Bringing Back McKinley

A 1900 Republican campaign poster for the U.S. presidential election, with portraits of President William McKinley and Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt at center. On the left side "Gone Democratic" shows the U.S. in economic slump and Cuba shackled by Spain; on the right side "Gone Republican" shows the U.S. prosperous and Cuba being educated under U.S. tutelage. Wikimedia Commons

The greatest challenge to McKinley’s reputation in the twenty-first century is the legacy of historians of the mid-twentieth century.

November-December 2017

Because his life and personality were so lacking in drama, the case for McKinley must be made on the basis of his accomplishments. Here, the greatest challenge to McKinley’s reputation in the twenty-first century is the legacy of historians of the mid-twentieth century. William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic Party lost the election of 1896, but they won the battle of the books. The four-decade hegemony of the McKinley Republicans was followed, from the 1930s to the 1970s, by four decades of political dominance by Roosevelt Democrats. With a few exceptions, like Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, most academic and popular historians in the middle of the twentieth century were slightly or significantly to the left of center and tended to be New Deal Democrats, when they were not Norman Thomas Socialists.

The Farmer-Labor base of the New Deal Democrats united two groups that had been on the outs during the McKinley-to-Hoover period: agrarian populists in the South and Midwest, and the disproportionately European-immigrant working class in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Great Lakes region. Sympathetic scholars wrote histories in which the Northeastern industrialists and Republican politicians whom Democrats had dislodged were the villains.

The economic nationalism of the McKinley era can be described as dual protectionism—tariff protection for selected American industries, and protection of the wages of American workers from competition by immigrants, both Asian and European, whose numbers were curtailed beginning in the 1880s by measures that were often justified by nativism and racism. This nationalist and protectionist political formula worked to ensure Republican dominance between the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s.

However, the agrarians in the Democratic Party had always been free traders, seeking foreign markets for American food, fiber and lumber, and denouncing tariffs as a tax on farmers to subsidize greedy industrialists. And the national-origins immigration-quota system instituted by the Republican-dominated Congress in the 1920s was rigged in favor of British and northwestern European immigrants. It also enshrined WASP disdain for Jews and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (support for excluding nonwhite immigration was bipartisan in this era). Naturally enough, then, in the transvaluation of values that took place when the odd-bedfellows coalition of Southern and Midwestern agrarians and European white “ethnics” in the big cities overthrew the Republicans during the Great Depression, industrial protectionism and immigration restriction were demonized, and free trade and generous immigration policies came to be seen as symbols of virtue.

Populist views of banks and big business also shaped the culture of the New Deal Democrats. As it had been since the days of Jefferson and Jackson, the Democratic Party was still based largely in the agricultural and mining regions of the South, Midwest and West, in which most businesses were small and local farmers and merchants viewed themselves as colonial subjects of Northeastern industry and finance. The term “robber baron” came to be applied retrospectively to most of the major bankers and industrialists between the Civil War and the New Deal, including J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. The whimsical 1873 novel The Gilded Age, by Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain, which depicted the pervasive corruption of the Reconstruction era, lent its title to the entire period between the Civil War and the Progressive Era, whose beginning was dated not to the McKinley administration, but to that of his vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt. To this day, pundits and politicians refer casually to “the robber barons of the Gilded Age” as though these terms were not just crude and propagandistic smears.

IN FOREIGN policy, too, there was a transvaluation of values when the Roosevelt Democrats replaced the McKinley Republicans after 1932. As heirs to the Hamiltonian tradition, the McKinley Republicans, like their predecessors the Whigs and Federalists, favored a strong national government and a modern, professional military. They shared American republican values, but did not believe that preserving republican liberty at home was incompatible with a standing army and a world-class fleet.

But that is exactly what many Jeffersonians believed. For generations, Jeffersonians insisted that the modern nation-state and modern large-scale corporate capitalism in themselves were inimical to republican liberty, defined as a largely agrarian society dominated by economically independent yeoman farmers and small business owners. It was not enough for the United States to stay out of foreign wars, which could cause the militarization and regimentation of American society. The very instruments of a modern great-power state had to be shunned by Americans.

For national defense, Jeffersonians believed that the United States should rely on militias, with the smallest possible standing army. Even a navy was suspect. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” This authority to hire privateers—that is, pirates—as military naval contractors was used by the United States in the American Revolution and War of 1812. Although the United States ceased relying on privateers in wartime after 1812, as late as 1856 the administration of President James Buchanan, a Democrat, rejected the Declaration of Paris, which sought to ban piracy. In 1894 Theodore S. Woolsey, a supporter of the international ban on piracy and a critic of what was still U.S. policy, explained U.S. opposition in the Yale Law Journal: