Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,321
This is the grave of Orville Platt.
Born in 1827 in Washington, Connecticut, Platt didn’t grow up particularly wealthy. I think his family was just part of the growing middle class of 19th century New England. He attended the common schools, which is the surest marker of class we can have (today too; Connor and Maddie just deserve the best so none of that nonsense for them!) and read for the law. He passed the bar in Connecticut in 1850, worked in Pennsylvania a bit, but then came back home.
Platt, a good Republican from the beginnings of the party, was popular with the state’s political leaders and got himself some good jobs from the time he was young. He was named clerk of the Connecticut state senate in 1855, then became Secretary of State for the Nutmeg State in 1857. In 1861, he got elected to the state senate. He served a couple terms there, a couple terms in the state house, took some time in between these stints to work on his law practice, and became state’s attorney for New Haven County in 1877. Nothing super interesting here, just a locally prominent Republican. Lots of those around. They tend to have big graves too. After all, they were getting rich, involved in the law, real estate, banking, railroads, whatever.
But Platt, no we remember him. That’s because he had bigger political ambitions and because when he achieved them, he would represent some of the worst tendencies of this country. In 1879, Connecticut Republicans decided to send Platt to the Senate. He remained there for the rest of his life.
Platt had two fundamental positions. First, do whatever corporations wanted. Second, expand American power overseas. He did his damnedest to see both of these things through. On the first, he was a solid vote against literally anything that would help workers. He was a true believer in the deification of the doctrine of contract under free labor. What this meant was that he, like his fellow elite Gilded Age Republicans took the original idea of free labor, which in short is that individuals are independent economic agents and within a democracy, they will rise and fall based on their personal characteristics but that most people should do OK, and they turned it into a farce when a immigrant coming off the boat from Italy and Andrew Carnegie were equal actors in an employment contract. This completely ignored the power disparities of the era but there was some level of consistency here in that for these Republicans, even before the Gilded Age, private property and the contract were gods. Anyway, Platt, who soon became part of the Republican cabal that effectively operated the Senate along with people such as Nelson Aldrich and John Spooner, did everything he could to promote these ideas on the Senate floor. That meant a no vote on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and any other legislation that attempted to regulate the railroads. It meant no votes on any eight-hour day legislation or any other legislation that might possibly help workers. I mean, he was really hated by the labor movement. He was like the Senate version of Jay Gould or the Pinkertons, a figure that represented a great evil that was everywhere.
Platt was not OK with using government power to help workers but he was quite ardent about using government power to take over other parts of the world. He was an staunch imperialist and colonist. Now, when the U.S. invaded Cuba on extremely dubious claims about the USS Maine being blown up by the Spanish in 1898, there was a lot of debate in the Senate. This was no universally beloved action. Lots of people opposed imperialism for a variety of reasons, from moral outrage about imperialism to racism to not wanting more competition for white workers. The irony of the U.S. becoming a colonial power was not lost on many Americans. And so, as part of the declaration of war against Spain, the Senate passed the Teller Amendment, which made it a condition of the war declaration that the U.S. would not turn Cuba into a colony.
Well, people like Platt hated that. They wanted that Cuban colony. The U.S. evicted the Spanish from Cuba with ease and took over. But now what? There was a military governor for a couple of years, but by 1901, it was time to start the process to grant Cuban independence. Or, if you were Orville Platt, what if you just made it “independence,” with the nominal granting of autonomy but with the U.S. really running the show. That worked for enough people. So this led to the Platt Amendment to the bill granting Cuban independence. It completely made a mockery of the entire idea of independence. Cuba could not make any deal with any foreign government that hurt the U.S., whatever the American government thought that meant at the time. The nation could not take out public debt or engage in any financial obligations that the U.S. didn’t like. American corporate domination of property was assured and whatever American interests meant were to be enforced. And if any of this did not happen, the U.S. had the right to invade and take over again until the Cubans did what the Americans want.
So, you know, “independence.” Again and again over the next three decades, the Marines would enter Cuba to protect American interests and force the Cuban government to do what Washington wanted.
Oh, also the U.S. got to keep Guantanamo Bay, which is now infamous but at the time was more useful as a naval base than a place to illegally torture purported terrorists. This was actually almost a win for the Cubans, as people such as Platt and Elihu Root wanted the U.S. to control all ports in Cuba.
Platt and friends ensured that the U.S. would dominate Cuba until 1959, which helps explain the rise of Castro. A lot. The Platt Amendment and the government that came out it would remain intact until 1934. FDR, as part of the Good Neighbor Policy, replaced it in 1934 with a new treaty. That would allow assholes like Fulgencio Batista to do the bidding of the U.S. instead of the military doing it itself. Progress!
Well, that’s the legacy of Orville Platt. Real nice guy!
Platt also sponsored the legislation to create what became the Platt National Park, a series of hot springs in Oklahoma that put the U.S. government in the business of running a tourist business. Later, that park was disestablished, one of the only times that’s happened in American history. Today, this is part of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, which is a nice enough place but certainly not national park worthy.
Toward the end, Platt became known as “an old fashioned senator,” about which he was proud. This was no Progressive. He was proudly, aggressively regressive.
Platt died in 1905, still crankily bumbling about the Senate. He was 77 years old.
Orville Platt is buried in Washington Cemetery on the Green, Washington, Connecticut.
If you would like this series to visit other American imperialists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Josiah Strong is in Hudson, Ohio and John Fiske is in Peterham, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.