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272 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 9 illus., 2 tables, notes, bibl., index

$55.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2900-5

$19.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5565-0

Published: Fall 2004

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Race over Empire
Racism and U.S. Imperialism, 1865-1900

by Eric T. L. Love

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


This book is about race, racism, and U.S. imperialism from 1865 to 1900, from the end of the Civil War to the annexations that followed the Spanish-American War. It was originally conceived as a critical reinterpretation, as a challenge to the prevailing narratives on race and American imperialism which insist that racial ideologies, ascendant in the last years of the nineteenth century—Anglo Saxonism, social Darwinism, benevolent assimilation, manifest destiny, and the "white man's burden"—worked most significantly to advance empire.

Past accounts have claimed that white supremacy—elaborated in history, culture, tradition, custom, law, and language—armed the imperialists of 1898 with a nearly impenetrable rationale for seizing Cuba from Spain; annexing Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines; and taking in the millions of people who inhabited these places: peoples whom the vast majority of Americans considered biologically and culturally inferior, alien, and unassimilable. The chapters that follow challenge this convention. They demonstrate that racism had nearly the opposite effect: that the relationship between the imperialists of the late nineteenth century and the racist structures and convictions of their time was antagonistic, not harmonious (and no class understood this more acutely than the foreign policy establishment itself); that imperialists, contained by the expectations and demands of the racial social order, neither spoke nor acted in the manner usually presented in the historical literature; that they did not overwhelm the racist invective of the anti-imperialists with more potent racial rhetoric (fighting fire with fire); that, instead, they reacted with silences, disingenuous evasions, and denials that race had anything to do with their expansionist projects. In short, imperialists knew what most historians in recent years have overlooked: that in an era marked by as much racial fear, hatred, reaction, and violence as the last decades of the nineteenth century—by the collapse of Reconstruction; the reversal of civil rights and equal protections, condoned by the U.S. Supreme Court; by the final suppression of Native Americans; by the defeat of the Federal Elections Bill of 1890 (called the "Force Bill" by its enemies); by segregation, disfranchisement, and the lynching of thousands of African Americans; by immigration restriction and other reactions against the so-called new immigrant groups, such as the founding of the American Protective Association and the Immigration Restriction League; by Chinese exclusion and gentlemen's agreements—no pragmatic politician or party would fix nonwhites at the center of its imperial policies. Yet that is precisely what the rhetoric of "benevolent assimilation" and the "white man's burden" would have done and what the dominant narrative insists the student of history believe.

In this book, racism is defined generally as exclusionary relations of power based on race. It can be understood more specifically as the sum of culturally sanctioned beliefs, practices, and institutions that establish and maintain a racial social order. In the period of history considered here, racism upheld social hierarchies and systems of privilege and oppression based on the conviction that whites were, by every measure, superior to all nonwhite people. In short, the principal goal of the late-nineteenth-century racial social order was the exclusion of those racial and ethnic groups cast as "nonwhite" from equal access to and participation in America's economic, political, social, and cultural mainstream.

This pattern was not unique to the late nineteenth century. It was, in fact, a defining characteristic of the United States from the time of its founding, when the "master passion of the age," in the words of one historian, "was erecting republics for whites," to the middle of the twentieth century, when the civil rights movement began to dismantle the most gratuitous and brutal elements of the old racial social order.[1] No one can doubt that the United States was originally conceived as a white nation or deny that the deliberate and systematic exclusion of nonwhites was a vital part of American nation building throughout the nineteenth century. The conviction that nations—in particular, great nations—should be racially and culturally homogeneous preceded the founding of the United States and contributed powerfully to its formation (Benjamin Franklin's faith in this, embedded in his "Observations on the Increase of Mankind," was, as we will see, representative in his time as well as the century that followed). The Naturalization Act of 1790, the first definition of citizenship established by Congress, granted that status to whites exclusively. Early antislavery sentiment was also informed by these precedents. The movements and organizations that arose from them worked in relation to the common prejudice that bi- or multiracial democracy was inconceivable, that it was the formula for an irrepressible social, political, and racial catastrophe. Colonizing free blacks outside the United States became, then, the necessary amendment to their emancipation schemes.

Where, during the early national and antebellum periods, free African Americans congregated, segregation and disfranchisement dogged their communities. History shows discrimination in labor, enforced informally and often violently, by whites fiercely determined to guard work as a species of racial privilege. It also reveals patterns of formal discrimination where, on one side, the legislatures of slave states passed laws forcing emancipated blacks to leave and, on the other, politicians of free states prohibited (or heavily taxed) blacks who would migrate in, where they could compete with white citizens for land, employment, resources, and sundry opportunities.

More instances where white predominance (often based on a narrow, peculiar, exclusionary understanding of whiteness) was the "master passion" rise out of the historical landscape like jagged massifs: General George Washington's order to forbid the enlistment of black troops during the Revolution (and its ratification by the Continental Congress); the Alien and Sedition Acts; the government's refusal to extend recognition of independent Haiti, the "black republic"; the Indian wars, followed by federal removal and containment policies; at midcentury, the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic paranoia and the popular fear of creeping "popery"; the grave "threats" to Anglo-Saxonism which gave birth to the nativist Know-Nothing Party; the failure of the "all Mexico" movement following the Mexican War; and the policies of exclusion and oppression—based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and ideology—seen after 1877, cited above. The impenetrable and largely (though never completely) unquestioned conviction that the United States was a white nation and that every advance, domestic and foreign, should be pursued for the exclusive benefit of white citizens insinuated itself into and shaped every important expansionist project of the nineteenth century, and all constituted formations of a racial—and racist—social order.

By using racism as the book's central analytic concept, I had two intentions. First, I wanted to set aside the terms favored by much of the historical literature on race and the American empire. There can be no doubt that race ideas, racialism, and race ideology have deepened, widened, raised, and complicated our understanding of United States imperialism. My quarrel is not with the words or the concepts themselves but rather with the way historians have applied them in analyzing the past. Too often these terms have been used in ways that obfuscate, that create serious teleological problems; in ways that suggest conclusions which cannot be reconciled with the extant evidence; and in ways that either arrive at or suggest conclusions which are misleading or ahistorical. The problems that these terms create, as well as the ways I believe racism removes them, are discussed in the first chapter. My second purpose was to provoke controversy—a predictable reaction when one calls a thing (racism in this instance) by its proper name and challenges a familiar, long-standing historical assumption—while presenting a compelling narrative.

This book focuses mainly on the thoughts, words, and actions of policymakers. At a time when the discipline has turned so much of its attention to recovering the histories of women, minorities, workers, and other marginalized groups, has embraced the methods of cultural and literary theory, and in certain quarters has shown a decided preference to transnational and comparative research, some readers may consider this approach as retrograde or too traditional to produce new or significant results. However it is regarded, the logic behind this strategy is simple, direct, and, I think, incontrovertible: to understand how race and racism affected the formation of imperial policies, we must focus our efforts, first, on the makers of those policies.

While recovering the stories of these policymakers from the published sources and the archives, I kept in mind certain criticisms that have been aimed at traditional diplomatic history, two in particular: the suggestion that it has, in the past, concentrated too much and too narrowly on a few elites who appear in many accounts to have lived, worked, and directed the nation's foreign relations from a place where they were untouched by the social forces of their time; and the assertion that it has in the main ignored, to its detriment, methods drawn from the social sciences as well as the intricacies of gender, culture, class, environment, and so on. Considering this, I recalled Karl Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), in which he observed: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past." British historian J. M. Roberts elaborated: human beings, he wrote, "make history and sometimes do so consciously," but they are limited because they can only do so "with materials they find on hand, the ideas that they and others have confidence in, their notions of what is possible, and what impossible—in short, within conditions set by circumstances and the past."[2]

Recovering for myself the ideas and knowledge that policymakers inherited and embraced (largely without question) helped me to decipher and translate into narrative most of what I found during the research phase of this project. Discovering what was history to these policymakers and what the past meant to them—the powers it conferred as well as the burdens and limitations it imposed—explained only a fraction of their thoughts and actions. The influence, the weight, and inertia of the past—which was the essence of Marx's observation—explained the past, but it did not necessarily account for what Roberts called the "conditions set by circumstances," which I interpreted to mean, for purposes of analysis, the immediate social, political, and economic context in which politicians imagined, formed, and executed their policies. The pulls of the past and the present, then, were sometimes but not always the same. The distinction was often significant.

These insights I applied to how I thought about the subjects at the center of this book. All were tethered to their world, to the people, institutions, and ideas all around them, in ways that were both obvious and unseen. Further along, while writing, I kept in mind a lesson drawn from astronomers who have in the most ingenious way discovered planets orbiting very distant stars: not by direct observation—despite their titanic mass, the distances are far too great, even for the most powerful telescopes—but indirectly. The gravity of those giant, unseen worlds tug on the stars, causing them to move, to change appearance, or, in astronomical terms, to "wobble." As I worked through the archives I found something analogous. I saw my policymakers wobble.

The wobble had multiple sources originating from the past and contemporary times, from ideas the policymakers inherited and internalized as well as the weight and inertia of history, all of which told them (following Roberts) what was and was not possible. Race and racism loomed large in their reckonings. The extant evidence demonstrates clearly that these men were guided—though their actions were never dictated—by racist sentiments and prejudices, by precedents and expectations forged in the past: among them, that territorial expansion had been circumscribed, historically, by the convictions that the United States was a white nation, by ideas about whiteness and a constellation of beliefs regarding the alleged inferiority of nonwhite peoples. Private and public writings reveal that most policymakers confronted the demands of the racial social order not with a sense of celebration or liberation but with resignation, often with regret and frustration, and acceptance of the limits they imposed.

The balance of evidence contains tantalizing indications that the racism arising from the white labor class and public leaders who exploited the fears of white workers—a constituency of millions of voters spread across the nation—had the greater influence over imperial policy formation than the writings of several social Darwinist intellectuals and propagandists: a group of men who, besides being minuscule in number, could not even agree among themselves whether their pseudoscientific faith required them to uplift so-called inferior races, Catholics, and new immigrant groups, or quarantine them.

This study is organized around four attempts by American policymakers, made between 1865 and 1900, to annex territories away from the continent that were occupied by significant numbers of nonwhite people. The cases selected are, the reader will discover, conventional and, although lesser cases have been omitted, representative. Chapter 1 provides an introduction and background. Borrowing Langston Hughes's grand metaphor, I argue that a racial mountain has stood in the way of a full and accurate account of how race and racism moved, shaped, advanced, and constrained American imperialism in the decades after the Civil War.

Chapter 2 is a treatment of President Ulysses S. Grant's effort in 1870 to annex Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic. Privately, Grant acknowledged the racial elements of his policy and in private wrote about them in considerable detail. He believed that if the island-nation was annexed it would serve as a refuge for the former slaves, part of a postbellum colonization scheme that Grant hoped would quicken the advance of sectional reconciliation and restore peace to the South. This chapter demonstrates that so long as the treaty was alive, in the Senate and before the public, the president kept this element of his policy—the part that placed African Americans at the center, positioning them as its main beneficiaries—deliberately hidden. Grant was certain that racism would quash ratification. His apprehensions were well founded. Opponents of expansion into the tropics turned racism and the racist ideology of the Reconstruction era against the treaty and defeated it, soundly. Only when the treaty was dead and Grant was desperate to vindicate his failed policy, his administration, and himself, did he reveal, in a series of explanations that shifted dramatically over time, the racial elements of his annexation scheme. To the eve of his death, Grant would insist that his policy of racial separation through annexation was just and correct.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the nation's attempts to annex Hawaii in 1893 and again in 1897 and 1898. Although the 1893 initiative failed for many reasons, pillars of the racial social order, both old and newly raised, in particular the Chinese Exclusion Act (passed by Congress in 1882 and renewed in 1892) blocked its way. Chapter 4 puts forth the argument that the annexationists succeeded in 1898 not because they exploited concepts of racial uplift and the "white man's burden" but because, in the ferocious racial climate of those years, they rejected them. Anti-imperialists cast Hawaii as a distant, exotic island chain dominated by degenerate races, by indolent natives and tens of thousands of unassimilable Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese workers. In response the imperialists rationalized annexation by insisting that these groups did not matter, that the islands should be taken not for their sake and not to uplift them, but despite them. They insisted that Hawaii should be annexed because it was, in fact, a white nation. The racial justification that prevailed in this case privileged white racial brotherhood, not white supremacy, not benevolent assimilation.

The final chapter demonstrates that the imperialists succeeded in annexing the Philippines not by exploiting race as the dominant narrative portrays but because they were able to cover it over with distracting appeals to war fervor, jingo patriotism, and politics. President William McKinley largely ignored race while making his decision to annex the Philippine Islands as a condition of peace (to the extent he acknowledged race, it was, in his mind, a discouragement). When the treaty came to the Senate, however, racism showed itself again to be a formidable obstacle to expansion. The imperialists worked with no small amount of ingenuity to disconnect racism from the annexation policy. First, they proposed to take only enough of the archipelago to build a naval base, a course that would have absolved the United States of any responsibility for the ten million inhabitants. When this plan was exposed as impracticable, policymakers considered taking only the island of Luzon and leaving the remaining seven thousand (of which approximately four hundred were inhabited) to the mercy of the other great powers. When, finally, on the advice of military strategists McKinley determined that America must take the entire chain, the annexationists hid the race issue behind the rhetoric of duty and national honor.

Race was an imperfect crusading ideology: far too volatile a thing, politically, for the imperialists to place at the center of their furiously contested campaign. By the end of the nineteenth century, policymakers had learned to accommodate and compromise with the demands of the domestic racial social order. Their success in 1898 was the result of compromise as well as clever backroom bargaining, favor trading, bribery, and other kinds of political chicanery, all necessary to disarm skeptics and opponents of the treaty and maintain discipline among its supporters. Even with all these maneuvers, the treaty passed by a single vote. No reading of the poems of Rudyard Kipling or appeals to the Mississippi Plan could have done this. Race would serve the imperialists well after annexation was a fact, but what was fine as ex post facto rationalization was, in the course of policy formation, bad politics.

This book can be understood in part by briefly taking account of what it is not. It is not a general history of U.S. foreign relations or imperialism, nor does it attempt to articulate a new theory of empire. It is not intended to be a retelling of the battle between imperialists and anti-imperialists. Though by necessity it mentions pivotal moments in the war of 1898, this book is not a military history. Several episodes found in this book reveal that racism did occasionally undermine initiatives that would have opened new markets, but I do not (intentionally) challenge interpretations that have placed economic and commercial motives at the center of imperial policy formation. For example, in the 1870s and 1880s, trade with China was jeopardized by virulent anti-Chinese sentiment, much of it concentrated in California, the state that might have gained the most from improved commercial relations with East Asia. Local, racialized confrontations in that state's labor market between Chinese immigrants and native whites competing for work eclipsed foreign markets in importance. The lessons to be drawn from this episode are telling, and their significance—both in the context of the pages that follow and in their broader implications—should not be underestimated: first, we see that local, state, and regional agendas could frustrate, and even trump, national designs; second, when expansionism collided with the demands of the domestic racial social order, the latter—white privilege, manifested in this instance in the labor market and union activism—demanded, unequivocally, and almost always received priority. In foreign policy, then, just as at home, Joel Williamson has observed, white Americans were willing to foot the bill for their racism.[3]

A final word. This book is based on the premise that in the long history of the United States, racism has always been destructive toward innovation and progressive change. The findings presented throughout this book only reaffirm that belief in my mind. Racism is not simply a burden borne by its most obvious victims: it was a problem of power as well. The dominant narrative's insistence that racism effectively loosened the restraints on policymakers, allowing them to advance outward and extend their domination over territories and peoples at will, strikes me as disturbing, and not simply because this presumption—if my argument is correct—is for the most part historically inaccurate. Convictions of American exceptionalism, in those instances where it has been corrupted by white supremacy, deformed the nation's capacity to engage with much of the world on a just, moral, equal, and democratic basis consistent with its creed. Certainly, without the restraint of racism, our interactions with peoples of color around the world over more than two centuries might have been more constructive, materially and morally, than they have been.

Debts are owed to many people who helped with the research and writing of this book. Thanking them is a great pleasure. James M. McPherson, Daniel T. Rodgers, Kevin K. Gaines, and the late Richard D. Challener provided the intellectual inspiration, guidance, direction, and indispensable criticism that shaped this project from its conception. Along the way other scholars I have had the privilege to know shared their considerable knowledge and wisdom. I thank Reid Mitchell, Sean Wilentz, Christine Stansell, Fred Greenstein, and especially William Chester Jordan and John Murrin.

Generous financial support was provided by the American Historical Association, the Center for Domestic and Comparative Policy Studies at Princeton University, the Ford Foundation, the Andrew J. Mellon Foundation, the Society of Fellows of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 1999-2000 the Princeton University History Department welcomed me as a visiting research fellow, a crucial year in the history of this book. Sincere thanks go to Judith Hanson for her assistance and support.

My research was facilitated by the holdings and staff of many fine research libraries and archives. I wish to express my gratitude to the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the John Hay Library at Brown University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Sterling Library and Beineke Rare Book Library at Yale University, the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Hawaii State Archives. While at the Hawaiian Historical Society I benefited greatly from the courteous, expert assistance of Barbara Dunn.

Many scholars and friends read the manuscript in its various stages, talked points through with me, and listened patiently while I sorted through it all. Each provided intellectual, spiritual, and occasionally material sustenance. I thank Benjamin Alpers, Steven Aron, Kathy Baima, Julie Barnett, Susan Basalla, Alistair Bellamy, Lisa Bitel, Sharon Block, Jennifer Delton, Vince DiGirolamo, Janice Earle, Jonathan Earle, Logan Fox, John Giggie, Brad Gregory, Jennifer Jasa, Walter Johnson, Steve Kantrowitz, Josh Landy, Adam Leffert, Pamela Main, Peter Mancall, Michael Millender, Darryl Peterkin, Geoff Plank, Chris Rasmussen, Peggy Reilly, Daniel Seidman, Kim Spaulding, Leslie Tuttle, Sean Wilentz, and Henry Yu.

Warm thanks are extended to my colleagues at the University of Colorado at Boulder for their close, incisive readings and suggestions: Fred Anderson, Abigail Dyer, Steven Epstein, Padraic Kenney, Patricia Nelson Limerick, and Ken Orona.

It has been a great pleasure to work with the University of North Carolina Press, especially with Chuck Grench, Amanda McMillan, and Paula Wald. I would also like to thank Lew Bateman of Cambridge University Press.

The deepest thanks I reserve for my mother, Rosalyn Byrd, and grandmother, Ruth Castleberry. Eddie Castleberry supported me with bootstraps when I needed them most. Mary Flynn has been my lifeline, a true friend in countless ways. Bill Doonan remains the best and most constant influence on my life. To my great-grandparents, William and Lula Love, I owe everything.

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