William McKinley: Modern-Day Relevance of a Conflicted Past

| | November 13, 2023

In the presidential campaign of 2004, George W. Bush’s advisor Karl Rove repeated to journalists his long-standing explanation of why he admires William McKinley and expects Bush to reproduce what Rove regards as McKinley’s successes.[1] In 2003, Kevin Phillips, a Bush critic, wrote a book explaining how much he also admires McKinley.[2]

Eric Schlosser, a muck-raking journalist, saw his play Americans debut in London in the fall of 2003 to a theater full of Britons drawn to a play about the assassination of McKinley.[3] Schlosser explains his interest in McKinley by invoking William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”[4]

By saying so he raises anew the old question of how much our interest in present events ought to inflect our study of the past, but he also raises a question of peculiar interest to historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The McKinley of Rove, Phillips, and Schlosser—the McKinley whom Rove wants the President to emulate—may sound dimly familiar to us. But does the work of professional historians sustain this gloss on current affairs?

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As to how McKinley acquired his alleged contemporary relevance, the short answer is that it is mostly Rove’s doing. Schlosser and Phillips both note Rove’s borrowing of McKinley.[5] Rove has been citing McKinley at least since Bush’s campaign for President in 2000, and when he cites McKinley he also cites scholarly historians. In a January, 2000, New Yorker profile of then-governor and -candidate Bush, Nicholas Lemann wrote,

Karl Rove has a riff, which he gives to anybody who will listen, entitled “It’s 1896.” Every national political reporter has heard it, to the extent that it induces affectionate eye-rolling when it comes up. “It’s 1896” is based on Rove’s reading of the work of a small school of conservative revisionist historians of the Gilded Age (that is, historians who love the Gilded Age), one of whom, Lewis Gould, taught a graduate course that Rove took at the University of Texas. Here’s the theory, delivered at Rove’s mile-a-minute clip: “Everything you know about William McKinley and Mark Hanna”—the man elected President in 1896 and his political Svengali—”is wrong. The country was in a period of change. McKinley’s the guy who figured it out. Politics were changing. The economy was changing. We’re at the same point now: weak allegiances to parties, a rising new economy.”[6]

Rove’s riff included explaining that McKinley appealed to immigrants and working-class voters by effectively explaining the benefits of his economic proposals, and more importantly that McKinley appeals to Rove because, as The Economist wrote, “In winning the election, McKinley and Hanna redefined their party to ensure Republican dominance for much of the next 30 years.”[7]

Rove argues that George W. Bush wants to do what William McKinley is supposed to have done for (or, if your political preferences run the other way, to) the Republican Party and the country. In his enthusiasm he thus raises afresh the question of just what William McKinley did. Lemann’s account of the revisionist, Rovian interpretation of William McKinley’s career includes these major points.

1. McKinley turned away from old Civil War allegiances to win new voters for the GOP, including immigrants and Southerners and working-class people.

2. McKinley turned the Republican Party into the “representative organisation” of a “new economy” marked by widespread prosperity.[8]

3. As a result of points 1 and 2, McKinley made Republicans popular again—after the Grover Cleveland interregnum—and effected a realignment, ensuring Republican dominance of federal politics until the coalescence of the New Deal constituencies in the 1930s.

The question of whether Bush, or anyone, can repeat McKinley’s successes raises the important historical question of whether these successes occurred. Rove’s three points overlap, but we can usefully consider them in sequence.

First, McKinley’s wooing of new constituencies. That McKinley courted the white Southern vote and tried to break down racial barriers to a Republican coalition in the South has long been known. A year before his Presidential campaign, McKinley leased a house in Georgia, establishing some regional bona fides. In 1896 he did surprisingly well among Georgia voters for a Republican candidate.[9]

During his presidency he took federal responsibility for Confederate war graves, wearing a gray badge in his lapel to signify his sympathy for the Confederate South. He unified the country for the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which Northerner and Southerner, white and black, fought together for the United States.

David W. Blight argues that this work of “magic healing,” as McKinley called it, required that McKinley mollify the white South and alienate African Americans, whose loyalty Republicans expected to enjoy without expending effort.[10] “McKinley was an inveterate conciliator, especially toward the South. Indeed, the furthering of sectional conciliation was one of the President’s explicit war aims [for the Spanish-American War],” Blight argues. But Northern blacks did not welcome this spirit of compassion toward the former rebels. “[W]e saw how cunningly you catered to Southern race prejudice,” a public letter from the Colored National League in Boston read.[11] The principal author of that letter was Archibald Grimké, a former slave who “argued that ‘unification of the sections’ could only be achieved if blacks received their full liberty as citizens.”[12] But McKinley used his Southern tour to bestow legitimacy on an African-American leader of differing views. He visited Tuskegee and praised Booker T. Washington who, as was well known, believed that liberty could wait on reconciliation and economic uplift.

In tacking with the racial winds McKinley was, as Rove suggests, responding to a change in the weather, not striking out on an unwarranted course of his own. White Democrats in the South began to campaign in earnest for legal and constitutional disfranchisement of black voters beginning in 1889, turning the South into a white polity. To reach out to white voters in what remained an important political region seemed a logical response, even if it meant adopting views that ran rather against the tendency of Reconstruction and all that the war aims of the Republican Party had once seemed to imply. Michael Perman argues that McKinley did more than accept a fait accompli, that by signaling his conciliatory spirit toward the white South he allowed the acceleration and consolidation of disfranchisement. “Before McKinley entered the White House, only two states had held disfranchising conventions. But in the next few years, the pace of the movement had accelerated as Louisiana in 1898 and North Carolina in 1900 executed plans for disfranchisement and Alabama and Virginia embarked on campaigns to achieve it,” Perman writes.[13]

Even so, there is at most a Nixon-to-China aspect to this series of maneuvers. As a legitimate Civil War hero of the U.S. Army, McKinley was able to extend an olive branch to the white South, as another politician might not have done, and so helped usher the era of the bloody shirt to a close. He did it hoping to open a new era of white Republicanism in the South, but it was not to be, at least not until the 1920s (and especially 1928, when white Southerners defected noticeably from the Democrats’ cosmopolitan, ethnic, Catholic candidate Al Smith) and then only temporarily.[14] Instead McKinley helped usher in the era of the bloody Solid South, in which white supremacy, lynch law, and Democratic voting went hand-in-hand.[15] In doing so McKinley was riding a historical tide whose flood was plain to the eye. He might have moved Americans a little further and faster toward apartheid than they otherwise would have gone, but he did not accomplish much more, and in the process did little for his party except perhaps plant a seed that would not grow for decades. Alternatively he might, of course, have used his authority as a warrior for the Union to stand for civil rights: but it was not in him or any probable Presidential candidate of the 1890s to do that.[16]

McKinley’s maneuvers with respect to another elusive constituency, the immigrant vote, were more complex, especially as they were inseparable from his attitude to the working-class vote. Owing to the quantity, source, and destinations of immigration in the late nineteenth century, by 1910 an American worker was more likely than not to be either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, and the shift toward this distribution was well underway by the middle 1890s.[17] There are at least two questions that follow from this observation, which we may suppose would have pressed upon a politician in 1896: first, what are you going to do about the quality and quantity of manufacturing jobs in this country, and second, are you going to keep immigrants from taking jobs away from native-born workers?

On the latter question, McKinley had to do a delicate dance. Running against William Jennings Bryan, the fiery preacher of the heartland, it might have been easy for McKinley to project an authentic picture of, as Kevin Phillips suggests, “[r]eligious and cultural ecumenicalism” that would have helped him with the ethnic and immigrant vote.[18] But he was also running on a platform that called for a literacy test to limit immigration, which would have limited his appeal to immigrants and ethnics.[19] After McKinley’s 1896 victory, the lame-duck House and Senate passed just such a bill late in the winter of 1897, and lame-duck President Grover Cleveland vetoed it. In 1898 the Senate approved the literacy test again while the House narrowly refused to consider it. Claudia Goldin, seeing the presidential platform on which McKinley had run, writes, “Had but two members of the House changed sides in 1898, the literacy test would have become law….”[20] But Roger Daniels suggests otherwise:

McKinley had very carefully not endorsed a literacy test: in his [Presidential nomination] acceptance letter he noted the need for legislation “as will secure the United States from invasion by the debased and criminal classes of the Old World” and in his inaugural he had insisted only that “against all who come here to make war upon [American institutions and laws] our gates must be promptly and tightly closed.”

Which is to say, he had argued for excluding anarchists, but not illiterates. Daniels goes on to argue that in voting not even to consider the bill, “the Republican leadership, almost certainly with the agreement or encouragement of the White House, wanted to kill the bill without having to take a public stand against a measure that had been endorsed in the party platform and was probably supported by a majority of the voting public.”[21]

If Daniels’s logic is correct, McKinley took a more careful position on immigration than historians sometimes suggest. He talked tough on immigration, which might have appealed to that considerable number of native-born Americans who lost their jobs, or believed they had, to lower-paid immigrants. But he talked less tough than some in his party, and let immigration restriction fail, which might have appealed to immigrant and ethnic voters, as well as (Daniels, like Goldin, suggests) to those employers who “were intent on having abundant supplies of unskilled workers on hand,” and so favored ongoing immigration of illiterate, but strong-backed, laborers.[22]

As in the case of the white Southern vote, McKinley was more compromising than his party toward a possible constituency, but was also chasing a constituency destined for the Democrats. As Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks have recently re-emphasized, immigrants in America liked “urban party machines, mainly Democratic,” that “provid[ed] them with services, representation, and avenues of mobility[.]” Even beyond this consideration, Republicans were unlikely to win immigrants over, because contrary to McKinley’s insistence, the new Americans were not all that keen to Americanize. McKinley tried to defuse anti-immigrant sentiment by pointing to immigrants who had become citizens, but as Lipset and Marks indicate, “many [immigrants], if not most, often came with the intention of making enough money in a few years to return home to buy property” and to this extent had little “interest in…American politics generally.”[23] There was a clear tendency in U. S. immigration policy toward wanting the labor but not liking the cultural change that came with immigration. This tension settled into a routine pattern of hypocrisy that entailed arguments for excluding many immigrants, welcoming many others by loopholes, and calling vigorously for Americanization of all. McKinley might have helped push his fellow citizens toward this awkward end, but did not do much to shape it or to help his party benefit from it.

On the related issue of jobs and the economy overall, McKinley stood for protectionism, a policy to which his tenure as congressman had tied his name through the McKinley Tariff of 1890. Phillips writes that “[j]obs were the commitment to which McKinley could always rise. In pledging the ‘full dinner pail,’ he could add detailed information about how the tariffs on tinplate or steel rails had moved thousands of jobs from Britain to America and make the data come alive to his audience.”[24] But even the liveliest and most detailed presentation of data is not necessarily true. In a number of papers the economic historian Douglas A. Irwin finds that the high tariff policy did not do what its proponents claimed, either for government revenues or for protection of American industries and jobs.[25] Furthermore, protective tariffs combined with largely unrestricted immigration do not particularly protect workers in a given industry—with immigration, workers will still be subject to a global free market in their services—so much as they protect the industry itself and its management.

Phillips takes the case for McKinley’s economic acumen even further when he claims, in keeping with Rove point no. 2, “McKinley’s interrelated successes—a new period of economic prosperity, including the entrenchment of the protective tariff framework in 1897 and the gold standard in 1900—ended a quarter century of bitter acrimony over currency, money supply, and tariffs with a clear decision in favor of manufacturing, global commerce, and a sound currency with mild inflation.”[26] It is difficult to assess such sweeping and complex claims. A protective tariff cannot be construed as a policy particularly favorable to global commerce—at least, not in comparison with a policy of free trade or even a policy for lower tariffs. The inflation of 1897-1914, while to a degree salutary in light of the preceding deflation, was not especially mild, as Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz argue, nor did it have much to do with McKinley, but rather was the result, Friedman writes, “of faraway events” that affected the worldwide supply of gold and created global inflation.[27] Leaving monetary history aside, we know to a dead certainty that nothing McKinley did ended the acrimony over currency, money supply, and tariffs because that acrimony did not end in his lifetime nor soon after. Conflict over money and currency persisted at least until the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and anger over trade policies raged through GATT and WTO and indeed to the present day.

All this recent historiography calls into doubt the substantive claims made by modern McKinley enthusiasts, but leaves us to consider claim no. 3, arguably the one that most interests Rove and the one to which claims for benefiting the economy or damping domestic conflict must subordinate themselves: did McKinley create a lasting, new Republican majority? Because this question touches on the deeper issue of realignment theory in American political science, it ramifies well beyond a short essay’s power to capture its implications, but recent work on political history appears to answer, clearly, “No.” In brief, there was no realignment of 1896, so McKinley cannot get credit for it.

To some extent the absence of a Republican realignment of 1896 might appear obvious. Woodrow Wilson held the Presidency from 1913-1921, while Democrats held majorities in the House from 1911-1917 and in the Senate from 1913-1919.[28] Even if Wilson’s election as President can be written off to the effect of Theodore Roosevelt’s having split the Republicans in 1912, Roosevelt cannot have caused the sixty-six-seat House Majority the Democrats won two years before he walked out of the Republican convention.[29] Moreover these Democrats between 1913 and 1917 passed the bulk of what we now consider the most important progressive legislation of the early twentieth century, and may be taken to have seeded the New Deal coalition.[30]

Altogether this is a strange thing to happen in the middle of a Republican ascendancy.

At a more stringent level of analysis, Larry M. Bartels finds that the election of 1896 failed to set any voting patterns, which realigning elections are supposed to do:

The electoral pattern established in 1896 was diminished by half within four years; the state-by-state voting pattern in 1900 reflected the divisions of 1888…as much or more than those of 1896….Moreover, the direct carryover of the 1896 voting pattern was actually negative in 1904….[I]t seems difficult to sustain [a] characterization of this as “one of the decisive elections in American history.”[31]

And David R. Mayhew argues succinctly that 1896 represented no new policy pattern, which realigning elections are also supposed to do, because “policy innovations under McKinley during 1897-1901 probably rank in the bottom quartile among all presidential terms in American history.”[32]

Which in the end helps to explain why any case for McKinley as a transformative President tends to fall down. Such cases rest on the shaky assumption that 1896 marked a decisive shift in voting and policy patterns, and therefore that William McKinley, the major figure in that year, must have benefited from those changes if he did not do something to provoke or abet them. But if those changes did not occur, then we are left with, as Mayhew notes, an almost perfectly conservative President who presided over a very few institutional changes in the Presidency during a period when global trends well out of his or anyone’s control favored the American economy. Indeed it was by making these much more modest claims that McKinley revisionism began, and probably where it should stay.

In his 1963 biography of McKinley, H. Wayne Morgan argued that “the years of his presidency were transitional. He stood not as the last old-fashioned chief executive, nor as the first modern one, but as something in between….”[33] In the early 1980s, Lewis Gould and Robert Hilderbrand began developing the idea of McKinley as a competent, Weberian bureaucratic manager, an executive modernizer suited to an industrial and corporate age but not a heedless tool of the interests as he was and is often portrayed. They emphasized his characteristic reliance on “rationalization and routinization” and his ability to ensure that “the presidential schedule was now well-defined and comfortable.”[34] McKinley created a smooth press-management bureau and a competent chief-of-staff. He picked professionals over placemen when he could afford to do it. This McKinley—the McKinley who appointed George Cortelyou and Elihu Root—should be immediately recognizable and persuasive as an antidote to McKinley as puppet-of-the-trusts. Gould carefully describes this McKinley as a pivotal, and thus transitional, figure to the modern presidency—a man belonging fully to neither the 19th nor the 20th century: “The McKinley presidency was not ‘a collection of specialized bureaucracies with hundreds of professional staffers,’ but neither was it any longer ‘a small, personalized office.'”[35]

To the extent that we think of progressivism as “the ambition of the new middle class to fulfill its destiny through bureaucratic means,”[36] to the extent that the Progressive Era marks the critical period in “organizational history,” bringing about “the development of the modern U.S. administrative state,”[37] or “the establishment of a more modern social and governmental system,”[38] then McKinley’s organizational reforms should qualify him as at least a proto-progressive. But if McKinley qualifies as even a proto-progressive, it suggests there is something wrong with this definition of progressivism. It is a bloodless, scholar’s progressivism, assuredly unrecognizable to the voters of the early 1900s. These progressives do no standing at Armageddon, they harbor no fierce discontent, they make not the slightest reference to other people’s money; though they may be moral people, they evince no moral passion.[39] The claim that McKinley qualifies almost as a progressive could not survive outside the specialized conditions of academic analysis, and one wonders what real progressives might have done to it had it been let out on the hustings in the early twentieth century.[40]

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To gauge McKinley against the progressivism that followed him, we might suppose he had not died in September 1901. It is not such an outrageous counterfactual. The Secret Service men set to guard the President might have kept an eye on Czolgosz instead of fixating on the swarthy gentleman next to him in line and could have reacted swiftly to the actual threat. Jim Parker, the man who tackled Czolgosz, might have moved a split second sooner to push his gun arm off target. Czolgosz might have lingered over lunch and found himself a few places further back in line, and the President, who at the time he was shot was getting ready to leave anyway, could have walked unaccosted away from the Temple of Music.

It is not outside the realm of plausibility to imagine a second-term McKinley directing Attorney General Philander Knox to prosecute Northern Securities, a combination whose purpose was clearly “to help control rate-cutting.”[41] And it is possible that McKinley might have used his old friend Mark Hanna, who for his own political reasons was trying to develop an image of himself as “the laborer’s friend” in 1902, in resolving the anthracite strike.[42] It is even possible, if not likely, that he might have used his popularity to pressure Congress into passing tariff revisions.[43]

But it is hard to imagine him talking like Roosevelt. As Phillips writes, “Roosevelt’s rhetorical calls to arms between 1901 and 1904 were a clarion he was far better equipped to sound than McKinley.”[44] Charles Beard wrote in 1914 that Roosevelt “smote with many a message the money changers in the temple of his own party and convinced a large portion of the country that he had not only driven them out but had refused all association with them.” Although Beard was having a little fun by twitting Roosevelt for smiting with messages rather than more concrete weaponry, he did not scant the power of rhetoric either. One could, even before the advent of speech-act theory, smite with messages. Roosevelt deployed, from his first message to Congress, “the whole range of the terminology of social ‘uplift,'” Beard wrote, and though he repeated himself over and over he never afterward “added anything new by way of economic doctrine or moral principle”; it was all there from the start. By endlessly talking about progressive reforms, he made it seem as though some progressive reforms really ought to be enacted. “The adoption of the income tax amendment, the passage of the amendment for popular election of Senators, the establishment of parcel post and postal savings banks, and the successful prosecution of trusts and combinations,—all these achievements belong in time to the administration of Mr. Taft, although it will be claimed by some that they were but a fruition of plans laid or policies advocated by Mr. Roosevelt,” Beard noted.[45] It appears it did not occur to Beard that an elusive “some” might someday claim that these policies owe to McKinley, because vigorous speechifying simply did not belong in the list of McKinley’s virtues. And talk, though not everything, was not nothing either. As Stuart P. Sherman, no particular fan of Roosevelt’s, remarked, “I should say that his most notable achievement was creating for the nation the atmosphere in which valor and high seriousness live….”[46] Had McKinley survived, he could not have done such talking.

Which is why, when Warren G. Harding wanted to claim that William H. Taft combined the virtues of his Republican predecessors, he called Taft “as sympathetic and brave as William McKinley” and “as progressive has his [Taft’s] predecessor,” whom Harding did not think it a good idea to mention by name under the circumstances of the 1912 campaign.[47] But even given the momentary Republican antagonism against Roosevelt, it seemed natural to Harding to speak of Roosevelt as “progressive” and McKinley as “sympathetic,” rather than the other way around. It may be true that neither man lacked either virtue, but only one adjective belonged comfortably to each man’s legacy. For these reasons it is difficult to argue that McKinley, had he lived, would have pushed for what Roosevelt unbecomingly, but not inaccurately, called “my policies.”[48]

One of Roosevelt’s policies, which he urged on McKinley, struck him later as better to disown. As David Mayhew points out, McKinley made one major exception to his steadfast conservatism, and that happened in the area of foreign policy. Though he did not campaign on imperialism in 1896, he followed the proponents of the large foreign policy into war and colonization.[49] Warren Zimmermann argues that McKinley, “a weak strategist but a keen interpreter of political realities, was content to live with policy contradictions” until forced to decide.[50] And so the war came, and so too did McKinley decide to keep the Philippines. If he did not say afterward that while on bended knee he received the Lord’s encouragement to do it (and there is some doubt that he did), as H. Wayne Morgan writes, “few of the President’s statements more exactly describe his thought processes,” and it is very much the sort of thing he would have said and indeed did say in other speeches.[51] Following Roosevelt and other jingoes on a wave of popular sentiment, McKinley waged war without enthusiasm and got colonies without satisfaction

Zimmermann points out that although Roosevelt fought for and indeed in the Spanish-American War and supported the Philippine colonization, these policies provide a weak case for continuity between the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations. The ongoing postwar insurgency in the Philippines, the arguments over whether there were ever enough soldiers allocated to the occupation, the revelations about U.S. troops’ use of torture, continuing murders of U.S. soldiers by apparently civilian resisters, speedily eroded Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for the new colonies.[52] “While I have never varied in my feeling that we had to hold the Philippines, I have varied very much in my feelings whether we were to be considered fortunate or unfortunate in having to hold them, and I most earnestly hope that the trend of events will as speedily as may be justify us in leaving them,” Roosevelt wrote.[53] By 1907 he had decided, “I don’t see where they are of any value to us or where they are likely to be of any value.”[54]Roosevelt realized, along with the nation’s military planners, that given the proximity of Japan the islands were essentially indefensible and thus a tremendous military liability producing little in the way of benefit, and he hoped therefore that the country’s colonial diversion might soon end.[55]

Scholars from Morgan through Zimmermann believe McKinley adopted a colonial policy because logic dictated it, not because he liked it. And in Schlosser’s dramatization of McKinley’s demise, the logic of imperialism put McKinley’s mild rationalism on a collision course with a strain of wild Americanism that no amount of bureaucracy could render safe.

An American theater troupe could not perform Schlosser’s play in the present political moment or possibly ever. But the text is available in paperback. In the afterword to the published edition, Schlosser explains that he first wrote Americans in 1985, but that recent events imbued his old effort with new relevance:

During the first week of September 2001, my wife and I wandered through the forum in Rome, looking at the ruins, discussing what the ruins of our home town, New York City, might look like some day. On September 11 I rode my bicycle down to the World Trade Center and stood there, watching the rubble burn. The last remnants of the steel façade, bent and twisted, brought to mind Roman columns I’d seen earlier in the week. A month or so later, I thought about the apocalyptic imagery in Americans, found an old copy of the play, and re-read it for the first time in more than a decade….[I]t felt more timely than ever.[56]

The Oxford Stage Company thought likewise, and so Schlosser’s play came to a London stage, where inhabitants of history’s greatest imperial metropolis could see a condemnation of American empire, an irony not lost on every audience-member.

In the closing scene of the play, McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz goes to his electrocution, but first delivers a speech directly to the house.

CZOLGOSZ [to audience, calmly]: I would like to say a few words to you. I would like to say this. I killed the President on behalf of all the good people of this country, the good working people. Because this President was a murderer and a tyrant. [Pause. Then hard and fanatic] And as for all of you, who came here to watch this: You are going to be punished for what your government is doing right now, or your children will pay the price for your outrageous vanity. And when this great nation of ours goes up in flames, when our cities are in ruins, and there’s nothing but rubble and ashes from coast to coast, don’t say nobody warned you. Don’t say it wasn’t your fault. When it comes, you deserve it, and I told you so.[57]

Schlosser gives voice to equally strong condemnations of Czolgosz during the play. But this terrorist jeremiad comes as the last word on McKinley’s America and ours before the curtain, and it is a sickening thought to take with you into the night air.

Schlosser takes sufficient dramatic license to make the play watchable, but he makes a serious case that we can properly understand Czolgosz as an American among Americans, not a foreigner (despite the rush of consonants in his name), and that it was Czolgosz’s fanatic ideas about Americanness that made him into a murderer. Czolgosz was born a citizen in the United States, attended its public schools, and inasmuch as he can be said to have had a clear reason for killing William McKinley it was because he had a highly American disillusionment with the direction the country was going. In this he differed little from the skein of righteously bloody men running through American history, a line that includes John Brown and Timothy McVeigh and defines what Philip Roth calls “another America…the plague America…the indigenous American berserk.”[58] Its constituents believe that the country is off on the wrong track, that they have a privileged, usually divine, understanding of America’s true destiny, and that they must commit an act of blood atonement or sacrifice to awaken their fellow-citizens.[59] Often they aim at symbolic targets like the Presidency. Such Americans crop up and mean violence rather more often than the rest of us might like: the Secret Service documented twenty-five presidential assassination attempts between 1949 and 1996, or slightly more than one every two years.[60]

Schlosser’s fictionalized presidential assassin places himself within this American tradition when his Czolgosz says, “This country was supposed to be different, that’s what Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe said. They were great men, they were giants, there’s nothing but pygmies in office now….We don’t need a standing army, the Founding Fathers said….We should mind our own goddamn business and leave other folks alone.”[61] He is a radical and an anti-imperialist who believes the taking of the Philippines represented the paramount abuse in a string of abuses committed by the government on behalf of moneyed interests. Schlosser disclaims any knowledge that the real Czolgosz held such beliefs, but there is evidence that he did. One man who met Czolgosz before the assassination later recalled that Czolgosz was upset by “outrages committed by the American government in the Philippine islands.” The colonization “does not harmonize with the teachings in the public schools about our flag,” Czolgosz said.[62] Schlosser writes that “[t]he political beliefs that Czolgosz embraces in the play were not unusual. His violent means of expressing them…set him apart.”[63]

When Lemann interviewed Rove in 2000, he pointed out that “the main event of [McKinley’s] Presidential term, the Spanish-American War, caught him flat-footed.”[64] It is hard to say the same of the Iraq War, which Lemann wrote in January 2001, was already on the new administration’s agenda.[65] This adds foreign policy to the list of shaky comparisons between Bush and McKinley.

If it is too soon to assess George W. Bush’s presidency with any professional responsibility (it is of course not at all too soon for assessments spurred by civic responsibility), it nevertheless seems clear from recent historical scholarship that Bush cannot follow the example of Rove’s McKinley because Rove’s McKinley did not exist. He did not lock up a new Republican majority including white Southerners and immigrants, not least because he did not lock up a new Republican majority at all. He did not turn the Republican Party into the motor or even the symbol of a new economy because his policies aided economic development but little, when they were not actually irrelevant or an impediment. He did not mean to wage war or take colonies, and the brutality attendant upon keeping them discomfited even his warlike successor. He contributed to the institutional modernization of the Presidency: the major structural change of the Bush administration has been the Department of Homeland Security, and this so far seems less a pivotal innovation in bureaucracy than a logical development down an established path that indeed began in the Progressive Era after McKinley’s presidency, with the consolidation of the Bureaus of Immigration and Naturalization, the elevation of the Coast Guard to the status of a military service, and the transfer of passport control to a Bureau of Citizenship.[66]

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What McKinley revisionism, following H. Wayne Morgan, has probably done best is to restore a measure of historical humility to our discussion of McKinley. When McKinley was a miniature marionette dangling from the monstrous hands of Homer Davenport’s caricatured Mark Hanna, it was easy to deride or dismiss him. But he was, it turns out, his own man. He dealt cannily if not always morally or competently with difficult political issues. Indeed, the great strength of Schlosser’s play is to show us a personally humane McKinley alongside his portrait of McKinley’s murderer. When Schlosser’s McKinley sees Czolgosz, who has a bandage wrapped around his hand, McKinley’s sincere reaction is, “My dear boy, does it hurt?” Whereupon Czolgosz shoots McKinley with the pistol he has hid in the bandage.[67] Schlosser’s McKinley is a decent man who has nevertheless adopted badly conceived and arrogant policies with awful consequences, particularly in the Philippines. And so all Schlosser’s Americans, kind and unkind alike, had to fight out of the swamp into which their President led them, not knowing what vicious creatures lurked there. We may hope this provides no parallel to our own time.


1 Howard Fineman, “In the Driver’s Seat,” Newsweek, September 6, 2004, p. 24.

2 Kevin Phillips, William McKinley (New York, 2003). For Phillips on Bush, see Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (New York, 2004).

3On Schlosser as muckraker, see e.g. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Boston, 2001), and Eric Schlosser, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (Boston, 2003).

4Eric Schlosser, Americans (London, 2003), 99.

5Schlosser, Americans, 99; Kevin Phillips, McKinley, 6.

6Nicholas Lemann, “The Redemption: Everything Went Wrong for George W. Bush, Until He Made it All Go Right,” The New Yorker, January 31, 2000, 62. The gloss on “conservative revisionist historians” is Lemann’s. Although I have no personal knowledge of Lewis L. Gould’s politics, I suspect that this characterization cannot be entirely fair.

7Lexington, “Dusting off William McKinley,” The Economist, November 13, 1999, 34; also E. J. Dionne, “In Search of George W.,” The Washington Post Magazine, September 19, 1999, p. W18.

8Lexington, “Dusting off William McKinley,” 34.

9Clarence Bacote, “Negro Officeholders in Georgia under President McKinley,” The Journal of Negro History 44 (July 1959): 217-39, 220.

10David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), 351.

11Ibid., 350-52

12Ibid., 366-67.

13Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (Chapel Hill, 2001), 118.

14On the election of 1928, see recent treatments in Christopher M. Finan, Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior (New York, 2002), and Robert A. Slayton, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (New York, 2001).

15I am grateful to one of the journal’s anonymous readers for suggesting this phrasing.

16On McKinley in the Civil War, see William H. Armstrong, Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War (Kent, Ohio, 2000). McKinley’s action at Antietam, for which he received a promotion, often strikes the reader predisposed against him as less than heroic, because McKinley did his duty as a cook, not a rifleman. But this seems to me uncharitable and insensible of the difficulty of performance—any performance—under fire. See Armstrong, 39-40.

17Lance E. Davis, Richard A. Easterlin et al., American Economic Growth: An Economist’s History of the United States (New York, 1972), 138, table 5.7.

18Phillips, McKinley, 78. Phillips draws here on Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896 (Chicago, 1971), and Paul Kleppner, The Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics, 1850-1900 (New York, 1970).

19Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York, 2004), 32.

20Claudia Goldin, “The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921,” in The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy, ed. Claudia Goldin and Gary D. Libecap (Chicago, 1994), 230.

21Daniels, Guarding, 33.


23Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (New York, 2000), 146.

24Phillips, McKinley, 77.

25Douglas A. Irwin, “Tariffs and Growth in Late-Nineteenth-Century America,” NBER Working Paper no. 7639, April 2000; Douglas A. Irwin, “Could the U. S. Iron Industry Have Survived Free Trade after the Civil War?” NBER Working Paper no. 7640, April 2000; Douglas A. Irwin, “Higher Tariffs, Lower Revenues? Analyzing the Fiscal Aspects of ‘The Great Tariff Debate of 1888’,” Journal of Economic History 58 (March 1998): 59-72; Douglas A. Irwin, “Did Late-Nineteenth-Century U.S. Tariffs Promote Infant Industries? Evidence from the Tinplate Industry,” NBER Working Paper no. 6835, December 1998.

26Phillips, McKinley, 109-10. Emphasis in the original.

27Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (Princeton, 1963), 135; Milton Friedman, Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History (San Diego, 1994), 125.

28The Democrats had a minority in the 65th Congress of 1917-1919 but with the votes of independent Congressmen were able to return Champ Clark as Speaker of the House. See Arthur Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1900-1917 (New York, 1954), 249, n.63; Arthur Link, Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, 1916-1917 (Princeton, 1965), 422.

29According to the Clerk of the House website, the 62nd Congress as elected in 1910 included 230 Democrats, 162 Republicans, 1 Progressive Republican and 1 Socialist. <http://clerk.house.gov> (May 5, 2005).

30Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917 (Chicago, 1999).

31Larry M. Bartels, “Electoral Continuity and Change, 1868-1996,” Electoral Studies 17 (September 1998): 290, 301-26.

32David R. Mayhew, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre (New Haven: 2002), 104-05. For a recent argument emphasizing the realignment of 1896, see Richard Jensen, “Democracy, Republicanism, and Efficiency: The Values of American Politics, 1885-1930,” in Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775-2000, ed. Byron E. Shafer and Anthony J. Badger (Lawrence, 2001). Bartels and Mayhew take on the specific claims of realignment theory, which comprises a logically robust and even predictive set of postulates. Scholars may salvage a weaker version of an 1890s realignment, but it will have correspondingly weaker analytical value. For an argument on Congressional realignment in the same period, see Jeffery A. Jenkins, Eric Schickler, and Jamie L. Carson, “Constituency Cleavages and Congressional Parties: Measuring Homogeneity and Polarization, 1857-1913,” Social Science History 28 (Winter 2004): 537-573. Daniel Klinghard makes the argument that McKinley innovated in party organization, which constituted a kind of realignment: Daniel P. Klinghard, “Turn of the Century Politics and Party Realignment,” paper presented at the Southern Political Science Association, January 7-10, 2004.

33H. Wayne Morgan, William McKinley and His America (Syracuse, 1963), 527.

34Robert C. Hilderbrand, Power and the People: Executive Management of Public Opinion in Foreign Affairs, 1897-1921 (Chapel Hill, 1981), 199; Lewis L. Gould, The Presidency of William McKinley (Lawrence, 1980), 241.

35Lewis L. Gould, The Modern American Presidency (Lawrence, 2003), 15.

36Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York, 1967), 166.

37Louis Galambos, “The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern American History,” Business History Review 44 (autumn 1970), 280; Louis Galambos and Joseph Pratt, The Rise of the Corporate Commonwealth: U.S. Business and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1988), 44.

38Robert H. Wiebe, Businessmen and Reform: A Study of the Progressive Movement (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), 6.

39See also J. A. Thompson, Progressivism, British Association of American Studies Pamphlets no. 2 (1979), 37.

40Robert La Follette did, like Roosevelt, support McKinley during McKinley’s life but as Nancy Unger notes he, like Roosevelt, tried mightily to bring Bryanism (without calling it Bryanism) into the Republican Party afterward. Nancy C. Unger, Fighting Bob La Follette, the Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill, 2000), 107-10.

41Alfred D. Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), 174.

42Robert H. Wiebe, “The Anthracite Strike of 1902: A Record of Confusion,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 48 (September 1961): 229-51, quote from 237.

43See Phillips, McKinley, 123-24.

44Ibid., 128.

45Charles A. Beard, Contemporary American History, 1877-1913 (1914; reprint New York, 1918), 255, 258-59.

46Stuart P. Sherman, Americans (New York, 1923), 273.

47″Harding Nominates Taft,” New York Times, June 23, 1912, p. 2.

48See e.g. “Opponents of Taft Uniting on Hughes,” New York Times, October 28, 1907, p. 4; “Choice of Taft against Party Will,” New York Times, June 21, 1908, p. C1.

49Mayhew, Electoral Realignments, 104-05.

50Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country into a World Power (New York, 2002), 265.

51Morgan, McKinley, 412. See also Gould, McKinley, 141-42.

52On evidently insufficient troop strength in what otherwise can be viewed as a militarily successful counter-insurgency, see Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence: 2000).

53Zmmermann, First Great Triumph, 404.

54Ibid., 445.

55J. A. S. Grenville, “Diplomacy and War Plans in the United States, 1890-1917,” in The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914, ed. Paul Kennedy (London, 1979).

56Schlosser, Americans, 95.

57Ibid., 89.

58Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997; New York, 1998), 86.

59For another recent journalistic account of such ideas, see Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven (New York, 2003).

60Robert A. Fein and Bryan Vossekuil, “Assassination in the United States,” Journal of Forensic Sciences 44 (1999): 321-33, esp. 323.

61Schlosser, Americans, 39.

62Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (New York, 2003), 102. The spirit of full disclosure compels me to say that the view of Czolgosz in my own book is similar to Schlosser’s, though my politics are I suspect not Schlosser’s, and I wrote the book without knowledge of his then-unpublished and -unstaged play and from a different angle; I worked mainly from the notes of Vernon Briggs and Walter Channing in their postmortem investigation of Czolgosz’s motives.

63Schlosser, Americans, 96.

64Lemann, “The Redemption,” 63.

65Nicholas Lemann, “The Iraq Factor,” The New Yorker, January 22, 2001, p. 34.

66See e.g. United States Government Manual, March 1945 (Washington, DC, 1945), 318, 613; Gaillard Hunt, The Department of State of the United States: Its History and Functions (New Haven, 1914), 244-45.

67Schlosser, Americans, 6.

By Eric Rauchway

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