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Source: On the Great Highway
Source type: book
Document type: book chapter
Document title: “McKinley, the Forgiving” [chapter 20]
Author(s): Creelman, James
Publisher: Lothrop Publishing Company
Place of publication: Boston, Massachusetts
Year of publication: 1901
Pagination: 403-18

Creelman, James. “McKinley, the Forgiving” [chapter 20]. On the Great Highway. Boston: Lothrop Publishing, 1901: pp. 403-18.
full text of chapter; excerpt of book
McKinley assassination; William McKinley (death).
Named persons
George B. Cortelyou; Edward G. Janeway; Matthew D. Mann; Ida McKinley; William McKinley; John G. Milburn; Presley M. Rixey; Theodore Roosevelt.
Within this chapter is an unnumbered plate (facing p. 406) featuring a photograph of McKinley.

From title page: On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent.


McKinley, the Forgiving

STANDING at the very heart of the great exposition in Buffalo, where the commercial and political communion of all the Americas was celebrated in a city of fairy loveliness, President McKinley was shaking hands with the pouring, babbling crowd—the supreme moment of his triumphant life. As he stood there among his countrymen, crowned with success, garlanded with praise, he seemed the master-spirit of his continent, the archtype of its modem victories. He had raised the American flag beyond the seas, and had seen his country enter upon the leadership of nations. Only the day before he had announced a new national policy, broad, high, and far-reaching.
     A slender man, a mere youth, pushed eagerly forward in the line that moved before the President. In his hand he carried a cheap revolver covered with a white handkerchief. As he [403][404] reached the President he raised his masked hand and fired two shots. A roar like the sound of the sea in a storm ascended from the swaying crowd. Then there was silence.
     How frail beyond measurement are the plans of nations! The greatest of free nations had chosen William McKinley to be its leader; and the meanest, the most obscure, of its teeming millions—a wretched, blind failure in life, a human derelict drifting miserably in a land abounding in freedom and prosperity—had power enough to turn a national triumph into ashes—not in hatred, not in the service of some great cause, but even as a wanton urchin might set fire to some priceless library.


     There were many among us standing in the quiet street before the house where the twenty-fifth President of the United States lay dying who had written bitter things of him in the stormy times of his public service, but none who knew him save as a man who forgave his enemies And after all the years of pelting political criticism and ridicule, the crack of an [404][405] assassin’s pistol had called us together to witness the most beautiful death-bed in history. For a week we paced the pavement about that hushed place of pain, watching the guardian bayonets of the sentries and listening to the telegraph instruments in the huddled white tents ticking out the story to the ends of the earth or bringing messages from kings and emperors; and when the end came, it was like a strain of Christian music, to be heard for all time. Our little daily pen-pricks were lost in the grandeur of that matchless death—forgotten and forgiven.
     Hardly had the bullets pierced his body, when the President leaned forward and looked into the eyes of the assassin. It was a look of astonishment and reproach. Then, remembering the dignity befitting the President of the United States in the presence of a great audience, he walked steadily to a chair and sat down. The murderer writhed on the floor beneath his infuriate captors. The President looked at him again.
     “Did—did he shoot me?” he asked.
     “Yes.” [405][406]
     “Don’t hurt him.” His voice was full of pity.
     The passionate multitude drew back in awe.
     “My wife,” he faltered. “Be careful how you tell her—oh, be careful.”
     When the dying President was carried into the little hospital of the Pan-American Exposition, he turned to Mr. Cortelyou, his secretary, and said:—
     “It must have been some poor misguided fellow.”
     He seemed to be filled with amazement by the thought that any man in free America could have found a motive for seeking his death. His every word expressed this bewilderment. And when the surgeons pressed around him in that first terrible hour he turned his thoughts heavenward and bore himself like a Christian hero.
     “Mr. President,” said Dr. Mann, the operating surgeon, “we intend to cut in at once. We lost one President by delay, and we do not intend to lose you.”
     “I am in your hands,” murmured the President. [406][407]
     He was prepared for the ordeal and lifted upon the operating table. The surgeons were ready to administer ether. He opened his eyes and saw that he was about to enter a sleep from which he might never awaken. Then the lids closed flutteringly. The white face was suddenly lit by a tender smile. All the angel there was in him came to his face. The wan lips stirred, and the surgeons listened.
     “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
     His voice was soft and clear. Tears rolled down the faces of the listeners. The President raised his chest and sighed. His lips moved again.
     “Thy will be done.”
     Dr. Mann stood with the keen knife in his hand—dread symbol of human science. There was a lump in his throat.
     “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.”
     The eyelids fluttered gently, beads of cold moisture stood on the bloodless brow. There was silence. So he entered the darkness; and if there is a loftier scene in the history [407][408] of Christian statesmen and rulers, there is no record of it.
     That was the beginning of eight days of national agony. The President was carried to a room in the house of his host, John G. Milburn, and all human power was called upon to save him. As he lay there, teaching the world how a good man can die, thoughts of his great responsibilities as a leader pressed upon him.
     It is no exaggeration to say that the speech delivered by the President on the day before he was struck down was the greatest act of statesmanship of his life. His plea for a policy of commercial reciprocity was an appeal for peace with the world, an effort to avert a tariff war by united Europe against the United States. He had recognized the signs of approaching conflict and he had felt the stubborn opposition of men in his own party to his policy of conciliation. There was but one thing to do—appeal to the people. All through his summer rest from official routine in Ohio he had worked out his last great utterance. It was to be at once a message of [408][409] warning to America and a signal of peace to Europe.
     “God and man have linked the nations together,” he said to the mighty crowd stretched out before him. “No nation can longer be indifferent to any other. And as we are brought more and more in touch with each other, the less occasion is there for misunderstandings, and the stronger the disposition, when we have differences, to adjust them in the court of arbitration, which is the noblest forum for the settlement of international disputes. . . . The period of exclusiveness is past. The expansion of our trade and commerce is the pressing problem. Commercial wars are unprofitable. A policy of good will and friendly trade relations will prevent reprisals. Reciprocity treaties are in harmony with the spirit of the times; measures of retaliation are not. . . . Our earnest prayer is that God will graciously vouchsafe prosperity, happiness, and peace to all our neighbors, and like blessings to all the peoples and Powers of earth.”
     These were the President’s last words as a statesman and leader. How had the world [409][410] received them? Even in his dying hours he longed to hear the answer. When the first agony of his wounds was over, he sent for his faithful secretary. Mr. Cortelyou entered the room and stood beside the stricken chief.
     “It’s mighty lonesome in here,” said the President.
     “I know it is.”
     The President’s eyes brightened, and the old familiar wrinkles appeared in his face as he turned eagerly to his assistant.
     “How did they like my speech?” he asked.
     “It is regarded as one of the greatest you have ever made, and has attracted more attention than anything you have said for years.”
     The President smiled and looked earnestly into Mr. Cortelyou’s eyes.
     “How did they like it abroad?”
     “It has attracted considerable attention abroad, and everywhere the comment is favorable.”
     “Isn’t that good?” And he spoke no more of things political, having heard the echo of his cry for peace. [410][411]
     In the afternoon of his last day on earth the President began to realize that his life was slipping away and that the efforts of science could not save him. He asked Dr. Rixey to bring the surgeons in. One by one the surgeons entered and approached the bedside. When they were gathered about him the President opened his eyes and said:—
     “It is useless, gentlemen; I think we ought to have prayer.”
     The dying man crossed his hands on his breast and half-closed his eyes. There was a beautiful smile on his countenance. The surgeons bowed their heads. Tears streamed from the eyes of the white-clad nurses on either side of the bed. The yellow radiance of the sun shone softly in the room.
     “Our Father, which art in Heaven,” said the President, in a clear, steady voice.
     The lips of the surgeons moved.
     “Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done—”
     The sobbing of a nurse disturbed the still air. The President opened his eyes and closed them again. [411][412]
     “Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.”
     A long sigh. The sands of life were running swiftly. The sunlight died out and raindrops dashed against the windows.
     “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
     Another silence. The surgeons looked at the dying face and the trembling lips.
     “For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.”
     “Amen,” whispered the surgeons.
     Outside, an army of newspaper writers moved silently about the tents of the telegraph operators, and the bayonets of the sentries pacing slowly on all sides glittered in the afternoon light. Beyond the clear spaces of roped-off streets were the awed crowds. Even the policemen spoke in hushed voices. As the surgeons or Cabinet officers or other friends of the dying President appeared, they were engulfed by the eager seekers for news. Vice-President Roosevelt—he who was soon to wear the awful [412][413] mantle of authority—was summoned from his distant hunting camp in the mountains. Tender words of sympathy from the rulers of all nations came flashing over the wires.
     Darkness descended on the scene. The President was conscious again. He asked for his wife. Presently she came to him, leaning feebly on the arm of Mr. Cortelyou. As she reached the side of her husband and lover,—who had read to her every day at twilight for years from the Bible,—she sank into a chair, and leaning her frail form over the white counterpane, she took his hands in hers and kissed them. There was a group of friends in the room, and they drew away from the sacred spectacle. The light of the two candles behind the screen was reflected faintly on the white ceiling and tinted walls. It sparkled on the wedding ring.
     The President’s eyes were closed. His breath came slowly. As he felt the touch of his wife’s lips, he smiled. It was to be their last meeting.
     “Good-by! Good-by, all!”
     Mrs. McKinley gazed into the white face of the martyr, and struggled for strength to bear it. [413][414]
     “It is God’s way; His will, not ours, be done.”
     The President turned his face slightly toward his wife. A look of ineffable love shone in the haggard features. She held his hands as a child clings to its mother. The ticking of the clock in the next room could be heard. Once more the President spoke.
     “Nearer my God—to—Thee—”
     His soul was on his lips. His face was radiant.
     “E’en tho’ it be a cross—”
     There was a moment of utter silence.
     “That has been my inextinguishable prayer.”
     His voice was almost inaudible.
     “It is—God’s—way.”
     It was the last thought and the last word of the gentle President.
     As the night wore on, the signs of life grew fainter. One by one the members of the Cabinet, the relatives, and the intimate friends of the dying statesman were brought into the room by Mr. Cortelyou. One by one they stood at the bedside and took farewell of the [414][415] still form,—grave senators, old schoolmates, young men who had followed him in the fierce struggles of politics, statesmen who had sat with him in council, men and women of his blood. They moved like shadows. He neither saw them nor heard them. Midnight came, and yet he gave no sign.
     Hope brooded in the waiting crowds. It was known that Dr. Janeway, the famous specialist, was on his way from New York. Who could tell but that the skill and knowledge of the great physician might turn back the force of death, and give the President to his people again? Oh, the agony of that hour! Men walked in the streets as softly as though they were in the sickroom.
     Suddenly the stillness was broken by a distant sound of a galloping horse’s feet. Nearer and nearer it came through the darkness. The ropes stretched across the street were dropped, and the voiceless multitude parted as an open carriage drawn by a foam-covered, smoking steed swept madly up to the house of sorrow. A man leaped from the carriage and ran to the house at the top of his speed. It [415][416] was Dr. Janeway. The hundreds of newspaper correspondents swarmed eagerly against the ropes, and waited for a word of hope. So great was the stillness that the noise of the telegraph instruments in the tents tortured the nerves.
     Alas! no. The President was beyond the help of human hands. Not all the doctors in all the schools could call him back from the shadows.
     At a quarter after two o’clock in the morning Dr. Rixey sat at the bedside holding the President’s wrist in one hand and an open watch in the other. Tick! tick! tick! The breath stirred the white nostrils. Tick! tick! tick! The smiling face was rigid. Dr. Rixey laid the President’s hand down gently and closed his watch.
     “The President is dead,” he said.
     Within thirty seconds the telegraph wires were carrying the news to a thousand centres of civilization; and the tired newspaper men went to their beds for rest before beginning the history of a new President; for the hand of the assassin might slay a beloved President, but [416][417] it was powerless to interrupt the story of the nation.


               “In God’s own might
We gird us for the coming fight,
And, strong in Him, whose cause is ours
In conflict with unholy powers,
We grasp the weapons He has given,—
The Light, the Truth, and Love of Heaven.”


     Whatever else history may say of William McKinley, those who knew him will bear witness to the forgiveness that shone through his character. It was the crown of his life, the virtue that distinguished him among American statesmen. He died without an enemy, forgiving the hand that shed his blood.
     “My one ambition is to be known as the President of the whole people,” he said to me when I last saw him in the White House. “I have no other desire than to win that name. After all, no American can harm his country without harming himself. This government was created by the people for themselves, and, night or day, that thought is always in my [417][418] mind. We are all together in this great political experiment. Some hard things have been written and said of me, but that sort of thing is a necessary incident of popular government. It must always be so. My plan is to forget the evil and remember only the good. I never despair of converting an opponent into a supporter. The bitterest critic I have can come to see me, and he will find a warm hand to greet him. It is the only way for an American to live.”
     So he lived and so he died. Men of all parties will remember him as McKinley, the Forgiving.
     “Let us ever remember,” he said in his last speech, “that our interest is in concord, not conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war.”



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