Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “Is It All for Nothing?”
Author(s): Davis, Rebecca Harding
Date of publication: 24 October 1901
Volume number: 53
Issue number: 2760
|Davis, Rebecca Harding. “Is It All for Nothing?” Independent 24 Oct. 1901 v53n2760: pp. 2513-14.|
|presidential assassinations (comparison); McKinley assassination (motive); McKinley assassination (public response); William McKinley (mourning).|
|John Wilkes Booth; Marcus Junius Brutus; Leon Czolgosz; James A. Garfield; Emma Goldman; Charles J. Guiteau; Humbert I; Jesus Christ; Abraham Lincoln; William McKinley; Johann Most.|
Is It All for Nothing?
THERE were two or three singular facts in the great tragedy of September which
had a profound significance, yet I have seen no mention of them in any of the
countless orations or sermons or newspaper articles which Mr. McKinley’s death
has called forth.
One was that the murders of our three slaughtered Presidents have all had the same cause—the craving of a weak, vain man for notoriety.
Abraham Lincoln was not the victim of political animosity. It is a foul slander on the South to say it.
Wilkes Booth, as all the friends of his family know, was from his boyhood a half-witted poseur, who every moment of his life dressed and spoke and moved with an eye on an imaginary audience. The habit of acting, in which his family had lived for generations, had taken possession of him like a disease. He had a circle of underbred vicious women about him,—women hungry as street curs for excitement, for a noise, for blood-letting, tears and passion. These were his stage managers, his claqueurs. He probably cared nothing for the Confederacy and had no grudge against Lincoln. But to play the part of Brutus—to kill the conqueror, to shout, “Sic semper tyrannis!” with America, with the whole world looking on as audience—that was a great part for the cheap little actor. Hence, he played it.
We all know what Guiteau was—how poor a buffoon, how mad with vanity; too mad and too vain to shudder at the blood on his hands or at the gallows before him. We all can remember, too, with shame how, a week or two after he had murdered President Garfield, he stood in the dock day after day cracking miserable jokes and cutting monkey capers while the country—to its shame—looked on and laughed.
Vanity in Czolgosz takes another form. He professes to have killed the President because he “wished to destroy all government;” but the man whose brain is of too low an order to understand that government lives, no matter how many Humberts and McKinleys die, can hardly be said to act from any mental process at all. He fired the shot that day in Buffalo because he fancied it would make him a hero, a great man, in the eyes of the Goldmans and Mosts and other vaporers and boasters of like kidney with these.
Here is another curious fact worth notice. Nine hundred years ago a monarchy was established in England. During that time but one of her rulers has been put to death, and that was done under at least the semblance of law.
In thirty-six years we have murdered three of our Presidents. It is easy to say that the American race is no more vicious or bloodthirsty than its English root, and that it is not responsible for the deeds of foreign assassins frenzied with vanity and the desire for public notice.
We are responsible for the vanity, for the mad longing for notoriety which has become a national disease. It has been the mission of this country, let us thank God, to offer a chance to every man to make the best of himself in the world. The chance is a noble one, but after all it does tempt the struggling man to selfishness, to boasting, to an insane hunger for public applause. The same vanity and desire for notice which make the weak-minded American, a pert child, a rude salesman, an insolent official, a loud, pretentious tourist, end by producing a Wilkes Booth and a Guiteau. The nation has reached the same stage of development as the young Indian beau when he loves to put on all his beads and feathers and strut before the camp, shouting:
“Look! Look! Big man, me!”
It is not a pleasant view to take, but is it not the true one?
One could not but feel that the nation recognized its guilt in some dumb, uncomprehending fashion on that terrible day in September. When the news flashed over the country that the Presi-  dent was shot there was something more than horror, more than personal feeling for Mr. McKinley in the universal dismay. In the heart of every man and woman not wholly a brute there was that day, I venture to say, a strange sense of guilt, of humiliation. We said to ourselves: “Do we belong to a race of traitors—of assassins?”
Men boldly asked each other, “Is the Republic then a failure? In one hundred years three assassinations, thousands of lynchings and the most stupendous civil war in history!”
“Are not men more sane and is not human life safer under the fixed conditions of a monarchy?”
Others loudly demanded that our rulers should be protected by something of the state and circumstance of other potentates. “A stop should be put to these popular hand shakings and to the constant hail-fellow-well-met association of the President with foreign paupers and anarchists. Let us give the men we choose to rule over us at least a chance for their lives.”
The open discussion of these questions for the first time in our history is another significant fact which I ask you to notice.
Still another is the suddenness with which the nation under the blow returned to old-fashioned ideas and habits of thought which it had long left behind. Prosperity during these later years has made us mad. We talk of money. We dream money. We clutch wildly—as a people and as individuals—at show, at position and power. Divorce is a common factor in our daily life; the domestic woman, we think, belongs to a forgotten date back near the flood. The youngest college boy or girl jeers at the Bible and “has doubts” of Christianity. We are Theosophists, Buddhists, Christian Scientists, Agnostics—anything rather than followers of the Nazarene.
And in the fiercest heat and clamor of the day a little bullet is fired by a foolish boy and—“God makes a silence through it all.” The nation stood dumb, its hand upon its lips, and its reverence and tears were not so much for the President as for the man. Great parties may have doubted Mr. McKinley’s intellectual strength and differed with his policy, but the country knew him as a tender husband, a kind, honest man, a faithful servant of Christ, and so honored and loved him. No man could have died more nobly. In every home in the country it was told how when he was shot his first words were of care for his wife, the second for his enemy, the third for the people around him. There was no thought of himself. When the operation was begun they heard him whispering the Lord’s Prayer, and when he was told that he was dying his last words were: “It is God’s will, not ours, that must be done. Good-by all.”
Why this is the old-fashioned type of man whom we used to know; who was quiet and brave; who loved his wife and his friend and trusted in Jesus Christ to save him. The whole nation bowed before the type and reverenced it as the highest and the best.
We are still sore at heart.
In the history of the country there never has been a more dramatic sight than that glass car in the midst of the long funeral train which carried the dead head of the nation to his last rest. It was brilliantly lighted; in the center of it rested the coffin covered with flowers, at its head and foot stood a soldier and a sailor like statues with gun in rest and drawn sword. It sped on, a point of light through the night, across the mountains and rivers and through great cities, and all the way, in the towns, at the hill stations, or in lonely farm places waited hundreds of thousands of his people to bid him the last good-by. The richest and the poorest, in masses side by side, in the cities; mountaineers with their guns in hand, the old sects of the Amish and Dunkards; thousands of grimy mill-hands; little children—all silent and uncovered. And as the car came near and passed on out of sight they chanted the old hymn that he had tried to sing on his deathbed:
“Nearer, my God, to thee.”
Is it for nothing that this people have stood apart for a season and mourned together and gone back to their old beliefs in the homely virtues of a good man and tried with him to stretch out their hands to God?