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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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 This bright but withdrawn son of Polish immigrants bounced from job to job, spending long stretches of time stowed away in his mother’s attic or lazing by a pond on his family’s Ohio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.