The Identity Crisis of U.S. Democracy and its Imperialistic Annexation of the Philippines

Jeremiah Clabough University of Alabama-Birmingham

The United States has always been conflicted about what its role should be in
international affairs. This started early in U.S. history as George Washington warned Americans in his Farewell Address to avoid foreign entanglements. Washington’s Farewell Address provided a vision for the U.S in international
diplomacy that shaped a large portion of Americans’ views until the end of the 19th century.

However, the United States could not resist the urge to engage in imperialistic actions like other European nations with the potential of opening
foreign economic markets and exploiting the natural resources of a country for profit (Pearcy, 2019).

One notable example of American imperialism is the annexation of the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War. These imperialistic actions by the administration of President William McKinley created a political backlash. Many
Americans felt the U.S. was betraying its core principles and values. Anti-imperialists found their voice and leadership in William Jennings Bryan.

In this article, I explore William Jennings Bryan’s reasons for protesting U.S. imperialistic practices in regards to the annexation of the Philippines. First, a brief overview of William Jennings Bryan is given. Then, the article shifts to look at the importance of examining political figures’ positions on issues. An analysis of political
figures’ policies can help students develop their own political beliefs about public issues. Then, I provide an activity that allows middle school students to see William Jennings Bryan’s objections to the U.S. replicating the imperialistic practices of
Western European countries. The steps and resources needed to implement this activity are given.

William Jennings Bryan: The Righteous
Champion of Movements

William Jennings Bryan did more than deliver The Cross of Gold speech to advocate for silver as opposed to the use of gold and take part in The Scopes Trial to defend the beliefs of creationism against evolution. He was politically active when the United States was in a time of transition into an industrial power in the back part
of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Like all periods of transition in U.S. society, this era created uncertainty by many about the direction of the United States. William Jennings Bryan became the voice for many Americans about the challenges being created as the U.S. underwent these changes. These challenges included how American farmers and the majority of average citizens were left out of the economic gains by manufacturing during the Gilded Age. The changes brought by U.S. industrialization, issues of using silver as currency, and Bryan’s eloquence as a
public speaker led him to be the Democratic nominee in the 1896 presidential election. Bryan lost the 1896 presidential election to the Republican nominee William McKinley (Cherny, 1994; Koening, 1971; Kazin, 2006). For many state social studies standards, William Jennings Bryan vanishes from the pages of history after his defeat to McKinley in the 1896 presidential election only to reappear in the guise of a publicity speaker in the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee to argue against the teaching of evolution and to affirm creationism taught in the Bible. However, Bryan was far from quiet in American politics after his defeat in the 1896 presidential election.

Analyzing U.S. Politicians’ Positions on Public

U.S. politicians’ stances on public policies are influenced by their political, social, cultural, economic, religious, geographical, and regional values, biases, and beliefs. These factors impact how people perceive the contours of an issue and then construct public policies to grapple with a contemporary challenge. Politicians’ public policy solutions allow middle school students to contextualize an historical time period by analyzing vexing issues of an era (Oliver & Shaver, 1966).

The examination of politicians’ public policies provides a great learning opportunity for middle school students. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) advocates for this type of social studies instruction to strengthen K-12 students’ content-area literacy, thinking, and argumentation skills for the social studies
disciplines in its C3 Framework (NCSS, 2013). Students are able to analyze politicians’ rhetoric to see how they argue for certain policies. This allows students to see how political parties and their candidates differ on solutions to issues. Additionally, students are able to research how political parties’ beliefs are fluid because of how
issues, figures, and events impact, shape, and alter party platforms and values. The ability to analyze political rhetoric is a valuable skill for students to possess as future democratic citizens in order to be able to make informed decisions about political
candidates and public policies to support (Engle & Ochoa, 1988). Students need to be able to decode politicians’ subtle arguments and hold them accountable for statements that negatively impact a person’s local community, state, and nation
(Clabough & Pearcy, 2018; Pearcy & Clabough, 2018).

Our middle school social studies classroom should be a “laboratory for democracy” where students research and generate solutions to historical and contemporary issues (Clabough & Wooten, 2016). These learning experiences equip our students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be actively involved and informed
future democratic citizens. More importantly students can decide for themselves about which political party, candidates, and issues to support; in other words, students are able to develop their own civic identities (Rubin, 2010).

Analyzing the Reasons for William Jennings Bryan’s Arguments against U.S. Imperialism

First, the teacher starts by having middle school students in pairs read the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, which can be accessed at Pairs read the first two paragraphs of this seminal document that helped to formulate the political principles and beliefs of the United States and then answer the following two
supporting questions.

1. According to Jefferson, where do governments derive their power? Use evidence to support your arguments.

2. Based on these two paragraphs, what are the political beliefs of United States? How do you think these values will influence U.S. foreign policy? Use evidence to support your arguments.

These two supporting questions help students grasp many of the core political beliefs of the United States. This background knowledge is important for the next steps of this lesson plan because William Jennings Bryan argued that the McKinley administration and supporters of imperialistic practices in the U.S. violated many of
our core political beliefs. These core political beliefs include the ability of a people toward self-determination in their own government and the values of political independence and personal liberty (Glad, 1960; Kosner, 1970; Jessen, 2017).

After students read and answer the two supporting questions about the Declaration of Independence, there is a class discussion. Students add onto their responses based on peers’ comments. The teacher may ask the following extension question. Based on the democratic principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence, how should the United States interact with other countries? This class discussion allows students to learn from their peers. The analysis prompts and extension question help students grasp how principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence should position the United States as an ally to countries espousing democratic ideas and beliefs on a global scale. Again, this step of the activity helps students to see how the core political beliefs of the U.S. stood in contradiction to the imperialistic practices that will be discussed at the end of the 19th century.

Next, students watch a brief Crash Course video ( to gain background knowledge about how the Spanish American War led to imperialistic actions by the United States. After watching the Crash Course video, students in the same pairs answer the following two supporting questions.

1. Why did U.S. engage in imperialistic actions? Use evidence from the video to
support your arguments.

2. Why did some people oppose the U.S. engaging in imperialistic actions? Use
evidence from the video to support your arguments.

These two supporting questions help students articulate the reasons that politicians had different beliefs about whether the United States should get involved in imperialistic practices and thus change the ways that it engages in international relations with other countries.

Once the pairs answer these two questions, there is another class discussion. The teacher compiles students’ answers to these two questions on the board and asks the following extension question.

Why did technological changes brought by the Second Industrial Revolution create economic incentives for the U.S. to engage in imperialistic practices abroad?

It is important during this class discussion that the teacher stresses the importance
of supporting answers to these questions with evidence from the video. The discussion of these questions helps students grasp how the potential for
economic wealth in foreign markets was a driving force for U.S. imperialistic practices. The compilation of answers to these questions allows students to draw on notes from this class discussion for the summative writing prompt.

Students need opportunities to analyze texts that capture historical and contemporary figures’ beliefs and public policies (Journell, 2017). To examine
William Jennings Bryan’s beliefs about imperialism, the teacher may use excerpts from his Imperialism: Flag of an Empire speech. This is arguably Bryan’s most well-known speech about his arguments against imperialism. Pairs read excerpts
from this speech. Specifically, they look at paragraphs 24-29 from Bryan’s speech (accessible at After reading these excerpts, students complete the
following graphic organizer.

Graphic Organizer for William Jennings Bryan’s Critique of U.S. Imperialism

The questions in this graphic organizer enable students to articulate Bryan’s beliefs about imperialism. Pairs support their answers to these questions by drawing on evidence from the excerpts of Bryan’s speech. The teacher circulates the classroom to help pairs as they are completing this graphic organizer. By completing this graphic organizer, students gain experience analyzing how historical figures frame and rationalize their arguments. Bryan’s interpretation of America’s political identity created conflict because he saw the McKinley administration as betraying the political values and beliefs of the country (Glad, 1960; Kosner, 1970).

After pairs complete the graphic organizer, students share their responses to the three questions, and they add onto their graphic organizer based on peers’ comments. The teacher asks the following supporting question.

How did the American political identity create conflict with engaging in imperialistic actions for Bryan?

Students share their responses to this question. The teacher should point out that one driving conflict throughout U.S. history in foreign diplomacy is that politicians see the role of the U.S. differently. This can clearly be seen with the U.S. not being involved in the League of Nations after World War I, and the Senate almost passing the Bricker Amendment in the 1950s to limit the power of the President to enter diplomatic agreements like those made at the Yalta Conference (Caro, 2003). These examples help students to understand the reasons for politicians’ differing beliefs about public policies connected to U.S. foreign policy.

Next, pairs use all of the information collected at this point to take civic action. They
select one of the two following prompts and write a one-page op ed similar to those that appear in The New York Times (Clabough & Wooten, 2016).

  1. Assume the role of a supporter of William Jennings Bryan that has just heard his
    Imperialism: Flag of an Empire speech. Use evidence from sources examined to
    articulate Bryan’s arguments and explain his reasons for why the U.S. should not engage in imperialistic actions. You should also explain why U.S. democratic beliefs and imperialism are a contradiction.
  1. Assume the role of a supporter of the McKinley administration’s position on the
    annexation of the Philippines that has just heard William Jennings Bryan’s
    Imperialism: Flag of an Empire speech. Use evidence from sources examined to support your arguments on why Bryan is wrong about imperialism and why the U.S. should engage in imperialistic actions. You should also explain why U.S. democratic beliefs and imperialism are not a contradiction.

Regardless of the writing prompt pairs select, this writing activity allows students to use evidence to make persuasive arguments about a public issue in an historical era. Students use evidence to articulate their beliefs about the U.S. foreign policy
through examining the questions raised by William Jennings Bryan about imperialism. Students gain experience making persuasive arguments about a
public issue, which is a skill that they can apply as future democratic citizens. Democratic citizens must work through the mechanisms of local, state, and federal government to hold politicians accountable for foreign policies that are reflective
of American ideals and principles (Levine, 2007).

After pairs write and edit their op-ed piece, they share their work in class. This allows students to hear their peers’ arguments about William Jennings Bryan’s opinions about the reasons that the U.S. should not annex the Philippines. The
sharing and discussions about pairs’ op eds allow students to explore imperialism in more depth (Hess & McAvoy, 2015). One supporting question that the teacher may ask to extend the discussion is the following. How can U.S. foreign policy create
ripple effects for future interactions with other countries? An examination of this supporting question helps students grasp the long-term ramifications of U.S. action in international diplomacy. The teacher can point out that the U.S. has had to deal with the fallout of some foreign policy decisions for a long time such as the CIA
supported coup of Iran in 1953 (Magliocca, Pellegrino, & Adragna, 2019). These discussions help students grasp the importance of the U.S. having a consistent political philosophy in its international diplomacy.


In this article, I discuss how middle school social studies teachers can explore the political contradiction of U.S. democracy engaging in imperialistic actions. Arguably William Jennings Bryan made the most articulate critique of the annexation of the Philippines by the McKinley administration. For Bryan, imperialism violated the
morale character of the United States. A country like the United States that was founded upon the principles of political self-determination and personal liberty should not deny these political rights to others (Kosner, 1970; Cherny, 1994). The
activity in this article could be modified and replicated to look at the contradiction of other Western European countries’ imperialistic actions.

The most famous cases of imperialism tend to be examples where countries espousing democratic values engaged in non-democratic actions for economic benefit (Pearcy, 2019). Some examples include Great Britain in India, the United
States in the Philippines, and Belgium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each example provides an opportunity to explore the political identity of a democratic country when it does not engage in a foreign policy espousing democratic values. After analyzing sources about a democratic country’s imperialistic actions, students can research and discuss how World War II served as a catalyst to end many imperialistic regimes. The hypocrisy of democratic countries fighting for freedom from Nazi Germany while preventing political freedoms of their imperialistic holdings abroad led to numerous countries gaining independence at the end of World War II.

Imperialism has been an underexplored topic in social studies education. The recent NCSS accreditation standards place imperialism as a central topic for social studies education (NCSS, 2018). Middle school students need opportunities to analyze a democratic country’s imperialistic actions. These activities provide examples of
missed opportunities when citizens do not hold their countries responsible for an anti-democratic foreign policies. Students can also research how imperialistic actions create conflict in an interconnected global world that influence countries’ relationships in the past, present, and potential future (Harshman, 2015; Pearcy, 2019).


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