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Debate: Should the U.S. Annex the Philippines?

by John P. Spencer and Eliza Fabillar, American Social History Project

In this activity, students analyze primary documents from a variety of perspectives to gain an understanding of contemporary arguments for and against U.S. annexation of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. After reading the documents, students choose one document, prepare their arguments, and debate U.S. annexation of the Philippines from the perspective of the author of their document. The activity can also substitute written responses for oral debate.

Debate: Should the U.S. Annex the Philippines?

Americans divided sharply in 1899 over whether to annex the Philippines as part of the United States. In 1900, Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, running for a second time against William McKinley, made anti-imperialism the central issue of his campaign. McKinley won easily, and historian Walter LaFeber has argued that Bryan’s defeat showed that the American public had reached a fundamental consensus in favor of American expansionism abroad. "By 1899," he concludes, "the United States had forged a new empire." Still, the conflict between imperialists, isolationists, and Filipinos who fought for their nation’s independence would echo in debates over U.S foreign policy for the rest of the twentieth century.

Goal: To analyze contemporary arguments for and against U.S. annexation of the Philippines at the turn of the century.

Themes: conflicts between imperialism, isolationism, and movements for national self-determination.

Skills: document analysis; taking and defending a position in writing and in debate; conflict resolution and consensus-building .

Materials: Excerpts from interviews, writings and speeches of President William McKinley, Senator Alfred Beveridge, presidential candiadate William Jennings Bryan, the Colored Citizens of Boston, Filipino independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo, and activist Clemencia Lopez.


Step 1: Document Analysis

Each group member should examine ONE of the following documents. You will debate annexation of the Philippines from the perspective of the writer of your document. Make sure your group includes at least one pro-annexation, one anti-annexation, and one Filipino perspective. After reading your assigned document, skim the other ones.

(All links open in separate windows from this instruction sheet.)

1. U.S. President William McKinley interview excerpt published in 1903.

2. U.S. Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

3. Senator Alfred Beveridge (Republican-Indiana)

4. Colored Citizens of Boston (The Boston Post, July 18, 1899)

5. Emilio Aguinaldo (President of the Independent Philippine Republic)

6. Clemencia Lopez (An Activist in the Philippine Struggle for Independence)

Step 2: Prepare to Debate

Prepare to debate, from the perspective of your character, by answering the following questions:

1. What is the name of your character (i.e., author of your document)?

2. What position is your character taking on the question of annexation (making the United States part of the Philippines)? What are his / her reasons?

3. What more would you like to know about your character?

4. Why do you think your character thinks the way he / she does? What would it take to change his / her thinking somewhat?

5. What are some of the reasons on the other side of the argument?

6. If your character had to try to reach a consensus or compromise with others who disagree, what kind of compromise would your character be willing to accept? What would he /she not be willing to compromise on?

Step 3: Choosing a recorder

Make a chart with space for reasons for and against U.S. annexation of the Philippines. Choose someone to record these reasons during the debate.

Step 4: Presenting the views from the documents

Each group member, pretending they are the person who wrote their assigned document, should present that person’s view on annexation to the rest of the group.

Step 5: Debate

When everyone has presented their view, continue discussing and debating the question of U.S. annexation. Use the documents and their authors as the basis for your debate. In other words, try to STAY IN CHARACTER!

Step 6: Reaching a consensus

By the end of the debate, group members should try to reach a consensus-a compromise on which everyone can agree-about what position the U.S. should take on the question of annexation. Participants should refer to their answers from Step 2.

Step 7: Report to the class

Share your thoughts with the class, as to what kind of consensus you reached, and what the process was like. What was most interesting and/or enjoyable about the activity? What was most challenging, and why?

Possible Follow-up Writing Activity: Taking an Editorial Stand

Based on the consensus it reached in the debate / discussion, the group should write a newspaper editorial on whether or not the United States should annex the Philippines.