William Jennings Bryan
Delivered in Washington, D. C., before the Virginia Democratic Association, on Feb. 22, 1899, when political parties were just beginning to take a position on the subject of imperialism.
WHEN the advocates of imperialism find it impossible to reconcile a colonial
policy with the principles of our government or with the canons of morality;
when they are unable to defend it upon the ground of religious duty or
pecuniary profit, they fall back in helpless despair upon the assertion
that it is destiny. “Suppose it does violate the Constitution,” they say;
“suppose it does break all the commandments; suppose it does entail upon
the nation an incalculable expenditure of blood and money; it is destiny
and we must submit.”
The people have not voted for imperialism; no national convention has declared
for it; no Congress has passed upon it. To whom, then, has the future been
revealed? Whence this voice of authority? We can all prophesy, but our
prophecies are merely guesses, colored by our hopes and our surroundings.
Man’s opinion of what is to be is half wish and half environment. Avarice
paints destiny with a dollar mark before it; militarism equips it with
He is the best prophet who, recognizing the omnipotence of truth, comprehends
most clearly the great forces which are working out the progress, not of
one party, not of one nation, but of the human race.
History is replete with predictions which once wore the hue of destiny,
but which failed of fulfillment because those who uttered them saw too
small an arc of the circle of events. When Pharaoh pursued the fleeing
Israelites to the edge of the Red Sea he was confident that their bondage
would be renewed and that they would again make bricks without straw, but
destiny was not revealed until Moses and his followers reached the farther
shore dry shod and the waves rolled over the horses and chariots of the
Egyptians. When Belshazzar, on the last night of his reign, led his thousand
lords into the Babylonian banquet hall and sat down to a table glittering
with vessels of silver and gold, he felt sure of his kingdom for many years
to come, but destiny was not revealed until the hand wrote upon the wall
those awe-inspiring words, “Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin.” When Abderrahman
swept northward with his conquering hosts his imagination saw the Crescent
triumphant throughout the world, but destiny was not revealed until Charles
Martel raised the cross above the battlefield of Tours and saved Europe
from the sword of Mohammedanism. When Napoleon emerged victorious from
Marengo, from Ulm and from Austerlitz, he thought himself the child of
destiny, but destiny was not revealed until Blucher’s forces joined the
army of Wellington and the vanquished Corsican began his melancholy march
toward St. Helena. When the redcoats of George the Third routed the New
Englanders at Lexington and Bunker Hill there arose before the British
sovereign visions of colonies taxed without representation and drained
of their wealth by foreign-made laws, but destiny was not revealed until
the surrender of Cornwallis completed the work begun at Independence Hall
and ushered into existence a government deriving its just powers from the
consent of the governed.
We have reached another crisis. The ancient doctrine of imperialism, banished
from our land more than a century ago, has recrossed the Atlantic and challenged
democracy to mortal combat upon American soil.
Whether the Spanish war shall be known in history as a war for liberty
or as a war of conquest; whether the principles of self-government shall
be strengthened or abandoned; whether this nation shall remain a homogeneous
republic or become a heterogeneous empire—these questions must be answered
by the American people—when they speak, and not until then, will destiny
Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice; it is not
a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.
No one can see the end from the beginning, but every one can make his course
an honorable one from beginning to end, by adhering to the right under
all circumstances. Whether a man steals much or little may depend upon
his opportunities, but whether he steals at all depends upon his own volition.
So with our nation. If we embark upon a career of conquest no one can tell
how many islands we may be able to seize or how many races we may be able
to subjugate; neither can any one estimate the cost, immediate and remote,
to the Nation’s purse and to the Nation’s character, but whether we shall
enter upon such a career is a question which the people have a right to
decide for themselves. Unexpected events may retard or advance the Nation’s
growth, but the Nation’s purpose determines its destiny.
What is the Nation’s purpose?
The main purpose of the founders of our Government was to secure for themselves
and for posterity the blessings of liberty, and that purpose has been faithfully
followed up to this time. Our statesmen have opposed each other upon economic
questions, but they have agreed in defending self-government as the controlling
national idea. They have quarreled among themselves over tariff and finance,
but they have been united in their opposition to an entangling alliance
with any European power.
Under this policy our nation has grown in numbers and in strength. Under
this policy its beneficent influence has encircled the globe. Under this
policy the taxpayers have been spared the burden and the menace of a large
military establishment and the young men have been taught the arts of peace
rather than the science of war. On each returning Fourth of July our people
have met to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence; their
hearts have renewed their vows to free institutions and their voices have
praised the forefathers whose wisdom and courage and patriotism made it
possible for each succeeding generation to repeat the words:
My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
This sentiment was well-nigh universal until a year ago. It was to this
sentiment that the Cuban insurgents, appealed; it was this sentiment that
impelled our people to enter into the war with Spain. Have the people so
changed within a few short months that they are now willing to apologize
for the War of the Revolution and force upon the Filipinos the same system
of government against which the colonists protested with fire and sword?
The hour of temptation has come, but temptations do not destroy, they merely
test the strength of individuals and nations; they are stumbling blocks
or stepping-stones; they lead to infamy or fame, according to the use made
Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen served together in the Continental army
and both were offered British gold. Arnold yielded to the temptation and
made his name a synonym for treason; Allen resisted and lives in the affections
of his countrymen.
Our Nation is tempted to depart from its “standard of morality” and adopt
a policy of “criminal aggression.” But, will it yield?
If I mistake not the sentiment of the American people they will spurn the
bribe of imperialism, and, by resisting temptation, win such a victory
as has not been won since the battle of Yorktown. Let it be written of
the United States: Behold a republic that took up arms to aid a neighboring
people, struggling to be free; a republic that, in the progress of the
war, helped distant races whose wrongs were not in contemplation when hostilities
began; a republic that, when peace was restored, turned a deaf ear to the
clamorous voice of greed and to those borne down by the weight of a foreign
yoke spoke the welcome words, Stand up; be free—let this be the record
made on history’s page and the silent example of this republic, true to
its principles in the hour of trial, will do more to extend the area of
self-government and civilization than could be done by all the wars of
conquest that we could wage in a generation.
The forcible annexation of the Philippine Islands is not necessary to make
the United States a world-power. For over ten decades our Nation has been
a world-power. During its brief existence it has exerted upon the human
race an influence more potent for good than all the other nations of the
earth combined, and it has exerted that influence without the use of sword
or Gatling gun. Mexico and the republics of Central and South America testify
to the benign influence of our institutions, while Europe and Asia give
evidence of the working of the leaven of self-government. In the growth
of democracy we observe the triumphant march of an idea—an idea that would
be weighted down rather than aided by the armor and weapons proffered by
Much has been said of late about Anglo-Saxon civilization. Far be it from
me to detract from the service rendered to the world by the sturdy race
whose language we speak. The union of the Angle and the Saxon formed a
new and valuable type, but the process of race evolution was not completed
when the Angle and the Saxon met. A still later type has appeared which
is superior to any which has existed heretofore; and with this new type
will come a higher civilization than any which has preceded it. Great has
been the Greek, the Latin, the Slav. the Celt, the Teuton and the Anglo-Saxon,
but greater than any of these is the American, in whom are blended the
virtues of them all.
Civil and religious liberty, universal education and the right to participate,
directly or through representatives chosen by himself, in all the affairs
of government—these give to the American citizen an opportunity and an
inspiration which can be found nowhere else.
Standing upon the vantage ground already gained the American people can
aspire to a grander destiny than has opened before any other race.
Anglo-Saxon civilization has taught the individual to protect his own rights,
American civilization will teach him to respect the rights of others.
Anglo-Saxon civilization has taught the individual to take care of himself,
American civilization, proclaiming the equality of all before the law,
will teach him that his own highest good requires the observance of the
commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Anglo-Saxon civilization has, by force of arms, applied the art of government to other races for the benefit of Anglo-Saxons; American civilization will, by the influence of example, excite in other races a desire for self-government and a determination to secure it.
Anglo-Saxon civilization has carried its flag to every clime and defended
it with forts and garrisons. American civilization will imprint its flag
upon the hearts of all who long for freedom.
“To American civilization, all hail!
“Time’s noblest offspring is the last!”