The Assassination of President McKinley

An interesting study could be made of "Presidential Exposure." That it is dangerous is clear, yet recent Presidents, and none more than Johnson who seems to have a manic compulsion to make physical contact with as many citizens as possible, have considered it a necessary part of their job.

~ Dwight Macdonald, A Critique of the Warren Report, 1965

Kingmakers and Rough Riders of the Apocalypse

Kevin Phillips is a former Republican Party campaign manager, prolific author and chameleon-like political commentator. His latest book, American Theocracy (favorably reviewed here by Professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia University), sparked a much-reported question to President George W. Bush at his press conference in Cleveland, Ohio on March 20th as to whether he believed recent events are portents of the Apocalypse.

In reply, the President embarked on a 4-minute long digression about the war on terrorism and eventually stated, “The threat from Iran is, of course, their stated objective to destroy our strong ally Israel. That’s a threat, a serious threat. It’s a threat to world peace; it’s a threat, in essence, to a strong alliance. I made it clear, I’ll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally, Israel.”

In 1898 the 25th president, William McKinley, had stated in his war message to Congress justifying US military intervention against Spain in Cuba, “It is no answer to say that this is all in another country, belonging to another nation, and is therefore none of our business. It is especially our duty, for it is right at our door. […] The present condition of affairs in Cuba is a constant menace to our peace.”

A reviewer of Phillips’ 2003 book on McKinley, who held office from 1897 to 1901, charges the author with hauling him up from a relative obscurity into the second tier of important presidents just in order to satisfy a personal theory. "His thesis," the reviewer writes, "is that McKinley was an important president, and the thing that makes him important is that he illustrates Phillips’ career-making mega-theory about realignment politics. It’s a campaign strategist’s view of history."

True enough, but what’s wrong with having a theory? And, as the fateful rise of Karl Rove shows, we need to pay attention to campaign strategists’ views of history, however much we may abhor them as persons. Men like Rove are the gurus, gray eminences, cardinals and kingmakers to the modern-day queens, and wield tremendous power and influence behind the scenes.

It was that most original and celebrated of campaign strategists, Mark Hanna (1837—1904), who helped to put McKinley into the White House in 1897, but whose protests were passed over when it came to selecting a running mate for McKinley’s second election campaign in 1900. McKinley chose Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Navy Secretary at the start of his first administration, later Governor of New York and a war hero popular for having led his band of "Rough Riders" into battle in Cuba during the Spanish-American war of 1898. On being overruled in this matter, Hanna is reported to have exclaimed, "there’s only a life between that madman and the Presidency."

As indeed it turned out, when on September 6, 1901 Leon Czolgosz (pronounced "Cholgosh"), an American-born child of Polish immigrants and a self-confessed anarchist, fired two bullets at point-blank range into the 58-year old McKinley as he was receiving visitors in a line at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley died on September 14th from a gangrenous infection in the wounds from one of the bullets, which had penetrated his abdomen. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th president later the same day.

(Mis)underestimating the President

One of Phillips’ arguments is that much of Theodore Roosevelt’s policy in his first term, in which he retained McKinley’s cabinet team, had been foreshadowed and prepared by McKinley, and that this makes McKinley a neglected and underestimated progressive. Since policies take time to come to fruition across presidencies, and since the ruling classes devoted much effort in the 1890s to their attempts to understand, absorb and neutralize the energy of popular protest — including taking the country into a “splendid little war” in which Roosevelt enthusiastically participated, this in itself is no major insight. But it is important that it be stated, so that we may rescue some historical understanding of continuity and change from the mire of political deception, wishful thinking and jingoist victors’ histories of the period.

Phillips’ argument applies as much to foreign as to domestic policy: for example, the idea of negotiating with Colombia to build a canal so that the US Navy could have faster access to the Far East was conceived under McKinley. Confronted by the Colombian Senate’s rejection of the proposal, action-man Roosevelt seized the necessary land to create the new state of Panama and build the Canal — at significant cost to the American taxpayer and riding roughshod over international law.

Everything Does Not Change Overnight

There is a popular misconception that events like the installation of a new president "change everything overnight." They did not then, and do not do so now, however much people may want or need change. The historically overlooked American pacification of the Philippines was not completed until July 1902, 10 months into Roosevelt’s first term and after three years of bloody conflict. In our time, the Bush II administration’s post 9/11 anti-terrorism legislation was foreshadowed by anti-terrorism laws in the Clinton era following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center bombing of 1993.

As Professor Brinkley says, Phillips has "a rare gift for looking broadly and structurally at social and political change, describing a series of major transformations, and demonstrating the relationships among them." To understand events, we should look at the seeds of those transformations and the links of continuity over the longer term.

That long-term view shows that there are no real differences between the two main parties on issues such as “the war” (then and now) and that, come the election, things do not immediately change for the better. In fact, quite often they get worse, giving rise to that well-known saying that each US president, sooner or later, makes you long for the days of the one who went before.

Unfortunately, political power players today are all too willing to exploit the laziness and cynical inertia of those who have seen through the false dichotomies but do not have the will to do anything about it. They do so, for example, by supplying to a sound-bite and game-obsessed culture the slick presentation of news and elections as passing and fast-moving competitive entertainments, in which the winner takes all — while fundamental political issues remain unresolved. George W. Bush said in that same Cleveland press conference that decisions on US withdrawal from Iraq will be "for the next President."

Read My Lips — The Original Master

Even though McKinley, as the first president to use the phone intensively, was technologically innovative, in his America it was more a question of reinforcing the old political tradition of saying you’ll do one thing and doing something else altogether. That much is amply demonstrated by the stark contrast between what he stated in his inaugural addresses and the policies which were actually implemented under his rule.

"You may be sure that there will be no jingo nonsense under my administration," he said to anti-imperialist former Civil War general and senator Carl Schurz in 1896, following it up in his first inaugural speech in March 1897 with these words:

"We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression. War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency."

Would you have guessed from the above that during McKinley’s first term the United States would go to war with Spain over Cuba just over a year later, launching the United States into a century of war and overseas intervention?

The Man in the Mask

McKinley is said to have embarked on his second term in March 1901 intending to focus on domestic policy, but again, you wouldn’t have known it from his second inaugural, filled with echoes of "enduring freedom," invocations of overriding imperial destiny — past and future, and pre-Wilsonian zeal to spread the dream:

The American people, intrenched in freedom at home, take their love for it with them wherever they go, and they reject as mistaken and unworthy the doctrine that we lose our own liberties by securing the enduring foundations of liberty to others. Our institutions will not deteriorate by extension, and our sense of justice will not abate under tropic suns in distant seas. As heretofore, so hereafter will the nation demonstrate its fitness to administer any new estate which events devolve upon it.

When he came to talk about the independence movement in the Philippines, he said:

The most liberal terms of amnesty have already been communicated to the insurgents, and the way is still open for those who have raised their arms against the Government for honorable submission to its authority. Our countrymen should not be deceived. We are not waging war against the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands. A portion of them are making war against the United States. […] We will not leave the destiny of the loyal millions in the islands to the disloyal thousands who are in rebellion against the United States. Order under civil institutions will come as soon as those who now break the peace shall keep it. Force will not be needed or used when those who make war against us shall make it no more.

At a time when George Orwell was not even in his cradle, McKinley had earlier given a nicely Orwellian designation to his policy towards those he called his "little brown brothers" in the Philippines: he called it "benevolent assimilation." "We come, not as invaders or conquerors," he had told them, "but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights." When the insurrection was eventually suppressed in 1902, this literally devastating policy had cost the lives of an estimated 25,000 rebels, 200,000 civilians, and 4,000 American soldiers.

It is significant that in his own time, and far beyond it into the twentieth century, not many saw through McKinley’s mask of austere, self-effacing affability to the brazen deceptions and shrewd control underneath. He was generally thought of as being "amiably weak." But future Secretary of State John Hay was one who did so: after a visit to McKinley during the 1896 election campaign, he wrote to Henry Adams, "I was more struck than ever by his mask. It is a genuine Italian ecclesiastical face of the fifteenth century. And there are idiots who think Mark Hanna will run him." Adams, himself a tortured spirit of those unsettled times, was to remark perceptively that McKinley was "easily first in genius for manipulation" and described him as "an uncommonly dangerous politician" even before the ruling Republican Party had begun to agitate for war with Spain in the immediate aftermath of McKinley’s electoral victory over William Jennings Bryan.

New American Frontiers

To understand the origins of the Spanish-American war, the contradictions between stated policy and actual events, and above all the nature of the personalities involved, there is no better starting point than Walter Karp’s The Politics of War, first published in 1979 but still a neglected masterpiece, despite valiant attempts to publicize it — by Lewis Lapham of Harpers magazine, who was instrumental in bringing out the new edition in 2003, by the whole editorial team at the The Last Ditch website, which published a comprehensive appreciation of Walter Karp in 2002, and by a number of writers on this website and elsewhere on the web.

As Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out in 1893, the reality and the idea of the frontier had always provided the mythology and the escape valve for American expansion. But in 1890, at Wounded Knee, the United States had reached its Western physical limit. This had produced a form of psychological-existential crisis in the American mind:

Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West….The frontier is the line of the most rapid and effective Americanization….The frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people….The legislation which most developed the powers of the national government, and played the largest part in its activity, was conditioned on the frontier….

To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients….What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.

~ Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," 1893

What Karp demonstrates is that, while from 1895 onwards there was undoubtedly some genuine and comprehensible public concern at conditions in Spanish Cuba, the u2018large policy,’ of effectively expanding the frontier by taking it overseas, was a convenient way of absorbing the severe domestic discontent arising out of the prolonged economic, social and cultural crisis of the 1890s. To this end, Cuba was conveniently close to hand. Added to which, it had long been a u2018desirable object of conquest’ for the American empire: as early as the time of the war with Britain in 1812, members of Congress had agitated for American territorial expansion into (British) Canada, and (Spanish) Florida and Cuba, primarily to secure export markets.

But was the large policy, which has its successors today in preventive war and the goal of securing the frontier of outer space against all possible comers, sufficient to channel and disperse the profound economic and cultural discontent of that troubled end of the century? That is a much larger issue, in which the question of the anarchist assassin’s motivation comes into play: already in 1901 it exercised the minds of those who were debating the state of mind of Leon Czolgosz and deciding his fate.

The Anarchist unmakes what the Kingmaker has made

McKinley, who like many of his successors liked to press the flesh of u2018ordinary people,’ was unfortunate to have been president at a time when some in the anarchist movement saw men and women in positions of executive power, whether elected or not, as symbols of oppressive regal and faceless government, to be removed by force. In Europe, the idea of u2018propaganda by the deed‘ — especially bombing — had penetrated anarchist circles and displaced less violent forms of dissent. Prominent European figures, including King Umberto of Italy and Empress Elizabeth of Austria, had been assassinated by anarchists of this type.

In the US, the fact that those who subscribed to these views were usually immigrants — or the children of immigrants — created a fear of dangerous aliens in the American mind. In 1903, 2 years after McKinley’s assassination, and in the time-honored bureaucratic tradition of devising legislation today to deal with yesterday’s problem, US immigration legislation was revised to provide for the exclusion (and deportation if they were already in the country) of any person "who disbelieves in or who is opposed to all organized government, or who is a member of or affiliated with any organization entertaining or teaching such disbelief in or opposition to all governments."

Czolgosz, when asked to explain himself at his trial, justified his crime on the grounds that he had done his duty: he did not feel “that one man should have so much service, and another man should have none.”

This sparked a debate about individual moral responsibility. Was the anarchist solely responsible for his actions, or had he been (de)formed by the social, economic and cultural evils of the society in which he lived? Had Czolgosz been driven insane by the inhuman, listless, frustrating conditions of his life? Emma Goldman, who was briefly arrested and quite harshly treated in the aftermath of the McKinley assassination because she was claimed by Czolgosz to have been an inspiration to him, certainly thought so, as her October 1901 article, u2018The Tragedy of Buffalo,’ demonstrated:

“An act of violence is not only the result of conditions, but also of man’s psychical and physical nature, and his susceptibility to the world surrounding him. […]

That violence is not the result of conditions only, but also largely depends upon man’s inner nature, is best proven by the fact that while thousands loath tyranny, but one will strike down a tyrant. What is it that drives him to commit the act, while others pass quietly by? It is because the one is of such a sensitive nature that he will feel a wrong more keenly and with greater intensity than others.

It is, therefore, not cruelty, or a thirst for blood, or any other criminal tendency, that induces such a man to strike a blow at organized power. On the contrary, it is mostly because of a strong social instinct.

It is generally believed that men prompted to put the dagger or bullet in the cowardly heart of government, were men conceited enough to think that they will thereby liberate the world from the fetters of despotism. As far as I have studied the psychology of an act of violence, I find that nothing could be further away from the thought of such a man than that if the king were dead, the mob will cease to shout “Long live the king!”

The cause for such an act lies deeper far too deep for the shallow multitude to comprehend. It lies in the fact that the world within the individual, and the world around him, are two antagonistic forces, and, therefore, must clash.

Do I say that Czolgosz is made of that material? No. Neither can I say that he was not. Nor am I in a position to say whether or not he is an Anarchist; I did not know the man; no one as far as I am aware seems to have known him, but from his attitude and behavior so far (I hope that no reader of “Free Society” has believed the newspaper lies), I feel that he was a soul in pain, a soul that could find no abode in this cruel world of ours, a soul “impractical,” inexpedient, lacking in caution (according to the dictum of the wise);

Anarchism and violence are as far apart from each other as liberty and tyranny. I care not what the rabble says; but to those who are still capable of understanding I would say that Anarchism, being a philosophy of life, aims to establish a state of society in which man’s inner make-up and the conditions around him, can blend harmoniously, so that he will be able to utilize all the forces to enlarge and beautify the life about him. To those I would also say that I do not advocate violence; government does this, and force begets force. It is a fact which cannot be done away with through the prosecution of a few men and women, or by more stringent laws — this only tends to increase it.”

Leon Czolgosz was put to death in the electric chair at Auburn state prison on October 29, 1901. In a gesture heavy with the symbolic desire to purge evil from society absolutely, sulfuric acid was poured over his body to dissolve it. The issues of personal moral responsibility, societal degradation and distribution of wealth and privilege remain as pressing today as they were on that sad day at the turn of the last century.



Diner, Steven J. (1998), A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era (New York, Hill and Wang)

Joll, James (1980, 1964), The Anarchists (Harvard University Press)

Johns, A. Wesley (1970), The Man Who Shot McKinley (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.)

Karp, Walter (2003, 1979), The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic 1890—1920 (New York: Franklin Square Press)

Kolko, Gabriel (1995), A Century of War (New York: W. W. Norton & Co)

Lears, T.J. Jackson (1981), No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880—1920 (New York: Pantheon Books)

Morgan, H. Wayne (2004, 1970), William McKinley and His America (Kent State University Press)

Phillips, Kevin R. (2003) William McKinley (Times Books — American Presidents Series) Phillips, Kevin R. (2006) American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking Books)

Rauchway, Eric (2003), Murdering McKinley : The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, (New York, Hill and Wang)

Rosenberg, Emily S. (1982), Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion 1890—1945 (New York: Hill and Wang)

Williams, William A. (1966, 1961), The Contours of American History (Chicago: Quadrangle Paperbacks)

Williams, William A. (1972, 1959), The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.)


Mark Gado, The Assassination of William McKinley

Lewis L. Gould, William McKinley (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Wyatt Kingseed, The Assassination of William McKinley

Other Links

Legacies of the Spanish-American War

Mark Trexler, The McKinley Assassination site

University of Buffalo Libraries, The Legal Aftermath of the McKinley Assassination

University of Buffalo Libraries, Anarchy at the Turn of the Century

White House, William McKinley Page

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

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