The Forgotten Assassination

When and where was JFK assassinated?

Chances are you can spout off the city (Dallas) and date (November 22, 1963) without blinking an eye.

How about Lincoln?

Ford’s Theater, April 15, 1865.

Alright then. How about William McKinley?

….

….

Who?

William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, was fatally wounded by an assassin’s bullet in Buffalo, New York on this date in 1901.

Why is it so many of us can’t name this date or place…or even president?

McKinley was a soldier, the last president to have served in the Civil War, fighting in the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the four-year war. Afterwards, he went to law school but spent minimal time as an attorney before dipping his toe into politics, where he served in Congress as well as the governor of his home state of Ohio before being elected president in 1897.

With McKinley at the helm, the United States burst into a period of rapid economic growth, thanks in part to the passage of the Dingley Tariff, which raised taxes on imported goods, as well as the Gold Standard Act, which secured gold as the only standard for redeeming paper money, stabilizing the U.S. dollar bill. He also began negotiations with England over what would eventually become the Panama Canal, though an actual agreement would not be reached until after his death.

During his time as president, he also booted Spain out of four territories, cutting off diplomatic relations with the country after the American battleship Maine exploded and sank off the coast of Havana amid rising tensions with Spanish-occupied Cuba in February 1898, killing 266 sailors. The ensuing Spanish-American War, though only lasting 100 days, resulted in the complete annihilation of the Spanish fleet outside Santiago (Cuba), the seizing of Manila in the Philippines, and the annexation of Puerto Rico and Guam, effectively ending Spanish colonial dominance–an securing America’s.

McKinley was so popular, his re-election on November 6, 1900 was the largest victory for any Republican since 1872. He even won his opponent’s home state of Nebraska.

After his second inauguration on March 4, 1901, McKinley set out on a six-week tour, which was to conclude in June at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. However, his wife Ida fell ill while in California, pushing McKinley’s visit to the fair back until September.

On September 6, 1901, after giving a speech the day before in which he outlined his goals for his second term, McKinley received well-wishers at the Temple of Music on the Exposition grounds, where a Polish-American anarchist named Leon Czolgosz waited in line, gun concealed in a handkerchief. As he approached the president, arm extended as if to shake his hand, Czolgosz instead fired two bullets at point-blank range. One ricocheted off McKinley’s breastbone, never entering his body; the other penetrated his stomach.

McKinley survived for a few days, even appearing to improve, before an infection in his wound ultimately claimed his life. Before his death, he pleaded for mercy for his assassin, dispersing the mob that threatened to murder him before trial. He was later quoted as saying, “He [Leon] must have been some poor, misguided fellow. He didn’t know what he was doing. He couldn’t have known.”

McKinley died on September 14, 1901, surrounded by family and friends. After its time in Washington, where over a hundred thousand people waited in the rain to pay their respects, McKinley’s body was transported back to Canton, Ohio where he was interred on his family’s land until the completion of a memorial in his honor, one of dozens that sprung up across the country for the man once-described as America’s “most loved president.”

His image once graced the $500 bill, a note no longer printed. His name was once given to Denali, the highest peak in North America, but was removed by the Department of the Interior in 2015. Nearly a million dollars were donated to the construction of memorials and statues in his honor after his death, a testament to how people of his time believed he would and should be remembered. His name graces streets, schools, libraries, and civic buildings…and yet very few today could tell you who exactly William McKinley was.

How can that be?

Perhaps its the curse of history–over a hundred years have passed since McKinley’s death, and the endless cycle of politicians can leave students of history weary. But that doesn’t explain why McKinley, a man some once considered to be on par with the greatness of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, is relegated to the “others” pile. A more likely reason?

Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt served as McKinley’s vice president, taking over as president upon his assassination. He was young and enthusiastic, a hero of the Spanish-American War and leader of the legendary Rough Riders, a cavalry unit that saw fierce–and victorious–action in Cuba. Even before McKinley’s re-election, Roosevelt was seen as the Republican Party’s rising star, a bonafide celebrity; in fact, Roosevelt himself made most of the campaign’s speeches while McKinley stayed home.

Roosevelt served his first term without a vice president, as there was no constitutional provision at the time for filling it, and he relished the chance to prove himself. Although he kept McKinley’s cabinet (a move designed to appease McKinley’s supporters), he quickly made the office his own, his charisma and personality becoming as big of a draw as his policies. The New Deal, anti-trust laws, and conservation efforts marked his legacy just as much as his hyper-masculinity in the rapidly-changing socio-cultural environment of the early 20th century. During a time when the nation’s grief seemed to big to bear, Roosevelt’s persona was bigger, and it captured the public’s imagination like none before him.

In short, Roosevelt cast a long shadow–so long it swallowed the imprint of the man who came before. When the decision was made to erect a monument at Mount Rushmore, it was Roosevelt who was chosen to be immortalized beside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln…not McKinley. And today, it is Roosevelt’s name that is more likely to be remembered and repeated among a list of America’s great presidents…not McKinley’s.

McKinley was not perfect. Much has been made of his failure to advance the rights of African-Americans after the Civil War and his expansion is now viewed through a lens of imperialism. But he was still a man who served his country, and served his country well, dying at the hand of an assassin as he sought to bring America, strong and united, into the 20th century.

Roosevelt may have all the glory. But, for today at least, McKinley will be remembered.

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