Mark Twain: Filipino freedom fighter

Filipino freedom fighter? You heard right. Not many Filipino schoolkids forced to read Mark Twain think of the 19th-century American novelist as such. But consider this: while the US was laying out $20 million for the "purchase" of the Philippines from Spain back in 1898, the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was a lone voice in the wilderness, saying: No, this is a very bad idea. 

Now, at the time, Twain (born Samuel Clemens) was one of America’s most well-known humorists, but he was also one of its most astute pessimists. (An astute pessimist differs from your common-variety pessimist in that he knows exactly why the human race is doomed. Twain was well-armed for such a title.) 

I often wonder what it would be like to sit down and talk with Twain: the scraggly moustache, the bushy eyebrows, the ever-present pipe. What would he have to say about modern affairs? Judging from his writing, he would no doubt be amused, in a satirical "we’re all going to hell in a handbasket" kind of way, by how little has changed, either in politics or the human condition. 

Twain made a living in his later years traveling Europe and other parts of the globe, giving speeches for money, advancing his reputation as a curmudgeon and wit. "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to," he wrote, summing up the human condition nicely. 

But it was in 1901 that Twain joined the Anti-Imperialist League, a group dedicated to stopping American colonialism. And it was as this group’s vice president that he began speaking out against, of all things, American intervention in the Philippines. (I am indebted to Jim Zwick’s fascinating website,, for most of the following material by Twain.) 

Image by adastracomix
At the time, US President William McKinley was pursuing a war with Spain, forcing the Spanish army out of Cuba, and by some quirk of expansionism, arriving at the Philippines’ doorstep. The problem is, the United States (with some help from yellow newspapers which had softened American public opinion) now decided that it had some "civilizing" to do in the recently emancipated Philippines. 

This is what apparently stuck in Twain’s craw: not so much the US role in driving out the Spanish, but its insistence on sticking around to share in the spoils afterward. The writer crafted a series of articles which, when published, earned him a large amount of hate mail from his previous fans, and did virtually nothing to change public opinion about the US presence in the Philippines. 

But, boy, could he craft a letter. Twain’s most famous piece on the US-Philippine situation ran in the February 1901 North American Review, entitled "To the Person Sitting in Darkness." It was a lengthy satirical essay written in the form of a letter which used savage wit to demonstrate how barbaric the US policy really was – not just in the Philippines, but in Cuba, in China, and wherever else it held expansionist designs. 

Filipinos should perhaps study these writings of Twain to realize that at least one American at the time had a clear view of the world beyond US shores. His displeasure with a US foreign policy that would soon burgeon into a "walk softly and carry a big stick" style of governing (under the Teddy Roosevelt years) was fueled by outrage. "I thought we should act as their protector," Twain wrote of the Philippines. "Not try to get them under our heel. But now – why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater." 

It should be mentioned that Twain did not feel this way about most US endeavors into foreign policy. He was not a knee-jerk liberal, but he did possess, beneath his misanthropic leanings, a heart. And I believe his heart went out to Filipinos, especially after reading about their heroic battles, the bravery of Aguinaldo, and the systematic use of military force to quell the "new" rebellion against their unwanted caretakers. 

"The game was in our hands," he writes: 

If it had been played according to the American rules, Dewey would have sailed away from Manila as soon as he had destroyed the Spanish fleet – after putting up a sign on shore guaranteeing foreign property and life against damage by the Filipinos, and warning the Powers that interference with the emancipated patriots would be regarded as an act unfriendly to the United States...

Dewey could have gone about his affairs elsewhere, and left the competent Filipino army to starve out the little Spanish garrison and send it home, and the Filipino citizens to set up the form of government they might prefer, and deal with the friars and their doubtful acquisitions according to Filipino ideas of fairness and justice – ideas which have since been tested and found to be of as high an order as any that prevail in Europe or America. 

Instead, Twain notes, the US tried to be the next British Empire, extending its acquisitions into the 20th century, just at a time when most European powers were shedding their former colonies. As I said: a very bad idea. 

"The Person Sitting in Darkness" of the title refers to those pockets of humanity still left in the world which somehow have escaped "civilizing." Twain’s deft mockery thus covers Christian missionaries as much as military operations. The writer uses irony in the manner of Jonathan Swift, pretending to defend American policy, while actually lampooning it. Of course, in this day and age, it’s often hard to tell where irony begins and ends; in Twain’s day, the sharp jabs from his pen probably flew above the heads of many readers. But we can’t mistake his defense of "the Business" for endorsement. His writing practically drips venom. 

The more we examine the mistake, the more clearly we perceive that it is going to be bad for the Business. The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: ‘There is something curious about this – curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. 

He goes into detail about the military zeal which transformed a freedom-fighting mission in this archipelago into submission at the end of a bayonet. The US forces sent to the Philippines, it should be noted, had much previous experience in subduing native people: many of them had been active in the massacre of Native American populations during the Indian Wars of the previous decades. 

He twists the knife nicely in the final paragraph, comparing the United States foreign policy to high piracy: 

And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one – our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones. 

Twain, much to his credit, called it as he saw it: he was engaged in a noble battle to change public opinion which ultimately failed. (It took another 40 years for the US to finally give up the ghost in the Philippines.) But his heart was definitely in the right place. Too bad the people who should have heeded his words probably never took his writing very seriously in the first place.

By  Scott R. Garceau 


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Rading said…
Good old Twain.He made a jab to then Colonizer. May your soul still guide the current leaders of the World.