By Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith)
Donald Trump’s proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico is back in the news, this time as debates over how the wall is to be funded, and over the issue of immigration more broadly speaking, played a role in prompting a U.S. government shutdown. While Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, suggested that the president was changing his mind on the subject, Trump retorted in a series of tweets that ‘The Wall is the Wall’, and that without it, there could be no deal over the funding bill.
The border wall is a potent symbol in contemporary U.S. politics. Since Trump made its promised construction his flagship policy when announcing his candidacy for the presidency way back in June 2015, it has become emblematic of a worldview encompassing certain ways of thinking about race, migration, and America’s place in the world. With this in mind, I was struck this week by an early-twentieth-century account of an American in the Philippines, for whom a wall symbolized something quite different.
The Philippines became a territory of the United States following America’s victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the subsequent Treaty of Paris. As soldiers and administrators flooded in to preside over this new acquisition, so did American Protestant missionaries previously shut out by its Spanish Catholic rulers. One such figure was Alice Byram Condict, a physician from New Jersey, who arrived in the Philippines in 1899 as a medical missionary after a stint in India.
Visiting the Philippine capital of Manila, Dr Condict was struck by the lengths to which the previous Spanish occupiers had gone to keep ‘undesirables’ out of Intramuros (literally ‘within the walls’), the oldest part of the city, which housed its finest buildings and in which resided government officials and Catholic leaders. She noted in particular “the massive walls”, which were “double in some places, with moats, gates, and draw-bridges”. This was not merely a passing reference. Condict described at length how the wall to her represented the anachronism of the Spanish empire:
“This walled city…reminds one of mediaeval Europe… The draw-bridges with chains still intact take one back to mediaeval times, when knights and horses were heavily mailed, and when arrows and spears were weapons of warfare. There are, also, evidences of massive cannon of ancient make having rested on the wide, battlemented walls… None of these ancient fortifications are of any value in modern warfare; but will be allowed to stand as monuments of the past.”
This metaphorical stagnation had a literal manifestation: sewage lay in the moats at the foot of the wall, which “reek with slime and send out pestilential odors”, creating what Condict recognized as a public health hazard.
Condict concluded that, above all, the wall represented a Spanish abdication of responsibility. Instead of reaching out to the “hostile natives”, the Spanish had chosen fear, shutting themselves away for centuries. America’s empire, insisted Condict, would be different. In accordance with the same “spirit of Bible liberty” which had first brought settlers from the Old World to the New, “the millions now looking for the first time to the Stars and Stripes for protection can be civilized most thoroughly and most in harmony with our own ideas by the gift of the Bible… Even this old walled city of Manila can no longer resist the edict of the Almighty. It is no longer necessary to shut the gates and pull up the draw-bridges at dark.”
In reality, American empire in the Philippines was marked by extraordinary violence, and even Condict’s vision was based upon racialized ideas about who had and didn’t have ‘civilization’. We also shouldn’t gloss over the fact that Condict wrote at a time during which the United States was developing not physical barriers, but increasingly elaborate mechanisms to keep out certain populations, which would culminate in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.
Nonetheless, she was articulating an ideal, which held that erecting an imposing physical barrier was a fundamentally un-American solution to a problem. Rather, such an act belonged to the distant past, here represented by a decadent and desperate empire. Of course, very many Americans continue to believe this to be true, yet still in some quarters a border wall is seen as a simple answer to complex problems. Without wishing to suggest a perfect overlap of Condict’s context and Trump’s, comparisons between the language used by each, and the ideas about the American spirit contained therein, are thought-provoking.
 Alice Byram Condict, Old Glory and the Gospel in the Philippines: Notes Gathered During Professional and Missionary Work (Chicago, IL: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1902), p. 36.
 Ibid., pp. 36, 38-39.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 47.
Image: ‘Intramuros Manila’, Armanbarbuco (CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)