On Jan. 16, 1899, W. G. Sumner (1840-1910) gave a brilliant lecture at Yale that was prophetical in terms of today’s world.
Sumner’s address in its entirety can be found on the website of the Mises Institute located in Auburn, Alabama. (https://mises.org/library/conquest-united-states-spain).
Sumner argued that although the U.S. won the Spanish-American War in 1898 militarily, Spain eventually won out ideologically and in terms of its policies. How so?
According to Sumner, Spain had the distinction in the late 19th century of championing imperialism, war and expansionism, i.e., taking over land from another country, in order to meet its goals or objectives. The U.S. entered into war with Spain precipitously, and in the course of time copycatted Spain by embracing imperialism, war and expansionism the way Spain did, namely, by telling people from other nations “how to live their lives.”
Moreover, Spain had the odious distinction in a span of 150 years of exploiting its colonies for its own benefit. Spain practically annihilated the aborigines, treating them as less than human. Any nation that dehumanizes other people by stating they are “unfit for self-government” and freedom makes a terrible mistake. Why so? Historically speaking, the U.S. has held to the belief that all men and women are created equal, regardless of color, ethnicity or religion.
No country has the right to say that people different from them can be “bought or sold” and are “not fit” for freedom and self-government. Sumner poses this key question: Does the U.S. Constitution extend to all the people in the U.S. and its territories or are we to “throw the Constitution into the gutter” and thus do away with our democracy?
Sumner also warns us against protectionism with the words “when we shut all the world out, we find that we have shut ourselves in.”
To elicit trade with another nation, two elements are needed, namely 1) an economic one, summed up in the words, “we must produce what we want,” and they “must produce what they want,” and 2) a political element “there must be peace, and security, and freedom from arbitrary obstacles by government.” If both conditions are met, trade will be possible.
Sumner speaks forcefully against imperialism, that is, “war, taxation, debt, a great government system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, and lavish expenditures.” He remarks that equality comes easy when individuals have the option of exploring a huge continent that has a small population.
However, as the U.S. population becomes larger, we’ll have the many evils associated with imperialism, such as war, taxation etc. as noted above.
In the past, the people in our democracy had “a sound instinct on these matters,” avers Sumner, in that they were strongly against imperialism and did not want a standing army and a large public debt.
Sumner was prescient in knowing that plutocracy, or rule by the wealthy, would be the “great foe of democracy,” as we see today in the ruling of the Supreme Court in Citizens United and the many billionaires in our cabinet officials.
Sumner felt that wars, taxes and a larger public debt would be felt more by the poor and weak citizens as opposed to the wealthy few. Thus, the gap between rich and poor would greatly increase, as we see today.
Sumner also points out that imperialism is diametrically opposed to the “best traditions, principles and interests of the American people.” It will also plunge us into a "network of difficult problems and perils."
Perhaps Thomas Jefferson in his Inaugural Address was on target in suggesting that the U.S. stay out of “entangling alliances.”
If we had followed his advice, we would have stayed out of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, thus saving us the loss of life among our brave veterans plus trillions of dollars.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Auburn University.