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The White Man's Burden
by William Jennings Bryan
Address at the Independence Day Banquet of the American Society of London
July 4, 1906
The memory of the evening spent with the American society, Thanksgiving day, two and a half years ago, is such a pleasant one that I esteem myself fortunate to be able to accept the invitation so kindly extended by our distinguished Ambassador, the Hon. Whitelaw Reid, to be your guest on this occasion. Our English friends, under whose flag we meet tonight, recalling that this is the anniversary of our nation's birth, would doubtless pardon us if our rejoicing contained something of self-congratulation, for it is at such times as this that we are wont a to review those national achievements which have given to the United States its prominence among the nations.
But I hope I shall not be thought lacking in patriotic spirit if, instead of drawing a picture of the past, bright with heroic deeds and unparalleled in progress, I summon you rather to a serious consideration of the responsibility resting upon those nations which aspire to premiership. This line of thought is suggested by a sense of propriety as well as by recent experiences -- by a sense of propriety because such a subject will interest the Briton as well as the American, and by recent experiences because they have impressed me not less with our national duty than with the superiority of Western over Eastern civilization.
Asking your attention to such a theme, it is not unfitting to adopt a phrase coined by a poet to whom America as well as England can lay some claim, and take for my text "The White Man's Burden."
Take up the White Man's burden --
Thus sings Kipling, and, with the exception of the third line (of the meaning of which I am not quite sure), the stanza embodies the thought which is uppermost in my mind tonight. No one can travel among the dark-skinned races of the Orient without feeling that the white man occupies an especially favored position among the children of men, and the recognition of this fact is accompanied by the conviction that there is a duty inseparably connected with the advantages enjoyed.
There is a white man's burden -- a burden which the white man should not shirk even if he could, a burden which he could not shirk even if he would. That no one liveth unto himself or dieth unto himself, has a national as well as an individual application. Our destinies are so interwoven that each exerts an influence directly or indirectly upon all others.
Sometimes this influence is unconsciously exerted, as when, for instance, the good or bad precedent set by one nation in dealing with its own affairs is followed by some other nation. Sometimes the influence is incidentally exerted, as when, for example, a nation, in the extension of its commerce, introduces its language and enlarges the horizon of the people with whom it trades.
This incidental benefit conferred by the opening of new markets must be apparent to anyone who has watched the stimulating influence of the new ideas which have been introduced into Asia and Africa through the medium of the English language. This is not the mother tongue of very many of the world's leaders in religion, statesmanship, science, and literature, but it has received through translation the best that has been written and spoken in other countries.
He who learns this language, therefore, is like one who lives upon a great highway where he comes into daily contact with the world. Without disparaging other modern languages it may be said with truth that, whether one travels abroad or studies at home, there is no other language so useful at the present time as that which we employ at this banquet board, and the nation which is instrumental in spreading this language confers an inestimable boon, even though the conferring of it be not included in its general purpose. England has rendered this service to the people of India, and the United States is rendering the same service to the people of the Philippines, while both England and the United States have been helpful to Japan and China in this way.
But the advanced nations cannot content themselves with the conferring of incidental benefits; if they would justify their leadership they must put forth conscious and constant effort for the promotion of the welfare of the nations which lag behind. Incidental benefits may follow even though the real purpose of a nation is a wholly selfish one, for as the sale of Joseph into Egypt resulted in blessings to his family and to the land of the Pharaohs, so captives taken in war have sometimes spread civilization, and blacks carried away into slavery have been improved by contact with the whites.
But nations cannot afford to do evil, in the hope that Providence will transmute the evil into good and bring blessings out of sin. Nations, if they would be great in the better sense of the term, must intend benefit as well as confer it, they must plan advantage and not leave the results to chance.
I take it for granted that our duty to the so-called inferior races is not discharged by merely feeding them in times of famine or by contributing to their temporary support when some other calamity overtakes them. A much greater assistance is rendered them when they are led to a more elevated plane of thought and activity by ideals which stimulate them to self-development. The improvement of the people themselves should be the paramount object in all intercourse with the Orient.
Among the blessings which the Christian nations are at this time able -- and in duty bound -- to carry to the rest of the world, I may mention five -- education, knowledge of the science of government, arbitration as a substitute for war, appreciation of the dignity of labor, and a high conception of life.
Education comes first, and in nothing have the United States and England been more clearly helpful than in the advocacy of universal education. If the designs of God are disclosed by his handiwork, then the creation of the human mind is undubitable proof that the Almighty never intended that learning should be monopolized by a few, and he arrays himself against the plans of Jehovah who would deny intellectual training to any part of the human race. It is a false civilization, not a true one, that countenances the permanent separation of society into two distinct classes, the one encouraged to improve the mind and the other condemned to hopeless ignorance. Equally false is that conception of international politics which would make the prosperity of one nation depend upon the exploitation of another. While no one is farsighted enough to estimate with accuracy the remote, or even the immediate, consequences of human action, yet as we can rely upon the principle that each individual profits rather than loses by the progress and prosperity of his neighbors, so we cannot doubt that it is to the advantage of each nation that every other nation shall make the largest possible use of its own resources and the capabilities of its people.
No one questions that Japan's influence has been a beneficent one since she has emerged from illiteracy and endowed her people with public schools open to all her boys and girls. The transition from a position of obscurity into a world power was scarcely more rapid than her transition from a menace into an ally. China is entering upon a similar experience, and I am confident that her era of reform will make her not a yellow peril, but a powerful co-laborer in the international vineyard. In India, in the Philippines, in Egypt, and even in Turkey, statistics show a gradual extension of education, and I trust I will be pardoned if I say that neither the armies, nor the navies, nor yet the commerce of our nations have given us so just a claim to the gratitude of the people of Asia as have our school teachers, sent, many of them, by private rather than by public funds.
The English language has become the vehicle for the conveyance of governmental truth even more than for the spread of general information, for beginning with Magna Charta and continuing through the era of the American revolution and the Declaration of Independence down to the present, no language has been so much employed for the propagation of that theory of government which traces governmental authority to the consent of the governed.
Our own nation presents the most illustrious example known to history of a great population working out its destiny through laws of its own making and under officials of its own choosing, although, I may add, we scarcely go beyond England in recognizing the omnipotence of a parliament fresh from the people. It is difficult to overestimate the potency of this conception of government upon the progress of a nation, and in turning the thought of the world away from despotism to the possibilities of self-government the pioneers of freedom made Western civilization possible.
An idea will sometimes revolutionize an individual, a community, a state, a nation, or even a world, and the idea that man possesses inalienable rights which the state did not give and which the state, though it can deny, cannot take away, has made millions of human beings stand erect and claim their God-given inheritance. While the era of constitutional liberty is ever widening, while the tyranny and insolence of arbitrary power are every year decreasing, the leaders of the world's thought, not only the English-speaking nations, but the other Christian nations as well, have yet much to do in teaching reverence for the will of the majority and respect for the public servants upon whom the people bestow authority.
The Christian nations must lead the movement for the promotion of peace, not only because they are enlisted under the banner of the Prince of Peace, but also because they have attained such a degree of intelligence that they can no longer take pride in a purely physical victory.
The belief that moral questions can be settled by the shedding of human blood is a relic of barbarism; to doubt the dynamic power of righteousness is infidelity to truth itself. That nation which is unwilling to trust its cause to the universal conscience, or which shrinks from the presentation of its claims before a tribunal where reason holds sway, betrays a lack of faith in the soundness of its position.
Our country has reason to congratulate itself upon the success of President Roosevelt in hastening peace between Russia and Japan. Through him our nation won a moral victory more glorious than a victory in war. King Edward has also shown himself a promoter of arbitration, and a large number of members of Parliament are enlisted in the same work. It means much that the two great English-speaking nations are thus arrayed on the side of peace.
I venture to suggest that the world's peace would be greatly promoted by an agreement among the leading nations that no declaration of war should be made until the submission of the question in controversy to an impartial court for investigation, each nation reserving the right to accept or reject the decision. The preliminary investigation would in almost every instance insure an amicable settlement, and the reserved rights would be a sufficient protection against any possible injustice.
Let me go a step farther and appeal for a clearer recognition of the dignity of labor. The odium which rests upon the work of the hand has exerted a baneful influence the world around. The theory that idleness is more honorable than toil -- that it is more respectable to consume what others have produced than to be a producer of wealth -- has not only robbed society of an enormous sum, but it has created an almost impassable gulf between the leisure classes and those who support them. Tolstoy is right in asserting that most of the perplexing problems of society grow out of the lack of sympathy between man and man. Because some imagine themselves above work, while others see before them nothing but a life of drudgery, there is constant warring and much of bitterness.
When men and women become ashamed of doing nothing and strive to give to society full compensation for all they receive from society, there will be harmony between the classes.
While Europe and America have advanced far beyond the Orient in placing a proper estimate upon those who work, even our nations have not yet fully learned the lesson that employment at some useful avocation is essential to the physical health, intellectual development and moral growth. If America and England are to meet the requirements of their high positions they must be prepared to present in the lives of their citizens examples, increasing in number, of men and women who find delight in contributing to the welfare of their fellows, and this ought not to be difficult, for every department of human activity has a fascination of its own. The agricultural colleges and industrial schools which have sprung up in so many localities are evidence that a higher ideal is spreading among the people.
And now we come to the most important need of the Orient -- a conception of life which recognizes individual responsibility to God, teaches the brotherhood of man, and measures greatness by the service rendered. The first establishes a rational relation between the creature and his Creator, the second lays the foundation for justice between man and his fellows, and the third furnishes an ambition large enough to fill each life with noble effort. No service which we can render to the less favored nations can compare in value to this service, for if we can but bring their people to accept such an ideal they will rival the Occident in their contribution to civilization. If this ideal -- which must be accepted as the true one if religion is true -- had been more perfectly illustrated in the lives of Christians and in the conduct of Christian nations there would now be less of the "white man's burden."
If it is legitimate to "seek another's profit" and "to work another's gain," how can this service best be rendered? This has been the disputed point. Individuals and nations have differed less about the purpose to be accomplished than about the methods to be employed. Persecutions have been carried on avowedly for the benefit of the persecuted, wars been waged for the alleged improvement of those attacked, and still more frequently philanthropy has been adulterated with selfish interest. If the superior nations have a mission, it is not to wound but to heal -- not to cast down but to lift up; and the means must be an example -- a far more powerful and enduring means than violence. Example may be likened to the sun whose genial rays constantly coax the buried seed into life and clothe the earth, first with verdure and afterward with ripened grain, while violence is the occasional tempest which can ruin but cannot give life.
Can we doubt the efficacy of example, in the light of history? There has been great increase in education during the last century and the school houses have not been opened by the bayonet. They owe their existence largely to the moral influence which neighboring nations exert upon each other. And the spread of popular government during the same period, how rapid! Constitution after constitution has been adopted and limitation after limitation has been placed upon arbitrary power until Russia, yielding to public opinion, establishes a legislative body and China sends commissioners abroad with a view to inviting the people to share the responsibilities of government. While in America and Europe there is much to be corrected and abundant room for improvement, there has never been so much altruism in the world as there is today -- never so many who acknowledge the undissoluble tie that binds each to every other member of the race. I have felt more pride in my own countrymen than ever before as I have visited the circuit of schools, hospitals and churches which American money has built around the world. The example of the Christian nations, though but feebly reflecting the light of the Master, is gradually reforming society.
Society has passed through a period of aggrandizement, the nations taking what they had the strength to take and holding what they had the power to hold. But we are already entering a second era -- an era in which the nations discuss not merely what they can do, but what they should do, considering justice to be more important than physical prowess. In tribunals like that of The Hague the chosen representatives of the nations weigh questions of right and wrong, and give a small nation an equal hearing with a great and a decree according to conscience. This marks an immeasurable advance. But is another step yet to be taken? Justice, after all, is cold and pulseless, a negative virtue.
The world needs something warmer, more generous. Harmlessness is better than harmfulness. But positive helpfulness is vastly superior to harmlessness, and we still have before us a larger, higher destiny of service. Even now there are signs of the approach of this third era, not so much in the actions of governments as in the growing tendency of men and women in many lands to contribute their means, in some cases their lives, to the intellectual, moral awakening of those who sit in darkness. Nowhere are these signs more abundant than in our own beloved land. Before the sun sets on one of these new centers of civilization it arises upon another.
On the walls of the temple of Karnak an ancient artist carved the likeness of an Egyptian king, represented as holding a group of captives by the hair, and in the other hand is raised a club with which to strike the captives. What king would be willing to confess himself so cruel today? In some of the capitals of Europe are monuments built and ornamented with cannon taken in war. This form of boasting, once popular, is still tolerated, though in time it must give way to some emblem of victory less suggestive of slaughter.
As we are gathered tonight in England's capital, permit me to conclude with a sentiment suggested by a piece of statuary at Windsor castle. It represents Queen Victoria beside her consort. One of his arms is about her and the other points upward. The sculptor told in marble an eloquent story of strength coupled with tenderness, love rewarded by trust, sorrow brightened by hope. He told the story so plainly that it was hardly necessary to chisel the words: "Allured to brighter worlds and led the way."
It was a beautiful conception, more beautiful than that which gave the world the Greek Slave, the Dying Gladiator, or the Goddess Athene. It embodies the idea which with the expanding feeling of comradeship makes applicable the association of nations as well as the relations of husband and wife. Let us indulge in the hope that our nation may so measure up to its great opportunities and so bear its share in the white man's burden as to earn the right to symbolize its progress by a similar figure. If it has been allured by Providence to a higher ground, may it lead the way in winning the confidence of those who follow it and in exhibiting the spirit of him who said: "If I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me."