Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

William Graham Sumner on the racism which lies behind Imperialism (1898)

The American classical liberal sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) pointed out the contradiction between the American ideal that “all men are equal” with its actual treatment of “Indians and negroes” and other so-called “uncivilized and half-civilized peoples”:

The Americans have been committed from the outset to the doctrine that all men are equal. We have elevated it into an absolute doctrine as a part of the theory of our social and political fabric. It has always been a domestic dogma in spite of its absolute form, and as a domestic dogma it has always stood in glaring contradiction to the facts about Indians and negroes and to our legislation about Chinamen. In its absolute form it must, of course, apply to Kanakas, Malays, Tagals, and Chinese just as much as to Yankees, Germans, and Irish. It is an astonishing event that we have lived to see American arms carry this domestic dogma out where it must be tested in its application to uncivilized and half-civilized peoples. At the first touch of the test we throw the doctrine away and adopt the Spanish doctrine.

Nevertheless the Spanish rule nearly exterminated the aborigines in one hundred and fifty years. The Pope gave them into servitude to the Spaniards. The Spaniards regarded them as savages, heretics, beasts, not entitled to human consideration. Here you have the great explanation of man’s inhumanity to man. When Spaniards tortured and burned Protestants and Jews it was because, in their minds, Protestants and Jews were heretics; that is to say, were beyond the pale, were abominable, were not entitled to human consideration. Humane men and pious women felt no more compunctions at the sufferings of Protestants and Jews than we would at the execution of mad dogs or rattlesnakes. There are plenty of people in the United States to-day [309] who regard negroes as human beings, perhaps, but of a different order from white men, so that the ideas and social arrangements of white men cannot be applied to them with propriety. Others feel the same way about Indians. This attitude of mind, wherever you meet with it, is what causes tyranny and cruelty. It is this disposition to decide off-hand that some people are not fit for liberty and self-government which gives relative truth to the doctrine that all men are equal, and inasmuch as the history of mankind has been one long story of the abuse of some by others, who, of course, smoothed over their tyranny by some beautiful doctrines of religion, or ethics, or political philosophy, which proved that it was all for the best good of the oppressed, therefore the doctrine that all men are equal has come to stand as one of the corner-stones of the temple of justice and truth. It was set up as a bar to just this notion that we are so much better than others that it is liberty for them to be governed by us.

The Americans have been committed from the outset to the doctrine that all men are equal. We have elevated it into an absolute doctrine as a part of the theory of our social and political fabric. It has always been a domestic dogma in spite of its absolute form, and as a domestic dogma it has always stood in glaring contradiction to the facts about Indians and negroes and to our legislation about Chinamen. In its absolute form it must, of course, apply to Kanakas, Malays, Tagals, and Chinese just as much as to Yankees, Germans, and Irish. It is an astonishing event that we have lived to see American arms carry this domestic dogma out where it must be tested in its application to uncivilized and half-civilized peoples. At the first touch of the test we throw the doctrine away and adopt the Spanish doctrine. We are [310] told by all the imperialists that these people are not fit for liberty and self-government; that it is rebellion for them to resist our beneficence; that we must send fleets and armies to kill them if they do it; that we must devise a government for them and administer it ourselves; that we may buy them or sell them as we please, and dispose of their “trade” for our own advantage. What is that but the policy of Spain to her dependencies? What can we expect as a consequence of it? Nothing but that it will bring us where Spain is now.

About this Quotation:

Sumner wondered about the causes which led a nation, which had fought for its independence from an Empire in 1776, to attempt 120 years later to colonise the territories which it had seized from Spain in 1898. He believed he had found the reason in what he called an “attitude of mind” where many people believed that the “ideas and social arrangements of white men” cannot be applied to people of color. This in turn led to the belief that the white men had to decide what people or races were fit for liberty and self-government and who were not. In the case of the latter, it was the “civilising mission” of the whites to take control of their armies and navies, reorganise their governments, to “train” and “educate” their people in the ways and ideas of the white men, and to rationalise their trade and economic activities. Thus, in his mind, Sumner thought imperialism and foreign intervention were ultimately based upon racism. What had begun as domestic racism had morphed into foreign racism and imperialism, or what he called “the Spanish doctrine.”

More Quotations