Manifest Destiny and Racism
After the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War, the Philippines became an American territory, ceded by Spain but not surrendered by the Filipinos. America inherited a war, which quickly became both bloody and controversial. In the Senate, during the debate over ratification of the Treaty of Paris which ended the war, several Senators opposed the US takeover of the islands. Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, an unapologetic white supremacist, argued on the Senate floor against ratification of the treaty. “Why are we bent on forcing upon them a civilization not suited to them…” Tillman demanded.
Tillman also read aloud on the floor of the Senate several stanzas from a poem by the English writer Rudyard Kipling, which was published in the New York Sun three days later. The poem was entitled The White Man’s Burden, and was written to address the American occupation of the Philippines. Its publication was intended to garner support for the Treaty of Paris. It directly linked with the American concept of manifest destiny. The poem exhorted Americans to meet the need to supervise and civilize the “captive peoples” that were “half devil and half child”. Its publication both supported imperialist ambition and defined the subjugated as being made better by the imperialists.
The poem reintroduced the idea of divine duty, as it was a portion of the idea of manifest destiny, but expanded it beyond the American ideal to all of the white race. It met immediate resistance in the United States, notably from Mark Twain. Twain’s response was the essay To the Person Sitting in Darkness, a stinging paper condemning the idea of Empire as improving the lives of the subjugated people. Twain compared the imperialist ambitions of the United States to those of the Kaiser’s Germany and Russia under the Czar, directly listing President McKinley as being their peer and compatriot.
Kipling sent the poem to Theodore Roosevelt, Governor of New York at the time, urging him to use the poem to help support ratification of the Treaty of Paris, accompanied by a letter in which Kipling wrote, “American has gone and stuck a pick-axe into the foundations of a rotten house, and she is morally bound to build the house over, again, from the foundations, or have it all fall about her ears.” Roosevelt agreed, and avidly supported the Treaty of Paris and the American occupation of the Philippines. Roosevelt had been an enthusiastic backer of war with Spain and the opportunity to spread American democracy to the Pacific and in the Caribbean.
Kipling’s poem and the believers in the concept of manifest destiny found common ground in the need to improve the lives of people whom Kipling referred to as “half devil and half child.” The Philippine American War and subsequent rebellions such as the Moro Rebellion would plague American troops in the islands for over a decade, as the Filipino people rejected American manifest destiny, determined to find their own. Over a hundred thousand civilians and rebel troops died in the Philippine American War. Eventually the Philippines obtained independence in 1946, but the US military presence remained for decades.