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Source: Forum
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “William McKinley”
Author(s): West, Henry Litchfield
Date of publication: October 1901
Volume number: 32
Issue number: none
Pagination: 131-37

West, Henry Litchfield. “William McKinley.” Forum Oct. 1901 v32: pp. 131-37.
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William McKinley (death: personal response); William McKinley (personal history); William McKinley (political character); William McKinley (public statements); William McKinley (personal character); William McKinley (presidential character).
Named persons
Honoré de Balzac; Napoléon Bonaparte; John G. Carlisle; Joseph B. Foraker; Ulysses S. Grant; Horace Greeley; Benjamin Harrison; Rutherford B. Hayes; Frank Hurd; Abraham Lincoln; William McKinley; William Ralls Morrison [middle initial wrong below]; Thomas Brackett Reed; John Sherman; George Washington.
From page 256: Mr. Henry Litchfield West, a native of New York, is one of the best-known and ablest writers on political subjects at the National capital. For a number of years has occupied an editorial position on the Washington “Post,” in charge of the Congressional and political work.


William McKinley

     THE tragedy is over. The last word has been spoken; the bells have tolled; the funeral march has sounded sadly in our ears; and the black-draped train has conveyed to its last resting-place the body of William McKinley, who, while occupying the high position of President of the United States, was stricken by the assassin’s bullet. With the melancholy music of the dirge still lingering in memory, and with the mournful picture of the casket not yet effaced, it is not time to attempt either panegyric or criticism of the man whose career was brought to this sudden and tragic close. When the passing years shall have revealed in true perspective the character and acts of William McKinley, both as a private citizen and as a public official, the duty of judging him accurately and impartially can be appropriately undertaken. Meanwhile, let this article afford to the readers of THE FORUM a glimpse of the man as he appeared to an observer of affairs at the national capital.
     Mr. McKinley came to Washington in 1877, having been elected in November, 1876, to represent the Eighteenth District of Ohio in the Forty-fifth Congress. He was then thirty-four years old. His previous life had not been uneventful. In his birth he had the advantage of good blood, which, coming down from his Covenanter ancestors, had flowed through the veins of Revolutionary patriots. It was good stock all along the line, clear-headed, industrious, frugal, with mental horizon not wide, perhaps, but well-defined. Upon this solid foundation the boy was brought up well. His home training was admirable. His mother, deeply religious, developed in him the spirit of faith and rever- [131][132] ence which assured a Christian manhood. His father, a man of intelligence and a great lover of books, widened the boy’s horizon by conversations on broad subjects. In those days, the exciting issues which preceded the Civil War were discussed by the hearth-stone of the farmhouse and around the stove in the cross-roads store. Young McKinley took part in these impromptu debates, learning by experience the art of forming his sentences easily and well, and, in fact, laying the foundation of his public life. He breathed, while yet a mere lad, the atmosphere of political battle. He was, of course, an earnest opponent of slavery, nor did he lack the courage of his convictions. When the conflict began he shouldered a musket; he was a captain when he was twenty-one. Upon his youthful mind the horrors and privations of war during his four years’ service made a deep and lasting impression. When, in later years, he became President of the United States, his unbounded sympathy for the men who, like him, had fought beneath the flag was manifested in many ways. He was proud of the bronze button of the Grand Army of the Republic and of the red, white, and blue rosette of the Loyal Legion. The war over, he began the practice of law, and entered, also, the field of politics. He was elected prosecuting attorney of Stark County; participated actively as a speaker in the Grant-Greeley Presidential campaign; and was prominent in the canvass which resulted in the election of Rutherford B. Hayes to be Governor of Ohio.
     When Mr. McKinley entered Congress, therefore, he had a record of faithful, if not brilliant, military service, and he had already achieved some success in politics. A man of mediocre ability and of less persistent purpose would have regarded a seat in Congress as the climax of ambition. Mr. McKinley, however, had only placed one foot upon the first round of the ladder. Circumstances favored him; or, rather, he possessed the genius to discover in these circumstances the opportunity they afforded for his advancement. The country was in a transition stage regarding the tariff. In the House, William L. Morrison was planning a horizontal reduction, John G. Carlisle was posing as an apostle of reform, and Frank Hurd, more radical than either, was urging his democratic colleagues to raise the standard of absolute free trade. McKinley, fresh from a district where nearly all the voters were working-men, and where the air was heavy with the smoke of manufactories, discerned the necessity for vigorous opposition. He stepped into the breach. Upon his banner four words were inscribed: “Protection to American Industries.” His first act in Congress was the presentation of a petition from the working-men of his district against any change [132][133] in the tariff. His first speech advocated protection. He delivered it at a night session, when few of his colleagues were present, and when the galleries were sparsely filled with indifferent auditors—a marked contrast to the brilliant scene presented a few years later, when, amid a throng that tested the capacity of the hall of the House of Representatives, he closed the debate upon the tariff bill which bore his name.
     From the day when he assumed the championship of the protective policy until his election to the Presidency afforded him an opportunity to display the broad and statesmanlike character of his mind, Mr. McKinley was unquestionably a man of one idea. He realized early in his political career that a student must also be a specialist if he desires to win distinction. Consequently, he devoted himself to the tariff question. Naturally a lover of books, he eschewed all reading which did not supplement his store of special knowledge. When, in the course of time, he reached the position of Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he was thoroughly equipped. He had already developed a remarkable ability for assembling and assimilating details, and his colleagues had discovered that he was not to be overthrown or even disconcerted by specious questions in debate. His penetrating intellect, rendered more keen by years of study, speedily grasped the innumerable intricacies of the tariff schedules, and his well-balanced mind arranged in logical sequence the mass of information thus acquired. The work was tedious and exhausting, but it did not, apparently, affect the placidity of his mind. Debate did not irritate him; the importunate appeals of his colleagues for especial favors did not disturb him. His patience was exemplified in a thousand ways; the grace of manner which made him beloved as President was always manifest. The story of the manufacturer of chemicals, who appealed for a hearing when every other member of the Committee had refused him consideration, and who was listened to, with all his formidable array of technical data, for three hours, is cited as one example of Mr. McKinley’s marvellous patience.
     If I recall with some detail the preparation of the McKinley Tariff Bill, it is because I desire to picture its author as he appeared upon the day when that measure was passed by the House. The scene of which he was the central figure was one not easily to be forgotten. The occasion, thoroughly advertised, attracted to the Capitol an immense throng. The galleries were crowded, and the anticipation of the vote had compelled the attendance of every member. As usual, Mr. McKinley spoke without notes. “His voice, penetrating but not harsh”—to quote from the impressions which I recorded at the time—“filled the chamber, and [133][134] was modulated with all the art of the accomplished elocutionist. His gestures were those of a man who might have been educated for the stage—graceful and appropriate. His well-rounded figure, not above the medium height, was enveloped in a black suit, with a close-fitting Prince Albert coat—the kind which he always wore, and which, in the sedateness of its cut, was thoroughly in keeping with the serious and earnest manner of the speaker. His face, paler than usual, was, nevertheless, illumined by the inspiration of the occasion, and when turned upward to the galleries revealed lines which forcibly recalled the countenance of Napoleon. His forehead was broad and high, and his eyes were dark and deep-set, like the touchhole of a cannon, as Balzac would have said. The gravity of his bearing, the sincerity with which he spoke, and the sympathetic and musical quality of his voice impressed the eye, the mind, and the ear. There were no meretricious, glittering phrases, no sentences uttered for empty, rhetorical effect. Every sentence was as solid as the granite of the eternal hills.” Never was an orator more wholly free from clap-trap than Mr. McKinley. He was not even a debater in the ordinary sense of the term—not a rough-and-ready, heavy-wrestling, partisan fighter like Reed. His wit did not amble easily, nor was it tipped with steel. He launched forth no shafts of sarcasm to irritate and confuse the enemy on the floor and amuse the crowds in the galleries. He was willing to be victor in debate without inflicting a wound. He was as gentle in his nature as a woman.
     Swept out of public life by the storm of protest against the high prices which followed the enactment of the new law, Mr. McKinley proved himself magnificent in defeat. When the result of the election in his district, which had hung in the balance for several days, was finally known to be adverse to him, he sat down and wrote that remarkable statement, beginning: “Protection was never stronger than it is to-day.” His sublime faith in the ultimate triumph of the principles embodied in his bill was never shaken. “Keep up your courage,” he wrote to those who doubted. “Home and country will triumph in the end. Their enemies, either here or abroad, will never be placed in permanent control of the government of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.” Out of his defeat for reëlection to Congress he emerged as Governor of Ohio. His people believed in him, and he believed in the people. Even at that time the shadow of the White House was falling upon him.
     The dramatic incidents of the national conventions of 1888 and 1892, when Mr. McKinley refused to be tempted by the golden apple of [134][135] a Presidential nomination at the sacrifice of his loyalty, illustrate most forcibly another phase of his character. It was at Chicago that the first ripple of the McKinley wave became visible. I shall never forget the stillness which fell upon that convention as Mr. McKinley, pale and calm, mounted a chair, and, in a voice low but distinct, made a brief speech. His utterances were so characteristic of his high sense of personal honor that I reproduce them:

     “I am here as the chosen representative of my State. I cannot, with honorable fidelity to John Sherman, who has entrusted me with his cause and with his confidence; I cannot, with my own views of my personal integrity, consent, or seem to consent, to permit my name to be used as a candidate before this convention.”

     Once again, four years later, temptation came to McKinley, when, at Minneapolis, the anti-Harrison schemers turned to him as their candidate. I still remember how, when Senator Foraker had cast the votes of the Ohio delegation for McKinley, the latter, with his pale face paler than usual, challenged the vote. I still can see the flush which rose to his countenance when Senator Foraker replied that his alternate had taken his place in the delegation, and I remember the firm, although anxious, voice in which he demanded that the roll be called. Of all the delegates from Ohio he alone responded with the name of Benjamin Harrison. Alone he stood, and yet alone he was all-powerful; for his refusal to become a party to the plans of the opponents of Harrison broke the backbone of that movement. The wisdom of his attitude at that time, as well as at Chicago in 1888, was amply demonstrated when, at St. Louis in 1896, he was nominated for the Presidency. When he finally won the proud position of Presidential nominee his hands were clean. His campaign was conducted on a high plane. He spoke ill of none, nor could any one truthfully say aught of him.
     His home life was beautiful; his devotion to his invalid wife being as constant as it was sincere. When, after his election as President, he came to Washington to be inaugurated, the comfort of his wife during the journey was of far more consequence to him than the plaudits of the people who cheered him at every railroad station. It was at the end of this trip to Washington that a characteristic incident occurred. As the President walked down the depot platform to the exit, he glanced up and saw the grimy engineer leaning out of the cab and bowing. Instantly the President, with a smile, detached a flower from the buttonhole of his coat and handed it to the engineer. It was a simple act, performed without ostentation, but it was indicative of that never-failing thoughtfulness and courtesy which marked every action of the Presi- [135][136] dent. I saw similar instances many scores of times. Especially I remember the efforts of a young photographer to secure a picture of the President in the railroad depot at Omaha. The light was poor, and the moving crowd interrupted the photographer’s amateurish efforts. At last the young man appealed to Mr. McKinley to leave the private car and stand upon the platform. Thereupon the President of the United States, the commander-in-chief of the army and navy, suffered himself to be led by the boy to the desired spot. He posed patiently while the camera was focused, and then apparently felt fully repaid by the warm expression of gratitude to which the photographer gave sincere utterance.
     This same obliging spirit, when manifested in a larger field, was an important factor in the peace and prosperity of the country, because it preserved amicable relations between the Executive and the Congress. President McKinley, living, was honored and respected—I might almost say loved—by men who were his political opponents in the Senate and the House of Representatives, even as now, when dead, he is mourned by them with grief unmistakable. The President was, of course, a Republican, first of all; but he never allowed his partisanship to blind him to the fact that he was the President of the entire country. When circumstances placed at his disposal an unusually large number of appointments in the army and navy, he arranged that a fair proportion should be allotted to Democratic Senators and Representatives. Many times, when I went to the White House, I saw in the President’s anteroom as many Democrats as Republicans.
     When he could do so, the President granted a legitimate request; and if refusal could not be avoided, he dulled the sting of disappointment with an expression of hope that he would be able, upon the next occasion, to fulfil the applicant’s desires. It was no wonder, therefore, that President McKinley exercised over Congress an influence which enabled him to outline his policies with the certainty of legislative support. I know of no President in recent years whose relations with Congress were so intimate and cordial; and when, at the beginning or the closing of a session, Mr. McKinley conveyed to Congress, through the committee which waited upon him, his welcome or his benediction, his kindly words were never accepted by the legislators as merely perfunctory utterances.
     President McKinley’s heart was big with love and kindliness. Out of the fulness of his soul he advocated appropriations from the National Treasury for the care of the graves of Confederate soldiers. I happened to be by his side when, in Atlanta, he delivered the speech making this [136][137] suggestion; and at its conclusion I listened with the deepest interest while he told me how he had been impressed, during a visit to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with the burden which the care of Confederate cemeteries entailed upon a devoted few, while the nation maintained the last resting-places of the Union soldiers. He believed that the war was long enough past to make it possible to begin to wipe out the distinctions between the dead. By the side of this incident I place in my memory an interview which I had with the President in the White House shortly after the close of the war with Spain. A friend of mine, the editor of a London newspaper, desired to pay his respects to Mr. McKinley, and an audience was quickly arranged. When we were in the President’s presence, the conversation speedily drifted to the war and its momentous results. To Mr. McKinley, however, the victories on land and sea and the acquisition of territory were as nothing compared with the fact that under God, to quote his reverential words, the barriers of sectionalism had finally and completely disappeared during his administration. As he talked he became eloquent. His eulogy of our great and united nation, delivered to an audience of two persons, was wonderfully impressive and soul-stirring.
     Again, when I sat with him in his home a few weeks ago and we discussed the memorable trip to the Pacific coast, he reiterated the same thought, and expressed his pleasure at the warm and cordial welcome which the South had accorded him. His heart was literally big enough to take in the entire nation; and yet it was not too big to beat in sympathy with the individual. I remember, for instance, that on the day when we started upon our journey to California, the President personally visited every car in the train in order to assure himself of the comfort of his fellow-travellers. “We must all be patient and forbearing with each other,” said he, “for we have a long and tedious journey before us.” It was simply the spontaneous expression of a thoughtful and kindly heart.
     It was President McKinley’s fortune to control the destinies of the country during four momentous years. How well he performed that tremendous task, how bravely and how calmly he met all the enormous responsibilities, and how greatly he endeared himself to the people are now matters of history. When the full narrative of his administration comes to be written, with all its secret workings revealed, the memory of the President will be even more radiant than now. His fame will not lose lustre as the years pass.



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