The American ‘Progressives’: Imperialists After All

By Izaak Radecki

American Progressives have been falsely remembered as anti-imperialists within public history. As a blanket term, ‘Progressives’ has historically been associated with the American anti-imperialist movements which were most prominent between 1890 and 1916, due to the ideological similarities theoretically shared by the Progressives and the Anti-Imperialists.[1] While this association is misleading, it is unfortunately unsurprising. The publicised and recorded actions of the Progressives, which often included anti-imperialist debates and conferences, has inevitably depicted the movement as opposed to U.S. imperialism in public hindsight.[2] However, a different reality has been revealed by studies of anti-imperialists and progressives since William E. Leuchtenburg’s article Progressivism and Imperialism was published in 1952, where he controversially accused the majority of Progressives of being advocates of imperialism, contrary to previous impressions.[3] Consequently, the concept of a progressive collective that unquestionably opposed U.S. imperialism has been revised and fiercely challenged. The revised impression of the progressive movement that has emerged depicts a gradual polarisation of the movement over the support and opposition for contemporary expansionism and interventionism abroad. Admittedly, some Progressives, such as Jane Addams, were considerably opposed to U.S. interventionism, expansionism and ultimately those who sought American dominance abroad.[4] Therefore, the problem of using ‘Progressives’ as a blanket term is revealed when considering the movement’s standpoint on U.S. imperialism, as the Progressive Party became famously divided by its members’ contrasting views on American actions abroad.[5] In fact, since John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson generated the concept of informal imperialism in 1953, it has been possible to retrospectively identify an even larger portion of the progressive movement which advocated U.S. informal imperialism through the support they offered to the prospect of economic dominance abroad.[6] Therefore as Leuchtenburg’s thesis had already cast the Progressives in a pro-imperialist light, Gallagher and Robinson indirectly complimented Leuchtenburg, and set a precedent for those revising the progressive movement’s position on American imperialism.[7] Since these theses, the association between imperialism and the progressive movement has been repeatedly reviewed through a critical lens. Consequently, this essay will follow the precedent initially set by Leuchtenburg, and aided by Gallagher and Robinson. In order to examine the ways in which the Progressives supported U.S. imperialism, a number of key studies undertaken since Leuchtenburg’s shall also be utilised with the aim of collectively developing a more comprehensive interpretation of the Progressives as advocates of imperialism. In order to definitively break up the blanket term ‘Progressives’, this article will use examples of ‘progressive’ groups with pro-imperialist tendencies that have been examined by Leuchtenburg and others since. For instance, while Leuchtenburg’s analysis of the Progressive Party’s imperialistic tendencies will provide the political cornerstone of this essay, the use of William Appleman Williams’s concept of ‘imperial anti-colonialism’ shall illustrate the ironic support that the Anti-Imperialist League offered U.S. imperialism.[8] Finally, Allison L. Sneider’s interpretation of American suffragists illustrates how some of the most prolific contemporary Progressives actively imposed their political values on U.S. colonies.[9] These examples reveal how a range of Progressives supported both formal and informal imperialism undertaken by the government of the United States between 1890 and 1916. In turn, these examples have built upon Leuchtenburg’s pioneering thesis, and this article aims to draw together the most important evidence that has accumulated since 1952 in order to present Progressives as supporters of American imperialism by examining how they behaved imperialistically.

Following a dramatic split from the Republican Party in 1912, the Progressive Party was born.[10] Therefore, the Progressive movement was granted a political platform from which they could directly influence Congressional decisions regarding U.S. foreign policy for the first time. However, rather than use this opportunity to oppose imperialistic U.S. policies, the Party began to display its pro-imperialist tendencies almost immediately. Leuchtenburg argued that the ‘majority of the Progressive members of Congress voted for increased naval expenditures and for Caribbean adventures in imperialism’ in 1912.[11] These decisive actions taken by a large portion of the Party suggest that many Progressives consented to the US expansionism prior to the Party’s establishment in 1912. By taking democratic action to support naval increases, the political embodiment of the progressive movement had directly confirmed its support for maintaining the empire that the United States had acquired around the turn of the century.  Furthermore, by condoning further imperialistic action in the Caribbean alongside naval expansion, it is clear that the Progressives in Congress advocated the maintenance and development of a formal American empire from the year that the Party was established. While this support offered by the Party was not a consensus among its members, when it came to asserting a stance in Congress, the majority of Progressives supported the maintenance and further development of the American empire that existed in 1912.[12] When presented with the opportunity to actively and democratically oppose further imperialistic activities that had been suggested within Congress, the majority of the Progressive Party instead chose to use their votes to support naval increases and future imperialism. The anti-imperialist mask of the progressive movement was immediately lifted once its political wing democratically endorsed territorial and naval expansion in Congress.

The division of the Progressive Party over whether to support or oppose U.S. imperialism in Congress revealed the beginning of a series of issues that would eventually lead to further ideological polarisation, and the eventual collapse of the Party from within. However, the division of opinion among Progressives who debated American imperialism was not exclusive to the political party.[13] In the case of Californian Progressives for instance, a burning desire for universal civil and political reform blurred the lines between domestic and foreign policy during such debates.[14] Thus, the unity of the anti-imperialist rhetoric possessed by Californian Progressives was weakened, and their understanding of whether they were supporting American prosperity or imperialism abroad became confused. Just as the Californian Progressives became divided in translating their agendas of domestic civil reform to territories recently acquired by the United States, such as the Philippines, it is unsurprising that the Progressive Party itself would follow the same pattern of polarisation through confused debate. As the Californian Progressives, among others, began inserting civil rights debates into discussions regarding the rights of people in the territories that the United States had conquered, the Progressive Party’s priorities drifted away from such concerns overseas.[15] Therefore, the members of the Party eventually became disenchanted with their anti-imperialist rhetoric when informed of the civil-rights debates that other Progressives were engaging in across the country, and serving the principles of American progressivism became their priority. Meanwhile, once Albert Beveridge’s pro-expansionist patriotism entered party discussions and debates, they became overwhelmed by a cocktail of domestic and foreign issues, a belief in Manifest Destiny, and a central focus on the well-being of American citizens.[16] These debates inevitably fuelled growing support for imperialistic ventures, and members found themselves convinced that congressionally supporting U.S. governmental and economic interests abroad would eventually help them to achieve domestic civil progress.[17] In other words, by the 1916 progressive conference, the Party had effectively traded its anti-imperialist stance for a pro-American alternative that unsurprisingly supported imperialism, which the Progressives had failed to realise.

This shift in focus among Party members explains why many Progressives in Congress voted in favour of imperialistic bills, however, by 1916 the Party was still intensely divided over whether to support American imperialism at all.[18] Being the political wing of a movement that initially promoted an anti-imperialist rhetoric, this division would shamefully expose the hypocritical weaknesses of the Progressive Party that would eventually lead to its downfall. The Party had become fatally fragmented, with some factions supporting expansionism for American gains, some advocating universal civil rights for all Americans and for foreign populations under the control of the United States, and others totally opposing interventionism.[19] By 1916, the Party ceased to exist in the form it had done in 1912.[20] The controversial support for American imperialist activities had helped to cripple the Progressive Party because enough of its members had found themselves supporting the U.S. government in maintaining and expanding an empire. In the short time that the Progressive Party existed, it had achieved virtually nothing to realise its initial anti-imperialist agenda. In fact, all that the Party achieved was collapse through ideological division over expansionism and interventionism, hold debates which identified a potent support of imperialism within the Party, and offer Congressional support in favour of naval expansion and imperialistic activities in South America.[21] Contrary to popular belief and the initial principles of the Party itself, the political embodiment of the progressive movement proved only to support U.S. imperialism by 1916. Leuchtenburg’s thesis and the studies that followed have helped to build a new, pro-imperialist impression of the progressive movement.

The actions of the Progressive Party should be considered as representative of the collective progressive movement. However, only a minority of Americans possessed a shared membership between the Progressive Party and the Anti-Imperialist League, despite many members of the League considering themselves to be progressive.[22] While the majority of Anti-Imperialist League members still openly debated their individual support or opposition to American acts of imperialism abroad, ‘a coalition of [Cobdenite] businessmen, intellectuals and politicians’ emerged as more subtle advocates of U.S. imperialism around the turn of the century.[23] Being considerably influenced by their patriotic preconceptions and economic surroundings, this powerful group naturally looked to the future of America, and sought progression through prosperity. These Americans constituted the ‘third group’ in debates between imperialists and anti-imperialists, according to Williams’s concept of ‘imperial anti-colonialism’.[24] Against the backdrop of the Panic of the 1890s, many economically powerful Americans became more conscious of their personal circumstances, and as a result, developed a conservative outlook.[25] In the case of this powerful group of Progressives, this feeling was amplified by their status and what they had to lose from an economic crisis that stemmed from a deficit of new markets and a surplus of American goods. Therefore, in order to serve personal interests, these Third Party Progressives translated Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’ into the context of the 1890s by promoting a need to expand abroad in search of new markets.[26] Superficially, this decision to adopt such an expansionist concept would have even appeared to be imperialistic to contemporaries.[27] Hence, Williams identified this group as a ‘third party’, as these Progressives made it abundantly clear that they did not advocate traditional, formal colonialism, but they did however wholly support Open Door Notes of the early twentieth century.[28] Consequently, the Third Party Progressives exemplify a manifestation of the ‘tragedy’ that Williams referred to in 1959, as the progressive façade of opposing formal colonialism housed a striking contrast in the group’s support of Open Door imperialism in the search for new markets abroad.[29] Therefore, drawing on Gallagher and Robinson’s thesis, it is clear that this group of Progressives whole-heartedly backed a development of U.S. foreign policy that advocated informal imperialism by searching for, and economically penetrating new markets abroad.[30]

However, the Third Party Progressives were not just supporters of soft power, but were instrumental in the escalation of this informal imperialism into traditional, formal imperialism around the turn of the century. The ‘third party’ that Williams defined can be more appropriately recognised as the portion of the Progressives that Leuchtenburg identified as the advocates of American Dollar Diplomacy during the U.S. expansion into the Orient.[31] In efforts to protect American interests by ‘encouraging’ new markets abroad using Open Door tactics, these Third Party Progressives helped to foster economic dependency through supporting the extension of Dollar Diplomacy to China and the Philippines under the guise of Cobdenism and Roosevelt’s earlier progressivism.[32] They promoted seemingly ‘progressive’ economic principles of freer trade and reform in these countries, but in doing so, the money that they invested in the Philippines in particular, meant that the United States had heavily invested interests in the Orient.[33] Therefore, considering that the U.S. militarily intervened in the Philippines to protect those investments in 1899, the Third Party Progressives that both Williams and Leuchtenburg recognised must be held accountable as advocates of the policy of Dollar Diplomacy which resulted in formal military intervention.[34] Therefore, this powerful group of Progressives must be retrospectively regarded as advocates of formal imperialism. Motivated by a poor economic context and patriotism, the Third Party Progressives readily supported the development of an American Empire. Already being Cobdenite advocates of free trade and foreign market expansion, the Third Party Progressives of the Anti-Imperialist League economically penetrated Asia in efforts to find new markets for the surplus of American goods. Even though these actions may not have been deemed imperialistic by contemporaries, this group of Progressives deceptively supported the economic development of an informal empire to the point where formal, military imperialism was used to help protect the American monetary interests that had been invested in the Philippines during the initial development of informal empire. Thus, we are reminded of Williams’s ‘tragedy’.[35]

A revision of the disparity between the anti-imperialist principles and the imperialist actions of both the Anti-Imperialist League and the Progressive Party reveals a continuity that both were splintered as a result. Allison L. Sneider’s study considered Suffragists as imperialists, and revealed the same continuity.[36] Indeed, a considerable portion of the suffragist movement that was examined by Sneider actively supported U.S. imperialism, contrary to the popular perception of a progressive, anti-imperialist movement.[37] As was the case with many Progressives, several suffragist groups were concerned with how the United States was politically and civically handling its territories abroad.[38] For instance, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) began a ‘worldwide suffrage tour’ in 1912, with the aim of promoting female suffrage to territories controlled and influenced by the United States, including the Philippines and Puerto Rico.[39] Although they were not aware contemporarily, these progressive missionaries of the suffrage movement were informally creating a network of imperialism. By exporting their progressive concepts of female suffrage and women’s rights, the suffragists were effectively including the native women of these American territories in the domestic civil issues that were faced by the women of the United States. However, the American Suffragists were only including the native women of these territories because they believed it would give them leverage in their case to help achieve suffrage back in the United States.[40] The relationship shared between the Suffragists and the native peoples of U.S. territories was therefore not mutual, as the NAWSA members on the tour were not only imposing their progressive values on the natives against their will, but were effectively exploiting the female populations of the Philippines and Puerto Rico for their own domestic gain.[41] Progressivism had become a tool of imperialism. The missionaries of the suffragist movement appeared to have opposed the civil oppression of the imperialistic foreign policy of the United States’ government by encouraging protests in territories controlled by the U.S. In reality however, by utilising the populations of these territories for their ulterior motives, Suffragists were actively partaking in informal imperialism themselves.

The justification behind these imperialistic pilgrimages undertaken by the Suffragists ultimately stemmed from the racial preconceptions of some members involved in the movement. These prejudices inevitably influenced the opinions of those debating what to do with the populations of the territories that the United States had acquired around the turn of the century, and the Suffragists were no exception. In an era of Jim Crow, many supposedly ‘progressive’ suffragists held views of Anglo-Saxon superiority over other races that had become ingrained in many American families following the fallout from the Civil War.[42] Kirsten Hoganson recognised that if Suffragists wanted to be taken seriously in the eyes of powerful, white men, they were obliged to adapt to this racial outlook, if they did not already possess such values.[43] Ironically, the discussion of how to govern the populations of the newly-acquired American territories provided the perfect opportunity for prominent Suffragists to utilise their racial prejudices with the aim of promoting their progressivism abroad.[44] Their imperialist outlook was sculpted by their contemporary racial context, encouraging their belief that it was the duty of white, middle-class American women to promote suffrage abroad, and to civilise the ‘barbaric’ natives of the Orient and South America.[45] Even prominent Suffragists who did not directly believe that Americans were a superior race, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, still endorsed Manifest Destiny and the belief that it was an American duty to civilise populations they considered to be savage.[46] In fact, when discussing the Philippines, both Anthony and Stanton openly believed that ‘U.S. civilizing obligations could best be met with political and military control’.[47] Clearly, in the case of these prominent Suffragists and others within the movement, even the pursuit of formal imperialism was justified by a belief in American superiority over the populations of the Philippines and those of other American territorial assets. When examined in unison, both Sneider’s and Hoganson’s theses portray Suffragists as another group of Progressives with several members who strongly supported U.S. imperialism.

In conclusion, it is evident that the popular public assumption that the progressive movement opposed U.S. imperialism is incorrect. Despite some individual Progressives debating, protesting and appearing to oppose American dominance abroad, the wider movement contained several national groups, associates and individuals that offered a variety of support to imperialistic American behaviour abroad. Since Leuchtenburg first revealed this controversial reality to the world through his study of the Progressive Party, several other progressive groups have since been re-examined, and had their false anti-imperialistic principles scrutinised.[48] As a result of this gradual development of historiography, the progressive movement can now be considered to have condoned, endorsed and even practiced American imperialism between 1890 and 1916. For instance, Leuchtenburg revealed that the Progressive Party supported proposals of naval expansion and further imperialistic endeavours in Congress.[49] This democratic support for U.S. imperialism meant that the organisation eventually collapsed in 1916 as its anti-imperialist principles were compromised and its members became divided between those who supported and opposed imperialistic U.S. foreign policies. The political embodiment of the progressive movement contained enough members who supported expansionism that the entire organisation was doomed. Less than a decade after Leuchtenburg, Williams would continue to revise progressivism and reveal its imperialism further through the concept of ‘imperial anti-colonialism’.[50] Building on the fact that many Progressives debated their allegiance and opposition to imperialism, Williams endorsed Gallagher and Robinson’s concept of informal imperialism by identifying the ‘third party’ in these debates.[51] These Third Party Progressives supported U.S. economic penetration and the establishment of dependency abroad under the guise of Cobdenism and an Open Door philosophy.[52] In fact, the Third Party Progressives seem all the more deceptive retrospectively, as they subtly supported imperialistic foreign policies such as Dollar Diplomacy, and even practiced informal economic imperialism by investing in the Philippines, all under the pretence of Roosevelt’s progressivism.[53] It is a tragedy that these Progressives were not aware that their actions indirectly resulted in formal imperialism when the U.S. government militarily intervened in the Philippines to protect their investments.[54] Finally, Sneider and Hoganson have offered the most recent additions to the revision of the progressive movement with their interpretations of Suffragists as imperialists.[55] By recognising that many Suffragists believed in American superiority over other races, both Sneider and Hoganson examined how these ‘Progressives’ imposed American issues on the native populations of American colonies, then exploited those populations for political leverage in the United States. Contrary to popular perceptions of the Suffragist movement, Sneider and Hoganson have added this group of Progressives to the growing list of disgraced anti-imperialists.[56] Indeed, the examples which have been presented since 1952 confirm that regardless of whether they merely advocated imperialistic U.S foreign policy, or actively enforced dependency, a considerable amount of Progressives were imperialists. Any anti-imperialist principles within the progressive movement were truly overshadowed by the ways in which many Progressives supported and practiced U.S. imperialism.

[1] Arthur A. Ekirch, Progressivism in America: A Study of the Era from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson (New York, 1974) pp. 3-7

[2] Robert L. Beisner, ‘1898 and 1968: The Anti-Imperialists and the Doves’, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2 (1970) 190-191

[3] William E. Leuchtenburg, ‘Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1916’, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1952) 483-484

[4] Allen F. Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York, 1973) pp.141-142

[5] James L. Bates, The United States 1898-1928: Progressivism and a Society in Transition (Illinois, 1976) pp. 185-186

[6] John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1953) 1-2

[7] Leuchtenburg, ‘Progressivism and Imperialism’, 483-484

[8] William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Wisconsin, 1959) pp. 46-47

[9] Allison L. Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: US Expansion and Woman Question, 1870-1929 (Oxford, 2008) pp. 5-6

[10] The World Affairs Institute, ‘The Progressive Party on Peace’, The Advocate of Peace, September and October 1912 (accessed via JSTOR)

[11] Leuchtenburg, ‘Progressivism and Imperialism’ 483

[12] Ekrich, ‘Progressivism in America’ pp. 212-215

[13] E. Berkeley Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate 1890-1920 (Philadelphia, 1970) pp. 2-9

[14] Thomas G. Paterson, ‘California Progressives and Foreign Policy’, California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4 (1968) 329-330

[15] Erin L. Murphy, ‘Women’s Anti-Imperialism, “The White Man’s Burden”, and the Philippine American War Theorizing Masculinist Ambivalence in Protest’, Gender and Society, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2009) 245-247

[16] George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America, 1900-1912, Second Edition (New York, 1962) pp. 144-145

[17] Michael P. Cullinane, Liberty and American Anti-Imperialism (Basingstoke, 2012) pp. 2-7

[18] Ekrich, ‘Progressivism in America’ pp. 212-215

[19] Gene Clanton, ‘Populism, Progressivism, and Equality: The Kansas Paradigm’, Agricultural History, Vol. 51, No. 3 (1977) 566-567

[20] Harold L. Ickes, ‘Who Killed the Progressive Party’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 46, No. 2 (1941) 306

[21] Leuchtenburg, ‘Progressivism and Imperialism’ 483

[22] R. Hofstadter, The Progressive Movement, 1900 – 1915 (New Jersey, 1963) pp. 2 – 5

[23] Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, p.45

[24] Ibid, pp. 44 – 46

[25] Paula Petrik, ‘Parading as Millionaires: Montana Bankers and the Panic of 1893’, Enterprise and Society, Vol. 10, No. 4 (2009) 733-735

[26] William A. Williams, ‘The Frontier Thesis and American Foreign Policy’, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1955) 379-381

[27] Ibid, 380

[28] Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, p. 45

[29] Henry W. Berger, ‘Introduction’ in H. W. Berger (ed.) A William Appleman Williams Reader: Selections from His Major Historical Writings (Chicago, 1992) p. 19

[30] Gallagher and Robinson, ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, pp. 2-5

[31] Leuchtenburg, ‘Progressivism and Imperialism’ p.490

[32] Ibid, p.485-491

[33] David Healy, US Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s (Wisconsin, 1970) pp. 66-67

[34] Glenn A. May, ‘Why the United States Won the American-Philippine War, 1899-1902’, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 52, No. 4 (1983) 353-355

[35] Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, pp. 10-15

[36] Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age, pp. 3-6

[37] Ellen C. Dubois, ‘Working Women, Class Relations and Suffrage Militance: Harriot Stanton Blatch and the New York Women Suffrage Movement, 1894-1909’, Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 1 (1987) 34-35

[38] Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age, pp. 11-12

[39] Kirsten L. Hoganson, ‘“As Badly Off As The Filipinos”: The U.S. Women’s Suffragists and the Imperial Issue at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2001) 26

[40] Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age, p. 4

[41] Ibid, pp. 3-5

[42] Hugh H. Smythe, ‘The Concept of “Jim Crow”’, Social Forces, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1948-1949) 48

[43] Murphy, ‘Women’s Anti-Imperialism, “The White Man’s Burden”, and the Philippine American War’, 255

[44] Ibid, p.

[45] Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt, 144

[46] Hoganson, ‘“As Badly Off As The Filipinos”, 19

[47] Ibid, 13

[48] Leuchtenburg, ‘Progressivism and Imperialism’, 486-489

[49] Ibid, 483

[50] Williams, p. 43-46

[51] Gallagher and Robinson, ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, pp. 2-6

[52] Marc-William Palen, ‘The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism, 1890-1913’, Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2015) 169

[53] John M. Blum, The Progressive Presidents: Roosevelt, Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson, (New York, 1980) p. 49

[54] Adam Cooke, ‘“An Unpardonable Bit of Folly and Impertinence”: Charles Francis Adams Jr., American Anti-Imperialists, and the Philippines’, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 2 (2010) 321

[55] Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age, pp. 3-7

[56] Hoganson, ‘“As Badly Off As The Filipinos”, 22-23


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