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Lecture: Silver and Empire


Turn-of-the-Century Glimpses: Edison's Early Films

This is a video of footage from Edison's camera, narrated by me.

The History of Empire

Modern empires originated in the 18th century, when European countries began to consolidate commercial networks around the world. In order to assure political and economic stability in the regions where they obtained raw materials, Europeans used military force to manage their colonies.

Colonies also emerged as markets for European manufactured goods as well as a source of raw materials. This is why, just prior to the Civil War, southern cotton producers had complained that the northern industrialists were using the south as a colony.

Document: William Jennings Bryan on Imperialism in the Philippines (1900) audio clip of Bryan speaking

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The U.S. was a comparative latecomer to the idea of a centralized empire. By the 1890s, Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium all had empires, with colonial outposts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Russia and China had extensive land-based empires in Asia. There were several factors that led the U.S. to create an empire (Christianization and the social gospel movement, social Darwinism, the "White Man's Burden", the desire for new markets, etc.), but the thesis developed by Frederick Jackson Turner ties many of these goals together. As you read Turner's essay, think to yourself:

Document: Frederick Jackson Turner: The Significance of the Frontier (1893)

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The other causal elements are also significant. Not only did foreign missions provide a sense of purpose to religious evangelical personnel, but they also provided a role for women prior to the Progressive Era. Women who did not wish to become mothers or housewives, but wanted to help society could become missionaries. Some middle-class women didn't fit into restrictive Victorian society because they were "different": too educated or opinionated, not physically attractive enough for the marriage market, too independent. As missionaries, these women could live in parts of the world that most women would never see, while society saw them as sacrificing to help Christianize others. The social gospel and missionary movements provided an outlet for this female energy.

Social Darwinism

Document: Uncle Sam Looks Abroad (1896)

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Understanding social Darwinism is critical to understanding not only imperialism, but many kinds of prejudice and persecution. Darwin was a 19th century scientist who developed the evolutionary idea of Natural Selection. According to the theory, the earth is very old, and plant and animal species have adapted to changing conditions through the natural die-off of those who cannot obtain food efficiently.

Those who can compete successfully in food acquisition naturally reproduce, which carries on the characteristics. Humans are seen as being just another species, evolving in this fashion in competition with other carnivores.

But social Darwinists took the theory and applied it to human society instead of the entire natural world. According to social Darwinism, certain elements of society compete against the other elements for "survival". Those best adapted to the environment survive, those who don't adapt "die off", a trend referred to as "survival of the fittest". This can be applied along class lines: the richer classes have adapted the best, as evidence by their wealth, so the poor classes are not fit and therefore should not receive any assistance (let them starve). Those who want to assist the poor can use the same theory: the poor require assistance because they aren't as fit, so the rich should help them out.

Social Darwinism can also be applied racially. Since "white" Europeans dominate the world, with many of their colonies consisting of Mongoloid Asian and Negroid Black Africans, whites must be the fittest race. The others are inferior; their regions not only deserve to be colonized, but they desperately need the superior race to assist them (or they should die off, depending on how the argument is constructed).

Document: Pears Soap Advertisement

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Social Darwinism can be applied culturally. Since Jews live in globally-interconnected communities throughout the world (a premise which is itself open to question), they belong to no particular culture. Those cultures that have created products that have a global impact (English government, German science, Italian music) over history are stronger and thus more fit. Jews living in one of the stronger cultures are less fit, and thus undermine the superior culture. If you know anything about Nazism, you know where that idea is headed.

It's easy to see how those who subscribed to the "let's help them" argument saw Christianization and American-led economic development as the benevolent way to deal with other cultures and races. Since most people believed in social Darwinism at some level (and many still do), I'd have to agree that trying to help is better than trying to injure. A British writer, Rudyard Kipling, referred to taking care of native peoples as a responsibility, the "White Man's Burden".

Document: Charles B Spahr: The Imperialist Religion (1900)

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"Parlor Piano"

Popular music reflected the tendency to look on other cultures as primitive. The popular song "Under the Bamboo Tree" reflects this trend.This is an actual 1903 recording, courtesy of the National Library of Canada's Virtual Gramophone. Please note that "lak" means "like".

Under The Bamboo Tree

Down in the jungle lived a maid,
Of royal blood tho' dusky shade,
A marked impression once she made
Upon a Zulu from Matabooloo;
And every morning he would be
Down underneath a bamboo tree,
Awaiting there his love to see
And then to her he'd sing:

If you lak-a-me, lak I lak-a-you,
And we lak-a-both the same,
I lak-a say, this very day,
I lak-a change your name;
'Cause I love-a-you, and love-a-you true,
and if you-a-love-a-me,

One live as two, two live as one,
Under the bamboo tree.

Second verse:
This little story, strange but true,
Is often told in Mataboo,
Of how this Zulu tried to woo
His jungle lady in tropics shady.
Although the scene was miles away,
Right here at home, I dare to say,
You'll hear some Zulu ev'ry day
Gush out this soft refrain:

Gold vs. Silver

"Note from $10 Bill: Will Pay to the Bearer on Demand Ten Dollars" Paper money at this time was like an I.O.U. for gold and silver. The government printed money which represented Treasury holdings of the precious metals. The most precious metal was gold, and the U.S. printed paper money which could be exchanged at any bank for holdings in gold. Gold was considered "real" money.

The economy in general basically ran on the concept of supply and demand. When the demand for money was high, and the supply was low, the printed dollars were worth more. This was good for lenders, like bankers, and big business, which invested much of its profits. It was bad for debtors because it meant that the paper money they used to pay back their debt was worth a lot, maybe even more than when they had borrowed it. If the demand was too high, and the supply was too low, the government could print more money to create inflation. This would slow the economy and make it easier for lenders to get paid back, although the paper money might be worth a little less.

But since paper money had to be based on "real" money, the government had to buy more gold to increase the Treasury reserves whenever it wanted to create inflation. This was expensive. When the government bought silver instead, which was cheaper, it could rapidly increase reserves and bring inflation down quickly. In other words, purchasing silver was an easy way to make paper money worth less, making it easier for debtors to pay back loans.

Document: Herbert S. Bigelow: A Convention Prayer (1900)

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You've read how Cleveland tried to do this with the Silver Purchase Act (1890), which pleased debtors and was disdained by banks and business. But then the Depression of 1893 came, and economists didn't know why it had occurred. The logical thing to assume was that it was the result of increased silver holdings and decrease in the value of the dollar.

Populists, who found their support in the debtor farming communities, were in favor of what they called "free silver", the unrestricted addition of silver to the Treasury. Businesses and banks in general were in favor of implementing a "gold standard", which would eliminate silver as a basis for paper money. This is the big issue of the 1890s; everyone took sides.

In general, after the Depression of 1893 (which lasted till 1898), Republicans tended to favor a gold standard, Democrats were split between controlled silver and free silver, and Populists were free silver. But there were exceptions. A working man, making low wages in a factory job and in debt, would have trouble deciding how to vote. Free silver would be better for him to pay his debt and it would reduce the price of consumer goods. But it could hurt the business he works for, which could cause the factory to shut down and cost him his job. Many working men were Democrats, and so often Democrats were split.

When William Jennings Bryan was chosen as the Democratic nominee for president, he was clearly free silver, which is why the Populists also nominated him. But after his loss, he backpedalled on the free silver issue and lost Populist support. But by then the Republicans, with their gold standard agenda (adopted in 1900), no divisive issues, and lots of campaign support money from banks and business, had a clear monopoly on national politics.

The Wizard of Oz

One Populist disappointed in the events of the 1890s was L. Frank Baum, author of (among other things) The Wizard of Oz. The story itself has been analyzed in recent years as a parable of Populism. If you haven't read the story, take a look.

Several scholars have looked at the Wizard of Oz as a parable of populism and monetary concerns of the day. Henry Littlefield (1964) and Hugh Rockoff (1990) both analyzed the story. In a parable, every dramatic element is a symbol or representation of something actual. Dorothy represents the heart of American life, the dog Toto is her best friend. They are swept by the cyclone (the forces of nature, always allied against the American farmer) to Oz. Their house lands on and kills the Wicked Witch of the East (eastern industrialists) who is wearing silver shoes. If you've seen the 1939 movie, they changed the shoes to ruby slippers because that looked better in Technicolor, but silver is important because it represents the silver standard. The Good Witch of the North encourages Dorothy to put on the shoes. Dorothy wants nothing more than to go home, and the Witch tells her the Wizard will help her. She must go visit him in the Emerald City.

Dorothy walks in her silver shoes on the yellow (gold) brick road. She meets three characters along the way who join her on her journey: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion. The Scarecrow represents the American farmer, fearful that he has no brain when in reality he's the smartest of the bunch. The Tin Woodsman is the industrial worker, who has no heart because all his limbs got chopped off by machines and he was rebuilt of tin. The Lion is William Jennings Bryan, cowardly for giving up the fight for silver in his second run for president.

The Emerald City is the color of money, but in the book (unlike in the film) the characters have to put on green-colored glasses before they ent. They have a terrible time with bureaucracy (Washington, D.C.) and finally they meet the Wizard and he tells them they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West before he will help them. So off they go to the west, where the Witch again represents the forces of nature, especially drought (she is ultimately killed by water). The Witch has two sets of minions, the Winged Monkeys and the Yellow Winkies. The Winged Monkeys are the American Indians of the west, once free but now enslaved. (In the movie, they have mohawk haircuts, but I can't believe that the designers knew this parable in 1939!) The Yellow Winkies are probably Filipinos, a racist reference left out of the film.

When they kill the Witch and return to the Wizard, they unmask him as a fake (President McKinley?) and realize they have the answers to their own problems. The Scarecrow becomes the ruler of the Emerald City (the farmer as president), the Tin Man becomes king of the east (the eastern cities) and the Lion returns to the forest (Bryan never ran again for president). But to get back home, Dorothy gets advice from the Good Witch of the South (where populists hoped to find support). She's had the silver all along, the secret to salvation. She clicks her shoes and goes home.

Before you ask, no, Baum never admitted to this being a populist parable. But it'll make you look twice at those Winged Monkeys!


"Photo of Queen Liliuokalani"

One of the biggest issues concerning Hawai'i was sugar. Before the establishment of the sugar beet, sugar cane was the only source of mass-produced sugar. Sugar requires a tropical climate, and thus there are very few regions in the U.S. where its cultivation is practicable (primarily Louisiana, where today Domino sugar is produced).

Certainly the U.S. was not the only nation with a sweet tooth. Germany and Great Britain had also continually negotiated treaties with Hawai'i, and had plantations there. Foreigners had held plantations in Hawai'i since the 1830s, when a series of treaties were forced upon King Kamehameha III. In 1875 a new treaty with the U.S. allowed free admission of Hawaiian sugar into U.S. markets, and in return Hawai'i promised there would be no territorial concessions to nations other than the U.S.

The key here is that most of the plantations were owned by American citizens living in Hawai'i, a foreign country run by its own monarchy. By 1887 the U.S. had gained a naval station there (at Pearl Harbor), and Americans controlled two-thirds of the taxable land. Gradually these Americans gained power and formed a revolutionary group, at first requesting American annexation. When that failed, they created a Republic of Hawaii run by haoles (whites). The President of the republic was Sanford Dole, a man descended from missionaries and a justice on the Hawaiian Supreme Court.

Document: Mark Twain on the Sandwich Islands (1873)

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Queen Liliuokalani, however much she had to listen to the American planters, in her heart wanted to return control of Hawai'i to its native people. She created a counter-revolution designed to return Hawaiian rule to herself and her Hawaiian cabinet. This would have reduced or eliminated U.S. control, and thus the U.S. government chose to support American business interests in this time of growing empire. In 1893 the U.S. military forced her abdication. She was taken into custody and ultimately swore allegiance to the Republic in order to gain clemency for the counter-revolutionaries. The U.S. annexed the islands after those who promoted annexation claimed that Japan was prepared to annex Hawai'i (this wasn't true). You can look at a brief web page on Liliuokalani and the government's recent (1993) Apology to the Hawaiian people.

In recent years there has been an attempt to revive Hawaiian culture, including the language (here's an on-line example). One problem is that the original language was oral, not written. American missionaries wrote the language down in the 1820s, and may not have heard many of the nuances of sound. I was taught that there are only 12 letters in Hawaiian, and five are the vowels. I notice that now Hawaiian is being written using 18 variant letters, as you can see in the Liliuokalani or language sites. Hawaiian music is also being revived, especially chanting. The Americanized "Don Ho" sound is the product of American, not Hawaiian, musical taste, although much modern Hawaiian music combines the old language with the new sound, as in this modern version of the famous song composed by Liliuokalani herself, "Aloha 'Oe".   Lyrics

"Aloha 'Oe"

Hearst, Remington and the Spanish-American War

This story begins with Spain, which had colonies all over the world as early as the 16th century. Most of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, and the southwestern U.S. were part of the Spanish empire. One of their last outposts in the 1860s was Cuba, which in 1868 rebelled against Spain in a war for independence that continued for ten years.

American sympathy was with the Cubans, because the U.S. had a soft spot for independence movements against European countries. Plus the Monroe Doctrine, developed in the 1820s, made any European action in the Western Hemisphere an American concern. As the rebellion continued, American business profited as $33 million in sugar land was purchased at excellent prices. Spain put down the rebellion, but in 1895 civil war (or not, if you were Cuban) erupted again, and the rebels wanted the U.S. to help. They often committed acts of violence against American property, and even took American hostages, just to get the U.S.'s attention. Spain was also brutal, putting Cuban civilians into concentration camps. But American business interests wanted stability to ensure trade, not war.

Blood and gore sells newspapers. During this time a rivalry had sprung up between two New York papers, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Both papers reported the Spanish atrocities against the Cubans in great detail, knowing the public wanted horror stories showing the Spanish in a poor light. Both engaged in "yellow journalism", unethical and sensationalist reporting. Hearst in particular was a master at sensationalizing events. He believed that pictures tell the story, but photographs were too costly to reproduce, so he used artists. Frederick Remington was one of the greatest artists of the day. Legend has it that Hearst sent Remington to Cuba to 1897 to cover the war, and when Remington reported that all was quiet and there would be no war, Hearst wired, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." "Photo of T. Roosevelt"

Certainly war sold papers, and the reports had a lot to do with convincing Americans that the Cuban cause was worth a war. The same year Hearst sent Remington to Cuba, President McKinley sent an ambassador to Spain offering to arbitrate between Spain and Cuba, with a threat of action if arbitration were refused. Hearst printed a letter from the Spanish ambassador which called McKinley a weak president. In 1898 the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, killing 260 men. The yellow press went crazy; headlines read "Maine Destroyed By Treachery" and "Country Thrills with War Fever". The claim that a mine caused the explosion (a finding which is still somewhat in dispute, although it has recently been reaffirmed) encouraged the move toward war. More information on journalism during this war can be found here.

The "splendid little war" (a.k.a. the Spanish-American War) was won decisively by the U.S. in a matter of months. Cuba was taken by Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders (his role was magnified by the press, but his aggression as a leader was significant), while the Philippines was secured half-way around the world by Admiral George Dewey. The Filipinos had also been rebelling against Spain, and a German fleet was waiting for the fall of the colony so Germany could acquire it. Instead, the U.S. took the Philippines and wouldn't let it go. In 1899 the Filipinos rebelled against the U.S. for their independence (Americans call this the "Philippine Insurrection", implying rebellion from within an empire), but the rebellion was put down.

One of the most horrible things about the war was the evacuation of Cuba. Despite the fact the Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time, the navy failed to support the ground troops, and evacuation was delayed. The result was yellow fever and dysentery that claimed more lives.

Again music played a role.

"Parlor Piano"

Apparently, Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders sung the song "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" so often, the Cubans thought it was our national anthem!

(There'll Be) A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

When you hear dem-a bells go ding-ling-ling,
All join 'round and sweetly you must sing,
And when the verse am through,
In the chorus all join in,
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.

Politics in the Gilded Age

Some would say that the politics of this era, also known as the Gilded Age, were dominated by political machines. The Dictionary of American Politics (1949) defines a machine as:

An organization controlled by a boss or a small coterie of leaders which subjects party organization and public officials to its will and operates efficiently and ruthlessly in exploiting governmental activities of nearly every sort for the private gain of its members.
One of the most famous was the Tammany Society, and Democractic party club in New York City that preyed on recent immigrants and poor workers, exchanging some assistance for votes at the ballot box. William Tweed, the ring-leader, was referred to as "Boss" Tweed, and controlled activites that ranged from ballot box stuffing to violent intimidation of Republican voters. Campaigns were won with votes cast by people who were dead or had never existed. The Tweed Ring, or the term Tammany Hall, even today are invoked to signify political corruption.

Thomas Nast cartoon with Boss Tweed as a money-bag headCertainly machines were terrible examples of the democratic process. But Alistair Cooke's America points out that local machine politicians provided much assistance to poor people in return for their votes. These politicians were a force in local life, much more so than today. Many spoke the language of their immigrant constituents in the big cities. They were summoned in time of family need, including births, deaths, and imprisonments. They used their influence to help families medically, monetarily, and during job disputes. In other words, for a price (re-election), they provided a needed service.

But the trouble they caused was enormous, as documented by journalists like the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast. Working for Harper's Weekly beginning during the Civil War, Nast criticized and lampooned everyone from Andrew Johnson to Boss Tweed, for whom he created a Tammany Tiger and a money-bag headed businessman as symbols.

Farmers during this era were able to turn to the Grange movement. Although founded in the south after the Civil War to encourage better agricultural practices, the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry was most popular in the west and mid-west. Grangers helped get assistance for farmers through the political process and established cooperatives for agricultural purchasing, grian elevators, and farm equipment. The town where I was raised (Bakersfield, CA) has a Grange Hall, where farmers hold events. As a kid, I never realized the connection of that modest building to history. When I go to the Del Mar Fair, I see flyers with an application to join the Grange in San Diego County; the flyer emphasizes community, family values, connectedness, and a dedication to agriculture.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.