1901 The Assassination of President McKinley

September 6, 1901

Pan-American Exposition

It was appropriate that William McKinley, the most popular president since Abraham Lincoln should represent America by appearing at the Pan-American Exposition. The exposition celebrated America’s technological leadership an paid tribute to its emergence as an industrial and world power. It was an America in transition from an agricultural past to an industrial future.

Population Explosion

Between 1860 and 1900, almost 14 million immigrants came into the United States, and 14.5 more millions would come during the next two decades.  The federal government lacked power and expertise to deal with the issues attendant upon overcrowded populations. The executive staff of the White House numbered ten people, of whom four were bookkeepers and messengers.

An America Clinging to the Past

McKinley was a product of his own small-town, rural past. While part of the Republican Party was ready to use federal power to address the problems of crowded cities — poverty, sanitation, crime, education —  McKinley remained focused on the issues of the late nineteenth century — high tariffs to protect American industry and maintaining the gold standard in spite of the demands of farmers for a looser, more inflationary money policy.

A Lone Assassin

In the crowd that day at the Expo was a self-avowed anarchist. One of eight children of Polish-German immigrants, Leon Czolgosz grew up in crushing poverty. He started working at age ten. Two years later his mother died, and the family moved to Cleveland. Leon and two of his brothers worked at the American Steel and Wire Company until the company fired all workers in a labor dispute.

When an immigrant assassinated King Humbert I of Italy in July 1901, Czolgosz made the killer a hero and role model. Justice was swift for the president’s killer. He went on trial nine days after the assassination and was put to death in an electric chair less than two months after he pulled the trigger.

An Accidental Presidency Changes the Nation

As governor, Theodore Roosevelt had angered party bosses for his criticism of powerful trusts and with strong support for land conservation. Republican leaders nominated the upstart politician to be McKinley’s running mate in 1900, largely to get Roosevelt out of the limelight.

Overnight, McKinley’s death transformed the balance of political power in the nation by raising Roosevelt to the presidency. Roosevelt sent drafts of legislation to Congress and actively lobbied on behalf of that legislation. He had guests to the White House for two-hour dinners in which the guests only accounted for four and a half minutes of the conversation. He was the president to ride in an automobile, fly in an airplane, and be submerged in a submarine.

Roosevelt was not afraid to use his bully power to force labor disputes into arbitration. He pushed the Hepburn Act through Congress, which authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission to establish shipping rates. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 followed shortly. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, helped to win passage of the Meat Inspection Act. He called upon Congress to set apart huge tracts of land as national forests.

He expanded the Monroe Doctrine, oversaw the building of the Panama Canal, entered into war against Spain.

Teddy declined to run for another term, leaving the field open for his hand-picked successor. Unhappy with Taft’s leadership, Roosevelt ran again in 1912, splitting the Republican Party and allowing Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency. Roosevelt’s progressivism set the tone for politics for the rest of the twentieth century.


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