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ANTI-IMPERIALISTS. This term is used generally to connote those who resisted or disapproved of American colonialist impulses at various moments and especially those who opposed U.S. colonial expansion after the Spanish-American War. Although a number of anti-imperialists had first opposed the acquisition of island territories during the administration of Ulysses Grant, and others survived to proclaim the faith in the 1920s, anti-imperialism as a movement is limited to the years 1898–1900.

Many anti-imperialists rejected organizational activity, but a majority claimed membership in one of the branches of the Anti-Imperialist League, which was founded in Boston in November 1898. By 1900 the league claimed to have 30,000 members and more than half a million contributors. Its primary goal was the education of public opinion. The league published hundreds of pamphlets denouncing the acquisition of an island empire and the abandonment of America's unique "mission" to hold before the nations of the world the model of a free and self-governing society. Its members included reformers, educators, labor leaders, and Democratic politicians. George S. Boutwell, Erving Winslow, Edwin Burritt Smith, David Starr Jordan, and Carl Schurz were prominent leaders of the league, and its chief financial contributor was Andrew Carnegie. Other important anti-imperialists included William Jennings Bryan and ex-presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.

Although diverse in motives and party affiliation, the anti-imperialists shared common fears and beliefs. They were convinced that imperialism threatened the ideals and institutions of their own country, and many believed that it was unjust to dictate the political goals and institutions of foreign peoples. Although many anti-imperialists shared the racial bias of their imperialist opponents and some urged the expansion of foreign markets as a solution to domestic surplus, for most, racial "difference" did not require racial subordination, nor did trade expansion demand Gunboat Diplomacy. The anti-imperialists typically insisted that it was as wrong for a republic to have colonies as it was for a representative government to have subject peoples. Tyranny abroad, they believed, could only undermine democracy at home. They offered arguments against the constitutionality, economic wisdom, and strategic safety of a policy of insular imperialism. Colonial expansion not only denied the practice of the past, it would waste American resources, undermine the Monroe Doctrine, and embroil the United States in the rivalries of the European powers. Although hampered by having to preach a doctrine of abnegation to a nation of optimists and weakened by a failure to agree on a single policy alternative for the disposition of the Philippine Islands, the anti-imperialists were participants in one of the most intelligently reasoned debates in American history.

Even though they were important as a moral and educational force, the anti-imperialists must be classified among the political failures of American history. Their labors, along with the heavy cost of the Philippine Insurrection, may have helped to check the territorial ambitions of the more zealous imperialists, but none of the anti-imperialists' immediate goals were secured. The new island territories were officially annexed; President William McKinley easily won reelection in 1900 despite the opposition of the Anti-Imperialist League, and the Philippine Insurrection was mercilessly crushed.


Beisner, Robert L. Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898–1900. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Reprint, Chicago: Imprint, 1992.

Tompkins, E. Berkeley. Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890–1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970.


See alsoImperialism ; andvol. 9:Anti-Imperialist League Platform .

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