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

*** “The action of the United States was thus explained. The policy of this country was against the maintenance of a large navy. To supplement that navy in the work of commerce destroying and of enforcing the rules of naval war against neutral trade, the issue of letters of marque and reprisal might be necessary.” ***

In Jeffersonian ideology, just as a standing army too small to threaten the republic should be expanded only on a temporary basis during wartime by state militias, so a small navy should be augmented by privateers as well as the merchant marine. Not until 1961, when the U.S. Senate ratified the 1958 United Nations Convention on the High Seas, did the United States formally renounce the use of privateers.

Because “war is the health of the state,” to use Randolph Bourne’s phrase, and the centralized, bureaucratic state is the enemy of freedom, according to Jeffersonian theory, it followed that mere participation in great-power politics threatened to convert the American republic into a tyrannical, militarized European-style regime. Both Jeffersonian isolationism and Wilsonian internationalism sought to address the threat of U.S. militarization in different ways—the former, by withdrawing the United States from Old World military competition, the latter by transcending it. In this way Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic vision of a “war to end war,” followed by perpetual peace under the League of Nations, can be seen as a modification of Jeffersonian ideology rather than a repudiation of it. If militarization threatens democracy, then a world without great-power war would be “safe for democracy” even though many or most states might not themselves be democratic. This Wilsonian argument, recovered from historical obscurity by contemporary historians of “republican security theory” like Daniel Deudney and David C. Hendrickson, is far more subtle than modern “democratic peace theory,” which calls for world peace through democratic regime change everywhere.

This explains why twentieth-century Democrats could view the navalism of McKinley and TR, and the liberal internationalism of Wilson, as entirely different and incompatible projects. The turn-of-the-century thinkers and policymakers whom Samuel P. Huntington described as “neo-Hamiltonians,” like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, wanted to equip the United States with the traditional tools of a great power, to play the great-power game more or less as it had always been played. Woodrow Wilson wanted to replace great-power politics altogether.

To Jeffersonian Democrats, then, the Hamiltonian Republicans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were evil incarnate. They were identified with the interest of big banks and big businesses, which threatened the small farmers and small shopkeepers fetishized by Jeffersonians. They were protectionists, when according to Jeffersonians free trade was the only rational and moral policy. Their support for a large army and a large navy with global reach under the control of a strong president threatened to replace the decentralized American republic with a militaristic American empire.

These views shaped the version of U.S. history that several generations of Americans were taught, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s. Popular historians of the New Deal era succeeding in creating a “usable past” for the New Deal Democrats by disparaging all Republicans except for one. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, every Republican president from Andrew Johnson to Herbert Hoover was portrayed as a callous servant of plutocratic interests, the enemy of the family farmer and the industrial worker. The Democratic historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., for example, sought to portray Andrew Jackson as a kind of proto-FDR and the Jacksonian Democrats as precursors of the New Deal Democrats. In his own Oval Office, FDR’s protégé Lyndon Johnson had portraits of three presidents: Washington, FDR and Andrew Jackson.

One might guess that, given the attempt by Schlesinger and others to rehabilitate the Jacksonian Democrats, there would have been an attempt to cast a heroic light on the central events of U.S. foreign policy during the Jacksonian era of the 1830s and 1840s. And indeed there was, in Bernard de Voto’s popular historical trilogy about America’s Jacksonian-era expansion: The Year of Decision 1846 (1942), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), which won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes, and The Course of Empire (1952), which won the National Book Award.

A similar rewriting of history in the service of New Deal liberalism took place in the realm of foreign policy. According to liberal New Dealers, Franklin Roosevelt during World War II fulfilled the heroic vision of Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he had served as assistant secretary of the navy. Wilson and Roosevelt stood for liberal internationalism and collective security, embodied in the League of Nations and the United Nations. Enlightened liberal internationalism had nothing to do with the benighted, European-style imperialism of McKinley and TR. In this way, the foreign policy of McKinley and TR came to be defined as an aberrant and un-American interlude of “imperialism” between the Jeffersonian isolationism of the nineteenth century and the noble twentieth-century liberal internationalism of Wilson and FDR.