Faneuil Hall has played a central role as a forum and meeting place for political movements throughout Boston’s history. These movements covered a broad range of issues, such as labor, women’s suffrage and slavery. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Anti-Imperialist League used Faneuil Hall to protest America’s growing imperialism. The league argued against militarization and the creation of an overseas American Empire and asserted that the principles the United States had been founded upon needed to extend to foreign policy as well.
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States faced a decision. After years of fighting between Spain and Cuba, the Cuban War for Independence had finally reached the widespread attention of the American people. Concerned for the safety of American interests, the government moved the battleship U.S.S. Maine into Havana harbor. Here, the battleship exploded. Many Americans believed Spain had caused the ship’s destruction and the deaths of the sailors onboard. This tragedy resulted in a surge of public support for Cuba, leading Congress to declare war on Spain. In his 1898 State of the Union address, President William McKinley listed the causes for war:
First, in the cause of humanity and to put an end to the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries now existing there...
Second, we owe it to our citizens in Cuba to afford them that protection and indemnity for life and property which no government there can or will afford, and to that end to terminate the conditions that deprive them of legal protection.
Third, the right to intervene may be justified by the very serious injury to the commerce, trade, and business of our people, and by the wanton destruction of property and devastation of the island.
Fourth, and which is of the utmost importance, the present condition of affairs in Cuba is a constant menace to our peace, and entails upon this government an enormous expense.
Although McKinley made lofty claims about fighting on the behalf of democracy, the opening battles of the war alluded to a different agenda. The first American victory of the war occurred in Manila Bay, in the Philippines. Like Cuba, the Philippines had been waging a war for independence against Spain. When American troops arrived in the archipelago, they brought the Philippine’s exiled leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, with them. Aguinaldo rallied the revolutionaries and assisted the American forces in laying siege to Manila.
Some Americans quickly became concerned about the true purpose of the Spanish-American War. While most maintained that the United States aimed to secure Cuban independence, others believed this intervention to be the first step in the formation of an overseas American empire. Imperialism had experienced a global revival in the late 1800s, with the colonization of Africa and the creation of spheres of influence in China. The idea of President McKinley using the Spanish-American War as an excuse to acquire territory outside of North America worried many Americans, inspiring some to act.
On June 2, 1898, Gamaliel Bradford, a retired banker and the son of an abolitionist, published a letter in the Boston Evening Transcript, arranging a meeting to protest the United States’ imperialist policies. This meeting took place in Faneuil Hall on June 15, 1898. At this meeting, Bradford spelled out his concerns:
We are here to insist that a war begun in the cause of humanity shall not be turned into war for empire, that an attempt to win for Cubans the right to govern themselves shall not be made an excuse for extending our sway over alien peoples without their consent.
The fundamental principles of our government are at stake.
Boston newspapers covered the meeting extensively, though the rest of the nation seemingly took little notice. On the same day of the Faneuil Hall meeting, Congress voted to annex the island nation of Hawaii. For the first time, the United States’ borders had left the American continent. A sovereign nation had been subverted and subsumed by American interests. If the United States took that step with Hawaii, critics thought, what would prevent it from doing the same with Cuba or the Philippines?
The Anti-Imperialist League officially formed in Boston on November 19, 1898, with the election of George S. Boutwell as the Anti-Imperialist League’s first president. A founding member of the Republican Party, Boutwell had previously served as the Governor of Massachusetts. He had led the impeachment of Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction and had served as the Secretary of the Treasury under President Grant. Boutwell left the Republican Party in protest of McKinley’s imperialist policies in 1898.
Other important figures of the time joined the Anti-Imperials, including the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and the author Mark Twain. Branches of the league spread across the United States, with Leagues forming in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Despite the growing anti-imperial movement, however, President McKinley and Congress purchased the Philippines from Spain during the 1898 Treaty of Paris, ending the Spanish-American War.
Signed on December 10, 1898 and ratified by the United States Congress on February 6, 1899, the Treaty of Paris completely ignored the people of the Philippines, who established the Philippine Republic on January 22, 1899. Emilio Aguinaldo, who had declared Philippine independence and led the war effort before the United States arrived, became the republic’s first President. In an act of blatant hypocrisy, the United States refused to recognize the fledgling government. U.S. troops did not withdraw from Manila. Fighting began almost as soon as the Spanish-American War ended.
The American-Philippine War galvanized the Anti-Imperialists. In a speech at the first annual meeting of the Anti-Imperialist League in Boston, Boutwell argued:
…the President of the United States has entered upon a policy of invasion, of conquest—a policy of vast navies and mighty armies—a policy which will furnish an excuse, and to many a justifying reason for the creation and maintenance of vast navies and mighty armies, through the lifetime of the nation, whether called a republic or empire. Despotism—absolutism in government—is the necessity of the army and the navy, and in such schools and from such training can we expect to create or even to preserve ideas and practices that are consistent with republican institutions?
The League held regular meetings across Boston, including multiple meetings at Faneuil Hall. As with many causes of the day, Faneuil Hall served as a symbol for those meeting within it. The Anti-Imperialists capitalized on the hall’s connection to the American Revolution, arguing that the occupation of the Philippines directly contradicted the Declaration of Independence. George Guylas Miller, the President of the Philadelphia Anti-Imperialist League questioned:
This eighteenth century political philosophy that Jefferson embodied in the Declaration of Independence – is it true? …Is it still an ideal for twentieth-century America, freer and more prosperous than in the days of her youth? Or has plutocracy bred tyrants, and we must give up our ancient faith?
As the League protested American imperialism, the American-Philippine War continued, with US troops capturing Aguinaldo in 1901 with the help of native scouts. Almost immediately after the news of this operation reached Boston, the League held another meeting at Faneuil Hall, where George Miller warned of the growing power of imperialism:
The chairman of this meeting has alluded to the apathy of the American people on this great question. To my mind this is our greatest danger…Imperialism is making progress among us, just as it did in ancient Rome, by gradual stages, and without any clear conception on the part of the people of the trend of affairs.
The capture of Aguinaldo crippled the Philippine resistance. The war officially ended the next year, with the Philippines firmly under United States rule. The League ultimately failed in its goal to prevent the United States from acting as an empire. While the League continued to exist until 1920, the height of its popularity had passed with the end of the American-Philippine War. Anti-imperialist protests against these policies remain unanswered. However, the League left behind a valuable lesson: without public support, even the most idealistic of movements will fail.
Contributed by: Aaron Zack, Park Ranger
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