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William McKinley by Kevin Phillips


Rating: (Recommended)


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The most I admit knowing about President McKinley before reading Kevin Phillips’ new book, William McKinley, is that he was shot in Buffalo, and Vice President Teddy Roosevelt followed him in office to get all kinds of things done. Thanks to Phillips, I’ve learned that most of what Roosevelt did was a continuation of what McKinley started. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 5, “Political Success, Domestic Progress, and the McKinley-Roosevelt Continuum,” (pp. 109-111):

The combination of the "Democratic Depression" of 1893 and severe ethno-cultural hostilities between new immigrant workers and old-stock agrarians created an urban revulsion against the Democrats which lasted into the late 1920s. . . . The essentially nostalgic and colonial character of the [Bryan] insurgents' appeal produced a violently sectional reaction throughout the metropole; the Democratic party in that region sank into an impotence which, save for a limited upswing between 1910 and 1916, lasted for a generation.

Walter Dean Bumham, The American Party Systems

The implication to be drawn from Professor Burnham, an expert on American political realignment, is that electoral upheaval explains more of William McKinley's extraordinary domestic policy success than any tabulation of mere legislative enactment. Through shrewd politicking at a critical juncture, McKinley ensured that the economy and society of the early-twentieth-century United States would have a modern industrial and urban bias, supported by an increasingly strong presidency and by a no longer stalemated party system able to marginalize agrarian protest.

Of the six or seven national party realignments in U.S. electoral history, most have intertwined with an important policy watershed, giving their presidential architect a leg up on great or near-great status. Viewed through this lens, McKinley's interrelated successes—a new period of economic prosperity, including the entrenchment of the protective tariff framework in 1897 and the gold standard in 1900—ended a quarter century of bitter acrimony over currency, money supply, and tariffs with a clear decision in favor of manufacturing, global commerce, and a sound currency with mild inflation.

True, the gold standard and high tariffs, wearing out their welcome, would both need to be replaced at the end of the industrial Republican cycle in 1932, which is another story (and another realignment). But it must be pointed out that McKinley, the currency straddle bug and trade reciprocity advocate, was more flexible on both issues than the business-establishment Republican presidents to follow in the 1920s. His second term, of which he served only six months, would have basked in a brightening ideological sun, encouraging his Lincolnian streak on subjects ranging from tax fairness to attempts to reduce trusts and monopolies, especially those nurtured by special-interest tariff provisions.

Alas, because the Ohioan's modus operandi was to keep his own counsel, write down very little, and let others think that they were doing much of the steering, he did not leave the sort of paper trail usually required to pique the interest of intellectuals. Unrecorded presidential conversations with admiring reformers and progressives were just that: unrecorded. In historical terms he could not have imagined, the bullets that eliminated his second-term tenure from September 1901 through March 1905 contributed to his great reputational loss and Theodore Roosevelt's gain. The Progressive era is said to begin with TR, when in fact McKinley put in place the political organization, the antimachine spirit, the critical party realignment, the cadre of skilled GOP statesmen who spanned a quarter of a century, the expert inquiries, the firm commitment to popular and economic democracy, and the leadership needed from 1896 through 1901 when TR was still maturing.

McKinley, fifteen years older than the man he took as vice president in 1900, was a man who achieved much, portions of it far-reaching, by avoiding the limelight and building a reputation, popularity, and gravitas that ultimately allowed him to face down the Senate hierarchs and Eastern machine leaders and win the 1896 Republican presidential nomination virtually unencumbered. TR could never have done that; even in the years 1897-98, when, almost forty years old and assistant secretary of the navy, he appeared to many who dealt with him as headstrong and immature.

His later progressivism was still half-submerged in an upper-class derogation of labor unions and routine insistence on a gold currency. Roosevelt did not back McKinley for the nomination in 1896, unlike Robert La Follette, Lincoln Steffens, and others later famous as Progressives. Instead, be supported Reed, the Maine conservative.

What Roosevelt had was independence, intellectual curiosity, and dash. His decision to leave the Navy Department to fight in Cuba as lieutenant colonel of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry—die famous (because he made them so) Rough Riders—bespoke the shrewd political instinct intertwined with his impetuosity. Along with Admiral Dewey, TR became one of the two public heroes of the Spanish-American War, such being a proven national political elevator.' Upon TR's return, Thomas Platt, the same boss at odds with McKinley, promptly enlisted the hero of San Juan Hill as the 1898 candidate to hold his machine's vital but endangered patronage bastion: the New York governorship. Although Roosevelt won only narrowly, a year and a half later he had become the grassroots GOP choice to replace Vice President Garret Hobart, whose death had opened up second place on the 1900 national ticket.

Beyond amplifying the domestic successes interwoven with McKinley's realignment of party politics, this chapter also reinterprets the respective roles of McKinley and Roosevelt in bringing progressivism and reform to a head in the new century. The two administrations must be taken together, with McKinley being the essential foundation builder and the former Rough Rider the greater attention getter and crusader.

William McKinley is a solid addition to the popular American Presidents series, and thanks to Kevin Phillips, the place of McKinley in the ranks of U.S. Presidents may become elevated in the minds of many readers.

Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: McKinley.htm


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