Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “President M’Kinley’s Death”
Date of publication: 19 September 1901
Volume number: 73
Issue number: 1890
|“President M’Kinley’s Death.” Nation 19 Sept. 1901 v73n1890: p. 218.|
|William McKinley (personal history); William McKinley (political character); Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt (assumption of presidency); Roosevelt presidency (predictions, expectations, etc.).|
|Chester A. Arthur; Lewis Cass; Leon Czolgosz; Charles J. Guiteau; Rutherford B. Hayes; Abraham Lincoln; William McKinley; Thomas Collier Platt; Theodore Roosevelt; Goldwin Smith; Daniel Webster.|
President M’Kinley’s Death
The rational hope with which we wrote last week
of the President’s condition was quickly falsified. On Friday the reaction set
in, and on Saturday, in the early morning, he passed away pathetically, without
a struggle. Already his successor is at the helm, and the ship of state is on
its way to unknown ports.
It is not our purpose formally to review now or hereafter Mr. McKinley’s career, in its three main divisions of soldier, lawyer, and politician. So far as he has been under our observation in the past quarter of a century, we have discharged our duty towards him as towards other public men. Our censure and our approbation alike had in view the practical end of all independent criticism, the moulding of public opinion in favor of certain ideals of citizenship and government. Those to which we have steadfastly held for more than a generation, posterity will judge along with the character of the late President himself. Lives of him are sure to be written, some catchpenny, some in good faith; all, probably, prematurely. We doubt if any Administration was ever marked by so much secretiveness as his, although the events directed by it were of transcendent and revolutionary importance. Years must elapse before even the inception of the Spanish war can be authoritatively worked out by the historian; and who could now intimately and with particularity narrate Major McKinley’s rise to political prominence and office? Neither his friends nor his opponents should be in haste to compose his biography.
In his build, in the shape of his head and the cast of his countenance, Mr. McKinley recalled the generation of Cass and Webster, and in any gallery of statesmen of their day his portrait might hang without discordance. His mouth betokened the ready speaker, and his gift of speech was, indeed, nature’s passport to distinction in a country where oratory has such a hold on the popular affection as it has in ours; but his imperfect education deprived his addresses of all grace or literary quality. The one collected volume of his speeches shares the unreadability which even the greatest orators seldom escape. His amiability, suavity, and impersonality in debate preserved him from making enemies, and these traits were of the utmost value at all stages of his political advancement. He had also, in the beginning, as aids to his ambition, his honorable service in the army and his choice of the legal profession. His protectionism was, clearly enough, a mere adoption of the views in which he was bred, for there is nothing in his utterances on the subject that will bear examination for originality or even logical consistency. He was born in the Ohio town of Niles, which, like that of the same name in Michigan, presumably commemorated the great Baltimore protectionist, editor of Niles’ Register. From such a community an apostle might naturally proceed. He profited finally by the remarkable lead which his native State acquired in national affairs on the accession of Hayes, and he had neither training nor scruple to keep him from joining that disastrous silver movement which was denominated the “Ohio idea.” He had no hand, either, in our deliverance, and his conversion to the gold standard was reached by considerations anything but economic. In times of doubt on which side to throw himself, he maintained as long as possible a religious silence. And whereas Lincoln, with whom he is now freely ranked, was ready to express himself in writing to individual inquirers as to his policy—often enigmatically, it is true, yet with apparent frankness and simplicity—Mr. McKinley never courted such opportunities. He chose to deal with his fellow-citizens in the mass. The accessibility which contributed so much to his popularity, he exhibited by preference on occasions when he could speak and not write, and when his presence substantiated the generalities which were his delight and refuge.
If President McKinley’s rôle was opportunism, his successor’s is strenuousness. This doctrine, long preached by Mr. Roosevelt, he was given the chance of his life to put in practice by the bringing on of the Spanish war; and his military prominence won him, by steps needless to enumerate, the place he now occupies. How far strenuousness may carry him, especially in foreign affairs, we shall not venture to predict. Visions of what is possible have mingled with the humane and sympathetic motives for desiring President McKinley’s recovery. It would be idle at this time to retrace Mr. Roosevelt’s career as a ground for apprehension. Erratic he may be pronounced, but while no one would think of applying that epithet to Mr. McKinley, his movements, too, were not always rectilinear; and Mr. Roosevelt’s defections from civil-service-reform principles have been, if not more excusable, less signal than Mr. McKinley’s. The Imperialism of both had a common aim, and though Roosevelt’s has been that of action, McKinley’s that of “destiny,” it was under the latter’s lead, none the less, that, in Goldwin Smith’s pregnant phrase, we “burnt the Declaration.” In other words, the “safe” President did not keep us from our present un-American pass. It remains to be seen if the “unsafe” will prevent us from ever emerging.
Those whom this problem interests cannot restrict themselves to studying Mr. Roosevelt’s past alone. They must weigh the sobering circumstance under which he is suddenly exalted, the responsibilities of office, the force of public opinion, the check which the McKinley wing of the Republican party is sure to exercise, and that which we may expect from the Democratic opposition, no longer contending against the prestige of the twice victorious candidate. Mr. Arthur’s example furnishes a cheering precedent, and it depends upon President Roosevelt himself to what extent the country will forget what has gone before in judging his conduct as Chief Magistrate, or remember it to his honor on seeing how much he surpasses it. A supreme act of courage would be to restore to the classified service those thousands of offices reconverted into spoils by President McKinley; but we cannot look for this, if at all, amid the funeral discourses of the present or the eulogies of the near future.
President Roosevelt’s private reflections on the extraordinary cause of his elevation to power are easy to imagine. The same malign influence that helped prepare the situation of which Guiteau availed himself, forced Gov. Roosevelt, against his will—against his vehement pledge—to accept the Vice-Presidential nomination. Should the result, as some fear, prove a national misfortune, it must not be added to the sins of the miserable Czolgosz, who violently altered the natural course of events; it must rest on the shoulders of the New York Republican boss, the real king-maker, though in spite. The regicide anarchist against whom, the moment he strikes, every voice in the country is raised to denounce and every hand to crush, is but as the flea to our republican organism; Platt is the white ant who leaves us the form of our liberties, and eats the heart-wood out of them. The sincerest mourner for the murdered President cannot affirm that he was sensible of this corruption, or gave any support to those who are seeking to eradicate it. The sincerest admirer of President Roosevelt cannot justify an expectation that he will assume a different attitude towards it and towards reformers. Yet here, if anywhere, is a chance for strenuousness to outshine opportunism, and to lay the foundation of lasting civic renown.