Empire's Proxy: American Literature and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines

Empire's Proxy: American Literature and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines

Empire's Proxy: American Literature and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines

Empire's Proxy: American Literature and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines


In the late nineteenth century, American teachers descended on the Philippines, which had been newly purchased by the U.S. at the end of the Spanish-American War. Motivated by President McKinley's project of "benevolent assimilation," they established a school system that centered on English language and American literature to advance the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, which was held up as justification for the U.S.'s civilizing mission and offered as a promise of moral uplift and political advancement. Meanwhile, on American soil, the field of American literature was just being developed and fundamentally, though invisibly, defined by this new, extraterritorial expansion.

Drawing on a wealth of material, including historical records, governmental documents from the War Department and the Bureau of Insular Affairs, curriculum guides, memoirs of American teachers in the Philippines, and 19th century literature, Meg Wesling not only links empire with education, but also demonstrates that the rearticulation of American literary studies through the imperial occupation in the Philippines served to actually define and strengthen the field. Empire's Proxy boldly argues that the practical and ideological work of colonial dominance figured into the emergence of the field of American literature, and that the consolidation of a canon of American literature was intertwined with the administrative and intellectual tasks of colonial management.


In an impassioned speech delivered to Congress on January 9, 1900, Albert J. Beveridge, a Republican senator from Indiana, argued for the manifold advantages of U. S. dominion over the Philippine Islands. Addressing his remarks specifically to the anti-imperialist critics among his fellow senators, Beveridge outlined an expansionist doctrine based on the moral, material, and religious import of the territory:

The Philippines are ours forever.… And just beyond the Philippines are
China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not re
pudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity
in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race,
trustee under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move for
ward to our work, not howling at regrets like slaves whipped to their bur
dens, but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving
to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth
to lead in the regeneration of the world.

Mixing financial gain with religious righteousness, Beveridge’s appeal was meant to inspire both fear and desire among his colleagues. The speech begins by calling to mind the prosperity to be gained in extraterritorial expansion, both in the labor and resources of the Philippines and in the islands’ strategic placement in Pacific trade routes. Lest such financial concerns be taken for imperialistic greed, however, Beveridge links this material wealth to an imagined divine “duty” for Americans as a “chosen . . .

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