Robert Merry, a journalist and historian, has written books on the vagaries of presidential reputations (Where They Stand, 2012) and on American imperialism (Sands of Empire, 2005). In his new book, these themes coalesce. He wants to revive William McKinley’s middling reputation by recognizing the 25th president as the shrewd, unheralded father of the military-commercial expansionism that underwrote America’s global rise. The result is a well-crafted and illuminating study in turn-of-the-last-century U.S. politics.
McKinley was born in 1843 above a grocery store in Niles, Ohio. As a teenager, he declared himself eager to fight Jefferson Davis’s incipient treason on southern soil, and soon had the chance, rising from a brave, capable private to major. After the war, he was a successful lawyer in Canton, Ohio, until he entered Congress, eventually becoming, by the end of his seven terms, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. In 1891, Ohio made him governor: In line with the Republican priorities of the day, he built up the state’s railroads and canals, just as, while in Congress, he had fortified the GOP’s rather fetid labyrinth of politicized tariffs. In 1896, he was elected president.
McKinley, says Merry, “did not display an imaginative turn of mind given to bold thinking or creative vision.” The Ohioan was an administrator, “cautious, methodical, a master of incrementalism.” But he operated with skill and quiet power. “He cared nothing about the credit,” wrote Elihu Root, his war secretary, “but McKinley always had his way.” McKinley’s stenographer saw only one flash of anger from him during his four years as governor: when a visitor told an “off-color joke.”
It was this man of subtle force who fashioned, says Merry, the era’s “defining” development, the “noncolonial imperialism that would guide his nation for a century or more.” McKinley’s guidance was hesitant and reactive. The U.S. took Hawaii first, defensively, in response to Japan’s Meiji chauvinism; it then took Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, after a war that McKinley had tried to avoid, with a deluded, decrepit Spain. McKinley disclaimed any desire to annex territory (aside from Hawaii) and rejected what he called the “jingo nonsense” of Teddy Roosevelt and to a lesser extent Alfred Mahan and Henry Cabot Lodge. But the nation’s “burgeoning economic might,” says Merry, raised “inevitable questions about the military power required to protect its commercial interests.” McKinley improvised a conception of America as guarantor of world trade, alloyed to a bona fide “democratic tutelage” for less-developed peoples. It would mark a major shift: In 1898, the Navy had only six battleships, and the White House needed a Western Union operator to let it follow Admiral Dewey’s progress as he sank the Spanish fleet.
This new self-assertion was associated with Republicans. The Filipino guerilla Emilio Aguinaldo prayed that the “great Democratic party . . . will win the next election” and end Yankee imperialism. A hostile senator moved to amend an appropriations bill to style McKinley “president of the so-called republic of the United States and emperor of the islands of the sea.” McKinley shared some of the discomfort about American superintendence of distant Pacific and Caribbean isles, but saw in his 1900 reelection — trouncing William Jennings Bryan, for a second time — a popular rejection, as he put it, of the “doctrine that we lose our own liberties by securing the enduring foundations of liberty to others.”
Merry calls McKinley an innovator in other respects, too. His cash-rich 1896 campaign hired 100 employees who wrote pamphlets tailored to audiences — farmers, veterans, first-time voters, ranchers, laborers — in an elaborate, unprecedented campaign of “education” more suited to the systematic, understated McKinley than were the traditional theatrics of parades and speechifying. This was the climax of McKinley’s 25-year alliance with Mark Hanna, the Ohio senator-entrepreneur still often portrayed as McKinley’s Svengali — a view Merry denounces, convincingly, as the legacy of yellowed old Democratic newspaper cartoonery. McKinley himself seems to have masterminded his legendary “front porch” campaign. Worried about being out-stumped by the mesmeric Bryan, McKinley invited delegations to pour in to Canton. The campaign solicited the views of the groups before they came; McKinley responded with remarks tailored for them. He hosted 750,000 Americans from 30 states and delivered, in Merry’s words, a stream of “carefully calibrated campaign oratory,” zero travel needed.
McKinley’s famous devotion to his wife struck some as a ploy to humanize the stern-browed old soldier. But it happens that Ida McKinley, triggered perhaps by the early deaths of both of their daughters, suffered for decades from some sort of crushing psychological disorder. She took sedatives before public events but still exploded in embarrassing ways that kept McKinley always on guard with a defusing joke. When McKinley was shot, in Buffalo, by an anarchist steelworker, McKinley told a confidant: “My wife — be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her — oh, be careful.” (McKinley also had the presence of mind to utter “Let no one hurt him” as his security guards started bloodying his assassin, a fact that captures McKinley’s nobility of character.) The president died eight days later, in 1901, six months into a confident second term.
In Buffalo, McKinley had spoken for expansion of reciprocal free trade, a reversal from his days when he was a protectionist true believer. Also in the might-have-been class, says Merry, was McKinley’s mission of “reining in the trusts,” a bold plank of his 1900 platform that faced the hostility of “old-line congressional Republicans.” McKinley earlier had thought such measures largely a state prerogative, but in his second term, wrote his secretary, George Cortelyou, “I never saw him more determined on anything” than on a new degree of federal action against illegal monopolies and price-fixing.
In this and other respects, McKinley appears in Merry’s telling as a forerunner of the Progressive Republicans whose insurgency ruptured the party around 1910. This makes all the more strange Merry’s remark that the GOP that McKinley shaped in 1896 “would cohere as a political entity and survive as the country’s dominant political force for most of the next three and a half decades.” First, the word “most” tries to conceal that for ten of these 35 years it was Democrats, including Woodrow Wilson, who reigned as the country’s dominant party. Second, Democrats dominated precisely because the GOP did not “cohere” but in fact cracked up amid warring factions led by Teddy Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and William Howard Taft. Merry never says which of these men, or, later, which of the party’s contending Coolidge and Hoover wings, represented the true heir to McKinley’s GOP.
On some other points, too, I wished for a more searching inquiry from a historian as astute as Merry. Every figure in the book aside from McKinley, Ida, and Hanna comes off as a bit player. With a titan such as Thomas B. Reed, the brilliant, hilarious House speaker, Merry seems at least as concerned to describe his famed portliness as his striking political thought. More on Reed, and on such others as Taft, Leonard Wood, or Elihu Root, might have helped bring out McKinley in relief.
Merry does grapple with what he calls the great “mystery” of McKinley’s reputation: He was triumphant and popular at death, a million schoolchildren donating to build his tomb in Canton, yet high stature in history “wasn’t to be.” The question has always been whether McKinley was the cause of America’s ascent or a coincidental beneficiary. Merry’s subtitle proclaims his view: McKinley was the “architect of the American century,” he says, and detractors miss his centrality because of his “hidden hand” style of leadership and because, no matter how bright McKinley’s lights were, they were bound to seem dim in contrast to the megawattage of TR, who succeeded him.
Even so, every “architect” proceeds by carefully wrought plan. The puzzle of Merry’s book is that he seems so half-heartedly to defend his own subtitle. McKinley unquestionably broke with traditions on annexation and extraterritorial control, but with Hawaii and Cuba, Merry writes, it was only because Japan or American voters (war-mad after the sinking of the Maine) “practically forced the president into it.” Even with the Philippines, says Merry, McKinley “had no choice but to take the entire archipelago.” Merry says that McKinley inherited a “serendipitous imperialism — the acquisition almost by accident of strategic territory, . . . the result of actions by people who had other ends in mind and who hadn’t contemplated what they would do with such rewards of victory.” That’s no architect. Merry approaches his true argument when he says that McKinley “always managed to shepherd the flock where he wanted it to go.” But I suppose “Shepherd of the American Century” doesn’t have the same ring.
– Mr. Tartakovsky is the author of The Lives of the Constitution: Ten Exceptional Minds That Shaped America’s Supreme Law, forthcoming in April 2018.