Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America
Eric Rauchway, 2003

Eric Rauchway is an American historian at UC Davis who is best known for his work on the New Deal. His main point in this book is that, contrary to contemporaries and historians who had tried to portray him as a madman, Leon Czolgosz was rational.  “He said plainly that he shot the President of the United States because he hated the politics of state-supported capitalism that the President and his party represented,” Rauchway said, “and in so doing he echoes hosts of critics in the United States and around the world.” Since Rauchway probably wrote these words in the immediate wake of 9/11, there are obvious connections to a present in which much of the world (and not just Islamic fundamentalists) are more or less antagonistic to the imperial corporate state they perceive America has become. But Rauchway also made some subtle and interesting points about the arguments the McKinley assassination precipitated regarding environmental influences on behavior, threats to social order, and the role of the state in mitigating the harshest effects of the free market economy to prevent the growth of a permanent, revolutionary underclass. Theodore Roosevelt emerged from the obscurity of the Vice Presidency to take a central place in all these discussions. In contrast to standard depictions of the cowboy President, Rauchway presented a “canny and manipulative Roosevelt...who made his career by controlling stories.” Roosevelt used his famous patriotism and temper to enact a Progressive agenda remarkably like the platform of his party’s Populist opponents. Without coming right out and saying it, Rauchway led us toward the conclusion that this wasn’t entirely accidental.

Despite the fact that 1893 saw the beginning of the worst depression until the Great one, William Jennings Bryan (also hijacking the Populist platform for the Democrats) failed to beat William McKinley in 1896. McKinley presided over the Spanish-American War, claiming that God had told him to “take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” In 1900, McKinley campaigned on “Prosperity at Home, Prestige Abroad,” and beat Bryan again. In neither case would Bryan have won, even if he had received all the votes that went to minor party candidates (Prohibition, Social-Democratic, Populist, Socialist Labor, National Prohibition). These results suggested that a majority of Americans supported the Republican vision of progress. Czolgosz showed that those who did not could not be dismissed with impunity.

Theodore Roosevelt was a wealthy New Yorker and a veteran Republican appointee.  He became Governor of New York on the basis of his family ties and well-publicized war record as leader of the Rough Riders. Rauchway said that, although he remained a loyal Republican, Roosevelt “did not like the smell of the men behind” McKinley, especially Mark Hanna. He wrote to his sister, lamenting his “gloomiest anticipations” of “our gold-ridden, capitalist-bestridden, usurer-mastered future.”  Roosevelt had been offered the Vice Presidency (an offer he couldn’t refuse) to neuter him. “I told William McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wild man,” Hanna reportedly complained on McKinley’s funeral train. “Now look, that damned cowboy is President.” But even more interestingly, Rauchway said that after meeting privately with Roosevelt during the same funeral trip, Hanna returned to his companion, “smiling broadly. ‘He’s a pretty good little cuss after all!’” Hanna told his friend, leaving us to wonder what the two had discussed that had changed Hanna’s mind about the new President. Maybe a clue is contained in Rauchway’s argument that “Roosevelt and McKinley saw the same flood tide of revolution rising in the land; they differed only insofar as McKinley wanted to dam it up, while Roosevelt wanted to ride it.” On the other hand, Roosevelt said of “the negro,” and by extension “all the plaintive portions of the American population,”

Inasmuch as he is here and can neither be killed nor driven away, the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less than he shows himself worthy to have.

This is really interesting. If you strip off the introductory clause, it’s a radical statement. The “no more” part sounds like the old-fashioned free labor ideaology described by Eric Foner. But the “no less” is a little trickier. Did Roosevelt mean that those who show themselves “worthy” of great wealth should have it? That being rich is proof or worthiness? Or was he subtly suggesting that there’s something a person “shows himself worthy to have” simply by existing? And what about that “more” part? Is it possible for a person to have more than he is worthy of, and if so, what should society do about it? Rauchway later quoted Roosevelt saying “Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.” Another statement that can be taken a number of ways -- but at least it acknowledges the fact that the corporate charter is a social contract. Was Rauchway suggesting that Roosevelt used his excessive, testosterone-driven rhetoric as a cover for a really radical agenda? At this point I know too little about Roosevelt to form an opinion -- but I definitely want to learn more!

There are a lot of interesting details in the text about “Fred Nieman” Czolgosz’s family, his statements at the trial and afterwards, and the psychologists and commentators who argued over his sanity so publicly. And about James Parker, the black man who had knocked Czolgosz down and tried to throttle him. He was a hero for a while; then he was written out of the story. There’s even a lynching moment, where a newspaper headline shouted “Negroes Lynch Negroes,” and Booker T. Washington said that 125,000 people “have been engaged in this anarchy of lynching”, killing 2,516 victims in the previous sixteen years. “We cannot sow disorder and reap order,” Washington warned. And there’s a technology history moment, when Herman Hollerith remembered “seeing a railway conductor in the West produce what was known as a ‘punch photograph’ -- using his pocket hole-punch, the conductor took a ticket and punched out a pattern indicating the hair color, height, skin color, and other defining features of a passenger.” 

Talking about
Murdering McKinley with my reading partner in graduate school, who had just finished Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow, we were struck by the strange similarities between Southern segregationists anxieties and Roosevelt’s fear that “Harvard and Yale graduates” were failing to procreate enough to prevent “rapid race suicide.” His anxiety over Anglo-America, his “strenuous life” and his paternalism toward imperial targets are difficult to reconcile with the portrayal Rauchway seemed to be advancing of Roosevelt as a subtle and complicated Progressive. More reading may help me better understand this discrepancy.