Source: Contemporary Review
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “William McKinley”
Author(s): Hamilton, J. W.
Date of publication: October 1901
Volume number: 80
Issue number: none
|Hamilton, J. W. “William McKinley.” Contemporary Review Oct. 1901 v80: pp. 457-62.|
|McKinley assassination (personal response); William McKinley (personal history); William McKinley (presidential character); William McKinley (religious character).|
|William Jennings Bryan; John C. Calhoun; Camillo Benso di Cavour; Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Frederick II; George F. Hoar; Andrew Jackson; Abraham Lincoln; Maria Theresa; Ida McKinley; William McKinley; John Ruskin; George Washington.|
|About the author (from table of contents): Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, U.S.A.|
NO event of the new century has so profoundly moved the people of all nations as the assassination, so soon followed by the death, of the President of the United States of America. The interest and sympathy of the rulers of empires and kingdoms, as well as republics, have been excited as never before. There have been other assassinations by the miscreants who have determined “to live without working and to kill without fighting”; but never has so slight an occasion, on the basis of even their own infamous claim, been given them for the killing, and never could so little be gained, aside from “the universal darkness,” by the horrible and dastardly deed,—
“One more devil’s triumph and sorrow for angels,
“One wrong more to man, one more insult to God.”
No war exists, no oppression, no
depression, no party strife, no agitation of disputed questions, nothing to
give the semblance of “a mission” to the miserable youth who has only carved
his name in black marble. If, as all lovers of liberty have now determined,
some certain means shall be used to crush out the lawless and pestilent enemies
of decency and order, whose avowed purpose is thus to murder all magistrates,
the aims of the anarchist are sure to be thwarted in the world-wide increase
of patriotism. There will be set purpose on the part of good citizens to encourage
young men everywhere to study the career and emulate the example of the martyred
President. And the more there is known of that plain-spoken Christian man, the
more will he be honoured at home and abroad; his fame is secure in the history
and monuments of his country.
I have known Mr. McKinley for more than twenty years, and have been familiar with his entire public career. I met him often when  he was member of Congress, Governor of Ohio, and President. I have had more or less of correspondence with him, and have been cordially received in his home, at the capital in Washington. During his recent visit to the Pacific Coast I was with him at the launching of the battleship Ohio. I visited with him at different times during Mrs. McKinley’s illness, and went with him to the only public religious service he attended, and in which he participated, while he was in California. My estimate of him will differ in some important particulars from that which has been generally given.
He was the typical American. Cervantes said “There are but two families in the world, those who have and those who have not.” In the United States the two families have been those who have what they are, and those who are what they have. William McKinley was born of the self-possessed families; his patrimony, though only the lineaments and lineage of his ancestors, was an estate of good fortune. He came of stalwart, sturdy stock—iron-framed and firmly fashioned, with a soul of “permanence, perseverance, persistence in spite of hindrances, discouragements and impossibilities.” It was Scotch-Irish and English-Puritan. The Covenanter and Nonconformist were met in blood-alliance. There had been three generations in the country; the American atmosphere had tempered his quality and the republican institutions had modulated both his dignity and his grace. He grew up with enough of poverty to stimulate his ambition and make all his effort a struggle. He thus grew into sympathy with the bread-winners, and never lost their support. When he was Governor he lost all his property through the misfortune of his business associates. It was made up for him in a week, against his protest, by his constituents all over the State. A working man sent his bank-book with all his savings, which he could not be persuaded to receive.
Mr. McKinley was dependent for his education upon his mother, his elder brothers, the common schools, and the small colleges. In turn he recognised his gratitude as only a species of justice, and his devotion to his venerable mother after he came to be President is one of his choicest legacies to the country. When he was asked to select the church in which he should worship when he was in California, he asked to be taken to the one in which his brother had worshipped, and where he had been a member many years before. He encouraged the common schools, and was never more happy than in his public addresses to the school children in the many cities he visited. He was the patron of the small college, and frequently accepted invitations to speak to its students that he might acknowledge his indebtedness.
Before he had “finished his studies” the “Civil War” came on. One of his ancestors had joined “the Cromwellian remnant” in Ulster, another had been with Washington in the War for Independence; and before he was eighteen years old he had enlisted with  the Ohio Infantry. He was distinguished as a soldier in the Union Army, and was promoted from time to time for his bravery and good service. He came from the War as major of the regiment, and was always familiarly addressed by that title by his wife and his comrades. His sentiment, which was a kind of ripened fruit of his military experience, manifested itself with a glow of countenance, delicacy of thought, and tenderness of expression whenever he met the Union soldiers. It was shown also in the tact given to his manner whenever they were considered. When a question arose as to precedence in the march of military organisations at his inauguration, he settled the matter promptly by giving the place of honour to the veterans of the Civil War.
It has been charged against him that he was a politician: but there was no bungling in his politics; there was something superb in his management of political movements. He had no wrangling in his political household; and very little discussion. He rose above “the gang” and dignified the “heelers” with a better name. He lifted “the machine” out of “the mire.” He coined better phrases than one of his opponents, who had declared that he preferred “the saloon to the church in politics.” There was something more than motion and adjustment in his management of men. During his administration there was an approach to “the science of government; that part of ethics which relates to the regulation and government” of political parties and the State, such as never had been known in the political circles of Washington. If it were graciousness and not ethics that achieved so much of political harmony, then grace let it be, for “grace pays its respects to true intrinsic worth not to the mere signs and trappings of it.” When we recall the “canker of ambitious thoughts,” the “quarrelling with occasion,” and the evil which always engendered and brought forth more evil in other days in the American capital, there is much to be preferred in the days of grace; it leaves better memories on this side [of] the grave. It is said that when the clergyman who visited Andrew Jackson when he was dying asked him if he had not left some things undone which he ought to have done; he received the reply “Yes, I have regretted that I did not hang John C. Calhoun.” Mr. McKinley’s treatment of his political opponents, like that of Mr. Lincoln, was such as always to draw down blessing on himself. Mr. Bryan will recall that during neither of his two campaigns was any unparliamentary word ever spoken against him by the successful candidate. There is something splendid in the “rarity of Christian charity ” which could get on with “the Ohio quarrel” and the change of the Secretaries of State and War without some open rupture. If there be not greatness in this, there is at least an approach to goodness. And goodness in politics is always greatness. 
No President has ever been able to make so much use of his opponents. Once the election was over, he set about not only harmonising the incongruous elements in his own party but securing such control of the leaders in the opposing party as to guarantee the great ends of his administration. He had no enemies in any party, and no man had so many friends in every party. Senator Hoar recently declared that no President had ever before been so little criticised or indeed so universally popular.
Mr. McKinley had a horror of the unfit. He made everything of what is proper and as little as possible of anything he had to have which was improper. He made his own speeches and phrased his own sentences. He took with him his stenographer, and revised all his own utterances before they went to the press. He thus avoided giving offence; he was always the gentleman. He believed thoroughly in the Gaelic proverb that “Courtesy never broke one’s crown.” His politeness converted more people to his way of thinking than were won by argument. He is regretted for his gentleness. This, with his good nature, always made him chivalrous to woman. The tribute of his wife to his affectionate and tireless devotion to her has made his gallantry known everywhere. She said “No cares of State have ever made him neglectful of me, though I am an invalid.”
Mr. Ruskin has said “Greatness can only be rightly estimated when minuteness is justly reverenced. Greatness is the aggregation of minuteness, nor can its sublimity be felt truthfully by any mind unaccustomed to the affectionate watching what is least.” It was in this minuteness of consideration that much of the genius of the President was to be found. He knew the little things and saw them in their relation to the things that were big, and never hesitated to condescend to adjust them. There was no trifling in his judgments, but he gave the proper importance to little measures and little men as if they were all great. In the pursuit of the details of his administration he was considerate of the least as of the greatest. This unselfish consideration of every interest and every individual made all persons who came near him to feel that he had special interest in each of them. He played with children in California in such a way that they forgot who he was, and thought him one of themselves. When he did not go to the review of the school children in Oakland, to their great disappointment, because of the dangerous illness of his wife, one of them wrote to him and asked him “please to find time to answer the letter.” He immediately replied with his own hand. In the thought of other people’s children, he was mindful of his own—always little children to him. And after all “Life is made up, not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things in which smiles and kindness and small obligations given habitually are what warm the heart and secure comfort.” 
It is not difficult to understand how hard it was for such a man to consent to war. Frederick the Great, when he would rob Maria Theresa, followed the bent of his nature and of his time. His own words were: “Ambition, interest, the desire of making people talk about me, carried the day; and I decided for war.” By every impulse of his nature, the President threw himself across the path of the maddened people who were crying “To Hell with Spain; remember the Maine.” Only when he was carried off his feet by the raging of the multitude, and the pride and resistance of Spain, did he consent to make war. It was much more in keeping with his feelings to pay the defeated nation millions of money for the spoils of the war.
It may be said that Mr. McKinley was too eager for the voice of the people, and that his “involuntariness” was the weakness which mars his career, but the career is so little marred in the success of his administration, that it will be difficult not to say he was indebted to this very “weakness” for his success—certainly so far forth as the voice of the people was the voice of God. It will be admitted that he was stubbornly strong in pushing the Tariff, even after he was defeated, and on that issue. And whatever may or should be the political economy of the nation now, the conditions were such then as to vindicate the expedient he adopted to recover and protect the American industries. During the administration which preceded his own, the nation’s securities had been so depreciated that the stocks and bonds which were listed in the markets fell in price low enough to make the aggregate loss equal the entire money cost of the Civil War. He may have been to some minds only the political “opportunist,” but he did not miss his opportunity.
It was not only in national affairs that his personal influence was felt; during much of his administration he played a conspicuous part in the general affairs of the world. He came as suddenly and successfully as did Cavour into diplomatic relations with the Powers, and as influence is measured not by the extent of surface it covers but by its quality, he was highly esteemed by all Governments for his excellent spirit. He had learned reserve at home; and in the times of greatest crisis abroad his counsel was not hurried and his decisions were eminently discreet. It will never be known how much he personally contributed to the alliance between the American and English peoples—an alliance more certain than if it had been a league offensive and defensive, drawn up in formal State papers. If the matters which the two State Departments have wisely withheld from the public ever come to be known, it will at least be found that Mr. McKinley was not slow gratefully to acknowledge and reciprocate the more than cordial good feeling which was manifested toward the United States during the critical moments of the Spanish-American War.
Not many writers have placed him among the greatest of Presi-  dents, but it may be said that his biographers in the Press have not known him intimately, and have sought to discover in him only the great and showy talents which have distinguished few public men as great leaders. I venture to affirm that Mr. McKinley, though in a somewhat new and unique relation, will be recognised in the future as one among the greatest leaders whom America has produced. It was Emerson who said: “Great men or men of great gifts you will easily find, but symmetrical men never.” No man has filled the office of President of the United States who has approached so nearly the symmetrical character. He was uniformly eminent because he was adequate to the unexpected, and commensurate with the daily duties, with difficulties often apparently insurmountable. He rose to the need of the emergency.
But his eminence will be freely accorded him, because he believed in the providence of God in human governments, and acted always in the consciousness that the spiritual is stronger than any material force, and that religious thought rules the world. He declared to his pastor, when the victory at Manila so suddenly thrust the new conditions in the Far East upon the American people, that there was not a man in all the counsels of the nation at Washington who was prepared to say what should be done. And then it was he betook himself to the Counsellor, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, for his guidance. In the fear of God was the beginning of his wisdom, and in this wisdom he erected his “never-failing trophies on the firm basis of mercy”; his earnest Methodist confidence distinguished alike his public and private character. This modest, but strong, religious element has manifested itself in his death, as in the death of few statesmen. He has made for us another national hymn by the emphasis he has given to one of the familiar hymns of our worship. He has left us to feel that a great soul is gone out whose only care was for what is great. Life is immeasurably heightened by the solemnity of his death. Great patriots must henceforth be “men of great excellence; this alone can secure to them lasting admiration.”