United States Colonial Rule in the Philippines

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United States Colonial Rule in the Philippines

The United States exercised formal colonial rule over the Philippines, its largest overseas colony, between 1899 and 1946. American economic and strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific were increasing in the late 1890s in the wake of an industrial depression and in the face of global, interimperial competition. Spanish colonialism was simultaneously being weakened by revolts in Cuba and the Philippines, its largest remaining colonies.

The Philippine Revolution of 1896 to 1897 destabilized Spanish colonialism but failed to remove Spanish colonial rule. The leaders of the revolution were exiled to Hong Kong. When the United States invaded Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898 to shore up its hegemony in the Caribbean, the U.S. Pacific Squadron was sent to the Philippines to advance U.S. power in the region, and it easily defeated the Spanish navy. Filipino revolutionaries hoped the United States would recognize and assist it. Although American commanders and diplomats helped return revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo (1869–1964) to the Philippine Islands, they sought to use him and they avoided recognition of the independent Philippine Republic that Aguinaldo declared in June 1898.

In August 1898 U.S. forces occupied Manila and denied the Republic's troops entry into the city. That fall, Spain and the United States negotiated the Philippines' status at Paris without Filipino consultation. The U.S. Senate and the American public debated the Treaty of Paris, which granted the United States "sovereignty" over the Philippine Islands for $20 million. The discussion emphasized the economic costs and benefits of imperialism to the United States and the political and racial repercussions of colonial conquest.

When U.S. troops fired on Philippine troops in February 1899, the Philippine-American War erupted. The U.S. Senate narrowly passed the Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. military enforced its provisions over the next three years through a bloody, racialized war of aggression. Following ten months of failed conventional combat, Philippine troops adopted guerrilla tactics, which American forces ultimately defeated only through the devastation of civilian property, the "reconcentration" of rural populations, and the torture and killing of prisoners, combined with a policy of "attraction" aimed at Filipino elites. While Filipino revolutionaries sought freedom and independent nationhood, a U.S.-based "antiimperialist" movement challenged the invasion as immoral in both ends and means.

Carried out in the name of promoting "self-government" over an indefinite but calibrated timetable, U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines was characterized politically by authoritarian bureaucracy and one-party statebuilding with the collaboration of Filipino elites at its core. The colonial state was inaugurated with a Sedition Act that banned expressions in support of Philippine independence, a Banditry Act that criminalized ongoing resistance, and a Reconcentration Act that authorized the mass relocation of rural populations.

In the interests of "pacification," American civilian proconsuls in the Philippine Commission, initially led by William Howard Taft (1857–1930), sponsored the Federalista Party under influential Manila-based elites. The party developed into a functioning patronage network and political monopoly in support of "Americanization" and, initially, U.S. statehood for the Philippines. When the suppression of independence politics ended in 1905, it gave rise to new political voices and organizations that consolidated by 1907 into the Nationalista Party, whose members were younger than those of the Federalista Party and rooted in the provinces. When the Federalista Party alienated its American patrons and its statehood platform failed to win mass support, U.S. proconsuls abandoned it for the Nationalista Party, which over the remainder of the colonial period developed into a vast, second partystate, under the leadership of Manuel Quezon (1878–1944) and Sergio Osmenña (1878–1961).

Following provincial and municipal elections, "national" elections were held in 1907 for a Philippine Assembly to serve under the commission as the lower house of a legislature. The 3 percent of the country's population that was given the right to vote swept the Nationalistas to power. The Nationalistas clashed with U.S. proconsuls over jurisdiction and policy priorities, although both sides also manipulated and advertised these conflicts to secure their respective constituencies, masking what were in fact functioning colonial collaborations. Democratic Party dominance in the United States between 1912 and 1920 facilitated the consolidation of the Nationalista party-state in the Philippines.

When Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), a Democrat, was elected president in 1912, he appointed as governor-general Francis Burton Harrison (1873–1957), who, working closely with the Nationalistas, accelerated the "Filipinization" of the bureaucracy and allowed the Philippine Assembly to assume additional executive power. When Democrats passed the Jones Act in 1916, which replaced the commission with a Philippine senate and committed the United States to "eventual independence" for the Philippines, Quezon claimed credit for these victories and, despite his own ambivalence about Philippine independence, translated them into greater power. During the 1920s, Quezon dominated the Nationalista Party, using clashes with Republican governorgeneral Leonard Wood (1860–1927) to secure his independista credentials.

Under pressure from protectionists, nativists, and military officials fearful of Japanese imperialism, the U.S. Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934. The act inaugurated a ten-year "Philippine Commonwealth" government transitional to "independence." While serving as president of the commonwealth in the years prior to the 1941 Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands, Quezon consolidated dictatorial power. Colonial political structures, constructed where the ambitions and fears of the Filipino elite connected with the American imperial need for collaborators, had successfully preserved the power of provincial, landed elites, while institutionalizing this power in a country-wide "nationalist" politics.

In economic terms, American colonial rule in the Philippines promoted an intensely dependent, export economy based on cash-crop agriculture and extractive industries like mining. American capital had initially regarded the Philippines as merely a "stepping stone" to the fabled China market, and American trade with the Philippine Islands was initially inhibited by reciprocity treaties that preserved Spanish trade rights. When these rights ended, U.S. capital divided politically over the question of free trade. American manufacturers supported free trade, hoping to secure in the Philippines both inexpensive raw materials and markets for finished goods, whereas sugar and tobacco producers opposed free trade because they feared Philippine competition. The Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909 established "free trade," with the exception of rice, and set yearly quota limits for Philippine exports to the United States.

American trade with the Philippine Islands, which had grown since the war, boomed after 1909, and during the decades that followed, the United States became by far the Philippines' dominant trading partner. American goods comprised only 7 percent of Philippine imports in 1899, but had grown to 66 percent by 1934. These goods included farm machinery, cigarettes, meat and dairy products, and cotton cloth. The Philippines sold 26 percent of its total exports to the United States in 1899, and 84 percent in 1934. Most of these exports were hemp, sugar, tobacco, and coconut products.

Free trade promoted U.S. investment, and American companies came to dominate Philippine factories, mills, and refineries. When a post-World War I economic boom brought increased production and exports, Filipino nationalists feared economic and political dependence on the United States, as well as the overspecialization of the Philippine economy around primary products, overreliance on U.S. markets, and the political enlistment of American businesses in the indefinite colonial retention of the Philippine Islands.

Meanwhile, rural workers subject to the harsh terms of export-oriented development challenged the power of hacienda owners in popular mass movements. While some interested American companies did lobby against Philippine independence, during the Great Depression powerful U.S. agricultural producers—especially of sugar and oils—supported U.S. separation from the Philippines as a protectionist measure to exclude competing Philippine goods. The commonwealth period and formal Philippine independence would be characterized by rising tariffs and the exclusion of Philippine goods from the U.S. markets upon which Philippine producers had come to depend.

Philippine-American colonialism also transformed both the Philippines and the United States in cultural terms. In the Philippines, the colonial state introduced a secular, free public school system that emphasized the English language (believed by U. S. officials to be the inherent medium of "free" institutions), along with industrial and manual training to facilitate capitalist economic development. While the Filipino elite retained and developed Spanish as a language of literature, politics, and prestige into the 1920s—often contrasted with "vulgar" Americanism—Filipinos increasingly learned and transformed English and used it to their own purposes. Filipinos also reworked forms and elements from American popular culture, especially in film, fashion, and literature. In addition, this period saw the development of popular and literary culture in other Philippine languages. With the advent of the commonwealth, Tagalog was declared the unifying "national" language.

The struggle for Philippine independence fundamentally shaped emerging Filipino modes of self-identification, as Filipinos sought to prove their "capacity" for "self-government." Where the U.S. colonial state administered "non-Christian" regions inhabited by animists and Muslims through separate, American-dominated political and military controls (insulating them from emerging "national" politics), Filipino nationalists sought to integrate these regions and peoples into the "nation" by arguing for their rights to administer them undemocratically on the basis of the "civilizational" superiority of Christian Filipinos.

American culture would also be transformed culturally by Philippine-American colonialism. Beginning in the 1920s, mass Filipino labor migration to Hawaii and the American West would alter both region's culture and demography, bridging the Philippine and U.S. cultural and social worlds. At the same time, official justifications of conquest and colonial administration helped accommodate Americans more generally to the notion that overseas empire was compatible with a "republic." American colonial rule in the Philippines was held up domestically and internationally as symbolic of the United States' own exceptional democracy and foreign policy. American policy toward the Philippines following World War II—characterized by Cold War anticommunism—suggested continuities with the colonial period.

see also Empire, United States; Pacific, American Presence in.


Cullinane, Michael. Ilustrado Politics: Filipino Elite Responses to American Rule. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2005.

Go, Julian, and Anne Foster, eds. The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Guerrero, Milagros C. Under Stars and Stripes. Vol. 6, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People. Asia Publishing Co., 1998.

Kramer, Paul A. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Miller, Stuart Creighton. "Benevolent Assimilation": The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899–1903. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

Paredes, Ruby, ed. Philippine Colonial Democracy. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1989.

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United States Colonial Rule in the Philippines