Friday, November 27, 2015

William McKinley: Entering the World Scene

During the election of 1896, William McKinley was poised to return the republican party to the White House. All he had to do was convince voters that he a better man for the job than William Jennings Bryant.

Democrat Grover Cleveland was the last classical liberal president. Near the end of his second term, populist democrat William Jennings Bryan succeeded in transforming the democratic party from a laissez-faire/classical liberal party to being more of a big government/ liberal party.  Bryan used this platform to champion for the reinstatement of the coinage of silver.

On the other side of the ticket was William McKinley. Like Bryan, he was a successful Congressman, as his name was featured on the 1890 tariff.  And even though this tariff was partially to blame for the panic of 1893 and the depression that haunted Cleveland during his second term, it did not hamper McKinley's campaign for president.  He would go on to win the popular vote by the largest margin since the election of 1872.

Nearly as soon as McKinley was elected the depression that haunted Cleveland was over.  It should be noted here that it ended without any governmental interference. This is significant, because Cleveland was vigorously pressured to intervene, and -- unlike future presidents -- believed the market would resolve on its own.

He was right.

But it was too late to help the fortunes of the laissez-faire approach to government: the age of classical liberals had ended. Nearly every president from McKinley on would use the office of the president to expand government, even if it that meant sacrificing personal liberties at the expense of the state objective.

McKinley began this quest not by advancing a domestic agenda, but by advocating a foreign agenda.  Some actually say he was pressured into doing this by his "political cronies."  However, others say he was a "decisive president" who made decisions on his own accord.

Either way, he would lead the United States into its first international war since the War of 1812.  Spain ruled Cuba, and the Cubans wanted to gain their independence.

That aside, in 1823 James Monroe declared that no longer would the U.S. allow European governments to colonize land in the Americas.  Spain involvement in Cuba was exempted.  Just prior to the Civil War southern interests tried to get the U.S. to buy Cuba and make it a slave state.  Then the war got in the way and interests fell elsewhere.

After the war, however, American businessmen became interested in the Cuban sugar market.  By 1894, 90 percent of Cuban exports went to the U.S., and 40 percent of U.S. exports went to Cuba.  So what happened in Cuba had a significant impact on the growing American economy.

Cubans total exports to the U.S. were nearly 12 times higher than exports to Spain. So, while Spain held political authority over Cuba, economic authority belonged to the Americans.

Likewise, in order to expedite trade routes, Americans had an interest in building a channel either in Nicaragua or Panama, and they would need naval protection to get this task completed.  A rising politician by the name of Theodore Roosevelt was the Secretary of the Navy in 1897-1898, and he was an ardent supporter of war with Spain War.

This set up the stage for the Spanish-American War.  However, it was also believed the newspaper business also played a role.  To increase sales, newspaper tycoons were reporting on actual events although exaggerating them to sell newspapers.  This was dubbed as Yellow Journalism.

Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal saw a revolt that occurred in Cuba as a chance to make some flashy headlines. This sort of shaped an increasing derogatory attitude in America of the Spanish.  In fact, some found parallels between the Cuban revolt and the American Revolution.

While yellow journalism was often cited as shaping the opinion of the nation, other historians say that it was not present outside New York, and therefore should not have shaped opinion to the extend some speculate that it did.  Still, the national sentiment toward Spain was not good.

Regardless, their was a lot of pressure on the McKinley administration to take action.

At first he tried to end the situation peacefully.  He sent the USS Maine to Havana, Cuba, to maintain the safety of Americans and American interests in the area.  However, On February 15, 1898, the Maine sank after an explosion, killing 265 of the 355 on board.

McKinley called for patience.  But the media wanted nothing to do with patience.  In fact, war with Spain was exactly what the media wanted.  So, instead of reporting the truth about the sinking of the Maine -- that it remained a mystery who caused it to sink -- they reported it as a fact that Spain did it.  With such headlines as "Spanish Murderers" and "Remember The Maine," Americans were ready for war.

Such pressure made it difficult to find a peaceful solution difficult.  In the end, on April 25, 1898, Congress declared war with Spain, promising to declare independence for Cuba once the war was over.

To secure America's position, McKinley annexed Hawaii. It took only three months for America to win the war. As part of the peace treaty with Spain, Cuba was granted independence. America also ended up with the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam.  America proved it could be a powerful world presence.

Yet doing so opened the door for other problems.  For instance, almost immediately the U.S. entered into conflict with the Philippine residents who did not want to be controlled by the Americans.

McKinley didn't stop there.  He sent 2,000 troops to China to allay the Boxer Rebellion, and he intervened twice in Nicaragua to protect American interests.

So that all happened in his first term.  Just prior to the end of his first term his vice president, Garrett Hobart, died of heart failure. After his friends denied the offer, McKinley left the question of vice president open to the convention.

This is where Teddy Roosevelt comes into play again.  He was a former governor of New York, and he was a thorn in the side of the leaders of the New York republican party.  So they figured it would be a blessing if he could be the vice presidential nominee.  On the other hand, the McKinley campaign saw it as a boon to have a war hero on the ticket.

During the convention, McKinley easily won the republican nomination, mainly due to fact he was a popular war president who also presided over a booming economy.  Teddy Roosevelt was also nominated to be his vice president.

This was the last photo taken of William McKinley,
taken as he entered the Temple of Music
on September 6, 1901.
Despite high hopes, McKinley's second term didn't go so well.  Their were concerns about his safety after a series of assassinations by anarchists in Europe.  McKinley loved meeting people in public, and so he wanted nothing to do with efforts to stop meeting the public.

Despite added security, On September 5, 1901, after giving a speech before 50,000 people at the Expedition, Leon Czolgosz worked his way through the crowd, but hesitated to shoot the president out of fears he might miss.  However, the next day, Czolgosz waited at the Temple of Music as the Exposition where the president was to meet the public.  He shot the president twice in the abdomen.

As his last request, he urged his men to break the news lightly to his wife. He also urged his men to call off the mob in search of Czolgosz, a kindly action that probably saved the life of the assassin.

One bullet was found by the doctors taking care of him, but the second never was.  Even though there was a primitive x-ray machine on display at the Exposition, it was not used.  There was rising enthusiasm as the president appeared to be getting better after a few days.  But unknown to his doctors was that ganreine had grown in the walls of his stomach.  It was this gangrene that would take his life eight days after he was shot.

Roosevelt was sworn into office.  A new era in politics was born.  No longer did presidents put their country before their political ambitions.  The progressive movement was not born in that moment, but it had finally gained a podium that would allow it to grow and prosper into a full and flourishing tree.

Now, how must the legacy of William McKinley be judged.  Perhaps this is best said by the Miller Center: University of Virginia:
For a long time, William McKinley was considered a mediocre President, a chief executive who was controlled by his political cronies and who was pressured into war with Spain by the press. Recent historians have been kinder to McKinley, seeing him instead as a decisive President who put America on the road to world power. McKinley's difficult foreign policy decisions, especially his policy toward China and his decision to go to war with Spain over Cuban independence, helped the U.S. enter the twentieth century as a new and powerful empire on the world stage.
I think that quote pretty  much hits the nail on the head.  For those who are proud to see the influence of American Exceptionalism on the world stage, he is seen as a good president.  Others, not so much.

Further reading: