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Empire and Assassination in President McKinley's Time

Scott Miller studies the 'Dawn of the American Century'

Jul. 18, 2011
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Our libraries do not suffer from a shortage of books about President William McKinley, the Spanish-American War or the dawn of American imperialism, yet Scott Miller's The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century (Random House) is a welcome and useful addition. It examines two swelling historical forces of the late 19th century to explain what led to the assassination of the president at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 5, 1901.

The two forces were political radicalism and the urge for an American empire. Impulses within each force were many and complicated; the imperialistic urge, for instance, was fueled by both popular sentiment and the demand by business for new markets.

Miller, a former foreign correspondent, shows how each force worked upon the other. In alternating chapters his book tracks the careers of McKinley, with his connection to American big business that was becoming ever bigger and more ruthless, and the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, and his attraction to anarchism.

McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio, in 1843. He became a Civil War hero, a Republican congressman and, in 1896, the candidate of moneyed interests for the presidency, which he won after a highly unscrupulous campaign against Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Times were tough after the Panic of 1893 and the response of those in charge of business, McKinley's supporters, was to get tougher, making life for millions of workingmen and their families a struggle for bare existence.

"I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half," Jay Gould, a leading robber baron, boasted. Attitudes such as that led to bloody and deadly clashes between labor and business, including the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago and the pitched battles between union workers and Carnegie Steel at Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

Born in Alpena, Mich., in 1873, the son of Polish immigrants, Czolgosz was part of that working class and, until that 1893 economic depression, a good worker. He was smart and capable, but the loss of his job in a Cleveland steel mill seems to have been a terrible blow.

Like other Americans, Czolgosz sought reasons for and answers to his and the country's economic predicament. Unmarried and a loner of extreme degree, he drifted here and there, settling for a time at the family farm at Warrensville, Ohio, not terribly distant from McKinley's home in Canton.

He found those reasons and answers in anarchism, a political philosophy that had inspired assassinations and attempted assassinations of political leaders in Europe. His grip on the philosophy was idiosyncratic, as with everything he did, but he was especially attracted to Emma Goldman, the firebrand anarchist lecturer known as "Red Emma."

As for American businessmen, the answers lay in expanded markets overseas for the glut of their products. The way to that had been through trade negotiations, but a quicker way could be had through the acquisition of colonies and spheres of influence.

Enter the Spanish-American War. Miller does not maintain that commercial interests solely brought about the war—jingoism, after all, was in the air, fanned by newspapers and Theodore Roosevelt—but the fact is that as a result of it the United States acquired Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

The two tracks or paths that the author describes—McKinley and unbuttoned capitalism, Czolgosz and violent political radicalism—were not parallel, so it is not surprising that they converged. But it was not inevitable: When Czolgosz went to Buffalo, it was not necessarily to kill McKinley. He wanted to do something heroic for anarchism, but did not know what.

It was apparently pondering the gap between the two—the unbelievably rich and powerful and the desperately poor and powerless—that tipped the balance. Remembering having heard Goldman proclaim, in Czolgosz's words, "that all rulers should be exterminated," he bought a revolver a day before McKinley arrived.

He eliminated McKinley with two gunshot wounds, from which it took nine days for McKinley to die. A month and a half later, after a two-day trial, it took 45 seconds for Czolgosz to die in the electric chair at a prison in Auburn, N.Y.


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