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The Friars Question

June 27, 2011

As part of their time with us, we ask our digital cataloging interns to write a blog post to share some of their experiences and “finds” while working in the Roosevelt collections. As they start to wrap up their internship hours, we will start to share their blog entries with you. This one is from Storm based in Texas.

Having researched the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, I have been awed by the complexity of the problems faced by U.S. presidents, and by the degree to which the actions of each president often confound the stereotypes bestowed upon them by conventional historical narratives. When I undertook the Theodore Roosevelt Center project, I looked forward to exploring the difficult policy-making choices weighed by Roosevelt and his administration, as well as discovering the extent to which Roosevelt pursued unexpected or counter intuitive policy trajectories. For example, Roosevelt’s most famous quote—“Speak softly and carry a big stick”—might suggest that he was a heavy-handed imperialist, bent on extending U.S. hegemony into Latin America and the Pacific with little regard for the will of local populations. For many of the college students I have taught he was just that. In this trope, Roosevelt-as-exporter-of-American-power functions as a static, black-or-white character, to be either celebrated or denounced. To me, however, the story of U.S. foreign relations with the Pacific and Latin America—during the 1890s and beyond—has always been about more than simple intervention. Quite often it is a complicated blend of intervention and cooperation, and I have been gratified to see some glimmers of this combination at play during my work on the Roosevelt documents. I am further gratified to have found a singular example of this idea, as well as fodder for future research projects for my students, in Roosevelt’s handling of the “Friars” question during the summer and fall of 1902.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to William Comerford, July 22, 1902.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to William Comerford, July 22, 1902. From the Library of Congress Manuscripts division. Transcript below.

Not having previous knowledge of this affair prior to my internship, I faced a bit of a learning curve. As I currently understand it, by the time of the Spanish-American War the Catholic Friars had been in possession of much of the best lands in the Philippines for generations, making them perhaps the most despised foreigners on the islands. At the same time, many Filipinos resisted the U.S. occupation following Spain’s defeat in the war, thus launching a three-year guerrilla war. While much has been made of the insurgency and U.S. efforts to combat it—especially in light of later U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—little light has been shed on Roosevelt’s nuanced handling of the Friars problem. Most Filipinos wanted immediately to force the Friars from the islands, by violence if necessary. U.S. Catholics and ardent proponents of imperial expansion, however, saw no reason to support the imperatives of natives over Westerners. As the documents show, Roosevelt navigated this storm deftly. He pointed out that, in opposing the continued presence of the Friars, he was supporting local needs and local desires, thus remaining consistent with stated U.S. war aims of freeing oppressed populations in preparation for self-determination and democracy. Yet he also sought some sort of compromise, whereby the Friars would be compensated for the loss of their lands, perhaps even from the treasuries of the United States. Here, Roosevelt acted in the interests of due process and law and order, also principles central to American notions of right conduct in the international arena.

So, clearly, there is more to Roosevelt than a soft voice and a big stick. The documents show that he did become angry and “warlike,” and that he was certainly a master of the soothing and reasonable voice. Yet, it seems to me, the caricature of him as one who sort of reveled in the big stick, and who regarded the negotiation as a mere preamble to force, remains just that, a caricature that distorts reality. As the “Friars question” documents show, Roosevelt and his advisers always engaged in a constantly shifting effort to blend negotiation and force in a manner that furthered and satisfied the interests of as many constituencies as possible, both at home and abroad. As much as Roosevelt sought to expand U.S. power, it also seems that he really was trying to do so in a manner that ensured close and mutually beneficial cooperation for populations such as those in the Pacific and Latin America.

Aragorn Storm Miller is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Dept. at the University of Texas at Austin. A longtime resident of Austin, Storm trained to teach Social Studies at area middle and high schools before deciding to pursue graduate education. He researches U.S.-Latin American relations, with a focus on the Cold War period. Storm is proud of the fact that he has squeezed visits to nearly 20 minor and major league baseball parks into various research trips across the United States.

Transcription of Letter:

Oyster Bay, July 22, 1902.
My dear sir:

I have received your letter of the 15th instant. In the matter of the friars, I think you fail to understand that the Philippine Commission is simply endeavoring to carry out the desires of the Philippine Catholic population and of their parish priests. The Philippine Catholic priests and the inhabitants of the parishes have been worked up to a condition of the most bitter indignation against the friars of the four orders in question. I need not now go into the question as to whether they are justified in their feelings or not, although I may mention that the best Catholic observers of non-Spanish nationality in the island have believed that they were justified. At any rate, the Filipinos have become so bitter that one of the prime objects avowed by the revolutionary party was the confiscation without compensation of the friars’ lands. As a matter of fact, the friars dare not now go back to their parishes because the exclusively Catholic population of these parishes simply will not receive them. After careful consultation with the leading Catholics of the islands, and in accordance with the practically unanimous wish of the parish priests and of [illegible] the lay Catholics, we decided to see whether we could purchase the friars’ lands, on condition of their leaving the islands. We did not wish the lands for ourselves at all. The United States government has nothing to gain by the purchase of the lands, and as far as it was concerned had no desire to get the friars out of the islands. It was merely endeavoring to carry out the wishes of the entire Catholic population of the islands, and at the same time to do scrupulous justice to the Catholic Church. (I may mention, by the way, that the only anti-Catholic feeling in the Philippines is aroused by the friars, and that the only way by which any considerable number of them can be driven from the Catholic Church would be by the effort to reinstate the friars in their lands. This is not a matter in which the government has any concern, but it is of interest in view of some of the criticisms upon its actions; criticisms which can only come from a complete misunderstanding not only of these actions but of all the conditions.) The government neither can, nor does it, insist that the friars leave the islands. As a means of accommodating the Catholic population of the islands, and with the hope that instead of religious teachers whom they regard with bitter hatred, they might get other teachers of the same religious creed whom they would follow, the government has offered, as a means of bringing the two parties to the controversy together, to purchase the lands in order to benefit the one side, if the friars, so objectionable to the other side, were withdrawn. If this offer is not acquiesced in, the government will continue in the future as it has in the past to do the best it can, under existing conditions, to preserve law and order and keep the peace. It has of course no power, morally or physically, to force the Catholics of the islands to accept back in the parishes men whom they reject.

I am glad to write you thus freely, for I wish to make it entirely clear to every conscientious man – Catholic or Protestant – that we are doing our best to safeguard all the rights of all religious people, clerical or lay, in the Philippines, just exactly as we do in the United States. We are going upon the American plan – the only plan that is wise or safe – the plan of treating with impartial justice the men of every creed. This is I am sure, my dear sir, the plan which meets with your hearty approval.

I may mention incidentally that the proposition submitted to the Vatican had already been submitted to some of the highest prelates and most notable laymen in the Catholic Church of the United States and had met with their hearty approval.

Very truly yours,
Theodore Roosevelt

Mr. William Comerford,
14 South Division Street,
Buffalo, N.Y.

Posted by Storm Miller on June 27, 2011 in History  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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