Luke Wright papers, 1883-1911, bulk 1900-1906.

From left to right, Philippine Commissioners Henry Clay Ide, William Howard Taft, and Luke Edward Wright

Luke Edward Wright was born in Giles County, Tennessee, in 1846. He was the son of Archibald Wright, who would become chief justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and Mary Elizabeth Eldridge, and the great-grandson of Duncan Wright, a Scottish immigrant. The family moved to Memphis in 1850, where Wright undertook his basic schooling. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate army and was assigned to Company G, 154th Senior Tennessee Regiment. He was promoted to second lieutenant, being officially recognized for bravery at the battle of Murfreesboro in 1863. He studied at the University of Mississippi for only one year (1867-68) but read law in his father's office, was accepted to the bar, and went to practice in Memphis. The presidential nomination of the liberal William Jennings Bryan by the Democrats in 1896 made Wright detach himself from the Democratic Party.  In 1900 President William McKinley appointed him a member of the second Philippine Commission. In 1901 he was named Vice-Governor of the Philippines, and in 1904 Governor, replacing William H. Taft. His title was changed to Governor-General in 1905, and at the end of that same year President Theodore Roosevelt asked him to become the first Ambassador of the United States to Japan. Wright stayed in Tokyo for only one year, returning to Memphis to resume his professional life. In 1908 Roosevelt asked him to succeed William H. Taft, who was then the Republican nominee for the presidency, once again, this time, as Secretary of War (1908-9). Wright died in Memphis in 1922.1

The Archive of Luke Edward Wright consists of letters, photographs, ephemera, and newspaper clippings, documenting Wright's tenures as Governor of the Philippines and as Ambassador to Japan. Highlights of this archive include:  A typed letter signed by President Roosevelt to Wright, dated from Oyster Bay, NY, September 3, 1903, announcing to Wright that he is going to take over as Governor of the Philippines following Taft's confirmation as Secretary of War; a photograph album with 21 interior and exterior views of Malacañan Palace, the official residence of the Governor of the Philippines; and an outstanding album containing 65 pictures of Philippine landscape, architecture, peoples, and villages. Finally, there is an album with newspaper clippings, most of which record the crisis over Japanese school children in California, a controversy that would actually trigger Wright's resignation after just a year as American Ambassador to Japan.2

Newspaper clips recording attacks against Japanese restaurants and the resignation of Wright, who was succeeded by Thomas J. O'Brien.

This new archive perfectly complements the holdings of the Worcester Philippine Collection in the Special Collections Library, along with related material from Worcester's career held at the Bentley Historical Library and the Museum of Anthropology. Together, these units on the University of Michigan campus hold what is probably the largest collection in America, outside of the National Archives, pertaining to the Taft Era in the Philippines. The Worcester Collection in the Special Collections Library essentially consists of books, manuscripts, and photographs from the personal archives of Dean Conant Worcester (1866-1924), a University of Michigan zoologist, member of of the U.S. Government's First and Second Philippine Commissions, and later Secretary of the Interior of the Philippines. Worcester bequeathed his library and archives in 1914, and related archives and photograph collections have been added since then, with special emphasis on Worcester's period of public service in the islands (1899-1913). A large portion of his photographic archive has been digitized as part of a larger collection on the history of the Philippines: Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.

Inevitably, it is the task of scholars to determine whether Wright's archive will help us understand the nature and impact of the American involvement in the Philippines; they will also assess  the accuracy of statements by those who were witnesses of this period, like Worcester himself, who deeply regretted  Wright's departure from the islands:

He resigned effective April 1, 1906, to become United States Ambassador to Japan. In my opinion, the acceptance of his resignation at this time was one of the gravest mistakes ever made in the Philippine policy of the United States. The Islands were deprived of the services of a very able and distinguished man, thoroughly conversant with the needs, who had the courage of his convictions, and whose convictions were thoroughly sound.3

Related collections and useful links

  • To view Mirlyn listing for this collection click here.

Pablo Alvarez

Notes

1. Dictionary of American Biography, under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies. Ed. Allen Johnson & Dumas Malone. Vol. 20, 561. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1928-c. 1936.

2. Some groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, which were supported by labor unions, advocated the segregation of all Asian children in San Francisco schools.  Following the 1906 earthquake, there were boycotts and attacks against Japanese restaurants and individuals in the city, and on October 11, 1906 the San Francisco Board of Education forbade all Japanese and Korean children to attend regular American schools. As the new Ambassador to Japan, Wright was the immediate recipient of the anger of the Japanese government. Eventually, Roosevelt had to intervene as the crisis was about to bring both countries into war, reaching what is known today as the 1907-8 "Gentlemen's Agreement", which allowed Japanese children to attend San Francisco schools as long as they showed adequate competence in English. Though Wright alleged personal reasons for his resignation, it seems that he was critical of the fact that the President meddled in State politics. 

3. Worcester, Dean C. The Philippines Past and Present. 2 vols. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914. Vol. 1, 352.

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Last modified: 06/11/2012