Walter Hines Page on the Spanish-American War

Walter Hines Pages, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, wrote the following editorial following receipt of news of Admiral Dewey's victory in Manila Bay over the Spanish fleet.

American character will be still better understood when the whole world clearly perceives that the purpose of the war is only to remove from our very doors this cruel and inefficient piece of medievalism which is one of the two great scandals of the closing years of the century; for it is not a war of conquest. There is a strong and definite sentiment against the annexation of Cuba and against our responsibility for its government further than we are now bound to be responsible. Once free, let it govern itself; and it ought to govern itself at least as well as other Spanish-American countries have governed themselves since they achieved their independence.

The problems that seem likely to follow the war are graver than those that have led up to it; and if it be too late to ask whether we entered into it without sufficient deliberation, it is not too soon to make sure of every step that we now take.…

Yesterday we were going about the prosaic tasks of peace, content with our own problems of administration and finance, a nation to ourselves--"commercials," as our enemies call us in derision. Today we are face to face with the sort of problems that have grown up in the management of world empires, and the policies of other nations are of intimate concern to us. Shall we still be content with peaceful industry, or does there yet lurk in us the adventurous spirit of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers? And have we come to a time when, no more great enterprises awaiting us at home, we shall be tempted to seek them abroad?

The race from which we are sprung is a race that for a thousand years has done the adventurous and outdoor tasks of the world. The English have been explorers, colonizers, conquerors of continents, founders of states. We ourselves, every generation since we came to America, have had great practical enterprises to engage us--the fighting with Indians, the clearing of forests, the War for Independence, the construction of a government, the extension of our territory, the pushing backward of the frontier, … the long internal conflict about slavery, a great Civil War, the building of railroads, and the compact unification of a continental domain. These have been as great enterprises and as exciting, coming in rapid succession, as any race of men has ever had to engage it-as great enterprises for the play of the love of adventure in the blood as our kinsmen over the sea have had in the extension and the management of their world empire. The old outdoor spirit of the Anglo-Saxon has till lately found wider scope in our own history than we are apt to remember.

But now a generation has come to manhood that has had no part in any great adventure. In politics we have had difficult and important tasks, indeed, but they have not been exciting--the reform of the civil service and of the system of currency, and the improvement of municipal government These are chiefly administrative. In a sense they are not new nor positive tasks, but the correction of past errors.…

The decline in the character of our public life has been a natural result of the lack of large constructive opportunities. The best equipped men of this generation have abstained from it and sought careers by criticism of the public servants who owe their power to the practical inactivity of the very men who criticize them.

In literature as well we have well-nigh lost the art of constructive writing, for we work too much on indoor problems an content ourselves with adventures in criticism. It is noteworthy that the three books which have found most readers and had perhaps the widest influence on the masses of this generation are books of utopian social program (mingled with very different proportions of truth), by whose fantastic philosophy, thanks to the dullness of the times, men have tried seriously to shape our national conduct--Progress and Poverty, Looking Backward, and Coin's Financial School. Apostolic fervor, romantic dreaming, and blatant misinformation have each captivated the idle-minded masses because their imaginations were not duly exercised in their routine toil.

It has been a time of social reforms, of the "emancipation" of women, of national organizations of children, of societies for the prevention of minor vices and for the encouragement of minor virtues, of the study of genealogy, of the rise of morbid fiction, of journals for "ladies," of literature for babes, of melodrama on the stage because we have had melodrama in life also-of criticism and reform rather than of thought and action. These things all denote a lack of adventurous opportunities, an indoor life such as we have never before had a chance to enjoy; and there are many indications that a life of quiet may have become irksome, and may not yet be natural to us. Greater facts than these denote a period also of peace and such well-being as men of our race never before enjoyed-sanitary improvements, the multiplication and the development of universities, the establishment of hospitals, and the application of benevolence to the whole circle of human life--such a growth of goodwill as we had come to think had surely made war impossible.

Is this dream true? Or is it true that with a thousand years of adventure behind us we are unable to endure a life of occupations that do not feed the imagination? After all, it is temperament that tells and not schemes of national policy, whether laid down in Farewell Addresses or in utopian books. No national character was ever shaped by formula or by philosophy; for greater forces than these lie behind it-the forces of inheritance and of events. Are we, by virtue of our surroundings and institutions, become a different people from our ancestors, or are we yet the same race of Anglo-Saxons, whose restless energy in colonization, in conquest, in trade, in "the spread of civilization," has carried their speech into every part of the world and planted their habits everywhere?

Within a week such a question, which we had hitherto hardly thought seriously to ask during our whole national existence, has been put before us by the first foreign war that we have had since we became firmly established as a nation. Before we knew the meaning of foreign possessions in a world met growing more jealous, we have found ourselves the captors of islands in both great oceans: and from our home-staying policy of yesterday we are brought face to face with worldwide forces in Asia as well as in Europe, which seem to be working, by the opening of the Orient, for one of the greatest changes in human history.

Until a little while ago our latest war dispatches came from Appomattox. Now our latest dispatches (when this is written) come from Manila. The news from Appomattox concerned us only. The news from Manila sets every statesman and soldier in the world to thinking new thoughts about us and to asking new questions. And to nobody has the change come more unexpectedly than to ourselves. Has it come without our knowing the meaning of it? The very swiftness of these events and the ease with which they have come to pass are matter for more serious thought than the unjust rule of Spain in Cuba, or than any tasks that have engaged us since we rose to commanding physical power.

The removal of the scandal of Spain's control of its last American colony is as just and merciful as it is pathetic-a necessary act of surgery for the health of civilization. Of the two disgraceful scandals of modern misgovernment, the one which lay within our correction, will no longer deface the world. But when we have removed it, let us make sure that we stop; for the Old World's troubles are not our troubles, nor its tasks our tasks, and we should not become sharers in its jealousies and entanglements. The continued progress of the race in the equalization of opportunity and in well-being depends on democratic institutions, of which we, under God, are yet, in spite of all our shortcomings, the chief beneficiaries and custodians. Our greatest victory will not be over Spain but over ourselves-to show once more that even in its righteous wrath the republic has the virtue of self-restraint.

At every great emergency in our history we have had men equal to the duties that faced us. The men of the Revolution were the giants of their generation. Our Civil War brought forward the most striking personality of the century. As during a period of peace we did not forget our courage and efficiency in war, so, we believe, during a period of routine domestic politics we have not lost our capacity for the largest statesmanship. The great merit of democracy is that out of its multitudes, who have all had a chance for natural development, there arise, when occasion demands, stronger and wiser men than any class-governed societies have ever bred.

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