Sunday, July 15, 2007

Farm roots of American imperial policy

William Appleman Williams (Photo: Ira Gabriel)

William Appleman Williams' book The Roots of the Modern American Empire (1969) is subtitled A Study of the Growth and Shaping of Social Consciousness in a Marketplace Society. Back in 1969, the word "Empire" itself pretty much marked a book as outside the Establishment consensus. During the Cold War, "imperialism" was a favorite cuss word used by Communist countries, and so of course Our Side considered it tainted. These days, the neconservatives - for whom Trotskyism was an important influence - have succeeded in making "empire" and "imperialism" perfectly ordinary and respectable concepts used to refer to the US and its foreign policy. (Although that may be a reason to try to ban the terms back to the fringes of respectability!)

And Williams was outside the consensus, though the quality of his work was such that conventional historians found it hard to ignore entirely. He was considered a "revisionist" historian of the Cold War, which meant that he questioned the Cold War American conventional wisdom on the beginnings of the Cold War in particular, especially in what was probably his most famous work, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.

Andrew Bacevich in American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002) gives Williams credit for a number of important insights, including showing how "the American empire emerged out of a particular worldview". Bacevich also argued that Williams' challenge to Americans to think realistically about the costs and consequences of imperial behavior remains an important one.

19th century America

Roots of the Modern American Empire (just "Roots" hereafter) focuses in particular on the latter half of the 19th century, which led up to the period when even more conventional historians would be willing to describe American policy as imperialist, particularly with regard to the bloody conquest of the Phillipines.

This is not the book for someone to get their first dose of 19th American political history. Without some basic grasp of the major issues, the parties and events of the time, especially the post-Civil War period, it would be read pretty much as a near-unintelligible blur of economic history. To put it another way, if you don't recognize Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison as having been Presidents, if you've never heard of the Grange or the Populists, if all you remember about the railroads from that time is that Jesse James robbed them, this book is not the place to start.

William McKinley, President of the United States, 1897-1901

But if you know roughly when Reconstruction ended and know that the US had a war with Spain in the late 19th century, then Roots does an good job of putting the reader into an earlier American where the hot issues of the day included tariffs, specie payments, monometallism vs. bimetallism, absentee ownership, the appointment of Easterners to be Governors of Western territories, demonetization and remonetization of silver, and ranchers erecting fences on federal land. A world in which the end of the frontier was assumed (rightly or wrongly) to be a fundamental fact shaping the future of American society. Where European countries would block American exports of pork products on health grounds, and where farm spokespeople could say in response, presumably with a straight face, that Europeans "have maligned the American hog". A world of Granges and Farmers Alliances and Populists, where admission of new states was an urgent issue, a world where the famous lobby groups of the day were not arms merchants or Indian casinos but growers and meat packers and food processors, wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and tobacco farmers.

This was the same world of which the more familiar parts to me are the stories of Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, the cowboys of the Wild West and the robber barons of the Gilded Age. But Williams keeps an admirable focus on his topic, which is how the role of what we would now call the "agricultural sector" shaped a consciousness which convinced most Americans that an expansionist, imperialist foreign policy was necessary for the economic well-being and even political freedom of the United States. Williams refers to farmers by the less familiar terms of "farm businessmen" and "agricultural businessmen", to emphasize their intense awareness and concern for markets, of which foreign markets were a vital part.

Farmers the majority

A key point that Roots makes is that because in the 19th century more people worked in agriculture than in industry. Williams' argument that farmers had a decisive influence on attitudes about foreign policy even in the late 19th century may initially seem surprising to present-day readers. But it's not surprising if we remember their majority position in the 1800s.

Cartoon: the niño ("boy"; the Spanish King Alfonso XIII) teases the American "cerdo" (pig), the latter of whom grows larger very quickly (Don't you insult the honor of American pork!)

Abraham Lincoln addressed the fact of the farmers' majority in a humorous vein in an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society on 09/30/1859:

I presume I am not expected to employ the time assigned me, in the mere flattery of the farmers, as a class. My opinion of them is that, in proportion to numbers, they are neither better nor worse than other people. In the nature of things they are more numerous than any other class; and I believe there really are more attempts at flattering them than any other; the reason of which I cannot perceive, unless it be that they can cast more votes than any other. On reflection, I am not quite sure that there is not cause of suspicion against you, in selecting me, in some sort a politician, and in no sort a farmer, to address you.

But farmers, being the most numerous class, it follows that their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated— that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.
A later Republican President, Rutherford Hayes, later assured the readers of the Rural New Yorker that there was no doubt about "the preponderance of the agricultural over any other interest in the United States".

Farm exports predominant

Another key point is that because farm products were a far higher percentage of exports than manufactured products or other raw materials, the farm interests took the lead in focusing on the importance of external markets. It also meant that the rural population was widely receptive to notions of foreign expansionism of the sort represented by the Spanish-American and Phillipine Wars. Farm businessmen defined the world market as the proper sphere for US domination.

Williams illustrates the importance of farm exports by these figures from late in the century, as agricultural exports were declining as a share of exports: "With the exception of 1892, those dropped steadily from 76.4 percent in 1887 to 61.6 percent in 1900." So even at the time when the agricultural share was having a long-term decline, in 1900 it was still over 60% of exports. The rising industrial share of export led industrial and financial representatives to put a greater emphasis on the importance of foreign markets and the imperial policy to support them. It was the increasing convergence of the major business interests on the importance of external market expansion through the exercise of military power that eventually produced the imperial policies which became full-blown in the Phillipine War.

It was taken for granted among "farm businessmen" as well as industrialists and financiers - Roots often uses the shorthand term "the metropolis" to refer to the two latter groups collectively, and even to include labor unions - that the American economy periodically suffered from overproduction and that expanding foreign markets were necessary to dispose of that overproduction. This statement could serve as a rough summary for that process he describes, referring here to the last quarter of the 19th century and the efforts of the Republican Party to win support from Western farmers:

[Secretary of State and Republican leader James G.] Blaine had been trying to alert other metropolitan leaders of the party to the same truth for almost a decade. The agricultural interest of the country, he reiterated in 1878, was by far the largest in the nation. That meant simply that "the farmers of the Republican will control its destiny." Blaine proved an accurate prophet about American foreign policy. For the agricultural pressure for expanding the marketplace, and the growing acceptance of that outlook by metropolitan leaders, turned the United States into an imperial course between 1877 and 1897.
What did "American imperialism" mean in the late 19th century?

Williams also summarizes several events which even the more conventional historians of 1969 would have been willing to recognize as "imperialism" or something close to it:

Even if one dates American imperialism by the taking of the Philippines and the enunciation of the Open Door Notes (1898-1901), the period under discussion is only twenty years. For half that period, 1880-1890, the United States was engaged in a series of wars to contain and defeat the Indians of the trans-Missouri West. Yet, even granting the effect of that distraction [!], American leaders can hardly be termed indifferent or inefficient expansionists. They moved firmly and irrevocably into Samoa in 1878, helped Europeans control Morocco in 1880, opened Korea by themselves in 1882, maneuvered for open access to a free marketplace in the Congo in 1883-1884, claimed rights to Pearl Harbor in 1887, finished the job in Hawaii in 1893, intervened in Venezuela and Brazil between 1893 and 1896, established effective control of Cuba and the Philippines by 1899, and dispatched more than 5,000 troops to China in 1900 as part of claiming fair shares throughout that vast nation. Surely that performance qualifies for passing marks as an imperial achievement over twenty years.
I would add briefly that the Indian Wars actually had a greater significance for American foreign policy than simply being a "distraction". But Williams' focus is on the specific political struggles that bore most directly on foreign policy during that period.

Chester Arthur, President of the United States, 1881-1885

The late 19th century was the age of the robber barons and their influence was enormous. Roots carefully explains that the US imperialism which became full-blown and obvious with the Spanish-American War (Guerra Hispano-estadounidense) developed in an intellectual and political framework that primarily grew from the consciousness of farmers. But as as the famous "trusts" consolidated and manufacturing exports became a growing proportion of total exports, the "metropolitan" interests came to accept a similar framework for foreign policy. And, as represented by the McKinley administration that apparently came to office in 1897 heavily inclined to go to war with Spain over Cuba, the metropolitan interests took the lead in implementing the expansionist foreign policy for which "farm businessmen" had agitated for decades.

When he describes more closely the political decisions leading up to McKinley's launching war with Spain in 1898 - he did it with a Congressional declaration of war, a custom from the old days that our current Presidential administration no doubt would find "quaint" - Williams gives another summary description of how that process translated itself into the imperial foreign policy:

The primary force producing the war against Spain was the marketplace-expansionist outlook generated by the agricultural majority of the country during the generation after the firing on Fort Sumter. That social consciousness involved an image of the world as a free capitalist marketplace in which personal and social freedoms were causally integrated wilh economic liberty and welfare, in which ideas and experience were merged as beliefs, and which promised ideal results from necessary actions.

The agricultural businessmen played a smaller, but by no means insignificant, part in the crucial definition of the war as an instrument of American expansion in Asia. But it was the metropolitans, rather than the agriculturalists, who explicitly formulated the war against Spain over Cuba as a war for the free marketplace in the Far East. The acceptance of that conception marked the shift in policy-making initiative away from the farm businessmen to metropolitan leaders. It was a decision of principle implemented with plans to fight a two-front war, and to hold some portion of Spain's Pacific empire as a springboard to the Asian marketplace. (my emphasis)
The Cross of Gold

Anyone who went through an American high school probably has vague but painful recollections of the most boring section of American history class, which was devoted to tariffs and the gold standard and related issues that were virtually impossible to imagine how anyone ever cared about them.

But what Williams explains at length in Roots is that these now-obscure issues contributed decisively to the notion that expanding foreign markets were critical to the economic and even political healthy of America and provided powerful impetuses to what became an imperial foreign policy. He quotes Populist Congressman Jeremiah Simpson of Kansas saying, "We have some very serious problems to face. Our country is filled up. There is no west to go to. We are full, and we will have to acquire Canada, British American, and Mexico, or overflow." It was a widespread sentiment, although Simpson himself didn't advocate that expansion should be achieved by military conquest. He thought that the expansion of trade would attract the Canadians and the Mexicans to want to become part of the United States. Because everyone wants to be like America, right?

William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, not being crucified on a cross of gold, 1896 (New York World 08/13/0896)

The gold-standard controversy pitted "metropolitan" financiers and industrialist against agricultural interests, with the "Eastern" and big-business preference being a single gold standard for the currency and the agricultural position being for having currency based on both gold and silver. These positions were known respectively as monometallism and bimetallism. There was a domestic factor involved, with the farm businessmen viewing bimetallism as more inflationary and therefore beneficial to the debtors, and to the farmers who had to rely heavily on borrowing.

But the more powerful concern, according to Williams' analysis, was the farmers' belief that bimetallism would allow American agricultural exports to compete more broadly in world markets. A closely related factor was that Britain largely set the terms of world agricultural trade by its powerful influence in the market, and Britain used the gold standard. Anti-British sentiment was strong among the farm businessmen and bitmetallism was seen as a way to weaken British economic power and influence relative to America.

That legendary Populist William Jennings Bryan is now mostly remembered for his role in his last years as a defender of creationism against evolution. And also for his famous declaration for bimetallism at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, "You shall not press down on the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold." Williams provides a couple of Bryan quotes from his days as a Congressman from Nebraska that give a good look at how farmers tended to see the silver issue in relation to foreign policy:

A silver standard, too, would make us the trading center of all the silver-using countries of the world, and these countries contain far more than one-half of the world's population. What an impetus would be given to our Western and Southern seaports.
China and Mexico, both markets toward which American farm exporters looked eagerly, used the silver standard.

Why not reverse the [goldbug] proposition and say that Europe must resume the use of silver in order to trade with us? But why adopt either gold or silver alone? Why not adopt both and trade with both gold-using and silver-using countries?
The farmers' push for bimetallism was based on a strong understanding that winning maximum access to world markets was vital for their well-being.

Yes, the tariff issues were huge for decades

The tariff's connection to foreign policy is more obviously apparent. Tariffs imposed on imports affected different sectors of the economy differently. As a general rule, agricultural interests preferred low tariffs and industrialists preferred high tariffs. The high tariffs protected the industrialists from lower-cost imports and allowed them to charge higher prices in the home market.

José Julián Martí (1853-1895), Cuban poet and revolutionary leader against Spain

Farmers didn't like having to pay the higher prices on manufactured goods like farm machinery that the tariff enabled. And tariffs also brought the danger of retaliatory measures by other countries against American imports, including farm products. There was also a balance-of-payments effect of high tariffs that disadvantaged the farmers.

Even the high-tariffs/industry, low-tariffs/farmers is an oversimplication. Farmers were open to high tariffs of raw materials, which included farm products like cotton, because those provided protection to farmers. Industrialists tended to not support those because it raised their materials prices.

The point the Williams emphasizes in Roots is that the importance of tariffs for farmers was focused primarily on their effect on farm exports. The necessity for an increasing foreign market was widely accepted among the agricultural businessmen. And that appreciation of the importance of foreign markets led them also to support proposals for a larger navy.

Farmers, the railroads and Adam Smith

Williams makes another important point in connection with the "Smithian" outlook of the farm businessmen. Their famous battles for better regulation and the railroads, and even for publicly-owned railroads, was based on a particular understanding of how a capitalist economy should work:

[Adam] Smith likewise provided a solid critique of monopolies, and of the misuse of the government by special coteries of metropolitan interests. The farm businessmen were also aware that Smith offered careful and even sophisticated justification for government actions, such as those concerned with improving transportation or checking monopolies, that were designed to strengthen the structure and guarantee the freedom of the marketplace itself. And their own experience, particularly after the 1840s, steadily reinforced their understanding and acceptance of Smith's great stress on the necessity of the sustained expansion of the market as the dynamic engine of continued progress and freedom. (my emphasis)
This concern for regulating ralroads' rates and practices was also heavily related to farmers' concern for accesss to the export market. "The farmer's concern with transportation costs, which arose directly out of his routine involvement with the foreign market, was the primary cause of his increasingly vigorous attack on the railroads" (my emphasis). So, the railroad fight themselves played an important role in shaping the agricultural majority's concern for public policies on the export markets.

The role of Britain

The farm interests often cast their complaints about both tariffs and the gold standard in terms of competition with Britain. This aspect was important, because of Britain's predominant role in the world economy.

American political rhetoric in the late 19th century was full of reference to the need for a new independence from Britain and about the alleged effects of British money on one's political opponents.

The Party puzzle

Williams wasn't trying to present a history of the political parties here. That would require much more attention to issues like Reconstruction, "Redemption" and urban politics, and would have taken him far afield from his steady focus on foreign policy and the public views and interests that gave rise to it.

President McKinley, ready for war

But he does provide enough discussion of partisan politics and specific administration's approach to policies to give the reader a political framework to match with the economic considerations he discusses at length. For instance, he judges that the James Garfield/Chester Arthur Republican administration that marks the turning point when a broad consensus became solidified on military expansionism to support US access to foreign markets. (Garfield became President in 1881 but was assassinated the same year. Vice President Arthur then became President until 1885.)

The Party constellations in the late 19th century are tangled. Republicans and Democcrats jockeyed for farm votes by staking out various and evolving positions on tariffs, "reciprocity" trade agreements, silver and an aggressive foreign policy, including anti-British posturing.

The reciprocity treaty issue was especially helpful to the Republicans behind William McKinley's leadership in 1896 when they were running against William Jennings Bryan, who was the nominee of both the Democratic and Populist Parties. The Republicans were generally cool to bimetallism. The business and banking interests forced McKinley to distance himself from pro-silver positions. But they were fine with reciprocity, while Bryan emphasized sliver a cure-all and downplayed reciprocity. This enabled the Republicans to pull a considerable number of farm votes away from the Great Commoner.

Expansionism, commerce and American freedom

Williams makes a persuasive case for the leading role that agriculture, the "farm businessmen", played in the developing expansionist mentality that led to the adoption of overt imperial policies, such as acquiring "protectorates" like the Phillipines and blithely intervening in civil conflicts in Latin America.

Roots is not so persuasive in the argument that the notion of spreading American-style democracy abroad was already an integral part of the expansionist outlook. The missionary faith was there, for sure. But the examples he cites of people making that identification seem to have more to do with the idea that free trade would lead to democracy, not so much with the idea that the US should shoot and shell other countries into adopting American-style political institutions. Something along those lines was one of the consequences of the imperial policy that was in place by 1900. But it wasn't necessarily an integral part of the agricultural view of the vital necessity of expanding world markets for America imports.

What's more obvious is that American farmers believed that American political institutions at home required an expanding foreign markets and the continued prosperity those were expected to ensure. This was an outgrowth of the "Manifest Destiny" drive to occupy the North Americans continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

I noticed as I was reading Roots how strongly suspicious I've become of claims about American foreign policy being aimed at liberating other countries, especially in the sense of bringing them American-style "liberty" by military force. Dick Cheney, George Bush and their neoconservative fellow travelers (and instigators) have so cynically misued the whole idea, that I found myself looking with particular skepticism at Williams' claims in that regard.

So I'll put it this way. It seems to me that some of the formulations in Roots may overstate the degree to which advocates of overseas expansionism at that time emphasized the need to bring democratic freedom to the countries or territories they wanted the US to impose itself on by force. Certainly, some of that idealistic-sounding rhetoric was there, along with the kind of language that European imperialists used to justify taking over areas in Africa and Asia, the alleged need to bring civilization to the benighted races.

But Williams also explains that the "agricultural businessmen" were operating with an understanding of the world based on Adam Smith's classical economic theories. Smith stressed the importance of foreign trade. And he emphasized the need for free trade without the kind of restrictions that the British mercantilist system of his time imposed. Smith's American admirers also held the conviction that the spread of free trade would convince those who benefitted from it of the virtues of a capitalist free market economy. And that along with spread of capitalism would come democratic and liberal institutions. Their notion was "a fair field with no favor" in the global marketplace, as Williams puts it. And they believed democracy would follow.

(This claim is still made today, especially by the neocons, even though abundant past and current experience shows that capitalism can exist and flourish under non-democratic regimes, such as Bismarck's Germany, France under Napoleon III or Spain under Francisco Franco, to take some of the less extreme examples. On the other hand, the course of the Cold War suggests that trade relations between the West and the Soviet bloc were a major factor in managing the nuclear standoff successfully. The case for trade contributing to international peace is stronger than the case for capitalism producing democracy.)

Manifest Destiny had been a continuous project, though one vastly complicated by the fight over the expansion of slavery. The notion was widely accepted that American prosperity, security and democratic government all depended in an important way on this expansion. Those convictions provided the historical background for the different sort of expansionist ambitions that became the focus by the 1890s, when
Americans were concerned over the effect of the famous "closing of the frontier."

And Americans' high opinion of their own system of government combined with their practical and theoretical assumptions about the connections of capitalist markets with democratic freedoms and liberal institutions. This produced a broad expansionist outlook "in which ideas and experience were merged as beliefs, and which promised ideal results from necessary actions", to repeat Williams' words quoted above. But it didn't mean that people were making a simple equation of market expansion with military expansionism, although it certainly worked out that way in practice in a number of cases, including the Spanish-American and Phillipine Wars.

Williams calls special attention to an 1873 report of a Senate Committee headed by William Windom of Minnesota, the Select Committee on Transportation Routes to the Seaboard, better known as the Windom Committee. Williams calls it "one of the key documents of late-nineteenth-century American history". It showed the "deep commitment by the agricultural majority", he said, "to the proposition that American welfare depended on overseas markets". In addition, "Perhaps even more significantly, the Windom Report formalized the process whereby the nations that blocked or challenged America's market expansion were defined as primary threats to American prosperity and freedom".

William Windom, market expansionist, agriculture-friendly Minnesota Senator and Treasury Secretary for Presidents Garfield and Harrison

The sometimes contradictory nature of such impulses was expressed by Jeremiah Simpson, a Populist Congressman from Kansas, when he said, "We have some very serious problems to face. Our country is filled up. There is no west to go to. We are full, and we will have to acquire Canada, British America, and Mexico, or overflow". Yet, despite this aggressive-sounding rhetoric, he envisioned this process taking place voluntarily, as expanding trade relations exposed more and more people on the North American continent to the beauties of American capitalism, which would make them want to join the American Union. Because everybody wants to be an American, right?

It's also worth noting, as Williams does, that it was the farming interests that successfully insisted on non-annexation of Cuba during the Spanish-American War.


A book like Roots which gives heavy emphasis to economic drivers of foreign policy and the actions of organized business interest groups can be misread as "determinist" history. That's not what Williams was doing, though. He makes it clear that particular understandings of the world, partisan political calculations, specific calculations of diplomatic strategies, personal political rivalries and the accidents of history are all vital parts of the way people actually create national policies. And the United States also had to contend with the actions of other countries. Not even the most pacifist-oriented US government could have ignored the effects of British economic clout, for instance, or there attempts to expand their power in the Western hemisphere.

Williams' book is an important lesson and reminder that foreign policies have very important American roots, and that expansionist tendencies are not only produced by responses to external threats. It's also a healthy reminder that idealistic rhetoric in foreign policy can have some more pragmatic and selfish tendencies behind it.

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