Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “The President Spared”
Date of publication: 12 September 1901
Volume number: 73
Issue number: 1889
|“The President Spared.” Nation 12 Sept. 1901 v73n1889: p. 200.
|McKinley assassination; McKinley assassination (public response); Garfield assassination; presidential assassinations (comparison).
|Emilio Aguinaldo; Roscoe Conkling; Leon Czolgosz; James A. Garfield; Charles J. Guiteau; Frederick N. Funston; William McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt.
The President Spared
The attempt on President McKinley’s life at Buffalo
on Friday last touched, as it could not fail to do, the national feeling, instantly
and deeply. Nor could any moral and humane person hesitate to denounce without
reservation the infamy of a crime not to be excused were the victim the meanest,
instead of the most exalted, citizen. The usual confusion of thought has arisen
among partisans who grudged a simple expression of sorrow as incompatible with
aversion to the President’s policy. And, finally, rejoicing in the failure of
the assassin’s aim has been heightened among sober friends as well as opponents
of the Administration, by the dread of the Government’s passing under a new
and untried control in the person of the actual Vice-President.
The season of year, the exact interval of two decades, the foreign extraction of the criminal, have conspired forcibly to revive the memory of Garfield’s fate. But there was wanting, in Mr. McKinley’s case, that preparation for high tension in the public mind which grew out of Conkling’s quarrel with the Administration over spoils, and the subsequent Senatorial deadlock which Guiteau, with method in his madness, sought to dissolve. Hence, the excitement of the past week has fallen short of that visible in this city, at least, in the summer of 1881. But, also, it must be confessed, we have had, in the unhappy past three years, a satiety of carnage and horror until we almost cease to feel. If Aguinaldo had been shot while extending a friendly hand to Gen. Funston, as the President to Czolgosz, would our jaded pulse have been sensibly quickened above the normal beat with which we heard of the bloodless success of that stratagem? It could not be said in Garfield’s time as now that we sip lynchings and negro burnings unmoved with our coffee at breakfast; and this fact alone speaks volumes regarding the prevailing callousness as to the taking of human life.
Another difference in the comparison is that Guiteau’s purpose was political, while Czolgosz’s motive might almost be called academic, a mere manifesto of a sect. A moral could be and was drawn by the friends of civil-service reform in the former case, in which the Vice-President himself was involved with the Senators from New York in an intrigue against the assassin’s victim. A moral of some sort might have lain open to panegyrists and to a gravely reflecting public had the homicidal fanatic at Buffalo been a Filipino, a Cuban, a Steel-Trust striker, or a gloater over the daily cartoons of the yellow journals implicating the President with the Money Power. For this no room was left by the anarchist who simply proved that the most powerful ruler on earth, though styled a republican and chosen by universal suffrage, was no more exempt than any crowned head from the peril of sudden, malevolent extinction. The ruler, not the individual, was shot at, and vigilance alone, not reason, can avail against minds which learn nothing by seeing the succession of rulers keep even pace with the file of assassins.
While all will freely admit that President McKinley’s hard experience has no lesson for him, unless it be not to expose himself so freely in public hereafter, some foolish journals and politicians teach that ordinary criticism of the Executive has tended to breed the maggot in Czolgosz’s brain, and is, therefore, measurably responsible for the result. This is of a piece with the contention that anti-Imperialists in this country were guilty of the American lives lost in the Philippine campaigns. The extreme application of such nonsense would reduce us to a condition worse than that of the land of leze-majesty. All the safeguards of free speech would be gone in an instant, and we should witness the reductio ad absurdum of a form of free government which gave us chief magistrates dictated by the machine, straightway to become exempt from all adverse comment or the semblance of “disrespect.” Mr. McKinley’s philosophy not more than his temperament is our warrant for believing that he would laugh at such a pretension on the part of his flatterers. Any realizing sense, too, of the prayers offered up for his recovery by partisans and non-partisans who stand aghast at Mr. Roosevelt’s replacing him, would make him see the value of independent judgment of those who occupy, as well as of those who may possibly occupy, the Presidential chair.
The President’s good luck has once more, humanly speaking, been exhibited. He has disappointed his would-be murderer; he has every prospect of finishing out his term; his constancy may even be put to the test by a more or less genuine demand from his party that he revoke his resolution not to serve for a third term. In all this there is again a contrast to Garfield, who had given reason to doubt that his Administration would have increased his fame, and who was, by the best-informed, counted fortunate in being cut short. On the other hand, Garfield’s character and talents were unquestionably exaggerated by the circumstance of his death, and some monuments were reared which would otherwise probably never have been thought of. Praise in excess of what he has received, Mr. McKinley is not likely to have, and there is still time for him to furnish grounds for a solid reputation which will outlast monuments.