The Price of Freedom

The Spanish-American War came to a close, informally, on August 12, 1898, as hostilities ended.  While the treaty negotiations between America and Spain were said to be difficult, the two sides nevertheless came to a pact — the Treaty of Paris of 1898 — that winter.  Spain agreed to three concessions: first, it gave up it claims to Cuba — which (after a short transition under American rule) became independent; second, it ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States; and third, it sold the Philippines to the U.S. for the princely sum of $20 million — roughly half a billion dollars in today’s terms.

When Congress ratified the treaty the following April, the nation was not sure what to do with the Philippines, its new, eight-figure acquisition in the western Pacific Ocean.   A few months earlier, on January 20, 1899, President William McKinley had created a commission to study the new territory and advise the government on next steps.  The Schurman Commission, named after its chair, Cornell president Dr. Jacob Schurman, issued its findings over the course of the next year.  In part, the commission advised that Filipinos not be granted their independence.  In a statement dated November 2, 1900, the commission concluded that should American troops withdraw from the Philippines, “the commission believe[s] that the government of the Philippines would speedily lapse into anarchy, which would excuse, if it did not necessitate, the intervention of other powers and the eventual division of the islands among them. Only through American occupation, therefore, is the idea of a free, self-governing, and united Philippine commonwealth at all conceivable.”

While perhaps true, the resulting occupation was bloody.  The Philippine-American War was in full swing and would continue (officially) through the summer of 1904, taking the lives of over 4,000 American troops (most from disease) and at least 200,000 (and perhaps as many as 1.5 million) Filipinos — mostly civilians — in the process.

Could this have been averted?  Famed steel tycoon and philanthropist (and to some, robber baron) Andrew Carnegie wished so, and made an incredible offer in support of this belief.  In 1898, while treaty negotiations were underway, Carnegie, pictured right, went to McKinley in protest of the annexation of the Philippine islands.  And he brought more than just his voice — Carnegie offered to pay the $20 million bounty himself, by way of donation to the Philippines, in hopes of giving the Philippines its independence, avoiding potential (and as history proved) bloodshed due to the annexation.

McKinley apparently declined.

Bonus fact: After the war, William Howard Taft became the first Civil Governor of the Philippines, and proved popular in the role among both Americans and Filipinos.   During his time in office, Theodore Roosevelt became President and offered Taft a seat on the Supreme Court.  Taft declined, echoing the sentiments of the Schurman Commission — he believed that the Filipinos were not yet capable of peaceful self-governance.  Taft would again be offered a Supreme Court seat 18 years later — after serving as Secretary of War, provisional Governor of Cuba, and of course, President of the United States.  The second time, he accepted, becoming the only President to also serve on the Supreme Court.

From the Archives: My Way — Or Else: For some reason, singing Frank Sinatra’s My Way in a Philippine karaoke bar may prove fatal.

Related: “Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903,” by Stuart Creighton Miller.  Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the book has thirteen ratings on Amazon — 10 of five stars, three of four.  Kindle version available.

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