The Writings of Carl Schurz/William McKinley


The many signs of popular approval, if not of genuine popularity, which have accompanied Mr. McKinley's public career, are well apt to stagger the assurance of anyone that had formed a low estimate of that gentleman's character or abilities. I frankly confess that more than once I have felt myself compelled by his “successes” coolly and carefully to reëxamine my own opinions concerning him, in order to discover whether I had not permitted myself to be carried away by hasty and superficial impressions in drawing my conclusions, and whether his admirers were not after all right. But in doing so I always ran against certain indisputable facts and certain personal experiences which irresistibly brought me back to my original judgment.

Before Mr. McKinley's election to the Presidency I had with him only a “speaking acquaintance.” Our meetings were few and unimportant, leaving the impression that he was a man of kindly disposition, good-nature and agreeable manners. But his public career could hardly fail to cause serious misgivings. I do not mean his attitude as an extreme protectionist. That might have been a matter of sincere conviction—although he frequently, in his utterances, showed that, even from the protectionist's point of view, he did not understand his case. But it was mainly his treatment of the silver question which drove the impartial observer to the conclusion that Mr. McKinley had no true convictions of his own, but advocated this and that, not because he believed that it was right but that it was popular with his constituents and advantageous to his party. Even in the National campaign of 1896 which, in spite of his own wishes, turned entirely upon the money question, it was smilingly remarked among Mr. McKinley's near friends, that, as to his personal feelings, he “was in favor of as much sound money as he thought a majority of the voters would stand.” It is well known how nervous he was, in that campaign, about the word “gold.” It was considered an event of importance when the appointed leader of the gold-standard movement in that campaign at last mustered courage enough to pronounce that word.

Early in the Presidential campaign of 1896, I was asked by a representative of the Republican National Committee to make some speeches for Mr. McKinley. Mr. Hobart, the Republican candidate for the Vice-Presidency, wrote to me personally in his behalf. While, of course, I did not hesitate to give my services to the sound-money cause, which was the foremost issue, I preferred to do so under the auspices of the National Sound Money League, a non-partisan organization, which had its headquarters at Chicago and was managed with great energy and judgment by Mr. Edwin Burritt Smith. It required not a little self-abnegation on the part of a tariff-reformer and an old and uncompromising sound-money man, as I was, to support for the Presidency, even indirectly, the putative father of the monstrous McKinley-tariff and one of those politicians who only recently had exhausted his whole art of plausible speech to mislead and demoralize the Republican party with regard to the matter of silver coinage. But the direct issue between sound and unsound money demanded the sacrifice of feeling, and I went “on the stump” advocating the sound-money cause as such to the best of my ability, without, however, mentioning Mr. McKinley's name in any of my speeches. While I was convinced that his election would substantially extinguish the free-silver-coinage movement, I was profoundly distrustful as to what Mr. McKinley's course in office would be. This distrust, however, touched rather his lack of conviction as to the financial question than any thing else. Could I have foreseen what his foreign policy would be, I should certainly never have supported him.

Shortly after Mr. McKinley's election a rumor arose that the new President would be asked, or that he was disposed, to send me as Ambassador to St. Petersburg. Although some extreme partisan papers violently protested against such a place being given to a man that recognized no party obligation, the rumor gained such strength that it was believed by many and even passed into the European press as a matter of fact. How and where that rumor originated, I have never been able to discover. In all probability Mr. McKinley never thought of any such arrangement. Certain it is that I never thought of it and should not have accepted the place, had it been offered to me, not only because I was not in the least inclined to enter the public service again in an official capacity, but also because I had contributed my efforts to the sound-money cause, and incidentally to the election of Mr. McKinley, as a free gift for which I could not take anything looking like a partisan reward; and finally because I could not have held an office of that kind under an Administration the main object of whose economic policy was certain to be a protective tariff of the extreme kind. I must, therefore, recognize the good taste of Mr. McKinley in not making to me any such offer, but in confining himself to a mark of courtesy and kind feeling which was entirely fitting the circumstances but which resulted in a curious and, as it turned out, a startling and highly significant experience.

A few weeks after Mr. McKinley's inauguration as President he visited the city of New York to take part in the ceremonies of the dedication of General Grant's tomb. I received a note from his private secretary informing me that President McKinley wished to see me in order to talk over with me the political situation; would I not call upon him at such an hour in the Windsor Hotel? Of course, I respectfully and gladly obeyed the invitation. We sat together fully an hour and a half, smoking cigars and talking. Our friendly conversation ranged over the whole field of politics. We agreed to disagree on the question of the tariff. As to the money question he said that he would employ the whole influence of his office to secure the best kind of currency legislation. He assured me that he was a convinced civil service reformer and that in this respect he hoped his Administration would leave nothing to desire. Then he asked me: “How do you like my foreign appointments?” The part of our conversation which then followed has remained very clearly and firmly fixed in my mind, for very soon afterwards I had peculiar reason for remembering it.

Responding to Mr. McKinley's question I said that I thought his foreign appointments would on the whole be considered as comparing favorably with those of his predecessors, and I complimented him especially upon the ideal selection of Mr. Andrew D. White for the embassy at Berlin. “But,” said I, “there is one appointment foreshadowed in the newspapers which, if made, may give you a good deal of trouble. It is reported that you are likely to send young Mr. Sewall of Maine as Minister to the Hawaiian Islands. Is he not connected with that coterie in Maine which some years ago instigated the revolution at Honolulu and precipitated the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands upon us? If he is, you will have to look for a repetition of such intrigues and of the same trouble in consequence.”

“Oh,” said Mr. McKinley, “I have thought of that, too, and have taken my precautions. I have had Mr. Sewall come to the White House and told him that there was a strong pressure from New England in favor of his appointment to the Hawaiian mission; that I had not concluded yet to appoint him, but, if I did, I wanted him distinctly to understand that I did not want any of that scheming for annexation, and that, if he went one hair's breadth beyond the instructions given him by the State Department, he would be instantly recalled.” Then I reached my hand over to President McKinley and said: “Permit me to take your hand on this. This is the best thing you have told me yet—that your Administration will not countenance anything of that kind.” He shook my hand vigorously and, with that hearty chest-swelling emphasis peculiar to him, he replied: “Ah, you may be sure there will be no jingo nonsense under my Administration. You need not borrow any trouble on that account.”

So we parted. I left him, on the whole, in a well satisfied mind. While, as to the tariff, we had reason to be prepared for the worst, the declarations he had made with regard to all other important questions were so explicit and unequivocal that we might hope for the best; and in the reports I gave to my friends about my conversation with the new President, I never failed to lay particular stress upon the assurance that no foreign adventure was thought of and that a strictly conservative policy was certain.

It is difficult to imagine my amazement when, a few weeks after this conversation had taken place, President McKinley sent to the Senate a treaty concluded with the Hawaiian Government providing for the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States. It was like a thunderclap from a clear sky. The matter had been arranged in entire secrecy. There had not been the slightest popular demand for such a treaty. No discussion in political circles or in the newspapers had foreshadowed the event. I wrote to some old friends in Washington inquiring whether they knew how this astounding change of the President's mind, if change of mind it was, had come about. Not one of them seemed able to furnish any explanation of the strange contrast of what President McKinley had said to me and what he had done officially. But something equally curious happened shortly afterwards.

During the following week I had occasion to address a letter to President McKinley concerning the Civil Service Commission. The President's private secretary replied that in the President's opinion such matters were much more easily arranged by personal conversation than by correspondence. Would I not come to Washington to have a talk with the President? Any day I might choose would be agreeable to him. Accordingly I went to Washington on July 1st. The President's private secretary met me at the Arlington Hotel, on my arrival, to inform me that the President wished me to dine with him that evening and that he had invited the whole Cabinet, as well as some of the assistant secretaries with whom I was acquainted. I duly expressed my gratitude for the honor. The dinner was very pleasant, but the conversation did not turn upon affairs of importance. When the company had left and we were alone, President McKinley listened kindly to what I had to say about the Civil Service Commission and promised to take it into favorable consideration, repeating substantially the protestations of his fidelity and zeal as a civil service reformer which he had made at our former interview.

This matter being disposed of, I said: “Mr. President, will you permit me a word about the Hawaiian business?” “Oh, certainly,” he replied. “There seems to be some difficulty in getting the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate for the treaty. But if we fail there, we can annex the Hawaiian Islands by joint resolution, as we annexed Texas. That will require only a majority in the two houses of Congress, which we can easily get.” I hardly knew what to say to this without appearing impolite. But I could not help observing: “That is not what I am after, Mr. President. Do you not recall the conversation we had about this matter at the Windsor Hotel in New York not long ago?” This remark seemed to be unexpected to him and to embarrass him a little. After a few moments hesitation he said: “Yes, yes, I remember now. You are opposed to that annexation, aren't you?” “Indeed I am,” I replied, “as you seemed to be opposed to it at that time.” And then I proceeded to state in as few words as possible my reasons for that opposition. When I stopped there were again a few moments of some what uncomfortable silence, whereupon he said: “Well, there is no possibility that the Senate will ratify the treaty at this session (the extra session of 1897), and during the summer the people will have time to think about it, and when Congress gets together again in December we may have a tangible expression of public opinion about the matter.” After this there was evidently nothing more to be said and I rose to take my leave. But the President invited me politely to come upstairs to see Mrs. McKinley and the young ladies who were with her, an invitation which, of course, I respectfully accepted. After a quarter of an hour of pleasant chat I departed, leaving the White House, I must confess, with a heart heavy with evil forebodings.

How a man, who had been so long in public life that he must be supposed to have definite opinions if not fixed convictions about so important a matter as the annexation of distant islands to this Republic, came to reverse his position in so short a period, I have never been able to ascertain. As I said, my friends in Washington could give me no clue. The supposition that, as in other instances, Mr. McKinley “had his ear to the ground” to discover the current of public sentiment and then to follow it, will hardly hold good in this case; for there was at the time no public sentiment favorable to the annexation of Hawaii. Indeed, when by the presentation of the treaty to the Senate the discussion of the subject in the press was started, the scheme found so little favor that the prospect of obtaining for it a two-thirds vote in the Senate seemed to grow darker and darker. It is not too much to say that its failure in Congress would have been well-nigh certain, had not the unreasoning excitement caused by the Spanish war helped it through. Mr. McKinley's sudden change of attitude can, therefore, not be explained upon the theory of popular pressure. How, then, could it be explained? About the time of Mr. McKinley's second nomination for the Presidency I mentioned the occurrences here related in conversation with a friend of mine, a gentleman of high character and social position, who from time to time had business with the Government in Washington and a large acquaintance there. He told me that he could solve the enigma. “I had no idea,” he observed, “what kind of people could exercise an influence with Mr. McKinley; the conversion of the President in favor of the annexation of Hawaii had been brought about by a gang of sugar speculators in pursuit of profit. The President had, of course, no pecuniary interest in the scheme; he probably had no idea of what those persons were after, but they had made him believe that the annexation was a good thing for his party and his Administration.” Whether my friend was right or not, I do not know. He may have been mistaken. But he evidently believed what he said.

However this may have been, it will not be found unnatural after all this that I should not attach to Mr. McKinley's official or unofficial utterances so much credence as many others do. When in the course of events he solemnly declared that “annexation by force could not be thought of because according to the American code of morals, it would be criminal aggression,” and then inaugurated a barefaced war of conquest; when he proclaimed it to be our “plain duty” to grant to Porto Rico free trade with the United States, and then used the influence of the Executive office to put through Congress a tariff upon our commerce with that island; when he again and again asseverated his devotion to civil service reform and then dealt the merit system the most vicious blow it had ever received, and so on, and so on—I was, like many others, very much grieved, but I was not greatly surprised.

  1. A fragment, supposed to have been written in the winter of 1900-1901.