The star of empire

I recently came across a speech given in Chicago on Sept. 25, 1900 by
Albert J. Beveridge, a senator from Indiana.

The Republicans used

Beveridge’s speech as a national campaign document, just 10 decades ago.

Neo-conservatives aligned with the Republican party have succeeded in
advancing and promoting the American empire in the early years of this
century, in keeping with the envisioning done by The Project for The New
American Century (See “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and
Resources For a New Century,” Sept. 2000). They have called for the United
States, as “the world’s only superpower,” to maintain a “globally
pre-eminent military capability both today and in the future.” The invasion
of Iraq was an integral part of that vision.

It only seems fitting, therefore, to closely examine what a key leader of
the Republican Party said to rally American empire in the early years of
the last century. Here are some key excerpts of Beveridge’s talk:

“‘Westward the Star of Empire takes its Way.’ Not the star of kingly power,
for kingdoms are everywhere dissolving in the increasing rights of men; not
the star of autocratic oppression, for civilization is brightening and the
liberties of the people are broadening under every flag. But the star of
empire, as Washington used the word, when he called this republic an
’empire’; as Jefferson understood it, when he declared our form of
government ideal for extending ‘our empire’; as Marshall understood it,
when he closed a noble period of an immortal constitutional opinion by
naming the domain of the American people ‘our empire.’

“This is the ’empire’ of which the prophetic voice declared ‘Westward the
Star of Empire takes its Way’ — the star of the empire of liberty and law,
of commerce and communication, of social order and the Gospel of our Lord
— the star of the empire of the civilization of the world. Westward that
star of empire takes its course. And to-day it illumines our path of duty
across the Pacific.

“Is it not true, as the Opposition asserts, that every race without
instruction and guidance is naturally self-governing. If so, the Indians
were capable of self-government. America belonged to them whether they were
or were not capable of self-government. If they were capable of
self-government it was not only wrong, but it was a crime to set up our
independent government on their land without their consent. If this is
true, the Puritans, instead of being noble, are despicable characters; and
the patriots of 1776, to whom the Opposition compares the Filipinos, were
only a swarm of land pirates. If the Opposition is right, the Zulus who
owned the Transvaal were capable of self-government; and the Boers who
expelled them, according to the Opposition, deserve the abhorrence of
righteous men.

“If it be said that tropical countries can not be peopled by the Caucasian
race, I answer that, even if true, it is no reason why they should not be
governed by the Caucasian race. India is a tropical country. India is ruled
by England to the advantage of Indian and England alike. Who denies that
India’s 300,000,000 are better off under English administration than under
the bestial tyranny of native rulers […]?

“It is destiny that the world shall be rescued from its natural wilderness
and from savage men. Civilization is no less an evolution than the changing
forms of animal and vegetable life. Surely and steadily the reign of law,
which is the very spirit of liberty, take the place of arbitrary caprice.
Surely and steadily the methods of social order are bringing the whole
earth under their subjection. And to deny that this is right is to deny
that civilization should increase. In this great work the American people
must have their part.

“The world is interested in the Philippines, and it has a right to be. The
world is interested in India, and it has a right to be. Civilization is
interested in China and its government, and that is the duty of
civilization. You can not take the Philippines out of the operation of
those forces which are bringing all mankind into one vast intelligence.
When Circumstance has raised our flag above them, we dare not turn these
misguided children over to destruction by themselves or spoliation by
others, and then make answer when the God of nations requires them at our
hands, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

“And the method of extending civilization is by colonization where the
superior nation can establish itself among the inferior races; or in place
of them, if the inferior races can not exist under civilization, as in New
Zealand, Australia, and the like. The method is by administration where the
superior nation can not, because of the climate conditions, establish
itself among or supplant the inferior races, as in Java, India, and the
like. And finally that method is by creating and developing commerce among
all the peoples of the world.

“We are this at last, a great national unity ready to carry out that
universal law of civilization which requires every people who have reached
our high estate to become colonizers of new lands, administrators of
orderly government over savage and senile peoples.

“When the commerce of the world on which the world’s peace hangs, traveling
every ocean highway of earth, shall pass beneath the guns of the great
Republic: what American heart thrills not at this prospect? Yet that time
will be here before the first quarter of the 20th century closes.

“When any changing map of the Earth requires a conference of the Powers,
and when, at any Congress of the Nations, the American Republic will
preside as the most powerful of powers and most righteous of judges: what
American heart thrills not at that prospect? And yet, that prospect is in
sight, even as I speak.

“It is the high and holy destiny of the American people, and from that
destiny the American bugles will never sound retreat. ‘Westward the Star of
Empire takes its way!'”

Beveridge’s remarks are a powerful reminder of the mind-set among American
imperialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His remarks are
particularly poignant in light of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with at least
one estimate of 100,000 civilian deaths, and the most recent devastation of

President Bush has repeatedly said “freedom is on the march.” However, he
would be well-advised to heed the remark of another Republican, Abraham
Lincoln, who said: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for
themselves, and under the rule of a just God can not long retain it.”

Of Lincoln’s above comment, Sen. Richard Pettigrew of South Dakota, in a
speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in January 1900, said: “I believe
that is true. I believe the reflex action upon our own people of the
conquest of other peoples and their government, against their will, will
gradually undermine free institutions in this country and result in the
destruction of the Republic.”

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator
at Kumeyaay Community College, on the Sycuan Indian Reservation, co-founder
and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist with
Indian Country Today.