Imperialism and White Supremacy: Justifications of State Violence in the 1890s

By Daria Martin

State violence in 1890s United States history can be understood through the framework of imperialism, where a belief in white supremacy over people of color, both in the continental U.S. and abroad, framed ideas about who had the ability to exercise sovereignty. Notions of white supremacy were implemented through American imperial projects within the historical events of the Massacre of Wounded Knee, the World’s Columbian Exposition, and the War of 1898. Three political cartoons from Puck Magazine, a satirical publication prominent in the 1890s, correlate to these events and reflect American attitudes toward imperialism and state violence during this decade.

These cartoons offer insight into the complex nature of state violence in the 1890s, where imperialist endeavors were justified through notions of white supremacy where Americans believed they possessed a superior capacity to act as a sovereign power. It is important to acknowledge the contradiction of white supremacy as being marshaled to both justify and critique imperialism depending on the source. This contradiction plays out through attempts to distinguish racial paternalism and racial violence, where white supremacy is tied to not only an excuse for sovereignty but for murder and subjugation. White supremacy as a justification for paternalism was utilized when convenient for the American government, as in the examples of forced assimilation of Natives, the hierarchy of racial displays at the World’s Fair, as well as through replacing Spain as the imperial master. White supremacy as a justification for violence worked in tandem with racial paternalism, as violence was deemed acceptable because of American understandings of racial difference. The following cartoons reflect how the state was engaged in these contradictions simultaneously, as white supremacy was employed throughout the imperial endeavors of the U.S. in the 1890s.

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Joseph Keppler, “Consistency,” Puck Magazine, January 21, 1881.

The above cartoon, satirically entitled “Consistency,” draws upon the disparate treatment of Native Americans compared to Asians and Africans by the American government.  The artist depicts the Native Americans sympathetically at the Massacre at Wounded Knee, where the perpetrator of the violence, Uncle Sam, kills women and children indiscriminately. The image of the violence is juxtaposed with the supposed benevolence offered to caricatured versions of Asians and Africans. Keppler presents an image which demonstrates the power resting in Uncle Sam’s hands, representative of the larger concept of American sovereignty and influence over “uncivilized” peoples.

The historical context of this cartoon is settler colonialism, which is rooted in notions of white entitlement to the land and an ideology of cultural supremacy over the existing native cultural structure present before the arrival of Europeans. Historian David Grua explains that “with the reorganization of federal Indian policy in the decade, the American settler colonial project was fully implemented in Indian Country” (Grua, 15). Settler colonialism meant that white settlements resulted in the elimination of indigenous culture and sovereignty. State violence, such as what is depicted in the above cartoon at the Massacre of Wounded Knee, was precipitated by the forced relocation of the Lakota Sioux onto reservations along with aggressive assimilationist policies. This “assimilationist assault” entailed the white fear and condemnation of the Ghost Dance, which in part was used to frame the Lakota Sioux as the instigators of the violence at Wounded Knee (Grua, 15).

The Native Americans in this image appear less racialized in their depictions compared to their foreign counterparts. This is done to elevate the humanity of the Lakota compared to the Asians and Africans who are more foreign. Keppler, in titling the cartoon “Consistency,” intends to comment on the disparate treatment of natives through brutality compared to the generosity given to Asians and Africans. Keppler wants the U.S. government to be more consistent in their approach to non-white populations by being more paternalistic to the Natives and less generous to the Africans and Asians. 

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Frederick Opper, “Uncle Sam’s Show,” Puck Magazine, October 30, 1893.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago celebrated the four hundred year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. In hosting this celebration, the United States wanted to present itself on the global stage, both as a dominant technological and cultural power. Historian Curtis Hinsley confirms the idea that “as a collective phenomenon the industrial exposition celebrated the ascension of civilized power over nature and primitives” (Hinsley, 345). This was present in the midway plaisance, where people from around the world, such as Africans from the continent, “arrived to work on the Midway as representations of the world’s diversity as well as curiosities for the narrow minded” (Reed).

The Midway was intended to be a representation of  progress within human civilization, leading up to the White City which contained America’s showcase of innovation. “Uncle Sam’s Show” touts the “spectacular success” of the Fair, depicting a dancing Uncle Sam with eight other men, representing countries who participated in the exposition. The white European men are not presented as caricatures in the way that the Asian and African men are, just as white men were not the ones displayed as commodities within the exposition. The men of color in the cartoon are positioned farthest away from Uncle Sam, which may suggest that these men are also farthest away in terms of civilization. Additionally, Uncle Sam is physically much larger than the other men who are dancing, which also connects to American understanding of cultural supremacy over other racial groups.

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Louis Dairymple, “It’s Got to be Sooner or Later, and it Looks like Sooner,” Puck Magazine, April 27, 1898.

In 1898, the U.S. went to war against Spain officially for their supposed attack on the U.S.S. Maine, but for the true purpose of extending their sovereignty over the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific. This cartoon seeks to demonize the Spanish as they sail away from the Island of Cuba. After “400 years of misrule,” the cartoons celebrates Uncle Sam for extending his to hand to a Cuban woman, symbolically representing the U.S.’s reach over Cuban sovereignty. The image portrays Uncle Sam as a savior, freeing the Cubans rom oppressive rule. This fits into the narrative that the United States has been charged with civilizing the uncivilized, and must dominate over people such as the Cubans who are deemed unfit to rule due to incapacities tied to race.

This cartoon raises the issue that “the denial of imperialism still fuels a vision of America as an exceptional nation, one interested in spreading universal values, not domination” (Kaplan, 832). In creating an American Empire, the United States expressed a moral justification based on the American capacity to spread ideals of freedom abroad. Entitlement to the land is understood through the title of the cartoon, where America, “sooner or later,” is destined to become the new colonial master. Because Spain has failed in its duty as a white imperial master, the U.S. deems it their obligation to take on the paternal charge of extending its sovereignty over the Cuban people. This racial paternalism was rooted in notions of white supremacy, where the shifting of responsibility was put onto the United States to control the Cuban population.

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