A skillful playwright might have a good time with the story of the assassination of President William McKinley, and especially with the three most flamboyant political figures involved: Mark Hanna, Theodore Roosevelt, and Emma Goldman. All three were enemies of one another, all three were formidable political personalities, each had a different vision of the good society, and all three were ambitious. When sudden death takes a president, opportunities for new beginnings flourish among the ambitious and the tensions among such people can be dramatic, as they were when President Kennedy was killed.
The struggle for influence over the American future is the dramatic subtext of Scott Miller’s new look at the McKinley assassination and also of Vivian Gornick’s concise but elegant portrait of Emma Goldman, subtitled Revolution as a Way of Life. Goldman’s vision of a society reinvented through revolutionary upheaval was essentially poetic, compared with Hanna’s and Roosevelt’s prosaic theories about tariffs, taxes, trade, and trusts, but it was a time when politics was hospitable to poetry in the passionate and violent vein. Gornick draws a picture of the era as it looked to the world’s Emma Goldmans:
In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, all over Europe as well as in America, as the heartlessness of Victorian industrialism deepened in coal mines and clothing factories, steel mills and lumber camps, wherever roads and houses and bridges were being built, a desperation of relations between those who owned and those who labored was growing ever more deadly.
Whenever worker protest mounted, hired guns—often aided by the local police, national guards, or state troopers—appeared to shoot at, jail, blacklist, and, if necessary, kill the protesters and their organizers; and everywhere, the workers replied in kind: with guns of their own, or even dynamite, the poor man’s only real source of return fire.
Thousands of people on both sides of the divide perished during these years, and thousands more instantly took their place. The labor movement grew slowly—spilling blood, rage, and resistance in equal parts—but it grew.
This was not the world in which Hanna and Roosevelt dwelt. In the extraordinarily bitter presidential campaign of 1896 McKinley had beaten William Jennings Bryan, which meant that the urban hard-money interests—banks, big corporations—had beaten the rural Populists and free-silver Democrats. Republicanism’s marriage to big business was finally established. The party now controlled all the branches of government. “The Republican triumph could not have been more complete,” the historian Louis Hacker observed a generation later.
It may have been the high-water mark of unrestrained and uninhibited American capitalism, and Mark Hanna probably deserved as much credit for the victory as McKinley. Hanna was a dynamic coal-and-iron shipping industrialist from Ohio who loved politics, though an arrogant manner made him an unlikely candidate. Not a man…
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