‘Let Men Die to Make Us Rich:’ How Mark Twain Used Poetry To Oppose the Philippine-American War
American writer Alice Walker once said, “Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.” We’ve seen this in the literature of Jose Rizal, and had he survived, perhaps he would have had something to say on the atrocities of the Philippine-American War. But lucky for him, and especially for us, another writer lent his voice to the chorus of the anti-imperialism movement of his own country—Mark Twain, the father of American literature.
Having once supported America’s growing empire, Twain, who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, changed his tune after he saw the true intentions and consequences of imperialism, becoming a full-fledged anti-imperialist by 1899. In an article by the New York Herald in 1900, Twain admitted that he wanted to see the “American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific.” He saw his country as a savior for the Filipino people who had suffered for 300 years under Spanish rule. “We can make them as free as ourselves.”
But soon enough, Twain was enlightened with the truth. “I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem,” said Twain. “And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
With his pen as his sword, Twain went on to write about the Moro Crater Massacre, which saw the deaths of almost 1,000 Moro people, and on the hypocrisy of the war against the teachings of Christianity. But it was a certain poem, a parody of the patriotic national poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that unleashed Twain’s opposition to the Philippine-American War. Naturally, Twain named his version, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated.”
It doesn’t take a genius to decipher Twain’s poem and read between the lines with phrases like “His lust is marching on.” He goes on to equate the United States of America with Greed, saying “Greed is marching on” and “Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat.”
But it’s one of the last lines that bring home Twain’s beliefs on the Philippine-American War:
“As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich.”
Read the full poem below:
Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger's wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.
I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
His night is marching on.
I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!"
We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!
In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others' goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.