America is a curiously a-historical place. It’s a land where in many cases things aged more than a generation are considered “old.” Structures are routinely razed to the ground and rebuilt, rather than being updated and retrofitted. The further to the west one travels across the American landscape, typically, the newer are even the oldest of buildings. For example, the primary school that I attended still stands, although it has been modified considerably in the intervening thirty-plus years. However, a similar primary school attended by younger relatives, a building perhaps forty years old, was completely leveled in order for it to be rebuilt, by a school district that, in a time of grotesque funding disparity and budgetary crisis, clearly has more money than sense. The old is something to be demolished, to be wiped from the map and ploughed under. Generally speaking, though, Americans do not know history, and they do not understand the past. Otherwise, America and its citizens would more often recognize themselves in it.
That realization is part of what makes Scott Miller’s 2011 book, The President and the Assassin, such an interesting read. Although the casual observer might advance the notion that, with all of the wondrous technology of today, the world of the 2010s must be radically different from that of the 1890s, so many of the echoes of the past are familiar, and not all of them are pleasantly nostalgic.
The 1890s were a time of great and lasting change in the posture of the United States in the world. Having passed from bloody civil war to centennial, through cycles of boom and bust, America was a nation growing in confidence, as much as it grew in territorial holdings… and appetites. The desire for access to the supposed emerging markets of Asia, particularly China, were an important motivation for the McKinley Administration.
McKinley was a seemingly reluctant Imperialist, a Republican whose policies were driven as much by his pro-business stance as anything else. By current standards, he would probably be too left-leaning for the completely mentally ill Republican party of today, but in his day, he handily won election in 1896 against William Jennings Bryan, and defeated the Democratic candidate a second time in 1900.
Although a reluctant imperialist, there is no doubt that McKinley allowed his enthusiastic Navy free reign once the decision to move against Spanish holdings both in Cuba and the Philippines had been taken. Particularly vigorous was Commodore George Dewey, whose command of the Pacific fleet of the U.S. Navy would ensure that the Philippines were captured from the Spanish with near-lightning speed.
Events in Cuba and the Philippines were to have lasting impact on the course of history. The mysterious explosion aboard the battleship Maine, which killed many of her crew and led to her sinking off Havana, for example, was a cause célèbre during the American war there, yet much later, in the 1970s, some expert examination suggested that in fact the ship was not mined, but rather one of the gunpowder magazines on-board exploded spontaneously, which was not unknown at the time. The famed charge up San Juan Hill by Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders went a long way to giving Roosevelt an even more prominent profile, which would be thrust into the limelight when as Vice-President in 1901 he was called upon to succeed McKinley. And the fighting on the Philippines in the Pacific would pit American troops, sometimes using tactics which sound all too familiar those modern ones, against first the Spanish, and then the Philippine resistance leader Aguinaldo, who had hoped to become the first democratic leader of that nation. Instead, early leaders included another future President, William Howard Taft.
But against this backdrop of external American foreign policy, events within the United States were on a course toward conflict. Here, Miller traces the roots of the issue to the Haymarket bombing of 1886 and its aftermath of labour unrest and cyclical violence. Added to this was the growing agitation of groups of foreign and domestic radicals, the anarchists. It was from the anarchist fold that McKinley’s assassin, Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz, sprang.
Miller gives the anarchists their time, particularly Emma Goldman, establishing her a powerful speaker among a field of many equally gifted, even while speculating that in the entire population there may never have been more than 10,000 committed to the anarchist cause. Despite the fact that Goldman did not advocate assassination (it was a minority view held by only a small, more bloodthirsty cadre of anarchists), when Czolgosz gave up Goldman’s name as a motivation for his deed after his capture she was eagerly sought by law enforcement. Czolgosz’s motivations, as Miller’s book describes, were murky: although he was said to have shot McKinley “for the good of the laboring people, the good people,” there was never any sense that Leon Czolgosz was such a committed anarchist, or that he was anything more than an aspirant to acceptance in anarchist circles.
Following McKinley’s death, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States, and remains one who is revered by many to this day. But much of the world of the last years of the 19th and first years of the 20th century is with us still, and The President and the Assassin, while not a perfect history, does provide much food for thought and inspiration for further reading. This is an era of history that people should know better, and I for one am glad to have revisited it. Four stars.
Reviewed 16 November 2015.
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