Progressive Versus Progressive, Part 6: Imperialism

Contemporary “Progressives” are nothing if not “anti-war,” though this most often seems to derive not from sincere pacifism like William Jennings Bryan, but from a reflexive anti-Americanism. The old Progressives of a hundred years ago were divided on the issue of American intervention abroad. There were a number of leading Progressives, such as the aforementioned Bryan, who opposed American military involvement overseas, and who opposed “imperialism” more broadly. One flash point back then was the American occupation and administration of the Philippines, acquired during the Spanish-American war. There was a vigorous debate over this issue among Progressives at the time. Would that there was a similar debate today.
Teddy Roosevelt’s views on the use of America power abroad are, as usual, well known and well-recalled. Once again, a more interesting portal to the old Progressives is Albert Beveridge. Beveridge thought the U.S. should keep the Philippines, and govern it firmly (he also wanted us to keep Cuba, rather than setting it loose). And he rooted his view in a surprising place: the Declaration of Independence. America, he said, is “the trustee of the world’s progress,” and that it was our “divine mission” to lead the world to the uplit sunlands of progress. “Every progressive nation of Europe today is seeking lands to colonize and governments to administer,” he said in a 1900 speech entitled “The Star of Empire.” And America was the best suited to the task because it aimed to spread an empire of liberty. But spreading liberty did not necessarily mean spreading self-government. In his speech on the Senate floor defending our administration of the Philippines, Beveridge offered a close reading and careful exegesis of the Declaration that anticipates Martin Diamond:

The Declaration does not contemplate that all government must have the consent of the governed. It announces that man’s “inalienable rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” [These] are the important things; “consent of the governed” is one of the means to those ends.
If “any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it,” says the Declaration. “Any form” includes all forms. Thus the Declaration itself recognizes other forms of government than those resting on the consent of the governed. The word “consent” itself recognizes other forms, for “consent” means the understanding of the thing to which the “consent” is given; and there are people in the world who do not understand any form of government. And the sense in which “consent” is used in the Declaration means participation in the government “consented” to. And yet these people who are not capable of “consenting” to any form of government must be governed.
And so the Declaration contemplates all forms of government which secure the fundamental rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness–self government, when that will best secure these ends, as in the case of people capable of self-government; other appropriate forms, when people are not capable of self-government.

This suggests the observation that if Beveridge were alive today, he’d likely align himself with those critics such as George Will who think it folly to attempt to install democratic self-government in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, today’s antiwar Progressives would find no ally in Beveridge, whose belief in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the rightness of the use of American power, would make him unwelcome at the Center for American Progress.