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Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America
By Eric Rauchway
Hill and Wang
HC, 259 pg., US$25/C$41.50
ISBN: 0-8090-7170-3

The day America changed

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 29, 2003

Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's AmericaPolitical assassinations by their very nature change the course of history but the murder of U.S. President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz (pronounced Cholgosh) quite literally changed the agenda of the United States overnight. McKinley's America was, to quote a future president, in the business of business. His assassin was an anarchist who believed it was his duty to kill political leaders who stood in the way of a utopian society. The future of American politics was left for Teddy Roosevelt to change permanently.

Eric Rauchway's Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America uses McKinley's death and the aftermath to focus on a number intertwining threads that ran through American politics and society in the late 19th century. The industrial revolution figured prominently in America's rise as an economic power but it came at a high cost for the millions of Americans -- both foreign born and native -- who served as its foot soldiers. Although the nation relied on them for the cheap labour necessary to produce the products the world needed, they were largely nameless, feared for their politics and potential power, and treated with contempt.

One of those millions was Czolgosz, the son of Polish immigrants, whose loss of faith in the American dream eventually led him to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901 where he shot McKinley twice. One week later the popular president died and Czolgosz was tried and found guilty of murder. On October 29 he was executed with the electric chair and his body was dissolved with sulfuric acid.

Czolgosz's guilt was never in question but it was his motivation for the assassination that puzzled many. During the trial it was worried that he might be found not guilty due to insanity, prompting some to fear that the entire underclass might rise up and declare themselves insane due to social and economic pressures. Although the state's psychologists -- or alienists as they were known then -- found him sane, not everyone believed that was the case.

Through Boston psychologist Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, who launched his own independent investigation of Czolgosz's motivations, Rauchway explores Czolgosz's America. Although the assassin himself claimed that his anarchism prompted the crime, Briggs wasn't convinced. Through his investigation, which included interviewing members of Czolgosz's immediate family, Briggs puts together a picture of life at the bottom of the economic ladder -- a position he himself once occupied. It is a brutal world plagued by uncertainty and powerlessness with men like Leon Czolgosz serving as drones.

That world worried Teddy Roosevelt as well who feared that a discontented underclass could overthrow the republic. Named McKinley's running mate to neuter him politically, Roosevelt never expected to hold the reigns of power. Thanks to Czolgosz, Roosevelt found himself suddenly able to launch his Progressive agenda, one that charted a course between radicalism and reactionary forces and pushed the Republican Party towards the left. The threat of socialism and anarchism allowed Roosevelt the opportunity to transform the nation without the threat of being labeled an enemy of the traditional order.

For a compact book Rauchway manages to squeeze in a remarkable amount of information about a chaotic time in America's past. A lesser writer could have easily swamped a reader with a complex story but Rauchway presents a readable and enjoyable look at people and events that are still relevant to us today. Murdering McKinley has its flaws -- Rauchway uncritically accepts history the way the adherents of the Progressive philosophy have portrayed it -- but it remains one of the best introductions to the challenges America faced on the dawn of the 20th century.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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