Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: The Matter of the Philippines

Created March 10, 2011


The Lesson


The Matter of the Philippines: Philippine Prisoners

Filipino insurgents surrendering during the Philippine-American War, c. 1900

Credit: National Archives and Records Administration (ARC Indentifier: 542454)

The treaty of peace ending the Spanish-American War resulted in the United States obtaining the Philippine Islands from Spain. Despite intense political opposition to the acquisition of the islands, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty. The political impact of anti-imperialist arguments, the difficult experience of suppressing native Filipino resistance, and the lack of attractive opportunities for further territorial expansion, all effectively stalled the American imperialist/expansionist movement. The United States would experiment thereafter with less intrusive means of exercising international influence, such as Open Doors and protectorates, which contained their own practical and moral challenges.

In this lesson, students examines the controversy surrounding the Philippines as they read documents and participate in a role playing exercise that places them as advisors to the President.

Guiding Questions

How should America have responded to the idea of annexing the Philippines?

Learning Objectives

  • Debate the key positions of people in the controversy over the Philippines.
  • List the reasons for and against annexation of the Philippines.


Before the Civil War, American territorial expansion was supposed to follow the ideal of Thomas Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty. The blessings of liberty and republican government would spread peacefully over much of the North American continent. New territories would be organized into republican states and admitted as equals into the Union as soon as feasible. Their peoples would enjoy full rights as American citizens. Unfortunately, the realization of the Empire of Liberty did not always correspond with its ideals – especially for Native and African Americans and for those alienated unwillingly from their original nations. Disagreement over the status of slavery in the territories became the proximate cause of the Civil War. In the aftermath of that horrific conflict, Americans felt little desire for further expansion. The nation was not entirely insular, however. American merchants and Protestant missionaries remained active outside the United States and often lobbied for direct or indirect U.S. government support.

The issue of imperialism moved to the forefront of American politics during the Spanish-American War. The McKinley administration did not wage that war with empire or territorial expansion foremost in mind; but military success left the U.S. government in effective control over most of the Spanish colonial empire. Few Americans objected to acquiring tiny Guam or nearby Puerto Rico. But the Philippine islands, over seven thousand in number and far away, were another matter entirely. The Philippines were widely seen as the gateway to the critical emerging markets of China and East Asia, but their peoples were non-white and practiced what many Americans regarded as dangerous, undemocratic religions (Roman Catholicism and Islam).

When hostilities with Spain ceased in August 1898, the United States was already deeply involved in the domestic affairs of the islands. Commodore (later Admiral) George Dewey supported a Filipino revolutionary group led by Emilio Aguinaldo, who returned from exile in Hong Kong aboard an American warship. The native army captured most of Spanish-occupied territory except Manila, which the Spaniards surrendered to the Americans. In June 1898, Aguinaldo declared the independence of the Philippines.

President McKinley, however, decided to acquire the Philippines from Spain as part of the peace settlement, in exchange for a $20 million indemnity. McKinley’s working assumption – right or wrong, self-serving or disinterested – was that the various peoples of the Philippines, after centuries of Spanish colonial oppression, were then incapable of self-government and national independence. Returning them to Spanish misrule would be dishonorable. If the United States simply sailed away, the islands almost certainly would fall into civil war, anarchy, or native despotism. Outside powers would surely take advantage of the unsettled situation and undermine American trade and security in the region. McKinley also assumed that incremental solutions would not do. Military experts advised him that Manila and other nearby ports could not be defended without control of the main island of Luzon; and that Luzon could not be defended if hostile powers occupied the other islands. (Some officers, including Alfred Thayer Mahan, thought otherwise.) Finally, McKinley believed that the United States had a moral obligation to improve the physical and moral conditions of the Philippine peoples, with independence possible at an undefined future point. He adopted a policy known as “Benevolent Assimilation," which some missionary leaders, if not McKinley himself, understood in the context of promoting Christianity and Christian civilization throughout Asia.

The President’s decision galvanized anti-imperialist sentiment in the United States. The anti-imperialists sought to defeat Senate ratification of the peace treaty with Spain in early 1899, and then to foil President McKinley’s reelection bid in 1900. The Anti-Imperialist League and similar opposition groups included such prominent Americans as Mark Twain and Democratic Party leader William Jennings Bryan. The Philippines, they argued, did fit not within Jefferson’s (ideal) Empire of Liberty. They claimed that big business, not benevolence, drove the McKinley administration’s expansionist policies. The Philippines could never enter the Union as a state or states because of racial, religious, and economic differences, as well as the distances involved. That meant the islands must remain a colony, in violation of the principles of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The anti-imperialists challenged the assumption that the Filipinos were incapable of governing themselves. But even if that were true – many anti-imperialists harbored racist or cultural prejudices – the United States could not impose good government, or Protestant Christian sensibilities, on them. Imperial rule over the Philippines would weaken democracy at home and promote American militarism.

There was another precinct to be heard from – the people of the Philippines. Class, ethnic, language and religious differences divided the Filipinos from each other as well as from the Americans. Some natives, especially the wealthy, welcomed American rule. Many were undecided or apathetic. But tensions with the occupying American forces grew steadily. Fighting broke out in February 1899 between Aguinaldo’s troops and the U.S. Army. News of the conflict may have tipped the balance in the U.S. Senate in favor of ratification of the peace treaty, as undecided members chose to support American troops under fire. Even so, the treaty was barely ratified by the required two-thirds majority, 57-27. The fierce U.S. debate over the Philippines indicated the limits of popular support for expansionism, even if Americans remained proud of what they regarded as an honorable military triumph over Spain. President McKinley’s victory against Bryan in the election of 1900 did not turn on issues of imperialism but rather on the increasingly prosperous American economy and the resultant ebb of Bryan’s agrarian/economic populism. The economic and strategic interests that led to the acquisition of the Philippines did not disappear, however. The United States soon explored other, less intrusive, but still controversial means to achieve its objectives, such as the Open Door.

Any lingering prospects that the Philippines might be the jumping off point for a new American Empire were put to rest by stiff Filipino resistance in the jungles, swamps and mountains of the islands. The U.S. military, after a period of trial and error, waged an effective counterinsurgency campaign that was aided by sympathetic natives. The United States eventually deployed over 120,000 men in the Philippines and suffered more than 4,000 deaths, with roughly a fourth killed in action. The capture of Aguinaldo in March 1901 deprived the resistance of its most visible leader. But the American military’s techniques, especially the resort to concentration camps, resulted unintentionally in considerable civilian deaths due to disease (200,000 or more by some estimates). Stories of outright military atrocities by U.S. troops also troubled Americans. The Philippine peoples, for the most part, collectively came to terms with American rule although some resistance continued after 1902. But the logic of American politics, and facts on the ground, pointed toward eventual independence.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF Document. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

In addition, if your students need assistance with primary source documents, the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites may be useful:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What to do with the Philippines?

Once the Spanish-American War concluded, the nation debated what exactly to do with the new territories acquired from Spain, especially the Philippine Islands. For many Americans, seizing this faraway territory was a violation of America’s democratic principles, whereas others saw the political and military advantages of obtaining overseas possessions. In this activity, students, acting as advisors to the President, will explore the topic of what to do with the Philippines from three different perspectives: political/military; economic; and political/moral. They will then present their suggestions to the President in a mock Presidential Advisory Meeting.

In preparing for this activity, it would be helpful to refer the students back to the positions on imperialism and American foreign policy that were developed in Lessons 1 and 2, including the importance of racial (racist) perspectives and fears, as well as appeals to the principles of the American Founding as exemplified by the Declaration of Independence.

To begin, read with students the treaty ending the Spanish War, found in its complete form on the EDSITEment reviewed resource The Avalon Project and in its excerpted form on page 1 of the Text Document.

Treaty of Paris 1898

As the activity begins, inform the class that President McKinley has already expressed his own personal beliefs about what to do with the Philippines, but he still wants to develop a policy that will command the support of a majority of Americans as well as meet the overall national interest. First, show students the map of Asia, found through the EDSITEment-reviewed site Xpeditions,  pointing out the location of the Philippines and its proximity to other countries, particularly those of strategic economic/political interests to the United States. As a class, read President McKinley’s views as reportedly expressed to a group of Christian leaders, “Manifest Destiny Continued" found on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters and on page 2 of the Text Document. Inform the students that not all historians accept the complete accuracy of these comments, but that they do seem to reflect the President's general mindset at the end of the war.

Next, explain to the students that they are members of one of three advisory groups to the President, who has asked them to prepare him for a Cabinet meeting to discuss America's course of action with regard to the Philippines. Group A will be responsible for Political/Military (Strategic) issues. Group B will be responsible for Economic issues. Group C will be responsible for Political/Moral issues, including the special case of the government's responsibility, if any, to American missionaries. Based on their respective assessment of these issues, students will write a memo to the President in which they recommend and defend one of the following options:

  • Negotiate the return of the Philippines to Spain, with strict guarantees by Spain of human rights and political autonomy for the islands
  • Grant independence after a short transitional period, with an American protectorate relationship made part of the Philippine Constitution
  • Grant independence with no political relationship, but with American possession of a naval base on the islands
  • Turn the islands over to a relatively friendly power (e.g., Britain) in exchange for economic or other concessions (e.g., annexation of Canada)
  • Govern the islands jointly with a consortium of great powers
  • Annex and govern the Philippines as an American colony, with a commitment to improve conditions on the islands -- independence may be considered in the future

The readings and directions for each group are found in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed resources below, or in their excerpted forms on the corresponding pages of the text document.

Group A: Political/Military (pages 3-6 of the Text Document)

This group should evaluate the various options according to which best protects America from foreign threats, and best permits the United States to exercise responsibly its growing power in the world. Members of this group should recognize that Americans disagreed over the seriousness of these foreign threats and the degree to which the United States ought to become involved in great-power politics outside the Western Hemisphere.

This memo should have at least two quotes from each of the following documents, plus any outside material from lessons in class, and should be at least one page in length. Students should also be prepared to challenge arguments made to the President by the other Advisory Groups, and identify for the President positions opposed to theirs that emerged during the national debate over the Philippines.

Americanism vs. Imperialism, Andrew Carnegie

National Temptation. Extracts from editorial of Mr. Herbert Welch, in City and State. Save the Republic: Anti-Imperialist Leaflet

Albert Beveridge, The March of the Flag, 1989

Group B: Economic (pages 7-9 of the Text Document)

This group should evaluate the various options according to which best supports America's economic interests in the world, and especially long-standing U.S. efforts to expand access to foreign markets. Members of this group should recognize that the United States had other interests besides trade and that the search for market access could lead to political and military difficulties with other powers, as well as with the peoples directly affected.

This memo should have at least two quotes from each document, the inclusion of outside material from lessons in class, and should be at least one page in length. Students should also be prepared to challenge arguments made to the President by the other Advisory Groups, and identify for the President positions opposed to theirs that emerged during the national debate over the Philippines.

The Economic Basis of Imperialism, Charles A. Conant

Commercial Expansion vs. Colonial Expansion. An Open Letter by Andrew Carnegie, Nov. 20, 1898. Save the Republic: Anti-Imperialist Leaflet

Group C: Political/Moral (pages 10-13 of the text document)

This group should evaluate the various options according to which one best reflects America's sense of its political and moral purpose at home and abroad. Members of this group should recognize that some Americans -- but by no means all -- believed that the national mission was linked with the promotion of religious as well as secular principles.

This memo should have at least two quotes from each document, the inclusion of outside material from lessons in class, and should be at least one page in length. Students should also be prepared to challenge arguments made to the President by the other Advisory Groups, and identify for the President positions opposed to theirs that emerged during the national debate over the Philippines.

Thoughts on American Imperialism, Carl Schurz

Imperialism and Christianity
, Rev. F.W. Farrall

Are Missionaries "Imperialists"? Letter to Boston Herald from Rev. James. L. Barton, Secretary of the American Board of Foreign Missions. Save the Republic: Anti-Imperialist Leaflet

In class the next day, allow students to briefly meet in their groups to discuss their opinions. Then have the students present their brief to the President and allow 15-20 minutes for class discussion of the topic. Students are expected to counter the other groups’ claims and arguments.

To conclude take a vote with students as to what they would do with the Philippines. Was there one easy solution to this dilemma?


The memo and the class discussion could be used as an informal assessment.

Also, by the end of the lesson, students should be able to identify/define the following:

  • William McKinley
  • Treaty of Paris, 1898
  • Emilio Aguinaldo

Students should be able to locate the following on a map:

  • Philippines
  • China
  • Spain

Extending The Lesson

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” was a controversial exhortation to Americans to acquire an empire, mixed with a sober assessment of the costs. History Matters has a Poetry analysis activity on this particular poem that teachers could use if time permits. Students should be directed to the assignment page, where all of the directions and activities are laid out to help students assess this poem in both a historical and literary context.

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > People > Asian American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Hispanic
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Globalization
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy


Activity Worksheets

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