William Jennings Bryan, “Imperialism,” Teaching-Learning Materials

Classroom Activities

A. William Jennings Bryan gained widespread acclaim for his speaking abilities in his own day; people flocked to hear him when he traveled the lecture circuit. Having read his “Imperialism” speech, why do you think that he was so highly regarded? What do you think distinguished him from other orators?  Does fine rhetoric attract the same attention today? Give reasons why you think it does or does not. Can you think of any examples?

B. How did Bryan make his case to the American people in his “Imperialism” speech? What type of arguments did he use and what evidence did he draw upon to support his case? Did you find these arguments to be convincing?

C. Bryan called the fight against imperialism the paramount issue in the 1900 election. What political concerns have been at the center of recent political races? What issue would you label the paramount issue of the day if you were establishing a presidential platform today? Explain.

D. Bryan relied upon the American people to make a right decision in regard to the Philippines. He painted a picture of their character and values, drawing heavily on the Founding Fathers to illustrate those values. How did Bryan portray the American people? How would you characterize the American people today? Does your description align with Bryan’s? What do you think has remained true of the American people? What has changed?

E. Manifest destiny legitimized much of the nation’s expansion during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Imperialists, including Senator Albert Beveridge and President William McKinley, relied on this doctrine to support their arguments. Bryan tried to rearticulate this idea of destiny in his speech. How did Bryan characterize the concept differently? To what extent is this doctrine still held within the United States? Can we see this concept in our current foreign policy?

F. Sprinkled throughout William Jennings Bryan’s speech are comments and arguments that today would be classified as racist. Proponents of imperialism also used racist arguments to build their case for U.S. expansion. What could be the motives of such arguments and what do such arguments suggest about the context of the period?

Student Research

A. Bryan lost the 1900 campaign. Through newspaper articles and Bryan’s speeches trace the progression of the campaign through to the election. What reasons are given for Bryan’s eventual defeat? Did the tenor and message of his campaign remain the same throughout the election period?

B. The 1890 census announced the closure of the American frontier. Many debate the importance of this event in America’s history. Read Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “The Strenuous Life.” How are such conceptions of the frontier reflected in Bryan’s speech and how do Bryan’s conceptions differ from Turner’s and Roosevelt’s? Also, how are such conceptions reflected in the debate over the U.S.-Filipino war?

C. Filipinos did not gain independence until 1946. Trace their path to independence. Did Bryan’s fears about the subjugation of the Filipinos prove true? Did his fears about the cost of imperialism prove true?  

D. Senator Albert B. Beveridge was a key advocate of imperialism. Read his speech entitled “The March of the Flag,” which is available online at Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project. Compare and contrast this to Bryan’s “Imperialism” address. In what ways can you see Bryan responding to the arguments of Beveridge and other imperialists? Are there any arguments that Bryan did not address in his speech that Beveridge articulated?

E. The Teller Amendment established a policy for Cuba’s independence. The Bacon Resolution sought to lay out a similar path for the Philippines, but it was defeated in Congress. What was the difference between Congress’s position on Cuba versus the Philippines? Look up and compare the two resolutions. Compare newspaper reports on both. Why do you think one passed while the other failed?  

F. The United States’ entry into war with Spain was framed within humanitarian and moral justifications. Research the United States’ involvement in international disputes before the Spanish-American War. Was there a precedent for this move in the United States’ history? How did such actions square with the Monroe Doctrine?  

G. Read Bryan’s “Imperialism” speech and then listen to a recent presidential nomination acceptance speech. What similarities and differences can you see in the content of the speeches? In the style? What purpose does the content of such a speech serve in the presidential election? Has the purpose of the acceptance speech changed from 1900 to today?

H. The peroration of Bryan’s speech outlines his vision for the American republic in which the nation stands as an example of right government for the rest of the world. Such conceptions reflect a strong belief in American exceptionalism. Research the roots of American exceptionalism (such as in John Winthrop’s 1630 speech on board the Arbella) and trace its progression in famous American discourse. Do you see a change in the understanding of American exceptionalism over time?

I. Read Bryan’s Imperialism speech and write down your reactions. What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses? Next search newspaper articles from 1900 to find out how Bryan’s contemporary audience responded to his speech. Then compare the assessments. How was your response different than the response of his 1900 audience? How was it the same?

Citizenship Resources

A. Bryan argued that the Spanish-American War had descended into a war of aggression. Many lodged this accusation against the Iraq War and the Bush administration. What similarities can be seen between the two wars? What differences?

B. William Jennings Bryan warned that war and imperialism would be used to justify encroachments on American civil liberties. How have we seen this in previous wars? Recall the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and the Patriot Act that first passed in 2001. Discuss the weight that must be given to both liberty and security. Can a balance be struck between the two?

C. As Bryan outlined the role that the United States might serve in the world he grounded his arguments in a progressive faith in the American people and their ability to self-govern. Review the day’s international headlines and the Department of State website. What is the United States’ role in the world today? Is it based upon the same beliefs? In the Philippines? In Asia? In Africa? Discuss what role you think the United States’ should take.

D. Bryan and the Progressives believed an active and educated citizenry could govern best. What are some ways in which citizens can be involved in government today? The Anti-Imperialist organizations distributed leaflets, published broadsides, lobbied members of Congress, and launched chain letters to protest the course of U.S. foreign policy. Are the means of civic engagement the same today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this involvement? How does the Internet change the possibilities of civic engagement?