A Modern Translatio imperii
The idea that the executive branch of the U.S. government should have a legitimate power to wage an imperial war of conquest and colonization, and to do so with only a modicum of congressional approval and oversight, was first tested at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the U.S., taking full advantage of Spain’s definitive collapse as an empire, conquered and colonized Spain’s erstwhile colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. What occurred on a grand scale at this juncture was a translatio imperii or imperial transfer of power from Spain to the United States of America. But if the medieval concept of the translatio imperii construed such transfers of power from one emperor or empire to the next as a linear continuum that was destined, according to the prophecies of Daniel, to reach the end of times, in the modern era this apocalyptic vision of imperial decline is turned back on itself. Rather than a continuum of successive transfers of power destined for eventual collapse, the modern understanding of the translatio imperii is optimistic; it sees this transfer of power as a modernizing and enlightening advance.
According to the positivistic logic of this modern view, American imperialism is superior in kind and quality to Spanish imperialism because the American brand of imperialism, as conceived originally by the nation’s Founding Fathers, seeks to spread liberty and Enlightenment, while the tyranny inherent to the Spanish brand of imperialism only served as an impediment to Enlightenment. It was in such cheerful terms that American imperialists of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would defend the expansion of U.S. dominion over Spain’s ex-colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific. America, they claimed, was a liberating and civilizing empire. There is, of course, a much less flattering interpretation of this imperial transition of power from Spain to the United States of America. According to the anti-imperialists, this transition rather marked a regression of the American republic toward the unenlightened and tyrannical forms of a pre-modern Spanish imperium. Instead of a modernizing advancement destined to spread enlightenment around the globe, anti-imperialists viewed U.S. imperial expansion as evidence of the republic’s decline into a sinister state of political and cultural decadence.
Considered in this darker light, the U.S. conquest and colonization of the Philippines was just as savage and cruel as Spain’s conquests in the Americas at the start of the sixteenth century. But the similarities between U.S. and Spanish imperialism that this anti-imperialist perspective identifies were not limited to cruelty alone. The connection, as both the apologists for U.S. imperial expansion and their critics made clear, ran much deeper. U.S. imperialism was a continuation of Spanish imperialism in that, like the Spanish before them, U.S. imperialists, such as Josiah Strong, imagined and justified U.S. imperial expansion as an evangelical crusade; and much as the Spanish conquistadores had done, imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt glorified as heroic, acts of conquest and colonization that would have been more accurately depicted as acts of brutality. By defending American imperialism in these terms, American imperialists in effect eliminated the liberating dimension of Enlightenment from their would-be civilizing mission and they essentially reverted to primitive forms of authority. American anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and William James did not sit idly by; they rather attacked the imperialists and their ideas in open and public debate. At issue in this debate was America’s legacy of Enlightenment: the legacy, that is, that ambiguously combines republican with imperial virtues.