#26: Theodore Roosevelt: Out of Canaan, Into the Promised Land

Theodore Roosevelt was the Vice President to William McKinley and took office after McKinley was assassinated.

Like a couple other Vice Presidents in American history, his political party attached him to the presidential ticket as a political dead end where they thought he'd not be able to do any more harm to the party.

There was a somewhat similar situation to this in the Lincoln/Andrew Johnson administration in the 1860's and the William Henry Harrison/ John Tyler administration in the 1840's, so this was not an entirely unknown trick in the political machine tool belt.  It was thought throughout the 1800's and early 1900's that being nominated to the Vice Presidency was a complete dead end that a politician could never recover from.  It was even still being decided at this time whether it was even completely constitutional for a Vice President to take power after the death of a sitting President.  Many constitutionalists at the time thought that a special election should be held during which time, the Vice President simply makes sure the ship of state doesn't sink.

What annoyed the political establishment so much was that TR had fought the New York machine for his entire political career.  As police commissioner, he attempted to curb the corruption and bribery that the NYPD which was being used to reward the machine's friends and punish its enemies.  Later, as a celebrated author, war hero and anti corruption crusader, he was elected governor of New York and pushed the Republican party even further in trying to end the party machine's influence.

This plan of course backfired when McKinley was shot by a self professed anarchist and TR assumed power.  Unlike McKinley, TR didn't just tweak the direction of the United States away from isolation and towards a more robust foreign policy.  He truly created trans formative change in domestic policy and redefined the idea of government.   None of this would bode well for the old order of the kingmakers that ran both parties, however, in creating the grandfather of Lyndon Johnson's great society, it could be argued that TR merely created a new breed of political elites.  But that's a post for another time...

In a sign of how much America has changed since the beginning of the Gilded Age proceeding TR, here's a film clip of his "Shall We Prepare" speech:


William McKinley: In his own voice

The final speech of William McKinley is available at the Library of Congress website.

After reading about William McKinley's "front porch" campaign in Niles, Ohio, I expected his actual speech delivery would be more like George W. Bush than F.D.R., but I was wrong.

Maybe it's because he was from outside the East coast, or that he ran an everyman type campaign.  The way he speaks is probably typical of important men at the turn of the twentieth century, but by today's standards it sounds like the monocle guy from monopoly.

What he says and proposes are exactly what he did prior to giving this speech (he was assassinated shortly after this) .  He calls for the expansion of the Navy for the purposes of defending the economic interests abroad.  This fits perfectly in line with the Spanish- American war and the seizure of Cuba, Guam and the Philippines.  Although McKinley ushered in the execution of America's imperial ambitions, it's interesting that he doesn't say we should enhance our military power solely for the purposes of being powerful as seems to be done today.

He also calls for the protection of both labor and industry, a position that would be almost unthinkable for either political party nowadays. 


William McKinley: Spanish American War

One of the main arguments the book I read on McKinley made was that he, and not Theodore Roosevelt was the first modern president.

One of the main things the author does to back up this claim is to illustrate how McKinley, like modern presidents, heavily relied on the military to carry out the government's foreign policy objectives.

William McKinley certainly did rely on the scaled up armed forces to carry out his political goals, but I think that rather than emphasizing military adventurism as a "modern" phenomenon, it's more important to realize that at this point in our nation's history, we turned away from the Monroe Doctrine and started to more willingly enter into entangling alliances.

He intervened in Cuba, which has parallels to the Vietnam conflict.  The Spanish American War even had it's own Gulf of Tonkin type causus belli with the sinking of the battleship Maine off the coast of Cuba.  Most accounts seem to hold that the ship blew up because of an accident, not a Spanish attack, but this did nothing to dissuade the pro war newspapers from describing this as another act of Spanish aggression.  Ultimately, the United States swept through Cuba and secured a treaty within three months, winning control not only of Cuba, but also Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

The war up to this point had been very successful and helped bring McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt even more national fame when he left his post as Secretary of Navy to lead the "Rough Rider" regiment to victory in Cuba.

The problems came when the United States took control of the Philippines, liberating the residents from Spanish control, but facing a homegrown insurgency not long after the Spanish left.  We don't read about the Philippine-American war very often in our history books, but it was one of the largest issues of the late 1800's and early twentieth century.  The United States army was stuck there for over a decade, fighting a homegrown insurgency made up of religious fanatics (sound familiar?).  Estimates of civilian and military casualties are all very political and imperfect, but some estimates say as many as 35,000 Fillipino soldiers died and as many as 200,000 civilians died either directly from the war or indirectly from actions the Americans took.  In addition, torture such as the "water cure" (an early form of waterboarding) is believed to have been commonplace along with scorched earth policies that allowed the burning down of entire villages.

The story was the same then as it is now.  The United States could have held the high ground after they reached a strategic goal and the Spanish withdrew  from Cuba.  But just as we feel we need to bring democracy to the middle east now, Americans back then thought along the same lines and wanted to completely topple the Spanish empire.  The cost in blood and treasure and moral authority however, was much more than the United States paid the dying Spanish empire to acquire the Philippines.