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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

October 5, 2022: Bad Presidents: William McKinley

[October 4th marks the 200th birthday of Rutherford B. Hayes, a good-looking young man who went on to be a very bad-governing president. So this week I’ll contextualize Hayes and four other under-remembered bad (in the least good sense) chief executives, leading up to a weekend post on the worst we’ve ever had.]

On two reasons why I can’t entirely mourn our third assassinated president.

Lest there be any confusion on this score, let me be clear that my opening sentence there is hyperbolic—I’m not in this post going to argue in any way that President McKinley deserved to be assassinated or that his death was a good thing. Like those of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield before him, McKinley’s September 1901 assassination exemplified some of his era’s most prominent historical trends: in this case, both labor activism and anarchist revolutionary movements, as McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was a self-proclaimed anarchist who saw himself as avenging the treatment of Slavic miners during the 1897 coal miners’ strike. So the McKinley assassination was historically meaningful and offers a compelling window into its era—but it was also just as tragic and unnecessary a killing as those prior assassinations, and again it’s important for me to stress that I’m not trying either to make light of his death or to frame it as a positive.

Yet at the same time, neither can I say of McKinley’s death, in the early months of his second presidential term, what I have said in this space about Lincoln’s: that it was a historic tragedy which produced further, even more widespread negative effects in the years to come. For one thing, McKinley’s first term had featured a series of troubling and destructive policies and actions on issues of ethnicity and race, both abroad and at home. Atop that list would have to be the 1898 Spanish American War and especially its imperialistic goals and effects, as exemplified by the ongoing war in the Philippines against rebels resisting the American occupation of their nation. But just as troubling and imperialistic was the 1898 annexation of Hawaii, and the concurrent treatment of the nation’s exiled queen and native peoples necessitated by that action. And on the home front, it was a horrific moment of inaction that to me defines McKinley’s mishandling of racial issues: in the midst of the Wilmington coup and massacre and its weeklong orgy of violence against African Americans, an anonymous Wilmington woman wrote to McKinley with a desperate plea for help, imploring him to dispatch federal troops to save her community and city; and McKinley did nothing, leaving Wilmington’s white supremacist forces to complete their massacre unabated.

I can’t say that Teddy Roosevelt, the vice president who succeeded to the presidency upon McKinley’s death and a man whose reputation was based in large part upon his actions both on the frontier and in the Spanish American War, would necessarily have done anything differently in these cases (although his dinner at the White House with Booker T. Washington suggests he might have when it comes to Wilmington, at least). Yet to my mind there’s no question that the most enduring aspects of Roosevelt’s nearly two terms as president, his consistent support for the Progressive movement’s reforms and battles, would never have been the case if the far more conservative McKinley had completed his second term. In both his political allegiances and his policies, McKinley embodied Gilded Age America and its emphases and ideals; whereas in his support for the Progresive movement, Roosevelt could be said to have helped usher in a new era in American life, one that challenged those Gilded Age narratives and signaled new 20th century possibilities for the nation. As noted in that last hyperlinked article, McKinley’s close advisor Mark Hanna detested the choice of Roosevelt for the 1900 vice presidential nominee—one more reflection of the differences between McKinley and Roosevelt, and of why in many ways the latter’s first term almost certainly represented an improvement on the former’s second.

Next bad president tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other baddies you’d highlight?

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