Charles A. Conant had a very important role in America’s transition to a global, imperial power. Notable libertarian writer, economist, and historian Murray Rothbard details the various actions that Conant took to enthusiastically facilitate the expansion of the United States into the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other territories over which the US gained influence in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Perhaps the most damning indictment of Conant was not his failure, but rather his great degree of success in bringing these regions of the world under American control.
Calls for Imperialism
Conant believed that the urge for economic imperialism was irresistible, drawing clear connections between Rome, the British Empire, and contemporary America, which he believed was “about to enter the path” of these prior empires.[i] Further, according to Conant, the imperialistic tendency which he observed in America was clearly and firmly rooted in race theory, and his belief that the American civilization was more developed, and that this gave a moral superiority to their domination of lesser races.[ii] According to Conant, economic domination as a place to sell excess goods was nothing less than necessary for the continuation of the prosperity of the American (and other similarly developed Western) nation(s).
We are closely acquainted with the image of Cecil Rhodes triumphantly straddling the continent of Africa, holding a telegraph wire and asserting his domination over the continent. Westerners have, fortunately, come to be very critical of this act of domination, under which rested strong racial supremacy theories that convinced Rhodes that “[the British] are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”[iii] In essence, the world should be grateful and, in fact desperate, to be subjugated by the British, because subjugation brought “the most despicable specimens of human beings. . . under Anglo-Saxon influence.”[iv] Furthermore, Rhodes justified conquest in economic terms, pointing to “the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”[v] In schools, histories, and various other remembrances of our shared past, Rhodes receives few positive mentions, and is known to many as an unapologetic apostle of Western Expansion.
According to Conant, the essential problem was that Westerners saved too much money.[vi] If nobody saved anything, there wouldn’t be a problem, because this would allow the economy to continue developing, but every dime saved, according to Conant, led to an unconsumed product, which led to lower demand and inefficiencies. Rather than changing consumer or spending habits in America, Conant reasoned it would be much easier to force other nations to purchase American-made products.
Centralization of the American State
Rothbard noted that “Conant was bold enough to derive important domestic conclusions from his enthusiasm for imperialism.”[vii] Conant was willing to sacrifice principle as well as the well-being of those in other parts of the world for the continued growth of the American economy. He fully recognized that his principles were at odds with the Founding principles of self-rule and limited government, but Conant believed that that pragmatic American economic interests should supersede ideological commitments.[viii]
To this end, Conant wrote a brief biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founder whose own views tended to assist Conant the most in his attempts to justify expansion both domestically and abroad. Conant saw Hamilton’s enduring contribution to the United States primarily in terms of his advocacy for a strong federal government: “It is certain that the conditions of the time presented a rare opportunity for such a man as Hamilton, and that without some directing and organizing genius like his, the consolidation of the Union must have been delayed. . .”[ix] Throughout the book, Conant repeatedly credits Hamilton with the strength of the federal government and plainly believes that Hamilton, more than any other Founder, helped to shape the eventual government of his own contemporary days.
Hamilton was a natural fit for Conant’s own domestic arguments, but also fit nicely into his imperialist framework. According to Conant, Hamilton “was among the first to maintain that the United States should have complete control of the valley of the Mississippi” and “the admirers of Hamilton credit him with a still wider vision of the future power of the United States, which was eventually to bear fruit in the Monroe doctrine.”[x] Conant, guilty of a great deal of anachronism, connected Hamilton not only to the Monroe Doctrine of the early 1800’s, but also to American Imperialism in general by linking the statements of “Secretary Olney in 1895, that ‘to-day the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.’” with Hamilton’s own words “in ‘The Federalist,’ before the adoption of the Constitution, that "our situation invites and our situation prompts us to aim at an ascendant in American affairs.’”[xi] According to Conant, Hamilton would have approved.
Hamilton’s advocacy for federal currency created another natural fit for Conant, who sought to expand the influence of the US Dollar abroad. The Philippines had a stable currency based on Mexican silver dollars which the Spanish had unsuccessfully attempted to discourage for decades.[xii] The difficulty in converting silver to American currency, then based on Conant’s preferred gold, led to “many complaints. . .against what [American officers and civilians] considered excessive rates [of exchange] charged by the banks.”[xiii] Conant’s monetary policies, however, were more subtle than his generalized views on Imperialism.
Throughout his essay, The Currency of the Philippine Islands, Conant seems to advocate for a monetary policy which was acceptable both to the United States and the Philippino people without particular bias to one or the other. He candidly admits that having all nations in the world on one metal standard would be the best-case scenario for the Western nations, but stops well short of actually advocating that this should be forced upon the Philippines or any other American territorial holding.[xiv]
However, according to Rothbard, this was just a “cunning plan” to “replace the full-bodied Mexican silver coin” with “an American silver coin tied to gold at a debased value.”[xv] According to Rothbard, it would essentially net U.S. banks large reserves which they could then use to issue paper currency, and serve as the standard for the way of “exploiting and controlling Third-World economies based on silver.”[xvi] In essence, Conant had discovered a way to place poorer nations on a gold standard that clearly benefited nations already on a gold standard while appearing to do nothing of the sort. Ultimately, the new US currency, the “conant” was the new currency in the Philippines, having been successful by “force, luck, and trickery.”[xvii]
Lessons from American Imperialism
Conant’s monetary plan, then, was a subtly disguised accomplice to his broader and more naked ambition for the expansion of the US Federal Government, domestically and abroad. His schemes took nothing into account but the betterment of the specific big-business interests within America, to the detriment of many other interests. Studying the actions and philosophy of Conant is a stark reminder of what happens when a man’s only principle is pragmatism. Conant argued persuasively and effectively for Imperialistic policies, fully cognizant that his plans flaunted the principles upon which America had been founded. It is unfair to blame this fully on Conant, he was just a product of the more generalized thinking of the Progressive Era. There were Charles A. Conants in education, finance, politics, the military, and every sector of public life; men (and women) for whom pragmatism was the chief ideal.
In fact, I argue that in this respect, the Progressive Era has never ended. Ideals and principles are in short supply in modern American civil discourse; they are tiresome obstacles that prevent high-minded obstructionists from being willing to cooperate with Progressive politicians (of both parties) to “get things done.” The ideas advanced by Conant and other Progressives succeeded in leading to American political domination of the world for a time, but the true legacy of their Era has been the almost complete conquest of the American Public Spirit, and the ideals of the Founders for many of whom principle was more important than pragmatism.
[i] Conant, Charles A. "The Economic Basis of "Imperialism"." The North American Review 167, no. 502 (1898): 326
[iii] Rhodes, Cecil. “Confession of Faith.” 1877.
[vi] Conant, “The Economic Basis of Imperialism”,” 330.
[vii] Rothbard, Murray. “The Origins of the Federal Reserve.” The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 2, no. 3 (1999): 21
[viii] Rothbard, 21.
[ix] Conant, Charles A. Alexander Hamilton. Ebook: Project Gutenberg. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1901.
[xii] Conant, Charles A. "The Currency of the Philippine Islands." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science20 (1902): 44-45.
[xiii] Ibid, 45.
[xiv] Ibid, 531-32.
[xv] Rothbard, 27.
[xvi] Rothbard, 28.
[xvii] Rothbard, 29.
Nathan Gilson is a Social Studies Teacher in South Carolina with over 10 years of experience in the public school systems. He has taught US and World History courses, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in History from Liberty University.