The Death of the President
“In witnessing the slaying of our Chief Magistrate by an anarchist, we are sharing in the evil inheritance of Old World tyranny and absolutism.”
For the third time within the memory of men who still feel themselves young, the President of the United States has been struck down by an assassin. Each of these crimes was as wanton as it was remediless. No shadow of excuse or palliation—except upon the charitable presumption of insanity—can be found for the vainglorious actor, the disappointed office seeker, and the self-confessed anarchist, who treacherously took the lives of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Lincoln’s death was like the close of a great, mysterious tragedy. Garfield’s had its own peculiar note of pathos; and though Lincoln’s ever increasing fame has done something to eclipse the memory of the second martyr President, the grief of the nation in 1881 was no less genuine, and naturally more widespread, than in the discordant days of 1865. But the circumstances of President McKinley’s assassination have been such as to cause even more general and poignant sorrow to the nation as a whole. United as never before, enjoying an era of political good feeling, and universally attracted by the lovable personal qualities of their President, the citizens of the United States, without regard to sectional or party differences, have been stunned and sickened by his murder.
The behavior of our people during the days that intervened between the firing of the fatal shot and the death of the President has been thoroughly characteristic. The first shock and amazement were followed by an outburst of anger against anarchists of every stripe. Even the clergy, upon the first Sunday after that ill-starred Friday, made use of ill-considered appeals to the mere spirit of revenge. This mood passed with calmer second thoughts, and with those swiftly mounting expectations—American-like in their optimism, but alas, how futile!—of the President’s recovery. Then came the sudden change for the worse, the abandonment of hope, the hours of hushed waiting for the end, and at last, in those moving words written by Whitman on the night of Garfield’s passing: —
The sobbing of the bells, the sudden death-news everywhere,
The slumberers rouse, the rapport of the People,
(Full well they know that message in the darkness,
Full well return, respond within their breasts, their brains, the sad reverberations,)
The passionate toll and clang—city to city, joining, sounding, passing,
Those heart-beats of a Nation in the night.
The heart-beats were those of a nation always swiftly responsive to generous emotions, stirred now beyond its wont by tender sympathy, and thrilled by the parting words that fell, with such incomparable felicity, from the lips of the dying President. His quiet courage and simple trust were contagious, and upon Sunday, the 15th, the public’s mood had changed from one of blind anger and dismay to faith in the perpetuation of our system of self-government and faith in God.
But that the situation is in some respects very grave is generally realized. So far as the American people can protect the life of their Chief Magistrate against the common enemies of all governments, no effort will be spared to do so. A stricter enforcement of existing legislation, possibly new legislation looking to the closer supervision of the speech and action of suspicious elements in the community, is likely to follow. A blow directed against our President is a menace to each one of us, and we have full right to take every precaution against the foes of established order. But in a democracy like ours, founded upon free opinion and free speech, choosing its rulers from the ranks, and desiring those rulers to mingle more or less freely, during their term of office, with their fellow citizens, it becomes difficult and probably impossible to surround the life of an American President with those safe-guards with which European sovereigns have grown sadly familiar. In witnessing the slaying of our Chief Magistrate by an anarchist, we are sharing in the evil inheritance of Old World tyranny and absolutism, without being able to utilize those defensive measures which absolutism makes possible. The only permanently effective weapon against anarchy, in a self-governing republic, is respect for law. Fortunately, this weapon is within the reach of every citizen of the American commonwealth; and we believe that the untimely death of the President has already resulted in a profound popular reaction against lawlessness in every form.
Sorrow over the murder of the Chief Magistrate is thus naturally tinged with resentment against its cause, and with solicitude for the future. But it was the rare fortune of Mr. McKinley to endear himself personally to all classes of his countrymen, so that indignation against the attack on our government is merged into a keen sense of individual bereavement. Few men, except his assassin, have stood in that gracious presence without feeling kindly sentiments toward such a courteous and noble nature. Throughout a full life passed in the heat of party conflict, and under the constant misrepresentation and detraction which are the lot of every servant of the public, Mr. McKinley maintained a sweetness of temper, a cheerfulness of converse, an almost womanly tact and sympathy, which turned his most casual acquaintances into friends. Death simplifies things and men with strange swiftness, and while, in this hour of national bereavement, many are thinking of the dead statesman, more, we believe, are remembering only the man, who in every relation of life and post of service kept clean hands and a pure heart. During those terrible days in Buffalo his thoughts seemed to be for the comfort and happiness of others, not of himself, and there was surely no theatric display in the words of unaffected piety and resignation which were the last to move his lips.
The hour of a statesman’s death is never the day of judgment of his services to his country. In recent American history Mr. McKinley has played a great part. It was reviewed not long ago in this magazine by a writer who enjoyed the President’s confidence and was in full sympathy with his policy. The story does not need to be told again. Nor do we believe that its full significance can be appreciated at the present moment. The stream of world-life into which America has been guided is running with too swift a current, and our national sense of exhilaration and mastery is too strong to make us patient with an analysis of motives or with a precise inventory of gain and loss. All this must be left to the slow but irreversible verdict of time. Yet it seems to us certain that future historians will assign to McKinley a high place among the Presidents of the United States. They will credit him, we believe, with uncommon endowments, which he utilized with consummate skill; with views of our national opportunity and destiny which grew steadily broader until his very latest public utterance; and with a lifelong devotion, in war and peace, to what he believed to be the good of the American people. It must be remembered that the vexed questions temporarily identified with his name, as for instance the tariff or the policy of the country toward contiguous or distant foreign territory, are questions of constant recurrence and debate under constitutional governments like ours. The permanence of these themes of discussion, if there were nothing more, would serve to keep McKinley’s name before the public mind. But when one adds to this the fact that his presidency fell in a period of unexampled material prosperity and of new and vital relations between this country and foreign powers, there is no fear, even were his personal attributes less notable, that William McKinley’s career will not be held in perpetual memory.
Yet for the moment all such thoughts of his present and future fame are effaced by pity and sheer manly pride: pity for his cruel death, and pride in the tranquillity with which he faced it. He passed away as he had lived, in chivalrous devotion to those dear to him and in peace both with his own conscience and with the will of God. Such an example, brought home as it has been to every household by the public press—a service which outweighs a thousand evils of newspaper publicity—not only knits us together by the bonds of a common brotherhood of sorrow, but deepens the national faith in the reality of spiritual things. Without such faith in spiritual realities there can be no self-government worthy of the name. “The worthy gentleman who has been snatched from us,” said Burke, in the well-known passage upon the sudden death of his rival in the Bristol election, “has feelingly told us what shadows we are and what shadows we pursue.” But the death of the foremost citizen of our republic has served rather to remind us of the enduring fabric of the life of man. His own life was grounded in faith and hope and love. These abide, and even in this time of mourning the faith and hope and love of the American people are greater than ever before. The assault upon democratic institutions has strengthened the popular loyalty to them. A sane hope in the future of the United States was never more fully justified than at this hour. The boundless love of the plain people for one of their own number has been not only deeply touching, but infinitely reassuring.
The new President, who has taken the oath of office under such solemn circumstances, is a man of character and force, of varied experience, high standards, and tried patriotism. Every good citizen will wish him well in the great responsibilities which he has been called to assume, and will pray that, like his beloved predecessor, he may fulfill his duties with serenity of spirit, and face the inscrutable chances of the future without fear.