Publication information
view printer-friendly version
Source: Pearson’s Magazine
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “Mr. Cortelyou Explains President McKinley”
Author(s): Creelman, James
Date of publication: June 1908
Volume number: 19
Issue number: 6
Pagination: 569-85 (excerpt below includes only pages 569-74, 580, and 585)

Creelman, James. “Mr. Cortelyou Explains President McKinley.” Pearson’s Magazine June 1908 v19n6: pp. 569-85.
George B. Cortelyou; George B. Cortelyou (public statements); William McKinley; McKinley presidency; William McKinley (presidential character); William McKinley (public statements); William McKinley (presidential policies); William McKinley (relations with Marcus Hanna).
Named persons
Grover Cleveland; George B. Cortelyou; Leon Czolgosz; Marcus Hanna; Fitzhugh Lee; Abraham Lincoln; Ida McKinley; William McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt; George Washington.
The following excerpt comprises three nonconsecutive portions of this article (pp. 569-74, p. 580, and p. 585). Omission of text within the excerpt is denoted with a bracketed indicator (e.g., [omit]).

The article is accompanied with twelve images, including mutiple photographs each of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and George B. Cortelyou.


Mr. Cortelyou Explains President McKinley [excerpt]

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- [569][570] 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, and soon.’”
     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 in Atlanta:

     “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 nations.”
     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 aloud:

“But far on the deep there are billows
That never shall break on the beach;
And I have heard songs in the Silence
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.” [570][571]
     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 talking.
     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 [571][572] 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 on it.
     “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 of trusts.
     “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 [572][573] 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 Mr. McKinley.”
     Coming from the mouth of Grover Cleveland’s confidential stenographer and Theodore Roosevelt’s Cabinet officer, that unquali- [573][574] 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[. . . .]



top of page