On Keeping the Fourth of July

The Atlantic contemplates the beginnings of American imperialism and the waning of patriotic spirit in 1902.

A giant American flag is displayed by the Amoskeag River Mills in Manchester, New Hampshire, on July 4, 1915.  (Harlan A. Marshall / AP)

This anniversary animates and gladdens and unites all American hearts. On other days of the year we may be party men, indulging in controversies, more or less important to the public good; we may have likes and dislikes, and we may maintain our political differences, often with warm, and sometimes with angry feelings. But to-day we are Americans all; and all nothing but Americans.—Daniel Webster: Address on July 4, 1851.

The assumption is that the cure for the ills of Democracy is more Democracy.

—Jane Addams: Democracy and Social Ethics, 1902.

The readers of the Atlantic may remember that in the January number there was something said about the Cheerful and the Cheerless Reader. Under a harmless fiction which enabled him to speak as the Toastmaster of the Monthly dinner, the editor of the magazine commented upon some of the articles which were to make up the bill of fare for the ensuing year. And July is here already; the year is half over; and the monthly feasts have been duly spread. No doubt they might have been more skillfully served. The Atlantic's modest mahogany tree might have been garnished in a more costly manner. But there has been wholesome fare each month, and good company, and new voices to mingle pleasantly with the more familiar ones. Saying grace has nowadays gone somewhat out of fashion, but among the Atlantic's circle there has been at least a grateful disposition to return thanks. It is the Cheerful Reader who has been mainly in evidence since January. Perhaps the Cheerless Readers are suffering from writer's cramp.

Or are they grimly sharpening their pens for some future onslaught? At any rate they have kept strangely, perhaps ominously silent. It has been the turn of the gayer souls to be voluble. The Toastmaster has been assured that even the business communications to the magazine, such as renewals of subscriptions and directions for summer addresses, have frequently been signed "Yours Cheerfully." It is true that this access of gayety may prove to be but temporary. In that case there is some comfort in the shrewd advice of a seasoned man of letters, who writes to the editor: "My theory is that every periodical should contain in every number something to make somebody 'cuss.' It is certainly the next best thing to making them delighted." Very possibly that is just what the unlucky Toastmaster is now proceeding to do, in offering, by way of introduction to the contents of the present number, some considerations On Keeping the Fourth of July.

It should be said in the first place, that few readers of the Atlantic are likely to accuse it of a lack of patriotism. An intelligent devotion to the highest interests of America is the chief article in its creed. It endeavors to secure, month by month, the opinions of competent observers of our national life, and to encourage perfect freedom in the expression of those opinions. While it is not committed to the support of any partisan platform or policy, it believes that the men who have been chosen to carry forward the present administration of the government are honest, able, and high-minded, and that they deserve the fullest possible cooperation of their fellow citizens in maintaining American interests at home and abroad. Whatever criticism of national policy may appear from time to time in these pages is due to the fact that in a government like ours, based upon freely voiced public opinion, men of knowledge and conviction are bound to differ in their interpretation of current issues. It is the aim of the Atlantic to present views based upon both knowledge and conviction. Such has been the spirit of Mr. Nelson's review of the opening months of President Roosevelt's administration; of Lieutenant Hanna's and Superintendent Atkinson's accounts of educational work in Cuba and the Philippines; of Mr. Villard's paper on The New Army of the United States. This last article, together with one shortly to appear, on The New Navy, will perhaps, serve better than the others to illustrate the attitude of this magazine. Many of its readers deplore, as its editor certainly does, that present glorification of brute force which would measure national greatness by the size of national armaments. We may properly wish for and work for the day when the Disarmament Trust—so agreeably pictured by Mr. Rollo Ogden—shall be a reality. But even while we are supporting schools and churches and every other means for promoting good will among men) we keep a policeman at the crossing, in the interests of that very decency which will ultimately make the policeman unnecessary. The world's cross-roads will have to be policed for a long time yet, until men learn to hate one another less, and our own country's share in the world's police service should be efficient and ample. The good citizen of the United States ought to know something about this department of his country's activities, and the Atlantic believes in offering him the information, whatever may be his—or the editor's personal views as to the essential folly and wickedness of militarism.

The current number of the magazine for example, contains several of these articles devoted to fundamental problems of our national life, issues that should not be forgotten on Independence Day. Mr. Sedgwick's interpretation of Certain Aspects of America is characterized by the frank analysis, the insistence upon the subordination of material to spiritual values, for which he has so often made the readers of the Atlantic his debtors. Mr. Willoughby, the Treasurer of Porto Rico, gives a résumé of the legislation already enacted in that island, where American "expansion" is apparently accomplishing some of its most beneficent results. Mr. Le Roy, who has lately returned from two years' service with the Philippine Commission, calls attention to the grave consequences of perpetuating our American race prejudices in dealing with the Filipinos. He shows that the "nigger" theory of proceeding with the natives has already proved a serious obstacle to the pacification of the islands. How deep rooted this theory is, and how far reaching are the moral and political penalties of African slavery in America, can be traced in Mr. Andrew Sledd's illuminating discussion of the negro problem in the South.

Indeed, profitable argument concerning the behavior of our soldiers and civilians in the Orient must begin with this sort of scrutiny into what we really feel and think at home. Self-examination, reflection upon the actual organization of our American society, and upon the attempts we are making to impose that organization by force upon Asiatic peoples,—this is surely a useful occupation for some, portion of the Fourth of July. It happens that the Toastmaster is quite ignorant of the political affiliations of the authors of those four articles to which allusion has been made. But men of parties and creeds have shared and continue to share in the Atlantic's hospitality, and on Independence Day in particular, questions of party politics should be tacitly dismissed. On other days of the year we may be party men.... But to-day we are Americans all; and all nothing but Americans."

Do they sound rather grandiloquent, these orotund Websterian phrases of half a century ago? Have we grown superior to spread-eagleism, to barbecues and buncombe, to the early firecracker and the long-awaited sky-rocket, and all the pomp and circumstance of the Glorious Fourth? The Toastmaster, for one, confesses to a boyish fondness for the old-fashioned, reckless, noisy day. He is willing to be awakened at an unseemly hour, if only for the memory of dewy-wet dawns of long ago, and the imminent deadly breach of the trusty cannon under the windows of irascible old gentlemen, of real battle-flags waving, and perspiring bands pounding out The Star-Spangled Banner, and impassioned orators who twisted the British Lion's tail until it looked like a corkscrew. The day we celebrate, ladies and gentlemen! And may there ever be American boys to celebrate the day!

In the schooling of the twentieth century we have learned something, of course. Twisting the Lion's tail already seems a rather silly amusement, especially when it is likely to lessen the income from our investments. "We deeply sympathize with the brave burghers," announces a New Orleans paper, "but we cannot afford to miss selling a single mule." It seems provincial now to repeat the old self-satisfied "What have we got to do with abroad?"' We have a great deal to do with abroad. We have been buying geographies, and have grown suddenly conscious of the world's life. And new occasions teach new duties. Here is a fighting parson in Boston who insists that we shall " take the Golden Rule and make it militant," and a doughty Captain of Infantry in Buffalo who preaches that "the currents of civilization flow from the throne of God, and lead through ways sometimes contrary to one's will, but it seems to me that our civilization of. steel and steam must be laid over all the world, even though its foundations be cemented with the blood of every black race that strives to thwart us in our policy of benevolent assimilation." Thus is the Websterian doctrine of "Americans all; and all nothing but Americans" brought up to date in 1902.

And yet looking back to the Fourth of July oratory preceding and immediately following the Civil War it is difficult to avoid the feeling that we have lost something too. Beneath all the rhodomontade there was a real generosity of sentiment. There was boasting enough and to spare, but it was a boasting of principles, of liberal political theory, of the blessings of liberty itself. The politicians of that day were not so frankly materialistic as their successors, not such keen computers of the profits of commercial supremacy. It is true that they had less temptation. It is likewise true that they failed, in more than one section of the country, to carry the principles of the Declaration to their logical conclusion. But they were at least proud of the Declaration; it did not occur to them to doubt its logic, although here and there they may have forgotten to practice it. But ever since Rufus Choate set the bad example of sneering at its "glittering generalities," there have not been lacking clever young students of history and politics who have been eager to demonstrate its fallacies. One may suspect that some of the Americans who have just attended King Edward's coronation and many more who have stayed at home and read about it, are at heart a trifle ashamed of the provincial earnestness of Jefferson's indictment of King George. And we are told that in one portion of the American dominions, a year ago, it was a crime to read the Declaration aloud.

But it is no crime to read it here, and one may venture to say that a good many inconspicuous Americans, who have not recently refreshed their memory of the immortal document, will this year hunt around until they find it—in some humble Appendix to a School History, very likely,—and take the trouble to read it through. For there has been a good deal said about the Declaration lately, and much more is likely to be said before our Philippine troubles are ended. The past three months have thrown more light upon the essential character of our occupation of the Archipelago than the preceding three years have done. The Atlantic argued many months ago that the first duty of the Administration and Congress was to give the country the facts, that it was impossible to decide upon our future course in the islands until we knew more about what was actually happening there. We have found out something at last. The knowledge is not very pleasant, but it sticks in the memory, and not all the fire-crackers and fun of the Glorious Fourth will keep American citizens from reflecting that we are engaged, on that anniversary, in subjugating a weaker people who are struggling, however blindly and cruelly, for that independence which we once claimed as an "inalienable right " for ourselves.

For subjugation is the topic of the day; it is no longer a question of "expansion," or even of "imperialism." It is plain enough now that we are holding the Philippines by physical force only, and that the brave and unselfish men we have sent there have been assigned to a task which is not only repellent to Americans, but bitterly resented by the supposed beneficiaries of our action. To risk the life of a soldier like Lawton or a civilian like Governor Taft in order to carry the blessings of a Christian civilization to benighted Malays seemed, in the opinion of a majority of Americans in 1899, a generous and heroic enterprise. It was a dream that did the kindly American heart infinite credit. But now that we have learned how the thing must be done, if it is to be done successfully, the conscience of the country is ill at ease. It is neither necessary nor desirable to dwell on the fact that some of our soldiers have disgraced their uniform. Such men have shown the pitiable weakness of human nature under distressing conditions which they did not create; but the story is a shamefully old one; it has been told for three hundred years in the history of tropical colonization. Lincoln put the whole moral of it, with homely finality, into his phrase about no man being good enough to govern another man without the other man's consent. Not "strong enough," nor "smart enough," nor "Anglo-Saxon enough;" simply not good enough. Upon that point, at least, there is nothing more to be said.

Rude as this awakening to the actual nature of the Philippine campaign has been, it is far less disheartening to the lover of republican institutions than the period of moral indifference which preceded it. It is a lesser evil to see war in its nakedness and be shocked by it, than to be so absorbed in material interests as to be willing to sacrifice a gallant Lawton in order that some sleek trader should win a fortune. Any bitter truth is preferable to

The common, loveless lust of territory;

The lips that only babble of their mart

While to the night the shrieking hamlets blaze;

The bought allegiance and the purchased praise,

False honor and shameful glory.

With the passing of this good-natured, easy-going indifference to suffering and struggle, we are distinctly nearer a solution of the Philippine problem. President Roosevelt declared last December, with characteristic generosity, that the aim of our endeavors was to "make them free after the fashion of the really self-governing peoples." If he were now, in the light of the additional evidence as to the attitude of the Filipinos and the changed sentiment here, to send a message to Congress embodying a definite program leading not merely to Filipino "Self-government " but to ultimate national independence, he would have behind him a substantial majority, not only of his own party, but of the citizens of the United States. To promise the Filipinos ultimate independence,—upon any reasonable conditions,—meaning to keep that promise, as we have already kept our word to Cuba, would be honor enough for any administration. President Roosevelt's administration inherited the Philippine "burden." The islands came to us partly through force of circumstances, partly through national vanity and thirst for power, but mainly through our ignorance. Now that we have learned what we were really bargaining for, it becomes possible to give over the burden to those to whom it belongs. It cannot be transferred in a day, it is true, but a day is long enough to make a resolve to rid ourselves of it at the earliest practicable moment. And the Fourth of July is a good day for such a resolution. To leave the Philippine Islands, under some amicable arrangement, to the Philippine people may be called "scuttling,"—if critics like that word,—but it will be a return to American modes of procedure, to that fuller measure of Democracy which is the only cure for the evils of Democracy. For the chief obstacle to the subjugation of an Asiatic people by Americans lies in human nature itself. The baser side of human nature may always be depended upon to strip such conquest of its tinsel and betray its essential hideousness; while the nobler side of human nature protests against the forcible annexation of a weaker people by the countrymen of Washington. This protest, in the Toastmaster's opinion, will never be more instinctive or more certain of final victory than on the day sacred to the memory of our own national independence.