The Magazine

Death of a President

The fateful encounter between anarchy and William McKinley.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By RYAN L. COLE
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William McKinley (1843-1901) once wrote that “the march of events rules and overrules human action.” In the case of his presidency, and its untimely end, those words were prophetic.

McKinley Funeral Photo

McKinley’s casket arrives in Canton, Ohio, September 18, 1901

Getty Images

Our 25th president was inaugurated in 1897 with modest ambitions, but the currents of history transformed him into (in Walter Lord’s words) the “apostle” of America’s increasingly prominent place on the world stage at the dawn of the 20th century. When McKinley arrived in Buffalo on September 5, 1901, to speak at the lavish Pan-American Exposition, the nation’s economy hummed and its flag waved over exotic lands previously the possession of powerful empires. Less than 24 hours later, a young anarchist stepped forward from a receiving line and fired two shots from his Iver Johnson revolver into the president.

A week later, McKinley was dead, overruled by the march of events—or so says the former Wall Street Journal and Reuters reporter Scott Miller in this new chronicle of McKinley’s murder. The book is only partially about the actual event; the majority of its pages document the tectonic shifts that led to that tragic afternoon inside the Temple of Music.

In Miller’s telling, the Pan-American Exposition was an intersection where two ideologies—faith in the righteousness of America’s growing prosperity and international engagement, and the radical resentment it generated—collided head-on. McKinley, of course, symbolized the former; his assassin, Leon Czolgosz, the latter. Opening and closing the narrative in Buffalo, Miller fills the space between with alternating explanations of how the president and his assassin literally, and figuratively, met. Each chapter chronicling America’s rising ambitions is followed by one dedicated to the desperate resentment they created among the country’s laborers, political radicals, and newly arrived immigrants.

The result is brisk but sprawling in scope. In addition to the assassination, Miller details and draws a connecting line through (among other events) the elections of 1896 and 1900, the Haymarket Riot, the destruction of the USS Maine and America’s resultant war with Spain and subsequent occupation of Cuba and the Philippines, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Homestead Strike. A cast of Rough Riders, Filipino and Cuban rebels, American statesmen, anarchist philosophers, and captains of industry wander in and out. The era’s most intriguing figures, ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Emma Goldman, from Henry Clay Frick to Albert Parsons, from George Dewey to Emilio Aguinaldo, are profiled with reporterly detail.

Yet, despite this ambitious reach, the book, at its best, belongs to McKinley and Czolgosz. Here the president, in a thoughtful portrait, emerges as a sensitive, contemplative, and kind man, independent from the political kingmaker Mark Hanna but devoted to his chronically ill wife Ida and, upon his assumption of the presidency, to reviving America’s economy, still stagnant from the aftershocks of the Panic of 1893. A veteran of the Civil War, McKinley, who served at Antietam, was all too familiar with the bloody costs of battle. Asserting from the outset that there would be “no jingo nonsense” in his administration, he promised to avoid any entanglement that could cost American lives. Domestic affairs would be his forte.

Or so he hoped. Shortly into his term, national sentiment, inflamed by sensational reporting in the (Joseph) Pulitzer and (William Randolph) Hearst newspapers, forced McKinley to intervene in a boiling rebellion in Cuba. This, in turn, led to the mysterious destruction of the Maine in Havana Harbor and the president’s agonized decision to declare war on Spain. 

Events quickly overwhelmed his modest objectives: Colonel Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill, Commodore Dewey sailed into Manila Bay, America demolished the last vestiges of the Spanish Empire, and in the process, opened up myriad new markets to its commerce. Seemingly overnight, the nation flowered into an economic and military power. But in Miller’s telling, while America rose, so did an underclass of disaffected immigrants and laborers. Packed into sweltering tenements, subject to brutal conditions in factories or mines, and left untouched by the new prosperity, these men and women were both vulnerable to, and in some cases the source of, a contagion of violent radicalism.

Articulated by activists such as Johann Most, Alexander Berkman, and perhaps most famously the Russian-born firebrand Emma Goldman, this worldview held that America, with its new influence and prosperity, was an agent of repression and unfairness, and that William McKinley was little more than a tool of his robber-baron buddies. To remedy this, insurrectionists placed their faith in the “propaganda of the deed”—the idea that political violence could kick-start revolution—and among those spellbound by Goldman, and motivated by the “deed,” was McKinley’s assassin.

The available facts, which Miller presents painstakingly and without a hint of judgment, paint a puzzling picture of Leon Czolgosz. This bright but withdrawn son of Polish immigrants bounced from job to job, spending long stretches of time stowed away in his mother’s attic or lazing by a pond on his family’s Ohio farm devouring anarchist literature. Fueled by outrage at the perceived inequality of American society, and inspired by the assassination of King Umberto I by an Italian-American immigrant, Czolgosz moved to Buffalo and, revolver in hand, found himself face-to-face with McKinley, the avatar of the system he so despised. 

Miller’s chronicle of what followed is compelling, and his profiles of murderer and victim are fascinating. But the immense amount of history that surrounds that story, while important to his thesis, is at times unfocused, and some of the chapters seem like unwelcome interruptions. Distracting and politically charged cul-de-sacs abound. One involves an obvious but unspoken (and not exactly symmetrical) parallel between our current foreign policy and America’s earliest experiments with the difficult art of nation-building and democracy in Cuba and the Philippines, where insurgents waged guerrilla warfare against American forces, who resorted to water-based interrogation tactics with captured insurgents.

Then there’s inconsistent objectivity. The era’s businessmen are painted with almost comical élan: In Miller’s formulation, for every oppressed worker there was a “tycoon smoking cigars wrapped in hundred dollar-bills .  .  . [a] society woman who strapped a diamond-encrusted collar on her dog .  .  . [or a] playboy who spent the summer sailing daddy’s yacht.” Bomb-throwing anarchists, socialist rabble-rousers, and political assassins receive far more nuanced treatment. These distractions are not fatal, but the pages turn quickest when the author sticks close to his putative subject. And though it may be a bit belabored, his argument is convincing: Irresistible forces, in the form of American power and the violent opposition it provoked, brought McKinley and Czolgosz together and sealed their fates (the anarchist was executed six weeks after McKinley’s death).

One further note: This is far from a biography, but any treatment of William McKinley and his important presidency is welcome. The definitive work remains Margaret Leech’s In the Days of McKinley (1959), but with due respect to Leech’s fine and famous work, McKinley and his times are due for a fresh appraisal. Until that arrives, The President and the Assassin will do.

Ryan L. Cole is a writer in Indianapolis.