Democracy and Empire

Democracy and Empire

On November 2, 1900 the United States took a monumental step that would alter its role, reputation, and identity within world affairs when Dr. Jacob Schurman urged the government not to withdraw from the Philippine Islands saying, “the performance of our national duty will prove the greatest blessing to the peoples of the Philippine Islands.” (Zar) The decision to annex the Philippines challenged America’s core founding values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and threatened the country’s existence as a democracy as opposed to an empire. However, pro-imperialist Americans such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Jacob Schurman perceived this imperialism as interdependent with American democracy much like how Pericles viewed Athens as having a reciprocal relationship between its empire and democracy.

The justifications for the United States’ sovereignty over the Philippine Islands include strategic military positioning, new opportunities for foreign markets to boost the American economy, and an increased influence in world affairs. According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, American imperialism would be necessary to become a great nation, and this entailed building a stronger Navy and expanding commerce through foreign trade. The opportunity to occupy the Philippines conveniently presented itself as a way to kill two birds with one stone: spread the American democratic values and improve it’s standing in world affairs at the same time.

Both the leaders of the Athenian Empire and the United States in the early 20th century saw their respective forms of government as the ideal version to be followed as an example by the rest of the world. The Athenians thought what they were doing was righteous because they were “saving” other Greek city-states from being governed by a small minority. Similarly, Schurman believed that the Filipinos would not be able to successfully govern themselves and that it would be morally wrong to abandon them after helping them end their years of oppressive rule under Spain and detrimental to its progress.

Not only did both Athens and the United States believe that their democratic form of government could coexist with the state’s imperialism, but they also held that their democracy helped to fuel their empire. During his famous Funeral Oration, Pericles uses this opportunity and capitalizes upon the recent battle against Sparta in the Peloponnesian war to credit the greatness of the Athenian Empire saying, “the customs that brought us to this point, the form of government and the way of life have made our city great.” This, in turn, attracted the best products, thinkers, and resources from around the world to come to Athens and continue to improve the way of life in Athens.

In both time periods, the interdependency between democracy and imperialism boiled down to one thing: the need to prove that democracy was indeed the superior form of government to be followed. Proving this point would not be possible if either Athens or the United States was weak militarily or economically. Because of this, it was each state’s “manifest destiny” to become an empire—even if its empire would not last forever.

  • Quin Ramos

Word Count: 506

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

American Imperialism: Annexing the Philippines

One thought on “Democracy and Empire

  1. The relation you were able to make between the Philippines and Athens made this blog post particularly easy to grasp and put into context. You did an excellent job explaining the surrounding situations of each entity, and evaluating them with respect to democracy. I found your relationship between democracy, military, and economics particularly insightful. I agree with you in every respect, however I find that most people separate the thoughts from one another. Democracy is dealt with at home, military is dealt with afar, and economics are left to the professionals. Really, though, the three are intertwined and, when used strategically, can greatly advance the position of one country over another.


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