unclesamsburden1-150x71Visualizing White Supremacy: the American War in the Philippines


 John F. McClymer

JGAPE Issue: August/September 2009Posted in conjunction with “Childhood’s Imperial Imagination: Edward Stratemeyer’s Fiction Factory and the Valorization of American Empire” by Brian Rouleau, Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 7.4 (October 2008).


“Visualizing White Supremacy: the American War in the Philippines” examines the visual construction of complementary images, of the Filipino as America’s “little brown brother” and of the American as the bearer of “the White Man’s Burden.” This process required the suppression of any acknowledgement that a substantial amount of the actual fighting was done by so-called Buffalo Soldiers, black American veterans of the Indian campaigns and of the war in Cuba. With one exception, all of the visual imagery of the American war effort that John McClymer has been able to locate showed whites exclusively.

The materials supplement “Childhood’s Imperial Imagination: Edward Stratemeyer’s Fiction Factory and the Valorization of American Empire” by Brian Rouleau, which was published in the October 2008 issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Rouleau’s article explores how the juvenile fiction of the day enabled young male readers to imagine themselves as heroic participants in the building of the new American empire. Stratemeyer’s “fiction factory” created word pictures, which fired the imaginations of boys with dreams of imperial glory. Here we have collected an array of visual representations, including early movies, stereopticon slides, photographs and illustrations from newly magazines, and souvenirs from the Philippine Reservation at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

The editors invite you to comment on the materials assembled here, to suggest additions, and to share ideas for how to use these visual constructions of racial supremacy and altruistic imperialism with students. Please contact John McClymer @ jmcclyme@assumption.edu.

The caption reads: The Philippines, Porto Rico and Cuba—Uncle Sam’s Burden (With Apologies to Mr. Kipling.)




When the United States declared war on Spain, ostensibly because of Spain’s inability to end the Cuban insurrection or provide safety to foreign interests, epitomized by the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor, it first struck half way around the globe as the American Pacific fleet destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila harbor in the Philippines. As with the Cubans, the Filipinos had revolted against their Spanish colonial overlords. As in Cuba, American forces joined with the rebel forces to defeat the Spanish. In Cuba the United States recognized a new independent Cuban state. But, the U.S. bought the Spanish claims to the Philippines as part of the peace treaty. The Insurrectos refused to acknowledge their new colonial masters. This led to a long and brutal war. Theodore Roosevelt officially proclaimed an American victory on the Fourth of July, 1902. Fighting, however, continued for another decade. More than 12,000 Americans died. 220,000 or more Filipinos perished. [There is a brief history of the conflict at the U.. Department of State. There is a more detailed account at the Philippine History Site at the University of Hawaii.]

The United States had long coveted what James K. Polk called an “empire on the Pacific.” Advocates of American imperial expansion in the Pacific, such as Theodore Roosevelt, saw the Philippines both as a potentially valuable acquisition and as a steppingstone to Japan, China, and southeastern Asia. Such strategic objectives may have been primary. But, advocates of American expansionism often described conquest as a duty racially and culturally superior westerners owed to the peoples they conquered. In 1899 in McClure’s Magazine British poet Rudyard Kipling called upon the United States to take up “the White Man’s Burden” by bringing the benefits of western civilization to its “new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child” in the Philippines. William Howard Taft expressed the same view of the Filipinos to President McKinley when he referred to them as our “little brown brothers” and calculated that it would require “fifty or one hundred years” of American guidance for them “to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.” Each word in the phrase “little brown brothers” was freighted with meaning. They not only defined the Filipinos. They also defined the Americans who became the big brothers, the big white brothers.

Before the Americans could actively take on the role of agents of Anglo-Saxon civilization, they had first to conquer the Philippines. The acquisition of the Philippines touched off a national debate over imperialism. Anti-imperialists wrote essays and books, gave speeches, passed resolutions (including an anti-imperialist plank in the Democratic platform in 1900). Their voices were heard if ultimately not heeded. Visual representations of the question, on the other hand, were almost all on the pro-imperialist side. If one picture is actually worth a thousand words, then the anti-imperialists labored under a severe handicap.

This page collects representations of the Philippine-American War and its aftermath. It focuses on the visual construction of both America’s “little brown brother” and his white American counterpart.

The Document Analysis Worksheets developed by the National Archives are quite useful. Instructors may want to provide their students with those for movies and photographs. The following questions for students focus upon content.

Some Preliminary Questions:

  • How did the Edison Company portray the American military effort? That of the Filipinos? Be specific. How did Biograph?
  • How did stereopticon slide manufacturers portray the American military effort? Be specific. What sorts of images did they favor? Did they appeal to sentiment? How?
  • How did the slides portray Filipinos? Again, be specific. What sorts of images did they favor? Did they appeal to sentiment? How?
  • How did the Harper’s Weekly illustrations and photographs portray the Filipinos? Again, be specific. What sorts of images did they favor? Did they appeal to sentiment? How?
  • How did the Harper’s illustrations and photographs portray the Americans? Be specific. What sorts of images did they favor? Did they appeal to sentiment? How?
  • Did the movies, the slides, and Harper’s illustrations/photographs reinforce each other? Contradict each other? In what ways?

Primary Materials:

Secondary Materials:

A.B. Feuer, America at War: The Philippines, 1898-1913 (2002)

Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (1998)

Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (1990)

Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (2002)

Nancy J. Parezo and Don D. Fowler, Anthropology Goes to the Fair: The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (2007)

David J. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 (2008)

Richard E. Welch, Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 (1979)


“The World of 1898: The Spanish American War” at the Library of Congress’ American Memory site

“The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures” at the Library of Congress’ American Memory site

“A War in Perspective, 1898-1998: Public Appeals, Memory, and the Spanish-American Conflict,” an exhibition at the New York Public Library curated by Professor Alfonso W. Quiroz, Department of History, Baruch College and the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York

The Philippine History Site, Office of Multi-cultural Affairs, University of Hawaii