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  • U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870-1929*
  • Allison Sneider (bio)

"We were expansionists in those early days," Henry Brown Black-well recalled in May 1899, in remarks he wrote for the 80th birthday celebration of Julia Ward Howe, the Boston suffragist, socialite, and renowned author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."1 Blackwell, coeditor of the Boston suffrage newspaper Woman's Journal, had been Howe's collaborator in the struggle for woman suffrage for almost thirty years. His comment referred back to the early 1870s, when he and Howe's husband, the reformer Samuel Gridley Howe, were both investors in the New York-based Samana Bay Company, which leased the Samana peninsula from the Caribbean republic of Santo Domingo from 1872 to 1874.2 At the time, Blackwell had hoped that the United States would forge a more permanent political relationship with Santo Domingo, and he and Howe, as Black-well described it, "stood with President Grant for tropical annexation, with the consent of the inhabi-tants."3 Blackwell's recollection of his Santo Domingo days was surely provoked by contemporary politics and perhaps intended to underscore the ideological distance he had traveled over the last three decades. In 1899 Blackwell was a vocal critic of the ongoing Philippine-American War and an opponent of U.S. efforts to establish sovereignty over the former Spanish colony by putting down the Filipino resistance movement.4 Like many suffragists that spring, Blackwell was beginning to think that self-government for women and self-government for the Philippines might be two sides of the same coin.5

In 1899 Blackwell may have felt that his location in the antiwar and anti-imperial camp required him to explain away his earlier, expansionist ambitions, but his comments reflected a certain nostalgia for the time he and the Howes had spent together traveling across the "lovely island" of Santo Domingo, visiting the capital, that "picturesque old city founded by Columbus," and enjoying the warm tropical breezes, which were especially welcome after a cold Boston winter.6 Indeed, Blackwell's nostalgic vision blended past and present politics. Almost thirty years after President Ulysses S. Grant's treaty of annexation for Santo Domingo failed to pass the Senate, Blackwell maintained that if annexation had succeeded in the 1870s, it might have prevented the 1899 Philippine-American War. Like many former advocates of Dominican annexation, Blackwell believed that a U.S. presence in Santo Domingo in the 1870s would have ended slavery in the Spanish colonial Caribbean, and that, as a result, "long frightful years of suffering and bloodshed would have been saved to unhappy Cuba."7 By this logic, a successful Dominican annexation in the 1870s would have prevented the Spanish-Cuban conflict of the 1890s. It was the 1898 U.S. intervention in this conflict, the U.S victory over Spain, and the decision to maintain control over the Spanish colonial Philippines that led to the 1899 U.S. war of pacification in those islands. To be an anti-imperialist in 1899 did not require Blackwell to renounce his earlier expansionist ambitions as ill-conceived; rather, the Philippine-American War only demonstrated how farsighted his desire for Dominican annexation had been.

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"As the old Spanish throne topples, up goes the Cuban flag of independence," Judge Magazine, October 23, 1897. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZC4-4131].

Blackwell's engagement with the Dominican annexation project of the 1870s is but one early moment in a much longer narrative of U.S. suffrage and U.S. imperial history that continued through the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars and well into the 20th century. During the 1920s, for example, U.S. suffragists, newly enfranchised by the 19th Amendment (1920) to the Constitution, successfully lobbied Congress to impose woman suffrage on the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, against the will of the Puerto Rican legislature.8 Henry Brown Blackwell and Julia Ward Howe did not live to witness this turn of events, but one wonders how they might have viewed this situation: as an antidemocratic act of colonial rule or a triumph of democratic...


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