Speech on Imperialism

by William Neville

Mr. Chairman, in the discussion of this bill it is my purpose to dwell upon the policy of this country in relation to human rights, and especially those involved in imperialism attempted under the cloak of expansion.

The question as to the right and wisdom of this country entering upon a colonial policy is intensely political and has already reached the bitter state, yet there is a difference of opinion among members of each party, and I have no doubt an honest one, as to the duty of this country in the matter.

Variety of opinion is sure to exist where there is a variety of interest considered separate from their relation to justice and patriotism.

I belong to a party which believes that the declaration of principles upon which the American people passed from the condition of colonial dependencies to the enjoyment of human liberty and national greatness is still as sound as the day it was written.

It is a real consolation to believe in the common brotherhood of the human family; to believe that all men were created equal, or in other words, to believe that when God made man and woman as the source of human development, class distinction was not decreed.

In the consideration of human rights it is well to know that classes, royalty, kings, monarchs, subjects, lackeys, valets, serfs, tramps, and slaves are all attributes resulting from man-made law and rule of conduct.

Throughout all the ages liberty has cost eternal vigilance, and national greatness has been in proportion to the freedom of its people, resulting in the high intelligence of the average citizen, yet experience of freemen obtained by heroic efforts in the establishment of government is never inherited by the children of heroes.

History imparts to us a desire to become great and a patriotic love for the liberty we enjoy, but gives us no practical wisdom by which we can measure regard for the rights of others while such rights interfere with our apparent opportunities.

The proposition that "the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed" is as correct today as it was when American patriots hurled it in the teeth of King George, and the consent of the majority implies the right of all to participate. No government can claim the dignity of being a government by the people when a portion of is people are subjects not having equal rights before the law.

It is amazing to a Populist to hear members upon this side of the House declare in debate that "this is a white manís government," and justify a property and educational qualifications to exclude the black man from the right of suffrage and at the same time denounce the Republican party for trying to govern the brown man without his consent.

I am one of those who believe that every American citizen has the right to work for whom he will and for such price as he deems just, and in addition thereto should have the right to participate in the framing of the law which shall control the collection of his pay.

Mr. Chairman, as a Populist, I am much more amazed to observe members upon the other side of this House dramatize indignation because a black man is occasionally deprived of life without due process of the law, and in the same breath laud the Administration for shooting salvation and submission into the brown man because he wants to be free.

The prophet of Bagdad said, "Go with the sword and follow with the Koran, and he who will not accept my teachings smite him down." When we contrast with this doctrine the present American policy of "benevolent assimilation" we are led to wonder who the present Administration of this Government will ape next.

Nations should have the same rights among nations that men have among men. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is as dear to the black and brown man as to the white; as precious to the poor as to the rich; as just to the ignorant as to the educated; as sacred to the weak as to the strong, and as applicable to nations as to individuals, and the nation which subverts such right by force is no better governed that the man who takes the law in his own hands.

And it is a gratification to note that the liberty-loving people from all countries are flocking to the standard of the Boers, to help crush out that infamous doctrine that large nations have the right to subjugate small ones.

Aside from its relation to rectitude, what does a colonial policy mean to this country? The love of freedom is not easily obliterated after once having been sought by a human being. The standing army, when sufficiently large and biddable, may keep it in check, but never eradicate. Can the great American Republic afford to abandon civil government for militarism? Has the human family not yet realized that a large standing army is the bodyguard for kings and tyrants and is always a menace to the perpetuity of free institutions?

Only a few days ago a bill passed this House to establish a military post at Des Moines, Iowa; an innocent act of itself, yet the reason advanced by the Secretary of War for its necessity was a desire to locate the Army near the great centers of population; where many railway lines converge. I need not go into details, the humblest wage-earners in the land knows what this means.

A republic based upon a declaration of equality to all its citizens and operated by the consent of the majority of the people only needs sufficient soldiery to police and defend in emergency, but where a minority class seeks to throttle and hold the majority in subjection and slavery force is required, and the standing army is the most suggestive and the most potent. We need not tell the naturalized citizens who came from any of the provinces of European nations the effect of militarism. They know what a government by force means.

In the selection of a standing army only those physically and mentally sound are enlisted, and thus it is the greater the army the less the mental and physical average of those remaining to father the future generations.

Our Volunteer Army was sufficient to back our assertion of human rights in 1776. It was equal to the emergency in the war of 1812. It was all we needed in the war with Mexico. It saved the Union in the fiercest of allóthe struggle between the States, North and South. It was the admiration of the world in the Spanish-American war, and in the war to subjugate the natives in the Philippine Islands the citizen soldier of Nebraska, from a patriotic devotion to American valor, increased the record for human bravery without the incentive of a just cause.

The American flag as the emblem of liberty and protector of human rights has been hitherto followed by a patriotic devotion that knew no obstacle, because the American people firmly believed that it represented liberty, justice, and good government; and when the American flag rightly stands upon any spot of the earth as an evidence of sovereignty justly obtained the American citizen will defend its right to stand there, and all other nations will know enough to respect its purpose; but when the American flag is made to become a cloak for greed, avarice, and oppression, those who try to wrest it from such degrading tendencies care little for the yell "Traitor" "Copperhead!"

We are willing that the British lion should have monopoly of the policy of aggrandizement and expansion by subjugation and criminal aggression, but let us hope the day may never come when the American eagle will abandon the patriotism and humanity of a Washington or a Lincoln for the greed and avarice of a Napoleon and an Alexander or the brutality of a Tiberius and a Nero. Has it come to this in learned America, that the halting of a patriotic people must be goaded by such stirring words as "Who shall dare pull down the flag?" Humanity in pursuit of a just cause never needed a lash.

Was the flag never hauled down? There was a time when it waved over the City of Mexico as an evidence of supremacy, and the whole Mexican army lay vanquished at our feet. Who was it then said, "Who shall dare take it down?" That element of American citizenship who believed the Declaration of Independence did not apply to the back man said, "Let it stand;" it will make 7 more States, 14 new Senators, and the proportionate number of Congressmen to urge the doctrine that one man may own and operate another.

But the big-hearted advocates of human rights said "Take it down; if left there it will stand for conquest and aggression against justice and liberty." Who were the "traitors" and "copperheads" then? I pause for a reply.

The venerable gentleman from Illinois [Mr. Cannon] charges that our conduct makes the suppression of the Philippines cost $2 where $1 would otherwise suffice. In speaking solely for myself, Mr. Chairman, let it be distinctly understood that so long as I believe a proffer of freedom justly due would end hostility I will not cease trying to thwart inhumanity because of the cost of the butcher.

I pledge my constituents that if elected to Congress I would never vote one dollar of public money to help the Sultan of Sulu support 12 wives and 146 slaves; and while upon this branch of the subject I would be glad to have the members upon the other side of this House answer the following questions:

First. Does the Administration intend to permanently hold the Philippine Islands as American territory or colonies?

Second. If it does, or does not, does the Administration intend to recognize slavery and polygamy in Jolo so long as it holds the Philippines as United States territory or colonies?

Third. If the Administration intends to stamp out polygamy and slavery at some future time, was the concession for a present continuance thereof necessary to secure peaceable control?

Fourth. If the object of the Administration was to get peaceable control by binding this Government to support polygamy, slavery and Mohammedanism, was the acquisition worth the cost?

Fifth. If the Administration did not intend to be bound, was the cunning and fraud up to the proper standard of American manhood in dealing with an ignorant and unsuspecting people?

But, Mr. Chairman, these are not all the complications. We have upon our statute books a law known as the Chinese-exclusion act, and some months ago General Otis, in an effort to enforce this law, refused to allow a shipload of Chinamen to land on the Philippine Islands. These people had mingled and intermarried for a thousand years. They were next-door neighbors. Their habits and customs were the same. They were akin by all the ties of brotherhood, What happened? China, after consulting with other powers, demanded an explanation of the United States, and what was the explanation? The Administration telegraphed Otis "to let them land," and word went out to the newspapers that it was disposed to relax the rigor of the exclusion act. Does the average citizen see the endless chain? Will it lead to American civilization in the Philippines or Mongolian equilibrium in America.

Who shall say that the people of an American colony may not mingle and trade in the master country? Shall Puerto Rico, as a Territory of the United States, be allowed a delegate familiar with her wants to represent her upon this floor with a view to ultimate statehood, or shall she be governed as a colony to augment that part of our possessions over which an American President may pose as an emperor?

Let me warn you my Populist brethren, my Democratic friends, and conscientious Republicans as over the land, to weigh well the tendency of American domination under the cloak of Christian duty, industrial and commercial benefits.

You penetrated the hypocritical mask covering Republican financial intent only in time to discover you had slept upon your rights. Can you not now see the tendency of the Republican party to utilize the Army when sufficiently large, with the aid of armed to assassins, to prevent by force a lawful transfer of the reins of government when the slightest pretense is available? [Loud applause.]


Source: Congressional Record, 56th Congress, 1st Session, February 6, 1900, pp. 1589-90.