Mr. Cortelyou Explains President McKinley
IT is less than seven years since President McKinley was slain
by the anarchist Czolgosz, and yet, so tremendous have been the
moral and political activities of his successor, so fiercely pressed
the governmental policies, and so swift and surprising the national
events of that brief time, that it was almost a startling experience
to sit down with Mr. Cortelyou, the secretary, adviser and bosom
friend of the dead statesman, and hear from his lips the generally
unsuspected things that were in Mr. McKinley’s mind when death so
roughly arrested his irresistible leadership.
The room itself had its own voices.
A yellow radiance of shaded gaslight
and soft flames of pink and violet burning in the fireplace revealed
memoried objects in the home of the quiet Secretary of the Treasury,
who has lived so close to the real lives of the last three Presidents
of the United States and who knows the innermost facts and thoughts
of their contrasting Administrations.
There on the wall was the telegram
that brought Mr. Cortelyou into the White House as confidential
stenographer to President Cleveland. Close by was the huge mahogany
desk at which, as Chairman of the Republican National Committee,
Mr. Cortelyou worked out the election of President Roosevelt; and
on that desk, consecrated to the triumph of Roosevelt—oh, wonderful
world of change!—stood the glass paper-weight from President McKinley’s
desk and the very inkstand from which he wrote his Spanish War message
and afterward signed the treaty of peace.
Near the flickering grate was the
carved oak swivel-chair in which the gentle McKinley worked in the
White House, and all about were portraits of the vanished leader
and books that he loved.
On the table beside Mr. Cortelyou
lay an open volume of McKinley speeches. The Secretary of the Treasury
had been reading over again the words of his dead friend while all
the continent was clamoring of the living President and his policies.
“The idea that President McKinley
was blind or indifferent to the conditions and abuses growing out
of the sweeping prosperity which attended the development of large
and larger forms of business during his Administration is a mistake
into which many persons have fallen,” he said.
“He was wide awake to everything affecting
the welfare of the country. But the phenomenal prosperity that had
come, even by the beginning of his second term in the White House,
was so much greater than he had an- 
ticipated—optimist as he was on everything American—that it is no
exaggeration to say he was staggered by it.
“He would say, ‘How wonderful it is!
How wonderful!’ And yet, in the midst of it all, he said, again
and again, ‘This trust question has got to be taken up in earnest,
Mr. Cortelyou arose and walked slowly
to and fro before the dying fire, sometimes touching the vacant
McKinley chair as he passed with bent head and sober face.
“In his first term,” he continued,
“Mr. McKinley was too busy to deal deeply with anything but pressing
questions of immediate government, and difficult or debatable reforms
had to wait until he had time to turn around. There was the working
out of the new currency and tariff laws, the Spanish-American War
and all the complicated questions of distant possessions growing
out of it. The work in the White House trebled and quadrupled. His
own office force had to be very largely increased, to deal merely
with the clerical aspects of matters which he had to pass on responsibly
as head of the Government.”
The Secretary paused under a frame
containing a quaint silhouette portrait of his colonial great-grandmother,
set between an ancient cup and saucer—she who once carried secret
dispatches to Washington sewed in her quilted petticoats, where
the stupid red-coats might not find them.
“We had suddenly become a world-power,”
he said, “and international questions that were formerly unusual
events in one Administration became almost weekly occurrences. President
McKinley was not merely absorbed; he was engulfed.
“But in his second Administration
there was in some senses a distinctly new McKinley. The great strain
and the complex experiences through which he had gone had broadened,
deepened, sobered and even sweetened him.
“He became national in a new sense.
He seemed to feel the Democratic as well as the Republican vote
behind him. He realized with a pride and satisfaction that was almost
inexpressible the fact that the Spanish-American War had closed
up whatever there might have been of a gulf between the North and
South. The American people had been under arms again as one nation.
He tried to express his feeling when he uttered that memorable speech
“Reunited! Glorious realization!
It expresses the thought of my mind and the long-deferred consummation
of my heart’s desire as I stand in this presence. It interprets
the hearty demonstration here witnessed, and is the patriotic
refrain of all sections and of all lovers of the Republic.
“Reunited—one country again and
one country forever! Proclaim it from the press and pulpit;
teach it in the schools; write it across the skies! The world
sees and feels it; it cheers every heart North and South, and
brightens every American home. Let nothing ever strain it again!
At peace with all the world and with one another, what can stand
in the pathway of our progress and prosperity?
“I have heard him say with deep
emotion, ‘I can no longer be called the President of a party; I
am now the President of the whole people.’”
As he spoke, Mr. Cortelyou turned
to a portrait of the dead President and looked at it long and earnestly.
“With the war and its questions behind
him,” he added, “he turned his attention to the domestic affairs
of the country; and it was then that he said, ‘This trust question
must be taken up and settled.’ That thought was in his mind when
he died—that and the question of commercial reciprocity with other
For a few moments Mr. Cortelyou stood
silent before the fireplace. A storm drove the night rain against
the windows with such violence as to awaken a caged bird in the
room to soft complaint. The fire in the grate had burned down to
dull red, licked by faint blue tongues. The Secretary spoke again
and with evident feeling:
“To understand the real McKinley it
is necessary to know, for instance, that in the White House, beset
by a thousand different questions, he used to set aside an hour
every evening in which he would read the Bible to Mrs. McKinley.
The great crowd, looking at him simply as a successful politician,
never, perhaps, suspected the inner life of the man. His nature
was really expressed in his favorite poem, which he constantly read
“But far on the deep there are billows
“That never shall break on the
“And I have heard songs in the
“That never shall float into speech;
“And I have had dreams in the Valley
“Too lofty for language to reach.
“Such a man could not live in the
midst of great moral-economic problems without honestly reaching
out to them with all the power that he found in his hands.” 
Mr. Cortelyou again paced the carpet.
It is not often that the serious, low-voiced, unobtrusive thinker
and manager, whose industry and loyalty have meant so much to three
Presidents, is in a mood for extended conversation. He works swiftly,
carefully, endlessly; but his language is brief, he shrinks from
Yet, as he moved about the room, the
memory of McKinley was upon him, the gentle, amiable McKinley, whose
eyes he closed in death, whose monument he toiled for, whose widow
he guarded, advised, and followed to the grave, whose name he always
defends, sometimes with a sudden and lovable anger that belies his
reputation for cool reticence.
“Mr. McKinley saw the great onrush
of prosperity,” he said. “He saw with it 
evils inseparable from the new conditions. He spoke of them plainly
and often to those who were nearest to him.
“But to deal with them effectively,
without shattering the interwoven and delicate fabric of the forces
that were coöperating for the welfare of the country!—that was the
question. The President talked of it, he worried over it, he slept
“Let no man believe that, realizing
as he did the necessity for action, lest abundance should lead us
to ruin, any thought of temporizing with the evils found lodgment
in his mind. While at such times he was slow in reaching a conclusion,
once his mind was cleared of its doubts he was absolutely resolute.
“The theory that Mr. McKinley subordinated
his judgment to the will of Senator Hanna, or of anybody else, is
a delusion. He was always the master. He had the gentle persistency
of Lincoln. I was with him night and day and I know that he was
always the master. No will controlled him but his own.
“So, when the necessity for dealing
seriously with the trust question came into his view, it was plain
to be seen that he had taken up within himself a deliberate stand
from which no one could have moved him had he lived.
“Taken in connection with President
Roosevelt’s announcement, on taking the oath of office in Buffalo,
that it would be his aim ‘to continue absolutely unbroken the policy
of President McKinley for the peace, prosperity and honor of our
beloved country,’ the real position of Mr. McKinley on the trust
question has a significance that cannot now be ignored.”
The Secretary of the Treasury spoke
slowly and with great gravity. He seemed to realize that what he
said was in the nature of a revelation; that the great design formed
in the mind of President McKinley established an important bridge
connecting the last two national Administrations and proved a continuity
of Republican policy, as against the rough clamor about new, strange
and unconsidered theories of the Roosevelt Administration.
“Another great domestic question that
filled President McKinley’s mind when he died was the plan of commercial
reciprocity,” he said. “He felt that he could lift his party and
his country to a new level of success by extending the principle
of protection to our foreign markets. He believed that our home
market could not consume the products of our prodigious and constantly
increasing powers, and he looked abroad for new fields and new victories.
“It was like a vision to him. He saw
before him a conflict on the subject, but he was confident that
he could win his party and the country to his side.
“During his vacation in the last summer
of his life, the President worked at Canton on material for a series
of speeches in which he proposed to develop progressively his ideas
on the extension of our foreign trade through the means of reciprocity
treaties, and had directed the collection of data on the subject
“By the end of the summer he was prepared
to deal publicly with both questions on a broad scale, and it was
his intention to use the first opportunity to appeal to his party
and the country for support. I never saw him more determined on
anything than on this.”
Mr. Cortelyou was very earnest.
“When Mr. McKinley went to California
to witness the launching of the battle-ship Ohio, his plan was to
develop the new fight in a number of speeches on his return trip
across the continent. The almost fatal illness of Mrs. McKinley
at San Francisco and her serious condition on the journey home changed
the President’s plans, because he was not in a state to deal with
questions which assumed such grave proportions in his mind.
“His visit to the Pan-American Exposition
at Buffalo offered to the President the earliest opportunity which
seemed to him to be national enough to suit his purpose. He made
the first speech of his projected battle for a new and broader governmental
policy, and then, alas, came the assassin’s shot.
“I knew, perhaps better than any other,
why the President asked so eagerly on his deathbed for news of what
the world thought of his speech. He believed that he was entering
the threshold of a new era in American history.”
The Secretary seated himself before
the dull fire, resting one hand on the back of the treasured McKinley
chair. His dark eyes were full of feeling.
“Now and then,” he went on, “I come
across evidence of an unfortunate impression that Mr. McKinley was
not a man of courage, and that he was swayed by every passing 
breeze of public opinion. The truth is that, after eighteen years
of public service, and in associations that have brought me in close
contact with the boldest and firmest men in our national life, I
cannot recall a man with greater moral heroism and tenacity than
Coming from the mouth of Grover Cleveland’s
confidential stenographer and Theodore Roosevelt’s Cabinet officer,
that unquali-  fied opinion
may astonish critics of President McKinley’s character.
“But,”—Mr. Cortelyou raised his hand,—“while
he had courage, to an almost superlative degree, he was naturally
cautious, and was always anxious to keep the country with him as
he moved. He deliberated and, as he deliberated, he consulted. He
was impulsive enough, but he had his impulses under a stern discipline.
“I well remember one instance of his
combined firmness and deliberativeness. It was at the time when,
with his Spanish-American War message written, the President was
waiting, before sending it to Congress, for word from Consul-General
Fitzhugh Lee that all American citizens had been gotten out of Cuba.
He and his advisers believed that when the message was made public
the life of every American in the island would be at stake.
“The President was sitting with his
Cabinet and several prominent Senators and Representatives. Some
of those present were urging him to send in his message at once.
They declared that any further delay might mean political destruction
for his Administration and his party.
“Mr. McKinley sent for me to bring
the message to him. I laid it on the table before him. Just then
there came a cipher cablegram from Fitzhugh Lee saying that it would
be dangerous to act until he sent further word. But at that a number
of those in the room again pressed the President to send his message
to Congress immediately. Mr. McKinley could hardly have been under
greater pressure. He showed the strain. He was very pale. But suddenly
he clenched his hand, raised it and brought the fist down on the
table with a bang as he said in a clear voice, ‘That message shall
not go to Congress so long as there is a single American life in
danger in Cuba. Here,’—turning to me—‘put that in the safe till
I call for it.’
“As I have said before, we cannot
too often repeat to the American people the story of Mr. McKinley’s
life; his youthful patriotism; his devotion to his mother; his fine
loyalty in all the sacred relationships of home; his long years
of public service, marked by ever-increasing growth in the affection
and regard of the people. Such a life and such a service, even had
they not known the great responsibilities and great opportunities
of the Presidency, would have entitled him to a place high on the
honor roll of the nation.
“But from the day that he became President,
he grew and broadened in his grasp of public questions, in his realization
of the needs and the weaknesses and the possibilities of our citizenship,
in his determination so to administer the affairs of his great office
as to contribute in substantial degree to the Republic’s progress
along the pathway of enlightenment and civilization. His achievements
have gone into history, to be told and retold in the coming ages.
As we gain a better perspective of the eventful years of his Administration,
we shall come to know more and more the greatness and nobility of
his nature and the fullness of his consecration to the welfare of
all the people.
“He died as he lived—to the last,
gentle, patient, considerate, forgiving, and the words of his faith
and of his hope fell upon the stricken land with the beauty and
dignity of a benediction.”
The whole country knows what Mr.
Cortelyou was to President McKinley: how his common-sense, sobriety,
gentleness and orderly industry made the White House a place of
peace; how the President loved him, trusted him, sought his advice,
used his services in delicate negotiations; how, as Secretary to
the President, he organized and systematized the constantly increasing
business of the Executive Department, saved the President from a
thousand annoyances and delays by the exercise of tact and patience;
how, when Mr. McKinley was shot down at Buffalo, the cool-headed
secretary instantly took the responsibility of ordering the surgeons
to operate on the President at once; how, in those agonizing days
when Mr. McKinley lay on his deathbed, Mr. Cortelyou practically
took the President’s place and managed to keep administrative matters
running smoothly, and how, when he was working night and day, surrounded
by distracted officials and subjected to a thousand strains, the
pale secretary never once lost his head, never once lost his temper,
never once lost his nerve, not even in that dreadful hour when he
went out into the darkness to tell the assembled newspaper men that
the President—his dearest friend—had just died.
It is an interesting thing to sit
at the fire on a stormy night beside McKinley’s vacant chair and
hear Mr. Cortelyou tell of the things that were in the mind and
heart of the vanished President—it stirs and startles one’s imagination
to be reminded so strongly that there was a McKinley so recently
in American history[. . . .]