Source: Fortnightly Review
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “Two Presidents and the Limits of American Supremacy”
Date of publication: 1 October 1901
Volume number: 70
Issue number: 418
Series: new series
Pagination: 555-70 (excerpt below includes only pages 555-56)
|“Two Presidents and the Limits of American Supremacy.” Fortnightly Review 1 Oct. 1901 v70n418 (new series): pp. 555-70.|
|McKinley assassination (personal response); McKinley assassination (international response); assassinations (comparison); William McKinley (last public address: personal response); William McKinley (last public address: international response); William McKinley (presidential character).|
|Alexander II; Jacob Johan Anckarström [misspelled below]; John Wilkes Booth; Lucrezia Borgia; Benjamin Disraeli [identified as Beaconsfield below]; James A. Garfield; William Ewart Gladstone; Marie-Madeleine Gobelin [identified as Brinvilliers below]; Charles J. Guiteau; Abraham Lincoln; William McKinley; Robert Peel; William Pitt (father); François Ravaillac; George Washington.|
Two Presidents and the Limits of American Supremacy [excerpt]
In the long series of tragedies during the last few decades, there is developing, more and more, a sense of sinister process, of something obscure and appalling in the characteristics of an era of civilisation, such as may well exert upon the historic mind of the distant future the fascination that belongs to strange and temporary forms of evil. The human spirit of an epoch has its maladies like the individual body. Anarchist murder is not a conspiracy. It is a contagion. Methods of police can always break the backbone of an organisation, but they can no more grapple alone with the infection of perverted thought and sinister example, than smallpox can be fought with a bludgeon. We are no longer in presence, at long intervals, of erratic impulses like those of former assassins of rulers, from Ravaillac or Ankerstroem to Wilkes Booth and Guiteau. We have to deal with a disease of society as typical of something in the moral state of a period as the poison-system of a Lucrezia or a Brinvilliers. Henceforth the acceptance of conspicuous rulership in the civilised countries must be accounted a braver thing than exposure in battle, and every great public appearance of crowned head or Republican President a risk worthy of the Victoria Cross.
It seems but yesterday that Mr. McKinley was reproached for the pomp and circumstance of his second installation—though all  democracies, as a matter of fact, prefer pomp to plainness—and was attacked with unhappy and absurd exaggeration as the Republican “Emperor.” The truth is that a more typical American citizen, in the best use of the term, never held the chief magistracy of the United States, and that he has died an open sacrifice to the traditional publicity, geniality and simpleness of presidential intercourse with the people. The influence of no statesman has ever been more powerful in death, and no crime in the previous records of political murder could compare in international significance with this. The effect of other assassinations, for all main purposes, has been null or negative. Lincoln’s fate shut the complete book. Garfield’s career stopped at the title page. Though the intended constitution perished with the Tsar when the Emperor Alexander was killed, the consequences in this case, as in the rest, were internal. But Mr. McKinley has disappeared just as he had marked out the inevitable lines of American political development precisely with reference to the future relations of the United States with the remainder of the globe. He had declared, with a persuasiveness that no other man in America could at that moment have approached, the policy which he would have carried out if he had been spared. His death at Buffalo has given unexampled authority and impressiveness to the Buffalo programme. His last speech has become a national legacy. In this sense the career of his successor must be the complement of his own, and Mr. McKinley, unlike any other American President, and to a degree for which it would not be easy to find a parallel in the modern affairs of any country, has bequeathed a complete scheme of predetermined action to an executor who is the very embodiment of the new ideas, and can hardly fail to show himself an even more decisive and thorough exponent of the Buffalo programme than its author would have proved.
It has been inevitably said that William McKinley was not great as Washington and Lincoln, or even as some others between and after, were great. But it would be irrelevant to emphasise the inevitable. The important point is that if he was less memorable as a man he was not less memorable as President. Fundamentally sound in ability and character and full of homely excellence, he was as completely the apt representative figure of his own epoch as were even the founder and the saviour of the Republic of theirs. A consummate interpreter rather than a leader of public opinion and justly accused of “keeping his ear to the ground” with too assiduous an anxiety, he was nevertheless an opportunist chiefly in the sense that he was a most careful and sagacious judge of opportunity. But in this respect the opportunism of Pitt or Peel, of Beaconsfield or Gladstone, involved a far wider range of inconsistency.