Source: Westminster Review
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “William McKinley”
Date of publication: March 1902
Volume number: 157
Issue number: 3
|“William McKinley.” Westminster Review Mar. 1902 v157n3: pp. 323-25.|
|William McKinley (presidential character: criticism); William McKinley (presidential policies); William McKinley (political character); Theodore Roosevelt (presidential character).|
|William Jennings Bryan; George F. Hoar; William McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt.|
|Authorship for this article (below) is credited to “An American” (p. 325).|
Such a man was the late President of the United States, William McKinley. His life in its private relations was respected and admired by all who knew him, and there was never any ground upon which to question his patriotic desire for his country’s welfare. Given a logical and moral insight as penetrating as his conscious purposes were pure, and he would have made a President surpassed in no important respect by any other who ever sat in the Presidential chair. This insight he did not have. The lack of it was evident to thoughtful observers in his fundamental theory of the office of the Presidency—a theory best formulated by his opponent, William J. Bryan, in his promise, if elected, to be “the people’s hired man.” Mr. McKinley’s definition, in action if not in words, was the same. The statement that he “kept his ear to the ground” was not merely a slander of the opposition; it was accepted by hosts of his supporters and the Press and platform of his party presented frequent attempts to justify the attitude. He failed to see, as so many others fail to see, the inevitable tendency of such a theory to degenerate into subserviency not to the people—that is, the majority—but to that portion of the people most likely to make trouble at the polls if its wishes are not consulted.
President McKinley was not in favour of a war with Spain, but when demagogues of his own party in Congress began to threaten a party split if the cry of the sensational Press was not heeded, he allowed himself to be persuaded that this was the voice of the American people, and withdrew his opposition. His defection from the conservative and promising methods of peaceful diplomacy turned the scale, making inevitable and immediate a war which would have  been avoided, if he had retained his conscience and judgment in his own keeping and not surrendered them into the hands of that portion of his constituency which was just then making the most noise. Again, when the war was over his instincts and judgment were against a policy of territorial acquisition, and he himself would have nipped it in the bud if its supporters had not succeeded in making noise enough to convince him that they represented the desires of “the people.”
Long before his elevation to the Presidency this tendency to have his opinions made for him by others had manifested its deep seated hold upon him. He was one of the first among prominent Republicans to surrender to the wave of financial folly which swept over the country in the seventies, and his return to sound principles of finance was made known to his fellow countrymen only after it was apparent that the convention which nominated him for the Presidency was in the hands of the sound money element of his party.
There could be no higher tribute to his personal reputation than the fact that with all these vacillations he could still retain the respect of the masses. It is needless to say that among the few who look beneath the surface, and who were possessed of full information in such matters, even in his own party, instability was clearly recognised and more or less freely admitted. Many of his official acts would have ruined any President in the integrity of whose intentions there was not an almost unlimited confidence. The appointment to high judicial positions of one after another to whom he was indebted for political and even personal aid did not shake the general faith in his honesty, but it is no credit to the general perception of fitness in such matters that the danger for the future in such precedents was not widely recognised and deplored.
When once he had committed himself to the Imperialistic policy, his lack of clear logical and moral perception was painfully apparent in the means by which he advocated that policy in his public utterances, both official and unofficial. It was simply lack of clean-cut thinking, not conscious jugglery with words, that led him to apply to our rule in the Philippines the traditional terms by which we are wont to describe our own liberties. That he felt himself moved by a deep love for our written constitution cannot fairly be doubted, but he was troubled by no keen sense of its exact relation to his own official acts. His temperament was just suited to the influence of a vague declamation about the duty of a great country to forsake its alleged isolation and carry its blessings to the world at large. Clearer thinking would have led him to see that the very self-restraint of the United States during the past century had wrought more powerfully for the ends which this vague declamation seemed to hold up than any other single force in existence; that  his action in the Philippines was not carrying to the natives the blessing of American liberty, but strangling at the birth a native liberty begotten of the spirit of our wiser past.
We have already said that he was at first opposed to the proposition to launch the country upon such a career. It is a curious fact that the chief burden of responsibility for the new departure can fairly be laid to the charge of men who at the start were at one in the attitude of opposition to it. President McKinley was opposed to it, and could have prevented it by maintaining his opposition long enough for our Minister to Spain to have removed any plausible ground for war—a work in which he was making rapid and entirely hopeful progress. William J. Bryan was opposed to it, and could have thwarted it through his admitted influence over Democratic Senators, by preventing the ratification of the Treaty of Peace until so amended as to ensure the substantial, if not absolute, independence of Cuba and the Philippines. Senator George F. Hoar was opposed to it, and could have prevented it through his immense influence in the Republican party, had he not made it certain that in no case would his opposition go far enough to disrupt the party. There is a very real sense in which McKinley, Bryan, and Hoar may be named together as the triumvirate of American expansion.
It was but natural that Mr. Roosevelt should declare at the outset his intention to follow out in their entirety the policies of the assassinated McKinley, but all who knew the two men knew the impossibility of the fulfilment [sic] of such a promise. President Roosevelt will not keep his ear to the ground. He will look within for the voice of duty, after applying his judgment to the facts before him, and he will not be turned aside by popular clamour after his mind has been made up. His conscience is true, and the problem becomes one of the adequacy of his judgment. Even his best friends are not wholly without fear of errors of rashness, but there are many who are willing to run the risk of a little original executive rashness for the boon of a decided increase in executive independence.