“Subjugation of the Philippines Iniquitous” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired control over the former Spanish colony of the Philippine Islands. Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar’s speech in the Senate is an attack on the United States’ policy of annexing the Philippines rather than granting the country independence, like it did another former Spanish colony, Cuba. Making the Philippines an American colony had led to a war with Philippine nationalists, which Hoar denounces as cruel and inconsistent with both previous American policy and American ideals dating back to the American Revolution. He contrasts the unsuccessful Philippine policy with the successful policy of recognizing Cuba’s independence. The reasons he gives for his position are both ideological and practical, pointing out the enormous cost in lives and money of trying to take over the Philippines and the uncharacteristic role of the United States, champion of liberty, waging war to subdue a people fighting for independence.

Summary Overview

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired control over the former Spanish colony of the Philippine Islands. Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar’s speech in the Senate is an attack on the United States’ policy of annexing the Philippines rather than granting the country independence, like it did another former Spanish colony, Cuba. Making the Philippines an American colony had led to a war with Philippine nationalists, which Hoar denounces as cruel and inconsistent with both previous American policy and American ideals dating back to the American Revolution. He contrasts the unsuccessful Philippine policy with the successful policy of recognizing Cuba’s independence. The reasons he gives for his position are both ideological and practical, pointing out the enormous cost in lives and money of trying to take over the Philippines and the uncharacteristic role of the United States, champion of liberty, waging war to subdue a people fighting for independence.

Defining Moment

The American victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898 had left the United States in control of several former Spanish colonies. Cuba, Spain’s cruel treatment of which was the alleged cause of the war, was allowed its independence, although, in practice, the United States continued to dominate it in many ways until Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution of the 1950s. Puerto Rico and the Philippines, however, became American territories. The Filipinos resisted under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, a former leader of the Philippine resistance to the Spanish. The United States fought a short, but bloody and controversial, war to put down Filipino resistance. The Philippine-American War of 1899 to 1902 was brutal, and American soldiers committed atrocities. The war was longer and much more costly than the preceding Spanish-American War.

The late nineteenth century was the age of high imperialism, when much of the globe, including nearly the entire continent of Africa, was divided between European powers, with America and Japan joining in by the end of the century. Colonization of the Philippines was extremely controversial in the United States. Many viewed imperialism as a betrayal of American values, although others argued that America’s destiny, like that of the major European powers, was as an imperial power. (The United States had already been established as an imperial power in the Pacific with the controversial annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.) If the Philippines were not annexed, supporters contended, they might fall into the hands of a European power or even Japan. Many leaders of the Republican Party, including younger politicians such as Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge, supported annexation of the islands. Some imperialists argued that the Filipinos, like other peoples of color, were incapable of self-government, and their best hope was benevolent American rule. This position was most memorably summed up in “The White Man’s Burden,” a poem by English imperialist Rudyard Kipling first published in 1899. In it, he seeks to persuade white Americans to take up rule over the Philippines by appealing to the idea that civilizing “sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child” was an American responsibility.

Anti-imperialism brought together a broad coalition of Americans, including Republicans, like Hoar; conservative Democrats, like former president Grover Cleveland; and Progressive Democrats, like William Jennings Bryan; along with African American leaders, like W. E. B. Du Bois; and America’s leading writer, Mark Twain. Anti-imperialists like Hoar wanted to differentiate the United States from the greedy imperial powers of Europe. South Africa’s contemporaneous Boer War, in which Dutch-descended Afrikaner farmers, or Boers, fought the forces of Great Britain, met with considerable popular sympathy for the Afrikaners in the United States.

Author Biography

George Frisbie Hoar (1826–1904) was a descendant of Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a member of New England’s social and political elite. He entered politics as an antislavery Republican and was elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts in 1868. Integrity in government was one of his principal concerns, and although he believed the Republicans to be the party of honesty in government, as opposed to the corrupt Democrats, he distanced himself from the scandals of the administration of Republican president Ulysses S. Grant. He was elected a senator from Massachusetts in 1877. As a senator, Hoar supported much of the Progressive agenda, including women’s suffrage and civil service and antitrust reform, but opposed the popular election of US senators, which he believed would lead to corruption. Hoar took a leading role in opposing the American annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines following the Spanish-American War.

Document Analysis

“The Subjugation of the Philippines Iniquitous” is a sweeping denunciation of the American war against the Philippine insurgents, attacking both its purposes and conduct. Hoar also discusses the expense of the war both in money and in the lives of American soldiers. He mistrusts the imperialist ideology that supported making the islands an American colony. Hoar’s general opposition to European imperialism can be seen in his opening praise of the South Africans fighting the British, although the fighters themselves were members of the white minority in the region rather than the black majority.

Hoar describes the annexation of the Philippines as an exception in an American history he portrays in glowing terms. The tradition of the American Revolution, the Monroe Doctrine, the Civil War (at least the Union side), the American role in the opening of Japan, and the Spanish-American War itself as it pertained to Cuba, was one of nurturing and protecting liberty. Hoar draws parallels between the behavior of the United States in the Philippines and that of Spain in colonial Cuba, arguing that the United States was descending to the level of Spain, a common theme among American anti-imperialists. (“Reconcentration camps,” later to be known as “concentration camps,” were particularly associated with the Spanish fight against the Cuban independence movement.) He discusses, in general terms, the atrocities committed by the American forces in the Philippines, including the infamous “water torture.” This was a particularly powerful argument, given the wide publicity the American press had given to Spanish atrocities against the Cuban people in the period preceding the Spanish-American War. Hoar has a difficult needle to thread here, attacking the atrocities committed by Americans while portraying himself as on the side of the American troops in the Philippines. Although he generally sympathizes with the Filipinos as a people fighting for their freedom, he does not minimize the atrocities with which they were charged, only denying that these provide any justification for reciprocal atrocities committed by Americans.

Hoar contrasts the success of the United States’ post–Spanish-American War policy in Cuba, which allowed the island independence, with its failure in the Philippines. The Cuban policy had not involved the United States in a protracted war, and as a war of liberation, it was something that all Americans, particularly veterans of the conflict, could be proud of. The war against the Philippine rebels, by contrast, brought only shame.

Essential Themes

Hoar’s call for an independent Philippines was in vain. The rebellion was to be crushed militarily. The official end of the war in July 1902 occurred shortly after Hoar’s speech, although scattered Filipino groups continued fighting. The last holdouts, the Muslim Moro people of the southern Philippines, were not defeated until 1913. The islands remained a US colony until July 4, 1946, when the United States relinquished its sovereignty and the modern independent Philippine nation was born. However, Hoar’s anti-imperialism and defense of the right of foreign peoples to govern themselves would become a much more common stance in the mid-twentieth century, in the era of decolonization after World War II. Later opponents of other American wars in the postcolonial developing world, such as the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan Wars, have followed Hoar’s rhetoric, which attacks the atrocities committed by American troops while avoiding, as much as possible, attack of the troops and their commanders as individuals; however, these wars, unlike the Philippine-American War, were not fought explicitly to extend American sovereignty over these foreign lands and transform them into colonies.

Hoar’s treatment of the Philippine annexation as a sharp break from a generally pro-liberty American history has been questioned, however. Many modern historians, like some contemporaries of Hoar, attack the generally rosy view of American history held by Hoar and others–a viewpoint now frequently identified as American exceptionalism–and regard the conquest of the Philippines as consistent with the nineteenth-century wars against Mexico and the American Indians on the North American continent and with the annexation of Hawaii. Imperialism has also been connected with late-nineteenth-century America’s increasingly aggressive stance in Latin America and its mistreatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. Much of the American military doctrine and methods applied to the Philippine-American War, in fact, can be traced to the earlier Indian Wars, and much of the racial imagery used to disparage Filipinos had roots in previous caricatures of American Indians, African Americans, and Latin Americans.

Bibliography and Additional Readings
  • Sibley, David J. A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902. New York: Hill, 2007. Print.
  • Welch, Richard E., Jr. George Frisbie Hoar and the Half-Breed Republicans. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971. Print.
  • Welch, Richard E., Jr. Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899–1902. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979. Print.
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