Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League

Mark Twain

As the United States gained an overseas empire, Mark Twain and others spoke out against imperialism in general and American imperialism in particular.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the major nations of Europe rushed to develop colonies in Africa and Asia, often justifying their actions with the claim that they were bringing the “blessings of civilization” to those unenlightened continents. Not surprisingly, many of the unenlightened peoples resisted being ruled by foreign powers, and the Europeans found themselves facing insurgencies such as the Boer Wars in southern Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. The United States somewhat belatedly joined the Europeans as a colonialist power following its victory in the 1898 war with Spain, which left it in possession of such formerly Spanish territories as Cuba and the Philippines.

Opposition to American Imperialism

The 1898 Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish-American War essentially allowed for the annexation of the Philippines by the United States. A Filipino independence movement begun earlier in the decade to free the islands from Spanish rule now was directed against the new foreign ruler, America. While many, if not most, Americans favored annexation, there were notable opponents, including William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, John Dewey, William James – and Mark Twain. They, along with many others, formed the Anti-Imperialist League, which briefly served as the organizational center for opposition to the developing American Empire.

Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialism

Twain told the New York Herald on October 15, 1900: “I have read carefully the Treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” The following month he spoke to the Berkeley Lyceum about the peasant insurgency in China: “The Boxer is a patriot,” he said, and added, “I am a Boxer.” As Twain biographer Ron Powers notes, by identifying himself with the opponents of foreign rule, he anticipated by over sixty years President Kennedy’s declaration to the citizens of West Berlin, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

Twain continued his fierce criticism of American imperialism in his essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” in which he excoriated not only imperialist governments, but also their supporters: the business interests always coveting new markets, and the missionary interests always coveting new converts. These three constituted what Twain called the “Blessings-of-Civilization Trust,” a satirical take on what Rudyard Kipling had called “the white man’s burden.” In our dealings with the Filipinos, Twain wrote: “There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil…. The Head of every State and Sovereignty in Christendom and ninety per cent. of every legislative body in Christendom, including our Congress and our fifty State Legislatures, are members not only of the church, but also of the Blessings-of-Civilization Trust. This world-girdling accumulation of trained morals, high principles, and justice, cannot do an unright thing, an unfair thing, an ungenerous thing, an unclean thing. It knows what it is about. Give yourself no uneasiness; it is all right.”

The Silencing of Mark Twain

In the same years that Twain was establishing himself as the voice of the nation’s conscience, forces were developing in American society that would effectively silence that voice. As Ron Powers points out, these were the same forces that are present today, narrowing our own public expressions of opinion: media consolidation, corporate control of editorial content, and a focus on “celebrities” and entertainment. In an attempt to broaden circulation and increase revenue, the leading newspapers began including comic strips, puzzles, dramatic front page photographs and sketches, and lavish advertisements for department stores. By 1905, what would have been unthinkable a few years earlier was becoming all too common: magazines were rejecting articles by Mark Twain. Essays now considered classic, such as “The War Prayer” and “The United States of Lyncherdom,” were not published until after Twain’s death. Twain himself withheld an essay called “As Concerns Interpreting the Deity,” knowing the bitter reaction that it was likely to provoke. “I will leave it behind,” he wrote, “and utter it from the grave. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family.”

Mark Twain’s writings unquestionably grew darker and more pessimistic towards the end of his life. Whether this was because of his own increasing infirmities and the deaths of his wife and two of his three daughters, or the increasing madness of the world around him with its assassinations, wars, and rumors of wars – or both – is open to debate. What is certain is that, whatever the circumstances in which he wrote them, Mark Twain’s words remain as fresh and relevant today as they were a century and more ago.


  1. Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005, pp. 603–610.