by Stephen Kinzer
Every member of Congress understood that history was about to be made. President McKinley had decided that the United States should push its power into the Pacific Ocean and that, as a first step, it must seize the Hawaiian Islands. Some Americans found the idea intoxicating. Others despaired for the future of their country. One of them was the Speaker of the House, Thomas Reed, a figure so powerful that he was known as Czar.
Reed, a blunt-spoken Maine lawyer who had sought the Republican presidential nomination just two years before—and lost in part because of his anti-imperialist views—was repelled by the swaggering nationalism that had taken hold of Congress. Annexing Hawaii seemed to him not simply unwise but absurd. He told a friend that the United States might as well “annex the moon.” So deep was Reed’s anger, or depression, that he could not bring himself to preside over a vote that might lead to annexation. On the morning of June 15, he sent word that he would not appear.
Empire was the traditional way for rising states to expand their power, and in 1898 the American military had the means to make its imperial bid. Yet the United States had been founded through rebellion against a distant sovereign. It was pledged above all to the ideal of self-government. For a country that was once a colony to begin taking colonies of its own would be something new in modern history.
The most potent arguments against imperial expansion were drawn from American scripture. According to the Declaration of Independence, liberty is an inalienable right. The Constitution’s opening phrase is “We the People.” George Washington sounded much like an anti-imperialist when he asked, “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” So did Thomas Jefferson when he insisted, “If there be one principle more deeply written than any other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.” Abraham Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg that governments should be “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Later he declared, “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.”
To all of this, the imperialists had a simple answer: times have changed. Past generations, they argued, could not have foreseen the race for colonies that consumed the world at the end of the nineteenth century. Nor could they have known how important it would be for the United States to control foreign markets in order to ensure stability at home. In 1863, Lincoln himself had admitted that “dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” The same principle, expansionists argued, applied in 1898.
One of Speaker Reed’s deputies gaveled the House of Representatives to order at midday on June 15. The debate began with due gravity.
“Since that fateful shot was fired at Sumter,” Representative Champ Clark of Missouri said as it began, “a greater question has not been debated in the American Congress.”
The first speakers argued that bringing Hawaii into the United States would be a step in the march of human progress. “This annexation is not a conquest or a subjugation of others, but a continuation of our established policy of opening lands to the colonial energy of the great colonizing nation of the century,” argued Richard Parker of New Jersey. To pass up such a chance, he concluded, would be “antediluvian and thorough stupidity.”
Edwin Ridgeley of Kansas agreed. “Civilization has ever moved westward, and we have every reason to believe that it will ever so continue,” he reasoned. “We need not, nor do I believe we will, enter into a conquest of force but, to the contrary, our higher civilization will be carried across the Pacific by the white and peaceful wings of our rapidly increasing commerce.”
Several congressmen asserted that the United States had no choice but to expand overseas because its farms and factories were producing more than Americans could consume and urgently needed foreign markets. “The United States is a great manufacturing nation,” William Alden Smith of Michigan reasoned. “Eventually we must find new markets for our energy and enterprise. Such desirable territory is fast passing under the control of other nations. Our history is filled with unaccepted opportunities. How much longer shall we hesitate?”
Congressmen not only declaimed on that fateful day, but also debated, sometimes with considerable wit. One of their arguments was over the role of American missionaries, who had arrived in Hawaii during the 1820s and set in motion the process that led to this debate. Albert Berry of Kentucky said Hawaiians had benefited immensely from their “influence and inspiration.”
“When the Americans sent missionaries there for the purpose of civilizing the natives,” he asserted, “they found them in an almost barbarous condition, and set to work to bring about a condition of civilization.”
That was too much for one opponent of annexation, John F. Fitzgerald of Massachusetts—the same “Honey Fitz” who would go on to become mayor of Boston and, more famously, grandfather to John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. A Boston ditty held that “Honey Fitz can talk you blind / On any subject you can find.” This day, his subject was the role of missionaries.
“My colleague,” Fitzgerald said, “emphasized the pleasure that he felt in voting for annexation because of the fact that the islands had been redeemed from savagery by the devotion of American missionaries. In thinking the matter over, I have come to the conclusion that the native Hawaiian’s view of the Almighty and justice must be a little bit shaken when he sees these men, who pretend to be the exemplars of Christianity and honor, take possession of these islands by force, destroy the government that has existed for years, and set up a sovereignty for themselves.”
The day’s most vivid exchanges were about a delicate but serious matter: the extreme foreignness of native Hawaiians. Both sides used racial arguments. Annexationists said the islanders’ evident savagery made it urgent for a civilizing force to take their country and uplift them. Opponents countered that it would be madness to bring such savages into union with the United States, where they could corrupt white people.
“Hawaiian religion is the embodiment of bestiality and malignity that frequently lapses into crimes of lust and revenge,” reported one opponent of annexation, John Rhea of Kentucky. “The various legends of their gods abound in attributes of the most excessive animalism and cruelty. Lewdness, prostitution, and indecency are exalted into virtues… There exists today upon those islands, Mr. Speaker, a population, for the most part, a mixture of Chinese with the islanders, thus making a homogenous whole of moral vipers and physical lepers.”
That brought Albert Berry back to his feet. “I want to say to the gentleman,” he retorted, “if he would look about the streets of the capital of Washington, he would see that there is more immorality south of Pennsylvania Avenue than there is in the whole of the Hawaiian Islands.”
“If I knew that to be true, I would blush to herald it on the floor of this House,” Rhea replied. “But I deny it, Mr. Speaker. I deny that here in the capital city of the greatest government in the world, American womanhood has fallen to such a standard. Oh, for shame that you should speak such words!”
“I did not know that the gentleman ever blushed,” Berry shot back.
Expansionists in Congress and beyond were visionaries seized by a radically new idea of what America could and should be. They saw their critics as standing in the way of progress: small-minded, timid, paralyzed by fears, maddeningly unwilling to grasp the prize that history was offering. “A certain conservative class,” Freeman Knowles of South Dakota lamented, “would stand in the way of the glorious future and ultimate destiny of this Republic.”
The eloquence of annexationists was matched by that of their opponents. One after another, these doubters rose to warn against the imperial temptation. Some of their speeches suggest that they realized they were likely to lose that day’s vote on taking Hawaii. They knew, however, that this was only the opening skirmish in what would be a long struggle. They were speaking to Americans far beyond Washington—and far beyond 1898.
STEPHEN KINZER is the author of The Brothers, Reset, Overthrow, All the Shah’s Men, and other books. An award-winning foreign correspondent, he served as Latin America correspondent for the Boston Globe and as the New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua, Germany, and Turkey. He is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and writes a column on world affairs for the Boston Globe. He lives in Boston.