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Source: Collier’s Weekly
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “William McKinley—Theodore Roosevelt”
Author(s): Nelson, Henry Loomis
Date of publication: 28 September 1901
Volume number: 27
Issue number: 26
Pagination: 18

Nelson, Henry Loomis. “William McKinley—Theodore Roosevelt.” Collier’s Weekly 28 Sept. 1901 v27n26: p. 18.
full text
William McKinley (personal history); William McKinley (political character); Theodore Roosevelt (compared with William McKinley); Theodore Roosevelt (personal history); Theodore Roosevelt (political character); Roosevelt presidency (predictions, expectations, etc.).
Named persons
George W. Aldridge; James G. Blaine; Grover Cleveland; Ulysses S. Grant; Benjamin Harrison; Henry Cabot Lodge; William McKinley; Louis F. Payn; Thomas Collier Platt; Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.; William Tecumseh Sherman; George H. Thomas.


William McKinley—Theodore Roosevelt



IN THE little more than fifty-eight years of his life, Mr. McKinley had gone from an humble station to the highest. During all his life, he had nothing that he did not earn. He was born not only without riches, but without the means of acquiring as good an education as the country could have given him. But “he taught in the public schools” before he was eighteen, and that he did so at that time, 1860, and in that community, was a mark of personal worth and public confidence. When the war of secession came he was eighteen, and he enlisted as a private. He had been trusted by the community in which he was born, but he was still in the ranks of citizenship. At a time when officers were sorely needed, and when young men were therefore obtaining commissions through political and social influences, William McKinley shouldered a musket and began his career. In a year, he was a sergeant, and in two years more he had become a captain. When the war was over, he was brevetted major for gallantry in battle. Then he took up the dropped thread of his education, and prepared himself for the practice of law in two years. In 1867 he was admitted to the bar, and settled at Canton in his native State of Ohio, which has ever since been his home. In 1869, he was elected prosecuting attorney of Stark County. In 1876, he was chosen a member of the National House of Representatives, and there he served for fourteen years, his defeat in 1890 being followed by his election as Governor of Ohio. Having served two terms in this office, he was nominated for President the year following his retirement from it, and was elected then, and again in 1900. This is the sketch of a career which is common here, which is possible in France and Switzerland, but which cannot be that of any but the favorites of fortune in any other country in the world.
     The feeling that the fledgling in politics who comes form [sic] the shop or the farm, or whose origin is unknown, may go anywhere, is part of the political atmosphere of the country where neither poverty nor wealth is an unconquerable disadvantage. But it is often said that there is no career in public life in this country. In a measure, this is true; but many men besides Mr. McKinley have disproved its absolute soundness. The truth is, that there is no political career in this country for mere mediocrity. In order that a man may remain in public life he must be useful to a cause, or to a party, or to a constituency, or to an interest which is affected by legislation or administration. The man who serves, and whose service is practical, is not likely to be dismissed. The man who develops the capacity of leadership remains in public life. There are exceptions, of course, but there is also always some exceptional condition or reason which specially affects the public’s attitude toward useful individuals, and groups of individuals, who are dismissed from public life. The rule stands, that a useful and faithful man’s public career is almost entirely dependent for its continuity and its duration upon the fortunes of his party.


     Mr. McKinley was in a very marked degree a typical American from the Middle West. He was born and he lived in that part of the country whither New England fled from barren rocks. The sons of the Pilgrim and the Puritan left the hard lot of poverty to dwell and prosper in a land of promise. Here their minds and sentiments and characters expanded beyond the narrow limits in which they had been bound by hard labor and sour disappointment. The kindly sun which warmed their fields and ripened their fruits made its way through the crannies of their minds and hearts, and warmed their imaginations and affections. The meaning of the country to them became exalted. Instead of enjoying the mere right to dig and delve for small results, and to make the laws which governed them, unrestrained by any but the public will, they prospered and grew rich, and counted their prosperity and riches as blessings of their free institutions and of republican government. They spoke of their country in terms of millions of bushels, and, moved by their ideals of liberty and equality, they devoted their astonishing energies to the task of converting those bushels, not merely into income-earning shares and bonds, but into schools and colleges, churches, libraries, lecture-rooms, and, chief of all, into comfortable homes. During his whole life, America spelled prosperity to William McKinley. He was proud of the greatness, the growth, the richness of his country; he gloried in the splendor of its material achievements; his vision was of a land sufficient unto itself. Liberty and self-government seemed to him to be building up, perhaps to have built up, the most independent, the most enlightened, the best educated, the best conducted, the most prosperous, and the richest people in the world. His heart was full of love for these people; his mind was eagerly bent upon discovering and putting into operation means for the expansion of this glorious and glorifying material and intellectual splendor. Occasionally it seemed to his gratified vision as though all this prosperity and happiness must be a special gift of God to a favored people. To his fervent mind, every step that the American People took was a step in their upward path, and from every contact with them happy foreigners took increase of blessing. Herein lay the seed of his policy—the policy of building up industries by a protective tariff and the policy of annexing the conquered and ceded territories of Spain. From the moment when war had placed in our hands the alien peoples of the East and South, it seemed as though Mr. McKinley thoroughly believed that the subjugation of these people was for their own good, and that the American people must accept the burden, must undertake to elevate them no matter what might be the cost to ourselves.
     His patriotism, one may say, was that of a dreamer, and it is probably true that, other things being equal, the man who dreams dreams in this country will be the most successful man in politics. The man whose rich imagination is quickened by the atmosphere of what we call our progress is the man most likely to win the admiration of his imaginative and adventurous countrymen. The profoundness of Mr. McKinley’s belief in the country, the warmth of his manifest affection for it, his dreams of the future and his mastery of men explain his long career and its crowning glory.


     Theodore Roosevelt entered public life from quite different social and political surroundings than those in which Mr. McKinley was born and bred. The Republic possesses an aristocracy, although it is the fashion to deny it. There are families, however, whose lines of cultivated and masterful generations make them the best we have. Families as well as individuals have their opportunities in the democracy, and if they take advantage of their good fortune, the Republic is so much the better served. Theodore Roosevelt came from a family happy and prosperous in the possession of generations of ability and character, and distinguished by faithful and competent servants it had given to the country. Especially has it been rich in philanthropists, one of the noblest and most beneficent memorials in the city of New York, the city of the new President and his ancestors, bearing constant and eloquent witness to the noble humanity which has been characteristic of more Roosevelts than the founder of the great hospital which bears the family name. Among the Roosevelts most respected and beloved while living, and most sincerely regretted after death, was Theodore Roosevelt, the President’s father, who was a philanthropist known throughout the city for his charities, and an ardent patriot known throughout the country for his services to the Union in the war of secession.
     Theodore Roosevelt the younger, now President, was born in the city of New York in 1858. He began life in an atmosphere which appears not only to differ from that in which Mr. McKinley lived, but as likely to beget antagonistic or incompatible mental attitudes. But this is much more a suggestion than a reality, not half so real as the difference in the temperaments of the two men. Different as these social conditions, circumstances and temperaments were, however, each was reared and taught in a school of intense Americanism. There was some doubt thrown upon the patriotism of New York when the war of secession broke out, but the stock from which Roosevelt sprang was as patriotic as the farmers of Massachusetts who faced the British at the Concord bridge, or as the farmers of Ohio who followed Grant and Sherman and Thomas through the campaigns which saved the Union. Theodore Roosevelt probably never knew a moment of doubt as to the greatness and power of his country; and was conscious from his early youth of the duty and honor of public service. Those who come into the world with comfort ready-made for them, with labor to do only if they want to do it, with the opportunity to choose ease and self-indulgence, are not usually the stuff of which the democracy’s servants are made. On the whole, democracy has suffered from this. Nowhere in the country, during the half-century just passed, have intelligence, education, mere public spirit, been so slightly regarded as in the metropolis. The chances there were distinctly against a young man of President Roosevelt’s ambition, and would have been so even if he had been a member of the city’s dominant party. If he had set himself the endeavor to rise into national prominence through local service he would have been regarded as a dreamer, although he has since rendered local service of a character which has added to his fame throughout the country.


     So it is to be recollected, in viewing the career of the President, that it began in a hostile community. He had wealth and was a graduate of Harvard University, possessing the advantage, however, of having been a real student there. He had high courage, an active mind, and the love of contest strong within him. Almost at once he was successful. McKinley’s qualities counted for him among the farmers of Ohio; Roosevelt’s for him in the more critical and hostile atmosphere of New York. He was chosen to the State Assembly in 1881, a year after he was out of the university, and at once he became known as an intelligent legislator, and a very active and persistent force against corrupt government. He did not escape the malice and hatred of the machine politicians of the baser sort, although, from the very first, these people found him intensely practical. He did not talk in the air; he was the author and promoter of legislation. He did not put himself in opposition to the party organization, but he prodded the opposition machine, the corrupt rulers of the city, sharply and vigorously.
     It is most interesting to note the very different influences which were all through their early lives operating in favor of two very different men. While McKinley was breathing in the stimulating friendly air of a vast and rich prosperity which glorified our free institutions, and made the country appear the nourishing mother of a favored race, Roosevelt was fighting the evil conditions produced by evil men who had perverted the institutions of democracy to their own selfish ends. And the experience of each was deepening his patriotism, for the young reformer in the thick of his fight was conscious that the country was with him, if his city was against him, and therefore evil conditions seemed to him to be the exceptional blot of a great city controlled by men escaping from countries not so free as this one, men whose roots did not reach down into the free soil of America. Doubtless his consciousness that his party stood in opposition to the corrupt rulers of New York made him more and more intensely Republican, and more and more insistent upon the value of the party organization.


     It was at a time when educated and enthusiastic young men were beginning to take part in politics that Mr. Roosevelt came upon the stage. Intense and vigorous, he rushed to the front, and was at once recognized as one of the “scholars in politics,” and one of the reformers. So different were the influences which had formed him from those that had been naturally adopted by Republican leaders whose personal fortunes were at least seemingly happier, that Roosevelt came out of the university not only a believer in low tariffs, but a free trader, and for a time was an active and prominent member of the Free Trade League of New York. This economic faith of his was only an attribute of his youth; he has long since abandoned the teachings of the scholars and the beliefs of a great commercial city for the faith of his party. It was, however, essentially as a reformer and enemy of political corruption that Mr. Roosevelt went to Chicago as chairman of the New York delegation, intent upon the defeat of Mr. Blaine. It is well to pause a moment to dwell upon the youthfulness of this leader. He was only twenty-six when he led the delegates of the largest State in the Union in one of the most difficult struggles which the party had ever encountered, a struggle which resulted in the party’s loss of the Presidency because the cause which Roosevelt espoused did not succeed.


     Coming back vanquished from the convention, he remained a partisan, but he did not cease to be a reformer. He had sought the defeat of Blaine for the same reason that he had sought the exposure and punishment of Tammany. He is for good government, but he has never sought it against the Republican party, never assumed that he could find it elsewhere. Men differ as to the duty of a reformer in the presence of such a dilemma as President Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge faced in 1884. But those who cheerfully accept the rôle and fate of teachers and prophets do not stand on the same level with those who are confident that they can render the best service to the country by adherence to their party, and, if they can gain public honors without personal dishonor, by actual and efficient service. Mr. Roosevelt has always believed in the necessity of maintaining the party organization, and he has carried his loyalty to his party so far that Senator Platt has said, since the death of Mr. McKinley, that, as Governor, Mr. Roosevelt always did about what the machine desired. This is not true, as we shall see further on; but Senator Platt sees his way to saying it because, as is well known, Mr. Roosevelt has always insisted that he is an organization man, and never was he more insistent upon this than during his Governorship. Nevertheless, at the time of which I have been speaking, 1884, he was of the opinion that his future participation in politics would probably be as a writer on public questions, and this I have had from his own lips since his election to the Vice-Presidency. It is worth mentioning now, as another instance of the difficulties in his way. Conditions were decidedy [sic] unfavorable for a young reformer, born in the wrong part of the country, in a hopelessly Democratic city, and whose nature and temperament drove him into constant acts of hostility to cold and selfish bosses. He supported Blaine, therefore, and was condemned by many friends who knew, but could not sympathize with, his philosophy. In 1886, he was nominated to lead the Republican forlorn hope in the Mayoralty contest, and his acceptance of that nomination was another evidence of his party loyalty.


     Thus we follow him up to the recent times, during which he has been National Civil Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner of the City of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant-Colonel and Colonel of the Rough Riders in the war with Spain, Governor of New York, and Vice-President of the United States. From 1889, when he was appointed by Mr. Harrison a Civil Service Commissioner, until now, twelve years, his career has been remarkable for its fulness, for its brilliancy, and for its display of so striking a personality that even in offices in which most men sink out of sight and out of hope for a future, he has been constantly in the public eye, not merely in that of his immediate public, but in that of the nation. The whole country has watched him distinguish hitherto obscure offices, and has seen him rise to the highest place in spite of reiterated predictions that each of the offices to which he has been appointed would be the grave of his political career.
     It was due, as is well known, to the war with Spain that the new President owed his nomination and election to the Governorship of New York. The war enabled him to arrive sooner than could have been expected by his most ardent admirers. But it was this war from which has also grown all doubt of Mr. Roosevelt’s safety as the Chief Magistrate of the nation. His eagerness for war, his haste into it, his praises of battle and bloodshed as moral agencies, have disturbed men who once trusted in him for his valiant contests for honest administration.
     In the end, we must forecast his Presidency from his administration of the Governorship. Mr. Platt’s assertion that the organization then got about what it wanted from him is in harmony with the criticisms of those who are most hostile to Mr. Platt. But if the present Governor of New York is reaping honor and winning praise for his virtues, it is because he is following the example of Mr. Roosevelt, whose administration was distinctly in aid of good government, and who left the State in better condition than it had been in since Grover Cleveland was Governor. Instead of obeying the organization, he insisted that Aldridge should not be Superintendent of the Public Works; that the Black Civil Service law should be repealed and the present law enacted; that the Franchise Tax bill should be passed; that the city of New York should be protected from the Ramapo conspiracy; that Payn should retire from the office of Insurance Superintendent. He drove the spoilsman out of the capital, and carried out the promise of his reforming youth. And this, then, we may expect of him at Washington—the defence and enlargement of the merit system in the civil service, an honest government free from scandal.



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