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

Today’s Democrats, many of whom have repudiated the party’s tradition of annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, are more inclined to identify with women and minorities in the American past than with white male yeoman farmers and white working-class men. But with the exception of Sean Wilentz, unlike Schlesinger and De Voto today’s partisan Democratic historians are mostly academics who write for each other and have little influence outside of the academy. Nor does the radical leftist tradition of William Appleman Williams, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky have any purchase on the imaginations of Americans outside of campuses.

The New Deal version of history thus persists in popular consciousness. The treatment of turn-of-the-century U.S. naval imperialism as a brief and discreditable fluke preceding the glorious dawn of Wilsonian internationalism continues to have influence. So does the enduring image of the election of 1896 as a melodrama, in which pawns of big banks and big business like McKinley forever destroyed the arcadian America of Thomas Jefferson and William Jennings, and set the United States on a path of perpetual war and conquest.

MERRY’S BOOK demonstrates how little this familiar cartoon version of history resembles reality. For one thing, Merry shows that McKinley was not the puppet of Mark Hanna or anyone else. Quite the contrary. While he was opposed to Bryan’s inflationary free-silver policies, McKinley was flexible with respect to the gold standard. Nor was he a mere pawn of big corporations. As a lawyer and governor he had won the respect of workers in disputes with employers, and he struggled with the question of what to do about the new corporate oligopolies and monopolies, or “trusts”—a question his successor Theodore Roosevelt would struggle with as well. On questions of race and civil rights, he was cautious and paternalist, but like other Lincoln Republicans, this veteran of the Civil War was more liberal than most Democrats of the time.

But the conventional wisdom remains dominated by the New Deal liberal version of U.S. foreign-policy history, in which two ages of the “common man”—the Jacksonian era and the New Deal—were separated by the plutocratic “Gilded Age.” The “age of imperialism” (as old-fashioned textbooks quaintly call it) is an isolated episode between the Spanish-American War and World War I. The United States takes up the mantle of its liberal internationalist destiny under Woodrow Wilson, only to retreat into misguided isolationism and protectionism after World War I, until American internationalism finally triumphs under FDR (at least until Trump betrays it with “America First” nationalism, according to some).

The New Deal liberal interpretation of history ignores the continuities in American foreign policy from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. The timing depended on circumstances, but the goal of U.S. hegemony in the North American continent and control of its maritime approaches was shared by many in the U.S. elite from the very beginning. In Federalist 11, Alexander Hamilton called for the United States to “aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs,” so that the United States would be “able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.” As Merry observes,

*** “America had been from its inception a nation of vast designs, driven by an impulse to consolidate its position across the North American midsection—purchasing the vast Louisiana expanse in 1803, negotiating possession of Florida in 1819, annexing Texas in 1845, acquiring much of Oregon Territory in 1846, and conquering lands in 1848 that would become its southwestern domain.” ***

In the Jeffersonian imagination, U.S. expansion is identified with the acquisition of acreage that could be settled by pioneer farmers (once the Native Americans or native Mexican inhabitants were dispossessed). But from the point of view of the policymakers who obtained them, these big chunks of territory were chiefly important as strategic seaports that happened to have thinly populated hinterlands attached. The United States did not abruptly switch under McKinley from overland territorial expansion seeking acreage for democracy-loving yeoman farmers to naval imperialism seeking bases in the service of militarists and greedy industrialists.

All of the great land grabs of American history were motivated in part by the desire to obtain strategic ports. The main objective of the diplomats Thomas Jefferson sent to negotiate with Napoleon in 1803 was obtaining the port of New Orleans, not the Louisiana Territory. The Adams-Oniz Treaty of 1819, which purchased Florida from Spain, and the U.S. annexation of “West Florida,” the Gulf Coast between present-day Florida and New Orleans, ensured access to the Gulf of Mexico. Many Americans believed that Texas had been included in the original Louisiana Territory purchase; from this perspective the annexation of Texas, which had been detached from Mexico by rebellious Anglo-American settlers and their native allies in 1836, was a mopping-up operation. When Mexico went to war with the United States over the annexation of Texas, the Polk administration, which had tried to purchase California, obtained its prize by conquest: the port of San Francisco. Earlier, the United States had risked war with Britain to partition the Oregon Territory, on terms that allowed the United States access to Vancouver Bay while leaving Vancouver Island in British hands. The purchase of Alaska from Russia by Secretary of State William Seward during Andrew Johnson’s administration in 1867 rounded off the continental domains of the United States.