—and that it must therefore give freedom to the Philippines and citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Words of freedom and equality have corroded and then dissolved structures of unfreedom and inequality within the territory that’s now the United States and across the planet too.
Happy Fourth of July. Celebrate in pride.