Updated: Jul 13
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: