American Empire and the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico during U.S. Colonialism
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Duke University Press Books
American Empire and the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico during U.S. Colonialism

American Empire and the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico during U.S. Colonialism


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American Empire and the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico during U.S. Colonialism

When the United States took control of the Philippines and Puerto Rico in the wake of the Spanish-American War, it declared that it would transform its new colonies through lessons in self-government and the ways of American-style democracy. In both territories, U.S. colonial officials built extensive public school systems, and they set up American-style elections and governmental institutions. The officials aimed their lessons in democratic government at the political elite: the relatively small class of the wealthy, educated, and politically powerful within each colony. While they retained ultimate control for themselves, the Americans let the elite vote, hold local office, and formulate legislation in national assemblies.

American Empire and the Politics of Meaning is an examination of how these efforts to provide the elite of Puerto Rico and the Philippines a practical education in self-government played out on the ground in the early years of American colonial rule, from 1898 until 1912. It is the first systematic comparative analysis of these early exercises in American imperial power. The sociologist Julian Go unravels how American authorities used “culture” as both a tool and a target of rule, and how the Puerto Rican and Philippine elite received, creatively engaged, and sometimes silently subverted the Americans’ ostensibly benign intentions. Rather than finding that the attempt to transplant American-style democracy led to incommensurable “culture clashes,” Go assesses complex processes of cultural accommodation and transformation. By combining rich historical detail with broader theories of meaning, culture, and colonialism, he provides an innovative study of the hidden intersections of political power and cultural meaning-making in America’s earliest overseas empire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822342113
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/14/2008
Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Julian Go is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. He is a coeditor of The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives, also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt

AMERICAN EMPIRE and the Politics of Meaning

Elite Political Culture in THE PHILIPPINES and PUERTO RICO during U.S. Colonialism
By Julian Go


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4211-3

Chapter One


The [American] Ideal is this you see, that every people in the world should have self-government and equal rights. This means, when reduced from windy oratory to common-sense, that they consider these Malay half-breeds to be capable ... of understanding the motives, and profiting by the institutions which it has taken the highest white races two or three thousand years to evolve.... When I come to think of it, America with this funny little possession of hers is like a mother with her first child, who ... tries to bring it up on some fad of her own because it is so much more precious and more wonderful than any other child any one else ever had. MRS. CAMPBELL DAUNCEY, AN ENGLISHWOMAN IN THE PHILIPPINES

Mrs. Campbell Dauncey, British citizen and diplomat's wife in the Philippines, came to her incredulity of American colonialism after witnessing it firsthand. She had watched as U.S. officials set up local elections and let Filipinos hold political office, part of their larger effort to teach Filipinos the ways of American-styled democracy. But Dauncey was not alone in her critical skepticism. In Puerto Rico, where U.S. occupation also took a tutelary form, American settlers were just as critical. "There are plenty of native men who can make fine speeches on the subject of liberty and free government," they complained upon hearing that the Puerto Ricans were allowed to hold office, "but precious few know anything about the intricate science of administering the same. It is like putting a big business, that requires old heads and experience, in the hands of apprentice boys."

If tutelary colonialism had its skeptics, proponents on the ground were unmoved. Policy planners and officials were determined to follow through and transform Puerto Ricans and Filipinos. "It seems to me obvious," wrote Governor Luke Wright in the Philippines, in response to criticisms that the Filipinos had been given too much political control over local affairs, "that in purely local matters at least we must give the people of the various municipalities a reasonable hand in directing their own affairs and endeavor, by precept, example and constant watchfulness, to develop them along American lines. This I appreciate is a work of time and labor. I must think, however, that it is worth our best efforts." How could this be? What was behind the officials' determination to teach the colonized the "art and science of self-government" and turn them, as they themselves insisted, into "truly American types"? And what exactly was involved in this seemingly contradictory attempt to transform subject peoples into liberal democratic subjects?

Traditional scholarship offers contrasting views on this issue. According to one view, tutelage was a ruse masking deeper imperial interests. American colonialism was fundamentally about capital and coercion; the officials' tutelage discourse was but ornamental rhetoric-perhaps aimed at appeasing anti-imperialists at home. A different view takes the tutelage discourse more seriously and adopts a culturalist perspective. The attempt to democratize the colonies was not a ruse but a reflection of America's political traditions, democratic values, and anticolonial beliefs. It was a valiant and exceptional project, reflecting America's own exceptional political culture. The examination of tutelary colonialism in this chapter offers a different approach altogether. On the one hand, tutelage was not simply a ruse. It was a concerted and determined policy, guided by certain cultural logics and aims. On the other hand, these cultural dimensions of tutelage do not boil down to the formula offered in existing culturalist scholarship. Rather than subjective beliefs or values, the cultural dimensions of tutelage were about signifying structures and meaning-making practices. Colonial authorities-when making sense of colonized populations, and defining issues, problems, and solutions-drew from particular cultural schemas rendered salient to them by their specific background and experiences. These schemas then served to enable the tutelage project while also shaping its contours and content (not least its definition of what constituted "democracy" in the first place). Furthermore, American officials did not transpose a "culture" or set of "American values," they used culture as a tool and target. Culture was something that they sought to manipulate and manage, control and transform on the ground.

In short, by explicating these processes and practices, the goal of this chapter is not to treat the cultural dimensions of tutelage as ornamental rhetoric that masked presumably deeper interests. But neither is the goal to treat tutelary colonialism as a reflection of America's ostensibly exceptional cultural values to thereby portray American officials as heroic figures. The goal instead is to highlight cultural aspects of American rule typically occluded in existing studies. Tutelage, rather than a sideshow to coercion and capital, and rather than an expression of America's exceptional culture, constituted a cultural project in its own right. It was a matter of cultural power.


"There are two classes [of residents] here," wrote Cameron Forbes, a member of the Philippine Commission and would-be colonial governor, "those that believe in the effort to educate and help the Filipinos.... and those who say the Filipinos are hopeless and that we'd best exploit the Islands for our own benefit. I am glad to say none of the Commission feel that way and none of the higher officers of the government feel that way." Forbes's statement, etched in his personal diary, echoes a larger point: in public forums as well as in internal memos and private correspondences, the new American colonialists insisted that tutelage should be the rule of colonial rule. But how should we understand this? How could the American officials have insisted upon teaching the colonized the ways of democracy through the undemocratic means of colonial rule? Part of the answer can be founded by examining the specific cultural schemas that underwrote the tutelage project. The other part of the answer lies beyond the American officials' cultural schemas and in processes on colonial ground. Specifically, it lies in a principle of colonial state-building everywhere: the drive for legitimacy. To better understand the Americans' presumably exceptional project in tutelary colonialism, both of these issues merit close attention.

Schemas for Rule

The officials who formulated and carried out tutelage came from particular social backgrounds, operated in a larger domestic and global milieu, and worked from particular classificatory schemes and narratives befitting their social position and experiences. These cultural structures rendered tutelage possible, practical, and palpable. They also gave tutelage its specific contours and content. The first set of schemas had to with racial difference. Drawing upon already existing racial classifications at home-which had become all the more potent by the late nineteenth century-policy makers, the press, and the public typically claimed that the Puerto Ricans and Filipinos were unfit for self-government due to their racial makeup. "Savage blood, Oriental blood, Malay blood," argued Senator Albert Beveridge about the Filipinos, "are these the elements of self-government?" As many studies have shown, these racialized claims were unsurprisingly common. Still, the authors and proponents of tutelage deployed a more specific set of racial schemas that demand analysis, for even within the overarching discourses of race at home there circulated distinct meanings.

On the one hand, some thinkers in the new sciences of race had emphasized the strictly biological side of racial inferiority. A proto-eugenicist conception, the accent here was upon genes, blood, and stock. Senator Beveridge's appeal to "savage blood" and "Malay blood" exemplifies this conception. On the other hand, different thinkers had offered another view, focusing upon the environmental production of racial inferiority. For example, in Lamarck's theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, an organism's traits developed in response to the environment, and these traits were then passed down to inheritors. The emphasis was less on nature than on nurture, more on history and environment than on genes or stock. These understandings of racial difference in turn carried respectively different practical implications. As the strictly biological view rooted inferiority in blood or biology, it classified lesser races as incorrigibly lesser. Inferiority was interminable. By contrast, the Lamarckian scheme did not classify the so-called lesser races as so incorrigible. As the issue depended upon history and environment, differences in behavior (however indexed phenotypically) could be reduced, given the proper external stimuli and surrounding conditions. Those deemed lesser could be uplifted. Critics thereby labeled this view the "equality fallacy," which "belittles race differences and has a robust faith in the power of intercourse and school instruction to lift up a backward folk to the level of the best."

The architects of tutelary colonialism clearly espoused the so-called equality fallacy. Elihu Root claimed that Puerto Ricans and Filipinos were "still in political childhood" and were therefore unfit for self-government, but he added that this unfitness was due to their "rudimentary stage of political development" rather than biology. Apparently, centuries of Spanish colonialism had served to develop Puerto Ricans and Filipinos beyond "savagery," but it had not completed the job. Officials in Puerto Rico claimed that Spanish rule had not offered mass education, leaving the majority of the population "ignorant, credulous, and child-like." They also claimed that while Spanish rule had allowed privileged groups to receive higher education, it had not given them proper political experience. The "highly centralized" form of Spanish rule in Puerto Rico meant that "the development of a distinctive local civic life" had been "discouraged and even violently repressed"; the people had been "deprived of the invigorating and elevating influence of direct participation in local affairs." Supposedly, Spanish officials had been corrupt and self-aggrandizing, which meant that Puerto Ricans "have not been trained in a good government school." "The people of this island," claimed the early officials, "have been long and thoroughly taught an unfortunate object lesson. They have seen the island governed and exploited by a class in the interest and for the benefit of a few. The Spanish governing element has disappeared, but their example remains. There is no lack of natives of learning and ability ready to take the place of their former masters, step into their vacant shoes, and take up the government laid down. And, having power, would they not use it as their predecessors did? So long have the people been accustomed to this kind of control and absolute subordination that the most of them would accept it as a matter of course." Root condensed the view:

The most important fact to be considered is that the people have not yet been educated in the art of self-government, or any really honest government. In all their experience and in all their traditions, law and freedom have been ideas which were not associated with each other, but opposed to each other; and it is impossible that a people with this history-only 10 per cent of whom can read or write-should have ever acquired any real understanding of the way to conduct a popular government. I do not doubt their capacity to govern themselves; but they have not yet learned.

Views on the Filipinos' inferiority were the same. The first investigative commissions pointed out that Spanish rule had failed to offer mass education while also failing "to accomplish even the primary ends of good government -the maintenance of peace and order and the even administration of justice." It had been "an engine of oppression and exploitation of the Filipinos." Thus, even privileged and educated Filipinos had acquired "tyrannical" traits. "The politicians here are, with a few exceptions," wrote Governor Taft to his friend at home, "venal and corrupt to the last degree and as tricky and uncertain as were the statesmen in the days of George the first and Queen Anne." While the elite spoke a modern democratic language, they did not yet fully comprehend the meanings of what they said. "Round phrases, including 'liberty,' 'independence,' 'the development of the Philippines,' come with ease to their lips," Taft opined, "[but] the only example of government which they have had is the Spanish."

The idea of developing, democratizing, and transforming Puerto Rico and the Philippines followed from these neo-Lamarckian conceptions. If nature did not explain inferiority, then nurture could lift the colonized out of it. Capacities could be built upon, "development" could be hastened, and Puerto Ricans and Filipinos could become self-governing subjects. "Unlike the sparsely settled regions of New Mexico and Arizona ...," claimed officials, "Porto Rico [sic] has many alert, intelligent people, who, though bowed down by centuries of oppression, still retain the spirit and capacity for higher and better conditions. This capacity and these conditions can be developed only under a system which will wisely control, guide, and support them until they attain sufficient vigor to support and control themselves." Taft explained to Congress, when recommending tutelary government in the Philippines: "While there is to-day a palpable unfitness for self-government, there is in them a capacity for future development, for future preparation for self-government." So confident was Taft in the "capacities" of colonial peoples that he claimed that the Philippines might one day become a state in the union: "It is the duty of the United States to establish ... a government suited to the present possibilities of the people, which shall gradually change, conferring more and more right upon the people to govern themselves, thus educating them in self-government, until their knowledge of government, their knowledge of individual liberty shall be such that further action may be taken by giving them statehood or ... if they desire it, by independence." In this sense, Mrs. Campbell Dauncey was not entirely incorrect in her criticism of American empire. Proponents of tutelage indeed acted like "a mother with her first child." The only difference is that tutelage's proponents, by transposing neo-Lamarckian racial schemes to the colonies, took this to mean that the child could be nurtured into adulthood.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1. Introduction: Colonialism and Culture in the American Empire 1

Chapter 1: Tutelary Colonialism and Cultural Power 25

Chapter 2: Domesticating Tutelage in Puerto Rico 55

Chapter 3: Winning Hearts and Minds in the Philippines 93

Chapter 4: Beyond Cultural Reproduction 131

Chapter 5: Divergent Paths 173

Chapter 6: Structural Transformation in Puerto Rico 211

Chapter 7: Cultural Revaluation in the Philippines 241

Conclusion: Returning to Culture 273

Appendix 295

Notes 299

References 343

Index 373

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