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The nattering nabobs of Gilded Age negativism

Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898 1900 - Robert L. Beisner

America’s war with Spain in 1898 is generally regarded as the point at which the United States emerged as an imperialist power. While Americans greeted their victory over Spain with enthusiasm, their response to the acquisition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico was much more ambivalent, as prominent Americans from across the political and ideological spectrum expressed their opposition to the acquisition of these territories.


Robert Beisner’s book is an examination of twelve prominent public figures who emerged as anti-imperialists during this period. While the men Beisner selects share much in common – all are older white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who were traditionally associated with the Republican Party – he divides them into two groups: “Mugwump” reformers who often prioritized issues over party, and more mainstream Republicans whose opposition to the acquisition of overseas territories represented a notable break from their traditional commitment to party orthodoxy. For each man he describes the arguments they made against the McKinley administration’s policies and analyzes them for what they reveal about the men’s convictions and the failure of their efforts.


What Beisner achieves with this is a fascinating exploration of the world-views of a distinct group of Americans in the Gilded Age. For many of the Mugwumps, their opposition was of a piece with their longstanding advocacy of reform and their fears for a nation in which their influence was in decline. Racial anxieties were a part of this as well, as many of them worried about the consequences of absorbing large populations of Hispanic and Asian Catholics into a country already beset by racial issues. Many regular Republicans shared these concerns as well, to which were added worries about greater entanglement in international affairs and the ramifications for this at home as well as abroad.  Yet for all of their fears about the consequences of empire Beisner concludes by detailing the extent of their inability to shape public opinion or government policy, as the territories were annexed with fateful consequences for both them and for the United States generally.


Beisner’s book offers its readers a sharp examination of both an important subset of American political activism in the debates over imperialism and the reasons for its failure. Yet for all of its insights his analysis leaves the reader wanting more, as throughout the book he alludes to a broader anti-imperialist movement that he never addresses. While Beisner makes it clear that this movement was never organized or coherent, focusing it on greater detail would have strengthened his argument about the failure of the anti-imperialists to achieve their goals. As it is, his book is a valuable profile of one prominent part of the anti-imperialist movement in the United States at the dawn of America’s imperial age. But in it the end it only covers a part of it.