As originally published in|
The Atlantic Monthly
Mr. McKinley as President
Nothing illustrates the popular misunderstanding of Mr. McKinley more than the astounding delusion, entertained by some Republicans as well as by many Democrats who do not know him, that he is, and has been ever since 1895, more or less under the influence of Senator Hanna. This sums up, in a way that is as unjust as it is picturesque, all the notions to the effect that Mr. McKinley is a yielding and unstable person, without convictions, or even opinions, that cannot be changed at the command of a stronger man. Newspaper cartoons, which now have more influence than newspaper editorials, are largely responsible for these strange beliefs, but they have been fostered by uninformed editors and politicians misled by deceptive appearances and by malice. It is interesting to see how ignorance alone misleads writers about President McKinley who are friendly to him, as when they speak of him as "stolid and solemn" because they have only seen his manner in public, when the fact is that he is a man of humor, who enjoys even the cartoons at his own expense, and is as fond of good jokes, and as apt at telling them, as Abraham Lincoln. Remembering the fate of public men who have done otherwise, Mr. McKinley has kept his wit and humor for private conversation, and thus, naturally enough, has been accused of having none. These writers would probably be unwilling to believe that Mr. McKinley was a constant reader of Mr. Dooley during the Spanish War, just as Mr. Lincoln found recreation in the humorists of the Civil War.
|Return to Flashback: President's Day||
As it takes more faith to be an infidel than a believer, so it takes more
credulity to believe in the McKinley of fiction than in the McKinley of fact.
It seems incredible that intelligent and educated men and women should be able
to believe, even on the authority of both newspaper cartoons and editorials,
that the man who has done what Mr. McKinley has done could be under the
domination of any other man. Even after taking from President McKinley all the
achievements of his administration that can possibly be credited to others, it
must be admitted that he has accomplished more than any of his predecessors,
with possibly one ore two exceptions, in what he has clearly done himself. From
such work it ought to be easy to infer the workman.
At all events, the only way to understand President McKinley's first administration is to recognize the fact that it was his administration. There is no doubt about this fact in Washington, where the whole story is known in detail, and all the characters in it are rightly appreciated because thoroughly understood. If it be said that Washington is friendly to Mr. McKinley, it can be said that Washington is familiar with Mr. McKinley. He has had to meet the disadvantage that the prophet finds proverbially in his own country and in his own house; for he has lived in Washington for almost a quarter of a century, and has grown steadily into larger powers before the eyes of many men who remember what he was when he first came to the House of Representatives. He has had to live down that familiarity which, in the beginning of a career, is still apt to breed contempt. It has been hard to do this, just as it has been hard to take command of men who were his commanders when he first appeared in public life. But to make himself the acknowledged leader under these circumstances means more than if he had gained the place by coming first to Washington with the prestige and authority of a President elect, personally unknown to most public men.
President McKinley's personal manner, which has had so much to do with his success, has had quite as much to do with the misunderstanding of him. The expression of a kindly and equable nature governed by the moderation and patience suggested by the crest of his Scotch ancestors, an olive branch clasped in a mailed hand, with the motto "Not too much," its strength failed to impress those who think that brusqueness and bluster and bragging are the necessary signs of power. "A very parfit gentil knyghte" is to many people a weakling simply because he is gentle, and they have had to know Mr. McKinley well to appraise him properly. Even close acquaintance has not helped those of opposite qualities to appreciate him. His "suaviter et fortiter" is one of the secrets of his success in making his way to the headship of his party, through the ranks of his colleagues, without alienating any considerable number of them, and without making personal enemies of any of his political opponents. It is the key, too, to his dealings with his Cabinet, which has contained such a large proportion of strong men, with Senators and Representatives of all parties, and with public men generally. Mr. McKinley has had his own way more than most party leaders, more than most of his predecessors in the White House. But he has had it in his own way. Always tactful, serene, patient, modest in manner, never sounding a trumpet of announcement or indulging in noisy threatenings or complaining recriminations, he has not had credit for his courage, persistence, and determination. He has cared more for real success than for making people think that he would have it or had won it. Now, most men are still children who are impressed by appearances. They like to be told, even by the President himself, that he is doing or going to do great things, especially if, as in the case of Andrew Jackson, he publicly defies some enemy, or talks contemptuously of the coordinate branches of the government. Most Americans look upon the President as superior to the Congress and the Supreme Court, about whose powers and functions they know very little; and they are rather pleased than otherwise when he acts as though he agreed with this opinion. Even if such a President actually fails to accomplish, perhaps because of a bellicose and blustering manner, any real, substantial success in the way of legislation or diplomatic negotiations; even if he is destructive rather than constructive, and leaves the country and his party worse off than when he became President, he may remain a hero indefinitely to many people.
Not only is Mr. McKinley's manner different from that of the Presidents that such men admire, but his theory of the presidency is equally different. Trained as he was, almost from his youth up, in the House of Representatives, intimately acquainted with all the phases of Congress and deeply imbued with its spirit, while possessed of the friendship of most of its leaders of his time, it was very natural that he should consider it entitled to its full constitutional powers and duties, and to the most respectful consideration on a plane of absolute equality with the President of the United States. Mr. Garfield was the only President of our time, except Mr. McKinley, who came to the White House after such an experience at the Capitol, and he had precisely the same theory of the relations between the President and Congress. According to this theory, Congress ought not to dominate the President, the President ought not to dominate Congress, but they should cooperate as far as practicable for the good of the country.
As human nature is very much the same in Congress as in a stock exchange, a church convention, or a newspaper office, the President who deals with Congress tactfully and courteously will, in the long run get more of what he wants than the President who does not do so. He may not get so much credit for what he does gain, from those people who like to see a President fight Congress, especially in that flattering way which consists in appealing to them to make Congress do what the President wants done. The tendency toward government by a monarch in this country appears most clearly in the sayings and doings of the people who want "a strong man in the White House," who shall show his strength by fighting the Senators and Representatives, who have been chosen quite as directly by the popular voice as he has. They like an arrogant egotism in the President, and would be quite willing to have him dominate Congress all the time, and the supreme Court part of the time. They think the President is very much more likely to be right, and certainly more nearly represents the popular will, or at least what the popular will ought to be, than the other two branches of the government, and that he ought to fight as hard to get what he wants in legislation as to protect the executive prerogatives from encroachment. What they want, apparently, is a President who shall be the whole government, as in Mexico.
President McKinley had the point of view of Congress before he took the point of view of the President. He knows that Congress, collectively, is as wise, as patriotic, and as representative of the people as he is, an that, individually, there may be men in both houses who would be able to take his place at short notice, without detriment to the country. He remembers, too, how he looked at the President when he was a member of the House, and how what the President said and did affected him. It is, therefore, comparatively easy for him to practice the Golden Rule in dealings with Congress as in dealings with others. By treating Senators and Representatives, collectively and individually, in this spirit, President McKinley has forfeited the praise of some men outside of Congress, but he has won the confidence and cooperation of Congress as has no other President. It is admitted that no other President has had so many personal friends and admirers in Congress; and there could be no greater tribute to Mr. McKinley, for no one knows him better than these men. When, on the 9th of March, 1898, without a written request, without a word from him in public and formal fashion, on his mere intimations to the leaders of all parties in private conversation in his office, both houses by unanimous vote gave him fifty million dollars, "for the national defense, and for each and every purpose connected therewith, to be expended at the direction of the President," Congress showed what it thought of President McKinley. No such appropriation on such a request was ever made in such a way before, and it never would have been made in that way for any other kind of a President.
It is not enough that a President should be patriotic and high-minded in his intentions and wise in his purposes; he must also be efficient in carrying them out. In point of efficiency President McKinley has no superior in his predecessor, and his is largely because he has treated Congress as he wanted Congress to treat him. It is also, however, because Congress believed in him. The personal equation was as important in this case as in any other. His career has kept him under public observation from the day when, as a boy, he left his simple but comfortable home in the Western Reserve to go to the Civil War. As he rose from private to major, and as, after the war, he rose from country lawyer to Representative in Congress, he was constantly watched, and men recorded that he was honest, candid, courageous, clean in speech and behavior, a model son and an ideal husband. This record, with his intelligence and industry and his felicitous manner has given him his place among public men. It is impossible to describe either President McKinley or his reputation without dwelling upon the fact that he has lived a life as nearly blameless as that of any public man of our history. It may be, as we are told sometimes, that a good man may make a bad President, and that a bad man may make a good President, but in this particular instance a good man makes a good President chiefly because he is a good man.
His character secured him the confidence of his associates, his temperance and moderation kept mind and body in full vigor, and his religious faith sustained him in dark and trying days. Besides all this, his good life has given him much of his hold upon the country at large. Yet it must not be forgotten that goodness and greatness are not the same thing in a President, and that Mr. McKinley has shown not only goodness, but greatness. It is simply truth to say that he has met all the extraordinary requirements of an extraordinary period, and met them easily and well, and this is to say that he is a great President. It has been hard for many public men who frankly admitted his goodness to frankly admit his greatness, because he has been growing ever since they first knew him, and they have been too close to the process to observe the results. But some have been wiser. Mr. McKinley had been marked for the presidency by keener eyes, at the greater distance, than those of his associates, long before he was honored with a ballot in a national convention. Twenty years ago Mr. Blaine predicted with emphasis that Mr. McKinley would become President, at a time when Mr. McKinley had still to wait ten years before he became leader of the House. And there were others than Mr. Blaine who saw then, or a little later, that this young statesman, so strong, so industrious, so attractive, and so honorably ambitious, would reach the White House if he lived. As each opportunity came to him Mr. McKinley was ready for it, and he had patience to wait for the opportunity.
He might have been nominated for the presidency at Chicago, in the Republican National Convention of 1888, had he been willing to desert John Sherman who could not be nominated, but whom McKinley, as a member of the Ohio delegation, had been instructed to support. He was the most popular man in that convention, and was applauded every time he came into the hall. After five ballots had shown that none of the candidates had a majority, on the sixth ballot one vote was cast for William McKinley, and this was cheered by two thirds of the convention. Seventeen votes were cast for him by the next state called; and while the convention was cheering for him, and it seemed evident that it would nominate him, he sprang upon a chair and stopped it all by an appeal, or rather a demand, "that no delegate who would not cast reflection upon me shall cast a ballot for me. I cannot," said Mr. McKinley to the convention, "I cannot, consistently with the wish of the state whose credentials I bear, and which has trusted me; I cannot, consistently with my own views of personal integrity, consent, or seem to consent, to permit my name to be used as a candidate before this convention. I would not respect myself if I could find it in my heart to do, or permit to be done, that which could even be ground for any one to suspect that I wavered in my loyalty to Ohio, or my devotion to the chief of her choice and the chief of mine." And on the seventh ballot Benjamin Harrison was nominated.
Four years later Mr. McKinley was tested again, while presiding as chairman of the Republican National Convention at Minneapolis, where he had gone to advocate the renomination of President Harrison. The anti-Harrison managers, without consulting Mr. McKinley, sought to unite a majority of the convention in his support, and were apparently succeeding. They had induced the Ohio delegation, of which he was member, to vote for him. From the chair Mr. McKinley challenged the announcement of the Ohio vote, and demanded, as a member of the delegation, that its role should be called. Upon this poll of the delegation, his alternate, under his instructions, voted for Benjamin Harrison, while all the other votes were cast for Mr. McKinley; but Mr. McKinley's action prevented the success of the movement to nominate him, and although he received 182 votes, Mr. Harrison was renominated on that ballot.
When the fullness of time for his nomination came, at St. Louis, in 1896, he received the nomination on the first ballot with 661 1/2 votes, 84 1/2 being cast for Thomas B. Reed, 61 1/2 for M.S. Quay, 58 for Levi P. Morton, and 35 1/2 for William B. Allison. In 1900 he was nominated before the convention met at Philadelphia, by the voice of his party, and, when the role was called, received the votes of all the 926 delegates.
All this time Mr. McKinley had been broadening and deepening in mind and heart. All this time, through prosperity and adversity, public and private, he had been getting a stronger and wider grip upon the majority of his countrymen. The McKinley tariff bill of 1890, although he was not entirely responsible for it, retired him from Congress, but made him governor of Ohio, and eventually President of the United States. There was nothing accidental in it all. It was simply a natural and orderly process of evolution under favoring circumstances. It was the old story of an American country boy's success through steady and deserved promotion, without wealth, or a college education, or high social position as aid or hindrance. At fifty-three, ripened and enriched intellectually, he was elected President of the United States as though by inevitable logic. He was ready for his great task. How great it was to be neither he nor any one else could have imagined then. Few seriously thought that the United States was in danger of war with Spain, and even those who thought war possible did not conceive the extent or character of its consequences. Mr. McKinley was elected, as he thought, and as almost everybody else in his party thought, to substitute on the statute books in cooperation with the Republican Congress elected at the same time, a modification of the McKinley tariff bill for the Wilson Gorman tariff law, and thus to restore the prosperity which had for some reason disappeared; and also, as others thought, to bring about the enactment of a law for the maintenance of the existing gold standard, and to remedy the defects in the Treasury system which, under the conditions of the former administration, had compelled it to issue two hundred and thirty million dollars in new bonds, and at the same time to make a last effort to secure an agreement on "international bimetallism." To accomplish these things was felt to be enough for one administration, with the minor matters which naturally would be disposed of besides.
If the Cuban question, with all its consequences, could have been postponed for four years, and if the Chinese question, with all its consequences, had not arisen, Mr. McKinley could still have pointed, at the end of his first administration, to a record of work accomplished that would have been extremely creditable. The Fifty-Fifth Congress, on his recommendation and under his inspiration, passed the Dingley tariff law to take the place of the Wilson-Gorman law, at the extra session which he called promptly after his inauguration; and the next Congress, on his recommendation and under his inspiration, passed the law to maintain the gold standard, to provide for refunding at two per cent, the lowest rate of interest ever paid by the United States government, and to extend the national banking system to small towns. These two measures by themselves would make a very respectable showing for an administration in time of peace. While neither the President nor Congress can make prosperity to order, they can make conditions which are favorable or unfavorable to it. The Wilson-Gorman act, which was considered to be so largely a protectionist measure that President Cleveland allowed it to become law only against this protest, did not yield sufficient revenue, because the Supreme Court annulled its provision for an income tax; and this kept the "endless chain" going which drew the gold out of the Treasury, and compelled the issue of bonds to put more gold in the Treasury, since there was no law to protect the gold reserve necessary to maintain the gold standards. Following close on the commercial panic of 1893, these conditions prevented the restoration of business confidence, and so the return of prosperity. Sentiment, as usual, played a large part in the matter. President McKinley, who was nominated chiefly because of his record on the tariff question, and elected largely because of his position on the money question, stood, after his victory at the polls, as the prophet of "good times," and the long-desired confidence began to return before he was inaugurated. Redeeming his pledges in the order in which it could be best done, as well as in the order of making them, President McKinley first secured the necessary revenue, and at the same time satisfied the sentimental desire for a Republican tariff. He knew that that could be had quickly and easily, compared with any measure for the improvement of the financial system, in view of the differences over remedies for its ills which compelled delay and discussion. The drain of the Treasury gold was stopped, so that there was time to consider what should be and what could be done with respect to the future of the currency system. By the time Congress met in regular session the President was ready with his recommendation, which, postponing all the more elaborate and experimental projects of "currency reform," provided the plan on which the gold standard act of 1900 was built, -- of keeping United States notes redeemed in gold at the Treasury, to be paid out again only in exchange for gold.
The President's wisdom in pressing the tariff bill ahead of the currency reform measure was shown by the fact that Congress could not agree upon a financial bill, and he had to wait until the first session of the next Congress for the law he desired. By that time, good crops, and a demand for them, and for an unparalleled amount of our manufactures, abroad, besides the extraordinary demand at home, caused by the Spanish War, had reversed the conditions of the former administration, so that gold was pouring into the Treasury. After the law was passed, this influx of gold continued until the Treasury held more than ever before in the history of the country. In inducing Congress to pass these two important acts President McKinley showed over and over again his tact and skill and courage and utilized his friendly relations with Senators and Representatives of the opposition, as well as of his own party, to the utmost advantage. In this work, as in all his dealings with Congress, President McKinley showed little care for getting the credit of what was done, compared with his great desire to secure results and maintain harmony. This way of thinking came out constantly in his unwillingness to exercise the veto power, which, he thought, ought to be reserved for rare occasions; preferring to point out privately his objections to bills before or after they came to him, so that their sponsors might correct them by amendments or new legislation, without having to undergo the disappointment, sometimes humiliation, of a presidential bid.
President McKinley, besides settling, with the aid of Congress, the tariff and the Treasury questions to the satisfaction of a majority of the people, brought about the annexation of Hawaii and the much-needed improvement in the government of Alaska. The adjustment of the long-standing controversy with the Pacific railroads, as to their indebtedness for the aid given them by the government, which secured a much larger amount than had been regarded as obtainable, so that the government will lose none of the principal, and only a comparatively small proportion of the interest, was so quietly made under President McKinley's direction that the country generally probably does not realize that it has been done.
In his strictly executive work President McKinley has shown administrative ability of the first order. This has appeared not only in his management of great affairs, but in what might be called the routine business of the office. Under his direction, his admirable secretaries, John Addison Porter and George B. Cortelyou, revolutionized the business methods of the Executive Mansion, to the great benefit of the government and everybody who had business with the President. In the matter of appointments, small and great, President McKinley has done his best to secure the best men available, and with remarkable success. He has not hesitated to appoint, as well as to retain, Democrats who seemed better fitted than Republicans for particular places. In the selection of men to establish civil government in the islands taken from Spain, the President exercised his usual care, and was as usual successful. Like every other President, he had to make most of his appointments on the recommendation of public men. Even a President like Mr. McKinley, who has more personal friends than any other man in his party, cannot know who should fill every office to which he must make an appointment, even if he were disposed, as President McKinley was not, to ignore any of the party leaders. But President McKinley has held to one rule throughout his dealings with the party leaders in making appointments, and that is that he must have a suitable man for every vacancy. When a suitable man was not presented, the party leader would be given, politely but positively, the alternative of endorsing a man that the President could find without his assistance.
A friend of the civil service reform when it had few friends in public life, who avowed his friendship in public speech in the House of Representatives when it was much harder to do so than a few years later, President McKinley has made his appointments in the spirit of the true civil service reformer, nor has he taken any backward step in the execution of the civil service law. He has been severely, but unjustly, criticised for taking out of the classified service a number of places which had been included in it by President Cleveland's blanket order at the close of his last administration. But these were taken out only because in the practical working of the order, Cabinet officers, all of whom were civil service reformers, -- notably Secretary Gage, -- advised the President that, for administrative reasons, it was necessary to permit exemptions. It was well understood at the time President Cleveland issued his order that it was experimental, and that his successor would have to make exceptions. President McKinley refused to yield many exceptions that he was urged by party leaders to grant, just as he stood firmly and successfully against any such looting of the executive departments as had taken place to a greater or less extent under recent administrations. The enemies of civil service reform, who are wiser in their generation than the children of light, can testify, and have testified, sometimes in bitterness, to the stanchness with which President McKinley has protected the merit system.
President McKinley has not been unmindful of the evil of the commercial combinations which will always go by the misnomer "trusts." He did all that he could do to meet them under the law through the Department of Justice, and all that he could do to strengthen the law by recommendations to Congress, and meantime favored and appointed the Industrial Commission, which Congress authorized, and which has collected much valuable information on this subject.
The President has been fortunate in his dealings with foreign nations, apart from those which grew out of the war with Spain. He was able to settle satisfactorily the old and vexatious question of our relations to England and Germany in the Samoan Islands, by ending the embarrassing condominium and dividing the islands among the three governments, securing the best harbor for the United States. When the Yukon gold discoveries moved to Canada to claim American territory in Alaska, in order to get a seaport for the Yukon district, and great Britain, somewhat against her will, pressed the claim, with an intimation that a collision between American miners and Canadian constabulary would mean bloodshed, and might mean war, Secretary Hay, under the President's direction, succeeded in arranging a modus vivendi which, by establishing a temporary boundary line, postponed the question to a better occasion for peaceful settlement, without giving the Canadians, even temporarily, a seaport, or any concession of real importance. Secretary Hay was also able to negotiate with Great Britain a convention popularly known as the Hay-Pauncefote treaty, which abrogated so much of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty as prevented the United States from constructing an Isthmian canal without the cooperation of Great Britain, and secured the absolute neutrality, and therefore the absolute protection, of such a canal when built, since the other Powers were known to be ready to assent to it. But, unfortunately, the treaty was sent to the Senate on the eve of the presidential campaign, and side-tracked by Republican Senators upon Democratic criticism because it had not reserved the right to the United States to close the canal against an enemy in time of war. It was pressed, however in the next session of Congress, only to be so amended as to provide for an exclusively United States canal before it was ratified.
The attempt which the President made through the Wolcott Commission to secure an international agreement on bimetallism failed, as was inevitable in view of the conditions; but its very failure helped the gold standard movement.
President McKinley's personal qualities make him most successful in the performance of all the social functions of his office, formal and informal. President Arthur, hitherto unexcelled among modern Presidents in charm and courtesy to callers and guests, has been surpassed by President McKinley. "I ran into a bank of roses," said a Senator who went angrily to the White House to ask the removal of a Cabinet officer, and came away smiling, without having been able to complete his request: and this sums up in a striking way the experiences of all those who talk with the President. He likes to please. He would rather say yes than no, although he says no firmly enough whenever it is absolutely necessary to deny a request, but he always makes his visitor feel his desire to gratify him. Although he has never been a society man, he has performed the duties of entertaining at dinners and receptions -- which are so much more important than they seem outside of Washington -- in a most acceptable manner. His kindness and thoughtfulness have appeared in numberless personal courtesies to those in special joy or special sorrow, which have given him a personal place in Washington such as no other President has ever had. All this and much more of a minor character, would have made an enviable record for President McKinley in his first administration, if there had been no Spanish War or Chinese upheaval.
The war with Spain, which President McKinley did everything in his power to prevent, gave him the great opportunity of his life, and the one that he best improved. In it he lifted his administration to the plane of those of Washington and Lincoln, and linked his name with theirs for our time, if not for all time, as the liberator of millions from the yoke of Spain. The country wanted war, but was not prepared for it; the President did not want it, but was prepared for it when it came. Throughout the war he was not only the actual commander in chief, but the director of our diplomacy. The story of the united States in the summer of 1898 is as dramatic and as brilliant and as glorious as any that history tells. Spain was expelled from her last strongholds in the West Indies and in the East Indies, and shut up in the home peninsula; the islands she had misgoverned came under our flag; the United States, as the champion of the millions whom Spain had oppressed, came out of her isolation, and received recognition from all the nations. President McKinley could say more truthfully than any other man, "This was my work," while, with characteristic modesty, thoughtfulness, and generosity, he was praising and thanking other men, all of whom did not deserve to be so praised and thanked. The suddenness and completeness of our achievement won the admiration of the world. Its consequences made us an active instead of a passive world power, and gave us new duties and responsibilities, which we may regret, but could not honorably avoid.
No one foresaw all of this when President McKinley was elected. Few foresaw even the possibility of it when he was inaugurated. On that beautiful 4th of March nothing seemed more unlikely than that in a year the United States would be entering into war again. The thousands who heard President McKinley's inaugural address, in which Cuba was not even mentioned by name, listened without apprehension of war to the President's declaration against it in the abstract, and his warm commendation of the treaty of arbitration which Secretary Olney had concluded with Great Britain, and which the Senate had not yet ratified, as an illustration of the way in which war should be averted. War with Spain to free Cuba had been suggested by sensational newspapers, but they had not been taken seriously. The country was quite willing to leave Spain in possession of Cuba, if Spain could be induced to stop the cruelties, and give the Cubans a measure of freedom. It was willing to give the new President time to work it all out. A strong minority, made up of intelligent and unemotional people, was opposed to any interference by the United States that would bring the United States into a serious collision with Spain. While he was waiting in his Canton home for inauguration day, Mr.. McKinley, whose sympathies had been touched by the tales of the suffering in Cuba, brought to him, after election, by agents of the Cubans and others who wanted him to use his coming power to secure better conditions, and, if possible, independence for Cuba, thought out carefully a plan for bringing about the amelioration, if not the emancipation of Cuba, by diplomatic negotiations with Spain, to be carried on as rapidly as practicable. The surrender of Spanish sovereignty from motives of self-interest on the part of Spain, and probably for a sum of money to be paid by the United States, or by a Cuban republic under a guarantee by the United States, was apparently the ultimate object of this plan, although its purpose might have been satisfied by the cessation of Spanish cruelties, and the concession of real autonomy to the Cubans. President McKinley had the horror of war which most good men who have fought on great battlefields have entertained. He believed, as he said in his inaugural address, that "war should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency."
Mr. McKinley is a born peacemaker, in spite of his valiant service in the Civil War, and the fighting courage he has shown when it was necessary in public life. It is interesting to recall that the purpose he had most at heart, when he became President, was to bring about a complete reunion of the North and South, and to trample out the last embers of hostility between them. As a Northern soldier who was personally popular in the South, he felt that he could do much in his high office to obliterate sectional feeling and restore lasting peace. He could not know that he would be powerfully aided in this undertaking by another war, and that his great desire for the reconciliation of North and South would be satisfied when they once more marched to battle under the old flag.
The President has good reason to believe that if it had not been for the explosion of the Maine, war with Spain could have been averted, and his general purpose with respect to Cuba accomplished. While the war can justly be called a war of humanity, it is still true that the feeling suggested in the popular cry, "Remember the Maine!" was the immediate cause of it, under the predisposing cause of chivalric sympathy with the oppressed Cubans.
The President made the bravest fight of his life during the year that he tried to relieve Cuba by peaceful means, while the demand for war gradually rose until it engulfed Congress and all his advisers, and left him only the alternative of guiding it into the best expression, or of being swept aside by it. When he saw that there was nothing left but this choice, by choosing quickly and acting calmly and courageously, he was able to prevent a formal declaration of war at the first, and any official recognition of the paper republic of Cuba, with all the embarrassing consequences which that would have entailed. He also kept the full direction of the war, and was able to bring it to a close largely by his personal management of our dealings with other countries. After the explosion of the Maine, the President was preparing, through the State, War, and Navy departments, for the conflict that seemed likely to come. Through the State Department he was making our position clear to foreign nations, trying to conciliate their friendship, and getting valuable information about their intentions. Through the War and Navy departments, especially the latter, he was doing all that could be done to get the army and navy into a state of readiness. Both were very far from being ready, -- a fact which the men and the newspapers who were advocating the war-making measure of recognizing the independence of the republic of Cuba probably did not realize. At last the verdict of the Court of Inquiry came, and its significant conclusion, although it did not hold the Spanish government or any Spaniard responsible, confirmed in most American minds the suspicion that the Maine had been blown up by Spanish agencies. All that President McKinley could do then was to delay the process of going to war until the army and navy were better prepared for it, with the faint hope that, in the interval, Spain might come to a better understanding with the Cubans by agreeing to give up the island. He has been criticised because he did not hold out longer against the demand for war, but those who were in Washington at the time can see no justice in this criticism. Spain prevented him from doing so by characteristic procrastination and persistence in a fatuous course. Congress, which had shown its confidence in the President by the unprecedented action of giving him fifty million dollars to spend in his own discretion for "the national defense," remained on good terms with him; but with almost unanimous voice, all the Democrats and the majority of the Republicans being openly in favor of war with Spain, it insisted that he should cut short the negotiations which he was still carrying on, and recommend war. Speaker Reed could not restrain the Republicans of the House. One by one the conservative men in the Cabinet and Congress who had stood by the President at first, including Vice President Hobart, his most trusted counselor, joined more or less strongly in the general demand. No President with less personal influence could have held Congress back so long. Finally, when he could do no more, and there was no hope of accomplishing anything by further resistance, he recommended armed intervention, after a last appeal to Spain; and Congress, under the guidance of his counsels authorizing this, refused to recognize the republic of Cuba, but promised that we would make Cuba independent. Spain responded by breaking off diplomatic relations, and the war was on.
Its striking events are so fresh in the public mind that they need not be rehearsed. President McKinley played the same part that President Lincoln played in the Civil War, night and day, sometimes all night and day, from the "war room" in the White House. The War Department, with a Secretary chosen with no thought of war, an antiquated bureau system, and some inefficient officials among many who were highly efficient, was used by President McKinley as the best means then at hand, and no one regretted more than he any ill consequences that followed, or made more allowance for them. He could find compensation for whatever was lacking in the War Department in the almost faultless administration of the Navy Department, which shone the more by contrast. At the head of the State Department, after the war began, he had his closest personal friend and most trusted adviser, William R. Day; and in their administration of its affairs no real mistakes have been discovered, although there was some criticism at the time. When the inner history of that war comes to be written, it will be seen that the administration's achievements in diplomacy were more remarkable than its achievements on the sea or in the field. The way in which the invaluable moral aid of Great Britain was secured, when all other Powers were indifferent or unfriendly to us, and still regarded us as a second or third class power, and the way in which they were later brought to see our true position and influence, and therefore to cultivate our friendship, made a wonderful impression upon the world. President McKinley, who seemed to overlook nothing, made the war the occasion for establishing more firmly the most enlightened rules of naval warfare, and thus incidentally conferred a lasting benefit on all maritime nations.
It was by the administration's diplomacy that the war was brought so quickly to an end; for Spain would have dragged it on indefinitely, in spite of her defeats, if it had not been for the pressure brought upon her, through France, by the other Powers to end what had become a trying and even dangerous situation to most of them, with the threat looming large before their imaginations that the United States, for the first time, would invade Europe by attacking the Spanish coast. President McKinley made peace in the courteous and clement fashion characteristic of him, and with such acknowledgments to France and her representatives as furnished recognition for their timely assistance, and drew our ancient ally back to us, with her modern ally, Russia, our quondam friend.
President McKinley, in sending Admiral Dewey to capture or destroy the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, had no intention of acquiring that archipelago for the United States. He merely sought to make war most effectively on Spain. Nor, when Admiral Dewey, having no other port open to him in that part of the world, and having shattered the only sovereignty there was in the Philippines, remained in Manila harbor, was there any intention on the part of the President to take even the city of Manila as a permanent possession. The Philippines had not been in his scheme of action any more than they had been in the thought of the country. It was a providence, or an accident, according to the point of view, that the most striking victory of the war came at the most unexpected point and time, and with the most unexpected consequences. But events marched fast from May until September, when Secretary Day and the other members of the Peace Commission went to Paris to negotiate the treaty with the representatives of Spain; and by that time it was evident that, for our own interest in the East, and for the protection of those who had trusted us in particular, and of all the inhabitants of the Philippines in general, we must remain in the archipelago.
Upon this principle, the cession of the entire archipelago was obtained in the treaty of peace concluded on December 10, 1898; the United States agreeing to pay Spain twenty million dollars, and the treaty providing that "the civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by the Congress." Proclamation was immediately made by our representatives in the Philippines that the authority thus obtained by the United States would be used only for the protection and benefit of the natives; that "we come, not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends;" and every effort was made to impress this upon the people. The President has been more severely criticised for taking the Philippines than for any other act of his administration or of his life. Not only his political opponents generally, but many of his own party, have contended that he ought not to have done so, although they have not agreed as to what he should have done. It is a matter of fact that the treaty of peace, carrying the title to the Philippines, was ratified by the two-thirds vote of the Senate on the 6th of February, 1899, and the twenty million dollars promised to Spain was immediately appropriated by large majorities in both houses of Congress; and neither of these things could have been accomplished except by the leave of those who differed from the President. And Congress has left the whole matter to the President ever since.
The President, it should be said, has been criticised also, though less severely, by those who thought that he ought to have prevented the insurrection by having the leaders apprehended before they were ready to strike, instead of allowing them to obtain advantage of his policy of conciliation. To this the reply is that until the treaty of peace was ratified, after the armistice with Spain was begun, he could not honorably do anything in the Philippines but what he did do to say nothing of his desire to win the affection of the people. In this effort he has spared no pains. He sent first the Schurman Commission, and then the Taft Commission, to treat with the natives, with a view to convincing them of our good intentions, and setting up suitable local and general governments for them, offering amnesty and even reward to armed insurgents; and those efforts are gradually producing the result desired. The President has constantly emphasized the difference between Aguinaldo and his associates of the Tagal tribe, and the people of the other eighty tribes of the archipelago; justly holding the former responsible for the insurrection, and believing that the latter would willingly have accepted the sovereignty of the United States, and the good government that it means. He has argued that only as a sovereign power can we guide the Filipinos to self-development and self-government; that a protectorate would be impossible; and that we could no more establish one, under the arguments of his opponents, "without the consent of the governed," than we could establish a government of our own.
The logic and the practical wisdom have been in the President's argument rather than in that of his opponents many of whom were trying to rush us into war with Spain when he was trying to prevent it, and are now unwilling to take the necessary consequences. They have called President McKinley, the most democratic of men, an "imperialist," and have accused him, known to be a lover of peace and a hater of war, of leaning to "militarism." Nevertheless, while the people generally have grown as weary as the President himself of the long and costly struggle in the Philippines, fomented and maintained in a measure by the President's critics, it seems certain that a majority of the voters would have condemned at the polls a surrender to Aguinaldo or an abandonment of the purpose of the President in the Phillippines and that the overwhelming majority of the President's reelection means that the country believes the time has come when, in the providence of God, our nation, reunited by war, prosperous and powerful beyond the dreams of its founder, must meet new responsibilities in new ways.
By the treaty of peace, the United States took Cuba in trust for its people, then without other government than that of Spain, and it took Porto Rico absolutely as partial indemnity, as the island commanding the entrance to the proposed Nicaraguan Canal, and for the benefit of the Porto Ricans. The United States, through the declaration of Congress, having promised Cuba independence upon the establishment of a stable government, President McKinley, through major General Leonard Wood and other competent officers, had been endeavoring to construct a state out of the ruins that we found when we took possession on the 1st of January, 1899. He is able to say with truth: "We have restored order and established domestic tranquillity. We have fed the starving, clothed the naked, and ministered to the sick. We have improved the sanitary condition of the island. We have stimulated industry, introduced public education, taken a full and comprehensive enumeration of the inhabitants." Local governments administered by the people have been chosen for all the municipalities of Cuba, and by the first Monday in November last a convention, chosen by the people, had assembled to frame a constitution, which must be acceptable to Congress, preparatory to independence and adjustment of Cuba's relations to the United States. But although by that time the army of occupation had been cut down from 43,000 to less than 6000, the fact that the President had not withdrawn it and all other American authority from the island, precipitously and without action of Congress, was used to sustain the accusations of "imperialism" and "militarism," and even insinuations that the promise of the united States would not be kept; while the embezzlements of two or three postal officials in Cuba, in spite of the prompt exposure and prosecution of them by the administration, were dwelt upon.
Much more was made by the President's critics, in his own party as well as in the opposition, of a determination to treat Porto Rico as a special form of territory, not intended to become a state, and for two years to be distinguished by a duty of fifteen per cent of the Dingley tariff on its imports and exports in its dealings with the United States. Declaring that "the Constitution follows the flag," although that doctrine is contrary to the precedents, and without waiting for the authoritative decision sought from the Supreme Court of the United States, the opponents of the President's policy stirred up a strong sentiment against this form of imperialism. The President had said, in his annual message in December, 1899, that it was our "plain duty" to give Porto Rico freedom of trade with the United States; and his critics harped upon that, ignoring the fact that it was found afterwards to be necessary to provide revenue temporarily for the island by very small tariff duties, all the money collected here as well as there being spent on the island, which, swept by a hurricane and disordered by Spanish misrule, could not raise adequate revenue by internal taxation. Congress was careful to provide that this tariff taxation should cease in two years, and earlier if sufficient revenue were provided otherwise. The President sent an admirable man in Governor Allen, and gave him assistants of like character, to cooperate with the natives, who were given a larger measure of self-government than Louisiana had under Jefferson, in the reorganization and upbuilding of the island. Guam and other small islands taken from Spain have been governed wisely and without serious criticism.
From the time that Mr. John Hay succeeded Secretary Day as the head of the State Department, the President's attention was directed with special care, amid all his other responsibilities, to the necessity of maintaining our commercial and other treaty rights in China, in view of the gradual encroachments of Russia, Germany, England, and France upon the territory and authority of that empire. In due time, Secretary Hay, by the President's direction, by clever and candid management, drew from these Powers and others assent to the maintenance of the "open door" of commercial and financial dealings with China, guaranteed to us as to the other Powers by the treaties with China, and declarations that no further territorial acquisition would be made by the Powers in China. This success in an entirely new role among the nations gave our government a position of leadership in china; so that when, in May, 1900, the anti-foreign Empress Dowager and her advisers encouraged anti-foreign demonstrations by the patriotic society known as the "Boxers," which led to attacks upon the diplomatic corps and the other foreigners in Pekin, and finally their imprisonment in the British legation compound under intermittent assaults from imperial troops, the concerted movement for their rescue was led by the United states, helped greatly by having the Philippines as a base of operations. Moreover, Secretary Hay, on the 3d of July, laid down the principles which were accepted by the other Powers, for the settlement of this matter with China, under which, after the rescue, negotiations began for the settlement, with the strict understanding that there would be no territorial indemnities, and no interference with the open door in the exaction of penalties for the past and guarantees for the future. In the rivalries among the European Powers over this settlement, they paid a remarkable tribute to the success of the McKinley administration in foreign affairs by competing with one another for the favor and influence of the United States. President McKinley, who had been accused by his critics of entangling alliances with Great Britain and other countries, notwithstanding his constant refusal to enter in such alliances, was able to secure every advantage the United States desired by acting concurrently with the Powers as they accepted his principles of dealing with the Chinese question, and finally to prevent the dismemberment of the Chinese Empire and maintain the open door.
Without undertaking to anticipate the judgment of posterity, it seems safe to say that President McKinley has had a great part to play, and has played it well and that it was fortunate for the republic that he was at its head in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
"Mr. McKinley as President" by Henry B.F. Macfarland The Atlantic Monthly, March 1901; Volume 87, No. 3; pages 299 - 313.
Photograph of McKinley from From McKinley to Harding: Personal Recollections of our Presidents, by H.H. Kohlsaat, 1923.