Reluctant Liberator: Theodore Roosevelt's Philosophy of Self-Government and Preparation for Philippine Independence

By Wertheim, Stephen | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2009 | Go to article overview
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Reluctant Liberator: Theodore Roosevelt's Philosophy of Self-Government and Preparation for Philippine Independence


Wertheim, Stephen, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The United States was born in anticolonial rebellion, but in 1910, its former president exhorted the people of Sudan to submit to British rule forevermore. Theodore Roosevelt, addressing an American Presbyterian mission in Khartoum, declared the Sudanese to "owe a peculiar duty to the Government under which you live--a peculiar duty in the direction of doing your full worth to make the present conditions perpetual" (1910, 3). If independence was an inherent, if eventual, right of peoples the world over, that right was not self-evident to Roosevelt. Twelve years of British rule had, he later explained, achieved "astonishing progress from the most hideous misery to well-being and prosperity"--emphasis on hideous misery. The Mahdis had ruled Sudan cruelly. They slaughtered. They enslaved. On the rest, they imposed their intolerant brand of Islam. Finally, the British expelled the Mahdis, an event that Roosevelt could only cheer. "Independence and self-government in the hands of the Sudanese proved to be much what independence and self-government would have been in a wolf pack," Roosevelt concluded (1910, 164). Imperialism so helped the native Sudanese, and the native Sudanese evinced such paltry capacity to help themselves, that Roosevelt wanted the arrangement to go on forever. What was then called the right to self-government and later the right to self-determination--signifying a teleological belief that imperial subjects deserved at least eventual independence--was not a first-order principle in Roosevelt's thought. (1)

Yet Roosevelt had seemed to honor America's anticolonial heritage a year and a half before. Like British rule in Sudan, American rule in the Philippines was doing the natives unequivocal good, Roosevelt boasted in his last annual message to Congress. That good, however, consisted primarily of preparation for independence. Filipinos were taking "real steps in the direction of self-government." The audience could infer that Roosevelt imputed moral significance to obtaining the consent of imperial subjects in their own governance. Indeed, Roosevelt forecast that Filipinos would be ready for independence "within a generation" (1926, 538-59). It was Roosevelt's first public suggestion of a time horizon and, for him, a short one.

What were Roosevelt's true convictions about self-government? How did theory and practice collide when Roosevelt administered the Philippines during his two terms as president? Like most leaders, Roosevelt had to reconcile the ideas that inspired him and many others with the demands of practical politics. Unlike most leaders, America's twenty-sixth president was intellectually serious. His beliefs, ever fervent, might have produced vexing and hazardous conflicts with political realities. While president of the American Historical Association, he preached that "the greatest historian should also be a great moralist" (quoted in Marks 1979, 92). But just beneath Roosevelt's boisterousness was a deep reserve of caution and a respect for the incrementalism that politics required. He aimed to be and regarded himself as, in his words, "a thoroughly practical man of high ideals who did his best to reduce those ideals to actual practice" (1913, 97). Applying Roosevelt's own standard, this essay first analyzes Roosevelt's philosophy of self-government and then reinterprets his Philippines policy in light of that philosophy. Roosevelt emerges as a reluctant anti-imperialist--an imperialist by desire but an antiimperialist in governance.

In Roosevelt's philosophy of self-government, concern for the consent of the governed, that subject peoples rule themselves, carried no moral weight as long as imperial rule seemed to benefit them more. Roosevelt's animating impulse, from his first public statements, was to extend "civilization" to backward lands. Either civilized settlers should fill and rule empty spaces or imperial powers should uplift native peoples, by instilling a national character that would preserve order and pursue justice.

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