President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, by Robert W. Merry (Simon & Schuster, 624 pp., $35)
How is history made—by great figures, mastering the currents of the era, or in a more organic and haphazard fashion, by the currents themselves? In his engrossing new biography, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, Robert W. Merry tenders an answer to that eternal question, at least with respect to McKinley’s place and time, the America of the late Gilded Age. McKinley’s hand “was on the tiller of the national destiny,” Merry writes of the country’s 25th president, who formulated and executed a vision of “American ascendency” in global affairs—the proof supplied in the expulsion of the aging Spanish empire from Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean, the annexation of Hawaii, the laying of plans for what became the Panama Canal and, not least, in the bloody vanquishing of a determined guerilla force to make the Philippines a U.S. possession. “Noncolonial imperialism,” as Merry labels McKinley’s approach, a rejection of the traditional European tack of acquiring colonies outright as a means of amassing economic and military power, emerged as the nation’s “geopolitical philosophy.”
In staking this claim, Merry goes against many historians’ longstanding view of McKinley as the last in a string of second-rate presidents, at best the fortunate beneficiary of the unstoppable tides propelling America to the front rank of nations in the late nineteenth century. An Ohio Republican, McKinley won the presidency in 1896 and was reelected in 1900, but his life was abruptly ended in September 1901 by the bullets of an assassin—an obscure anarchist stalking him at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took over, serving for nearly eight action-packed years. Ever since, TR, larger than life, identifiable not only by his initials but also by the children’s stuffed animal named after him, has been lauded as one of America’s great leaders, his predecessor and onetime boss all but effaced from memory. In the withering judgment of liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, only in the person of Grover Cleveland was there a “reasonable facsimile of a major President between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.”
President McKinley then, is, in part, a work of revision, a corrective, and on these terms, Merry, author of a 2012 book, Where They Stand, on how voters and historians see American presidents, is successful. This comprehensive treatment, focused most intensively on McKinley’s years in the White House, convincingly shows Hofstadter’s verdict to be false and in so doing, fills a gap in the literature on this undeservedly unheralded president. William McKinley Jr., born in Niles, Ohio in 1843, was by no stretch a mediocrity. At 18, he volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Assigned to a quartermaster corps, he was fearless under fire and, possessed of what his superiors saw as “rare managerial skills,” promoted along a path from private to major. Bland on the surface, seemingly guileless, a cigar ever in his mouth, “the major,” as he was affectionately known in his circle, nursed a steadfast ambition that drove his rise in politics from congressman to governor to president. “His short, bulky frame cut an imposing figure,” Merry writes, “ and people responded avidly to his personal traits—a broad, handsome face featuring candescent gray eyes . . . a deep, resonating voice; a ready smile and hearty laugh that betokened warmth and confidence; moral rectitude devoid of sanctimony.” Merry demolishes the myth that McKinley was a tool of Mark Hanna, the Ohio business magnate and political fixer turned U.S. senator. McKinley was his own man, with a keen sense of political judgment and timing. Hanna vigorously fought to keep TR from being chosen as McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 presidential election, but he stood down when McKinley issued a statement directing “close friends,” meaning Hanna, to desist.
McKinley in some ways stands as a contrast to the notable personalities of his era—a period dominated, not by mild-mannered managerial types, but by aspiring oligarchs of a roguish bent, trafficking in political influence and tending to view the law as a trifling obstacle to be overcome on the road to piling up fortunes in railroads, steel, mining, and the like. McKinley’s life has poignant aspects, in particular, his tender devotion to his wife, Ida, virtually an invalid. Still, the telling of his story can’t possibly be as juicy as the rendering of the exploits of a man like Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Commodore, who set the tone for the Gilded Age with his famous cornering of the stock of the Harlem Railroad in the 1860s. They may have been Robber Barons, as critics came to call these figures, but they presided over the boom in industry that made America a global economic behemoth.
Was McKinley really a builder of anything, much less of the American Century? Here was a man of “stolid intellect,” after all. “Dynamic thinking wasn’t his forte,” Merry concedes, and he “wasn’t the type to blaze new trails in pursuit of success.” And yet, Merry marshals a case for McKinley as “architect” based on decisions, especially in foreign affairs, that might have gone differently in another president’s hands. The most persuasive example concerns the Philippines. After Commodore George Dewey’s rousing naval triumph, devastating the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the spring of 1898, McKinley faced the fateful question of whether to proceed with the conquest of the entire archipelago, thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland and, as a senior army officer pointed out, “inhabited by people, the majority of whom will regard us with the intense hatred born of race and religion.” In Congress, most Democrats, and some Republicans, opposed an expansive military venture as inimical to America’s anti-imperial character. McKinley weighed that opposition but wound up embracing what proved to be a protracted campaign, bloodier and longer-lasting than expected, though ultimately successful, to subdue the islands. One rationale, cited by a McKinley advisor, was the opportunity to extract gold, coal, oil, and other treasures from the Philippines, and to use the islands as a hub for an “enormous extension” of American commerce in Asia. Another, less tangible reason was the obligation that McKinley felt to, in his words, “uplift and civilize” the Filipinos.
This vow of duty was not, as a Marxist materialist (or a cynic) might have it, mere cover for the profit motive. An abiding Christian faith, Merry shows, lay at McKinley’s core, along with that run-of-the-mill intellect. Indeed, his religious conviction, nurtured by his mother, a passionate Methodist, was inseparable from his missionary sense of patriotism. As his first experience of battle loomed in the Civil War, he confided to his diary, “This record I want to be left behind, that I not only fell as a soldier for my Country, but also as a Soldier of Jesus.” He subscribed to what was earnestly called Manifest Destiny, as God’s plan for the global greatness of America, and in the grip of this conviction, he felt real anguish, as he told a Boston audience, that the “misguided Filipino” was bent on frustrating “the liberator,” America, in battle.
McKinley, then, stamped his ideals on America’s momentous transformation from continental to overseas empire. Yet he was well aware that he had public opinion behind him, despite critics in Congress and, in the chattering classes, sneering types like Mark Twain. With the United States becoming an economic titan on par with Britain and Germany, Americans supported the projection of the nation’s power abroad. Before McKinley confronted the Philippines, powerful voices in the press, like William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, clamored for the White House to take on the Spanish in Cuba, a war that McKinley tried to avoid. He was far from being in the forefront of the pugilistic spirit of the times, easily outstripped in that dimension by TR, a proud, self-identified “jingo” who considered his president’s backbone to be “as soft as a chocolate éclair.” The idea of the nation as a global titan, bestride the oceans, breech-loading cannon on deck, but without a phalanx of European-style colonies, could be found roughly in the political center during the late Gilded Age. Born in revolt against its overlord in London, America lacked the genetic makeup to assemble a global network of dependencies on which the sun never set. Its power would be exercised after its own character.
The question returns to whether McKinley truly directed the churning currents of his times. Probably the best answer is that while McKinley can be seen as an architect of the American Century, he was not the architect. In fact, there was no single builder: the makers stretch over the decades. Their ranks include not only presidents, from McKinley and TR to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, but also military leaders, from George Dewey to Douglas MacArthur, and ideologists, from Hearst to Henry Luce—who proclaimed, in his 1941 Life editorial, “The American Century,” that America was “the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world.” Any narrative that can run this long, with so much resonance, and with support from so many quarters, must be firmly rooted in a national culture. In that sense, the American people themselves stand collectively, over generations, as the architects of the country’s global ascendancy. It is our doing. But McKinley’s hand shows.
Photo: Library of Congress