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Political Assassinations: William McKinley


In this blog, I discuss Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders.

Chapter 2 involves President William McKinley. McKinley has come down through history as a remote, old-fashioned, stodgy historical figure. When he is remembered, if he is remembered at all, it is because he was assassinated in 1901, a fortuitous event that propelled the legendary man of action Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency. Unlike the giants of American politics such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, President McKinley is little known, and his accomplishments are seldom appreciated by generations of Americans in search of a charismatic historical figure. He stares out of old photographs with his dark, piercing eyes, thinning, slick-backed hair, and a vaguely menacing expression that appears to reveal a humorless, colorless placeholder who temporarily occupied the executive chair until a better man could be found.

Yet the McKinley who walked the earth for 58 years was not quite as sterile and unappealing as facile historical memory would suggest. He left behind a mixed legacy, but he could cite notable achievements. Under his leadership, the United States won a “splendid little war” with Spain to establish a presence in Cuba and the Far East. The national economy rebounded following a disastrous downturn in 1893. The country appeared on the international stage as a global power for the first time, and Americans felt proud of their ascendancy. The challenges of putting down a nasty insurrection in the Philippines and combating charges of American imperialism tarnished McKinley’s reputation, but he gradually earned the respect and even admiration of many Americans during his time in office.

Far from being cold and aloof, William McKinley loved people. One of his favorite activities in public life was to mingle his constituents—a conviviality that may have contributed to his death because McKinley’s insistence on greeting the public allowed his assassin to venture close enough to shoot the man. By all accounts, McKinley always had a kind word for his assistants and associates. As a young congressman, he enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as one of the most congenial fellows in Washington, D.C. More than that, he eschewed extreme partisanship in favor of compromise through consensus-building. One colleague, Tom Reed, wryly observed that “My opponents in Congress go at me tooth and nail, but they always apologize to William when they are going to call him names.”

On September 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley during the president's visit to the Pan-American Exhibit in Buffalo, New York. The wounded president managed to hang on for eight days before he succumbed to his injuries. The attack was part of a larger social movement. Anarchists believed that all governments ultimately were corrupt and would oppress the citizenry. For his part, Czolgosz had lost his job during the panic of 1893, a development that propelled him into the anarchist camp. As a result of McKinley’s assassination, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history and the U.S. Secret Service began protecting presidents from bodily injury or political assassination.

In the aftermath of the third assassination of an American president, physicians, psychologists, historians, and political scientists debated Czolgosz’s state of mind. Whenever someone takes it upon himself to kill a public figure, the reaction is almost always that the person must be mentally unhinged. Well-adjusted individuals do not physically lash out at strangers, no matter how much they dislike a public figure’s policies or statements. Yet all the available evidence suggests that Czolgosz was sane. He embraced a political ideology at odds with mainstream American political thought, but his decision to embrace anarchy was hardly the act of a lunatic. His words and actions leading up to the crime and after the crime suggest an orderly, calm, and rational actor. Leon Czolgosz insisted that he had done his duty and did not regret his actions. He was a typical Type 1 assassin—a person who knows what he is doing and acts freely and rationally.


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