Theodore Roosevelt's Reaction to McKinley's Assassination

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On 6 September 1901, at seven minutes past 4 pm, President William McKinley, Jr. was shot twice by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Though he initially seemed to be healing well, President McKinley eventually died eight days later at 2:15 am from gangrene. That same day at 3:30 pm, Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated for his first term as the twenty-sixth president of the United States. But before the inauguration took place, the vice-president went through various phases of hope and fear. The comprehensive collection of Theodore Roosevelt's correspondence available at the RSC, reveals Roosevelt's feelings and reaction to the news of the attack on McKinley.

The news of the attack on President McKinley during his visit to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo (New York), spread quickly throughout the United States. In a letter to Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt explained he was in Vermont with Senator Proctor at the time he heard the news, and that "the news seemed literally incredible." He immediately made his way to Buffalo to find the president in seemingly good health given the circumstances. In a letter to his sister Anna , sent from Buffalo on 7 September, he confirms that "[t]he President is coming along splendidly." In other letters available in the RSC Roosevelt really believed that the president was recovering well. After being told that McKinley was practically out of danger, Roosevelt left Buffalo to join his family in the Adirondack mountain range in the state of New York. He was climbing Mount Tahawus when a guide brought him the news that the president's condition had deteriorated and that he had to come to Buffalo as soon as possible. By the time Roosevelt had returned to Buffalo, McKinley had passed away.

In the letter to his sister on the attack, Roosevelt stated that he saw the assassination of McKinley not just as an attack on the president of the United States but also as a "worse crime against the republic and against free government all over the world." He also expressed his worries about the light punishment for such a crime. He feared that Czolgosz would be sentenced for ten years, which, with good behavior, would turn into just seven years, not much for such a hideous crime. In the aforementioned letter to Cabot Lodge he repeated these concerns, elaborating on how it was not an attack on power, since McKinley was "the absolute representative of the men who make up the immense bulk of our Nation," nor an attack on wealth, since McKinley was a moderate man. Nor could it be a personal attack, since he avoided personal enmities and was accessible to anyone. Instead he saw it as an attack solely on the democratic government, a crime "a thousand times worse than any murder of a private individual could be." For Roosevelt the attack confirmed his beliefs that the anarchists as well as their sympathizers should be actively opposed, since the assassination was executed by an anarchist. he held all anarchists and sympathizers responsible for crimes of this kind. This conviction led to a strict immigration policy to prevent anarchist ideas from spreading and to protect the labor market by excluding 'unhealthy' immigrants. This last measure derives from Roosevelt opinion that bad physical and social circumstances fostered the spread of anarchy.

In letters to Henry Cabot Lodge and Curtis Guild, Jr., he wrote that even though his position was a delicate matter when McKinley was shot, he travelled to Buffalo straight away, since he thought that "the only course to follow was that which was natural" and that he should act according to what he felt was right, and not what others thought about it. This delicate position stemmed from both personal differences between himself and President McKinley, as well as Roosevelt's own political ambitions. McKinley had appointed Roosevelt as his vice-president because of popular demand rather than his own preferences. Mark Hanna, McKinley's advisor in particular, was strongly opposed to the nomination of Roosevelt as vice-president, but at the national republican convention support for Roosevelt was overwhelming. Roosevelt himself was aiming for the presidency in 1904 and was afraid the position of vice-president would reduce his popularity. Since Roosevelt's presidential ambitions were general knowledge throughout the United States, it is not surprising that the assassination and death of McKinley put him in a delicate position. Other sources at the RSC document the transition of power and Roosevelt's quick rise as a strong executive leader.

McKinley and Roosevelt

William McKinley (left) and Theodore Roosevelt (right)