Benevolent Assimilation and the 1899 Philippine-American War

Three years before Private Willie Grayson shot the first bullet that began the Philippine-American War, a New York news magazine editorial depicted the Filipino as a diminutive black savage ripe for civilizing. In 1896, the United States was poised to further impose its twin mantras of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny on lands beyond its continental borders. The Monroe Doctrine was America’s message to its European rivals that the western hemisphere “belonged” to the United States. While the doctrine provided the legal justification for U.S. domination of the Americas, Manifest Destiny provided the moral underpinning: the belief that the United States had a divine mission to rule North America, the western hemisphere, and eventually, the world. The print media of the time was blunt on this matter. “(W)e have been reconnoitering in new territory and have been taking the first steps towards accomplishing our manifest destiny: the control of the world by American manufacturers.” (Iron Age business journal, 1894).

After two centuries of conquering Native American lands, the United States had proven that “he swallows up and will continue to swallow up whatever comes in contact with him, man or empire.” (New York Sun, 1847). By 1898, he was more than prepared to assert that “Now that the continent is subdued, we are looking for fresh new worlds to conquer.” (Overland Monthly, San Francisco , 1898).

America’s imperial agenda was thinly disguised when Admiral George Dewey offered to assist General Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippine war for independence from Spain. The Philippine Revolution was on the verge of victory in the spring of 1898 when the last of the Spanish garrisons lay under siege in Manila. Protected only by the thick walls of the Intramuros, the Spaniards refused to raise the white flag of surrender to the Filipinos. While Dewey and his fleet of seven war ships were seemingly protecting Manila Harbor and preventing the escape of the Spaniards, he was also waiting for reinforcements from the United States. Only upon the arrival of American troops would Dewey be able to proceed with the American conquest of the Philippines. By the end of July 1898, three battalions had arrived, the third led by General Arthur MacArthur who later became commander of all the U.S. military forces in the Philippines and conducted the pacification campaign.

The Spaniards eventually surrendered, but only after an orchestrated mock battle on Manila Bay with the U.S.. The Spanish “code of honor” prohibited a surrender to former subjects that had defeated them, but whom they considered inferior. To save face, they were only willing to surrender to a “superior” force that briefly fought against them. While the mock battle was being planned and carried out, President William McKinley was preparing to negotiate the terms of Spain’s surrender. America’s “splendid little war” ended on December 10, 1898, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

Filipinos were excluded from the planning of their future and that of their incipient nation. Spain became $20 million richer that Christmas in exchange for giving up the Philippines to the United States. The United States, in turn, could now boast at being a bonafide member of elite imperial nations with its acquisition not only of the Philippines, but Guam, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and Hawaii.

The United States Senate had not yet ratified the Treaty of Paris when President McKinley issued his Proclamation of Benevolent Assimilation less than two weeks after the signing of the treaty. In it, McKinley declared “American sovereignty throughout the Philippines by means of force,” and that “the military commander of the United States is enjoined….in installing a new political power….” The president included in the proclamation that “we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employment, in their personal and religious rights.”

In the next ten years, a quarter of a million Filipinos would die from raining bullets, tortures, starvation, and diseases from the war. Letters home from American soldiers would boast of “killin’ niggers,” or express disgust at the destruction of entire villages in the name of civilization. News accounts would reveal the slaughter of men, women, and children in Samar and Batangas. Photographic postcards and stereocards would provide pictures of dead Filipinos dumped in open trenches.

Most of the American media heralded the conquest of the Philippines. They frequently demonized Aguinaldo in editorial cartoons. They derided anyone who opposed the annexation of the Philippines. Anti-imperialists, the most vocal of whom came from the upper echelons of American society, were vilified as unpatriotic weaklings. Even those who opposed the war for racist reasons – not wanting another non-white racial group incorporated into the American populace – were not spared the diatribes from those who felt that the conquest was a step forward towards America’s manifest destiny. Thus, prominent Americans like former president Grover Cleveland, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, writer Mark Twain, and Senator George Hoar were derisively labeled “aunties” or American “Filipinos.” With such strong opposition, the ratification of the Treaty of Paris barely passed – by one vote in the senate.

The republican administrations of McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were eager to move beyond the Philippine question, but felt compelled to address their critics. They, therefore, moved quickly to pacify the Philippines. By July 4, 1902, the so-called “insurgency”—a war that far surpassed the Spanish American War in human lives and military costs—was unilaterally declared over. The United States committed over 120,000 troops in its pacification campaign. To complete the colonizing project, an army of school teachers was sent to establish the public education system, a system that would remain under direct American control until 1935.

To the Filipinos, the Philippine-American War did not end in July 1902. Fighting continued well into the second decade of the twentieth century. Throughout the next forty years, the United States promulgated a string of laws to realize its policy of “benevolent assimilation.” The Sedition Law that prohibited any public action or support for Philippine independence from the U.S. The Brigandage Act that prohibited membership in armed opposition to American rule. The Reconcentration Act that emptied villages and created concentration camps to deprive rebels of peasant support. The Flag Law that prohibited the display of nationalist flags, banners or symbols, particularly those of the Katipunan. The Municipal Code that limited voting rights to only those who had been public officials, owned property, and could speak, write, and read English or Spanish. At the end of World War Two, the United States added the Bell Trade Act that gave the United States equal access to the exploitation of the Philippine natural resources, and the Rehabilitation Act that required the Philippines to change its constitution to guarantee American access to Philippine natural resources in exchange for post-war rehabilitation money.

The year that the Philippine-American War was declared over, the United States focused its attention on completing the Panama Canal, taking over what France had started and abandoned. Control of the sea lanes between Asia and the commercial centers in the east coast of the United States was integral to the country’s agenda of dominating the Pacific and the western hemisphere. In this part of the world, the principal competition would not come from Europe, but from Japan. Thirty years before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and Manila, an American statesman expressed what had become obvious: “As to who will be master of the Pacific Ocean is a question to be settled by the United States and Japan….Someone is going to dominate this ocean. If the United States doesn’t do it, then Japan will….Wars are carried on or kept in abeyance today at the dictates of commercialism, and the commercial advantages of being able to dominate trade in the Pacific Ocean are considered worth fighting for…The struggle may break out at almost any moment, but will surely begin as soon as the Panama Canal shall have been finished.” (Rupert, Yellow Peril, 1911)

With the United States firmly established in the Philippines, it now had a strategic position in Asia. And with the “dictates of commercialism” combined with the policy of “benevolent assimilation,” the United States was assured of a reliable stepping stone from which to manifest its self-proclaimed destiny.

So to sum it all up.

  1. After already conquering North America and Native American lands, in 1896 they wanted to further impose the ideals of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine beyond the America’s.
  2. The imperialist plans to take over and colonize the Philippines was disguised and hidden to the Filipino’s by deceiving General Emilio Aguinaldo into leaving his exile in Hong Kong to come to the Philippines to finish the fighting for the Filipino’s independence from Spain, and that the Admiral George Dewey and the U.S. was here to support their cause.
  3. While the Filipino’s were the ones actually winning the fights against the Spanish and cornering them into Intramuro’s, Manila, the well known Walled City of the Philippines, and were actually winning the fights against their original Spanish colonizers, due to the Spanish “codes of honor”, they refused to surrender to the Filipino’s, who were the people they conquered and colonized, and saw as inferior to them. For that would be a shame and humiliation to Spain if they surrendered to the people they saw as inferior and they colonized.
  4. While the Filipino’s were winning and fighting for their independence against Spain, Admiral George Dewey was secretly waiting for the ships of U.S. soldiers to arrive while deceiving Aguinaldo and the Filipino’s that the U.S. soldiers who were there now were there to make sure the Spaniards didn’t leave the archipelago. But sadly as history goes, that was all a big white imperialist lie.
  5. When the U.S. fleet finally arrived, the Filipino’s were ordered to stay out of Manila and leave the rest to the Americans. While the Filipino’s were rejoicing thinking that they finally won their independence after almost nearly 400 years of colonial rule from the Spanish and that all their fighting and hard work was coming to fruit, in reality inside the walls of Intramuro’s there was no real fighting or battle. It was a “mock battle”, a battle that the U.S. says they fought and won, when in reality, it was just a “mock battle”, so that the Spaniards could say they lost to a Western power, instead of admitting they lost to the people they colonized. Meanwhile President McKinley was already making negotiations during the Treaty of Paris, which Aguinaldo, our first president, and the Filipino’s who already formed their own government, were kept away from. Basically they were told to keep out of affairs dealing with what would happen with their people and their islands.
  6. After the Treaty of Paris basically Spain got richer and saved face, and the U.S. finally joined the ranks of the other imperialist nations such as England, Portugal, Spain, and France.
  7. Before the Treaty of Paris was even ratified by the Senate President McKinley already proclaimed the “Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation” which to put it bluntly was a proclamation saying, “hey Filipino’s and the Philippines, you belong to the U.S. now, I am your commander, bow down and accept and assimilate to the U.S. because we are “friends” here to save your unholy, savaged, selves, and if you don’t and refuse you will be an insurgent and thus killed.”
  8. After several years of killing men, woman, and children, torturing, bringing of diseases, setting up concentration camps, burning homes and villages, and pretty much making a slaughter of Filipino’s in the righteous name of God and the U.S., they continued and finished off their colonization by bringing American school teachers to come and teach the children and teach them English, more often than not reprimanding them if they spoke their native languages, as well as manipulate the newer generations into thinking that the Spaniards were the evil ones and the the U.S. was their hero’s. Those books used to teach and brainwash that young generation are still being used today to the point where the U.S. successfully did manipulate the population and hide the atrocities they did in the country. Because of this to this day many Filipino’s themselves, both in the Philippines and abroad, have no clue about the genocide and U.S. war crimes and the true events of U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines. It’s a colonial success that still continues today.

About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

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