Remarks at a Banquet in Honor of the Birthday of the Late President McKinley in Canton, Ohio
Mr. Toastmaster, ladies, and gentlemen:
Throughout our history, and indeed throughout history generally, it has been given to only a very few thrice-favored men to take so marked a lead in the crises faced by their several generations that thereafter each stands as the embodiment of the triumphant effort of his generation. President McKinley was one of these men.
If during the lifetime of a generation no crisis occurs sufficient to call out in marked manner the energies of the strongest leader, then of course the world does not and cannot know of the existence of such a leader; and in consequence there are long periods in the history of every nation during which no man appears who leaves an indelible mark in history. If, on the other hand, the crisis is one so many-sided as to call for the development and exercise of many distinct attributes, it may be that more than one man will appear in order that the requirements shall be fully met. In the Revolution and in the period of constructive statesmanship immediately following it, for our good fortune it befell us that the highest military and the highest civic at tributes were embodied in Washington, and so in him we have one of the undying men of history—a great soldier, if possible an even greater statesman, and above all a public servant whose lofty and disinterested patriotism rendered his power and ability—alike on fought fields and in council chambers—of the most far-reaching service to the Republic. In the Civil War the two functions were divided, and Lincoln and Grant will stand for evermore with their names inscribed on the honor roll of those who have deserved well of mankind by saving to humanity a precious heritage. In similar fashion Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson stand each as the foremost representative of the great movement of his generation, and their names symbolize to us their times and the hopes and aspirations of their times.
It was given to President McKinley to take the foremost place in our political life at a time when our country was brought face to face with problems more momentous than any whose solution we have ever attempted, save only in the Revolution and in the Civil War; and it was under his leadership that the Nation solved these mighty problems aright. Therefore he shall stand in the eyes of history not merely as the first man of his generation, but as among the greatest figures in our national life, coming second only to the men of the two great crises in which the Union was founded and preserved.
No man could carry through successfully such a task as President McKinley undertook, unless trained by long years of effort for its performance. Knowledge of his fellow-citizens, ability to understand them, keen sympathy with even their innermost feelings, and yet power to lead them, together with far-sighted sagacity and resolute belief both in the people and in their future—all these were needed in the man who headed the march of our people during the eventful years from 1896 to 1901. These were the qualities possessed by McKinley and developed by him throughout his whole history previous to assuming the Presidency. As a lad he had the inestimable privilege of serving, first in the ranks, and then as a commissioned officer, in the great war for national union, righteousness, and grandeur; he was one of those whom a kindly Providence permitted to take part in a struggle which embodied every man who fought therein. He who when little more than a boy had seen the grim steadfastness which after four years of giant struggle restored the Union and freed the slaves was not thereafter to be daunted by danger or frightened out of his belief in the great destiny of our people.
Some years after the war closed McKinley came to Congress, and rose, during a succession of terms, to leadership in his party in the lower House. He also became Governor of his native State, Ohio. During this varied service he received practical training of the kind most valuable to him when he became Chief Executive of the Nation. To the high faith of his early years was added the capacity to realize his ideals, to work with his fellow-men at the same time that he led them.
President McKinley's rise to greatness had in it nothing of the sudden, nothing of the unexpected or seemingly accidental. Throughout his long term of service in Congress there was a steady increase alike in his power of leadership and in the recognition of that power both by his associates in public life and by the public itself. Session after session his influence in the House grew greater; his party antagonists grew to look upon him with constantly increasing respect, his party friends with constantly increasing faith and admiration. Eight years before he was nominated for President he was already considered a Presidential possibility. Four years before he was nominated only his own high sense of honor prevented his being made a formidable competitor of the chief upon whom the choice of the convention then actually fell. In 1896, he was chosen because the grate mass of his party knew him and believed in him and regarded him as symbolizing their ideals, as representing their aspirations. In estimating the forces which brought about this nomination and election I do not undervalue that devoted personal friendship which he had the faculty to inspire in so marked a degree among the ablest and most influential leaders; this leadership was of immense consequence in bringing about the result; but, after all, the prime factor was the trust in and devotion to him felt by the great mass of men who had come to accept him as their recognized spokesman. In his nomination the national convention of a great party carried into effect in good faith the deliberate judgment of that party as to whom its candidate should be.
But even as a candidate President McKinley was far more than the candidate of a party, and as President he was in the broadest and fullest sense the President of all the people of all sections of the country.
His first nomination came to him because of the qualities he had shown in healthy and open political leadership, the leadership which by word and deed impresses itself as a virile force for good upon the people at large and which has nothing in common with mere intrigue or manipulation. But, in 1896, the issue was fairly joined, chiefly upon a question which as a party question was entirely new, so that the old lines of political cleavage were, in large part, abandoned. All other issues sank in importance when compared with the vital need of keeping our financial system on the high and honorable plane imperatively demanded by our position as a great civilized power. As the champion of such a principle President McKinley received the support not only of his own party, but of hundreds of thousands of those to whom he had been politically opposed. He triumphed, and he made good with scrupulous fidelity the promises upon which the campaign was won. We were at the time in a period of great industrial depression, and it was promised for and on behalf of McKinley that if he were elected our financial system should not only be preserved unharmed but improved and our economic system shaped in accordance with those theories which have always marked our periods of greatest prosperity. The promises were kept and following their keeping came the prosperity which we now enjoy. All that was fore told concerning the well-being which would follow the election of McKinley has been justified by the event. But as so often happens in our history, the President was forced to face questions other than those at issue at the time of his election. Within a year the situation in Cuba had become literally intolerable. President McKinley had fought too well in his youth, he knew too well at first hand what war really was, lightly to enter into a struggle. He sought by every honorable means to preserve peace, to avert war. He made every effort consistent with the national honor to bring about an amicable settlement of the Cuban difficulty. Then, when it became evident that these efforts were useless, that peace could not be honorably entertained, he devoted his strength to making the war as short and as decisive as possible. It is needless to tell the result in detail. Suffice it to say that rarely indeed in history has a contest so far-reaching in the importance of its outcome been achieved with such ease. There followed a harder task. As a result of the war we came into possession of Cuba, Porto Rico, and the Philippines. In each island the conditions were such that we had to face problems entirely new to our national experience, and, moreover, in each island or group of islands the problems differed radically from those presented in the others. In Porto Rico the task was simple. The island could not be independent. It became in all essentials a part of the Union. It has been given all the benefits of our economic and financial system. Its inhabitants have been given the highest individual liberty, while yet their government has been kept under the supervision of officials so well chosen that the island can be appealed to as affording a model for all such experiments in the future; and this result was mainly owing to the admirable choice of instruments by President McKinley when he selected the governing officials.
In Cuba, where we were pledged to give the island independence, the pledge was kept not merely in letter but in spirit. It would have been a betrayal of our duty to have given Cuba independence out of hand. President McKinley, with his usual singular sagacity in the choice of agents, selected in General Leonard Wood the man of all others best fit to bring the island through its uncertain period of preparation for independence, and the result of his wisdom was shown when last May the island became in name and in fact a free Republic, for it started with a better equipment and under more favorable conditions than had ever previously been the case with any Spanish American commonwealth.
Finally, in the Philippines, the problem was one of great perplexity. There was an insurrectionary party claiming to represent the people of the islands and putting forth their claim with a certain speciousness which deceived no small number of excellent men here at home, and which afforded to yet others a chance to arouse a factious party spirit against the President. Of course, looking back, it is now easy to see that it would have been both absurd and wicked to abandon the Philip pine Archipelago and let the scores of different tribes—Christian, Mohammedan, and pagan, in every stage of semi-civilization and Asiatic barbarism—turn the islands into a welter of bloody savagery, with the absolute certainty that some strong power would have to step in and take possession. But though now it is easy enough to see that our duty was to stay in the islands, to put down the insurrection by force of arms, and then to establish freedom—giving civil government, it needed genuine statesmanship to see this and to act accordingly at the time of the first revolt. A weaker and less far-sighted man than President McKinley would have shrunk from a task very difficult in itself, and certain to furnish occasion for attack and misrepresentation no less than for honest misunderstanding. But President McKinley never flinched. He refused to consider the thought of abandoning our duty in our new possessions. While sedulously endeavoring to act with the utmost humanity toward the insurrectionists, he never faltered in the determination to put them down by force of arms, alike for the sake of our own interest and honor, and for the sake of the interest of the islanders, and particularly of the great numbers of friendly natives, including those most highly civilized, for whom abandonment by us would have meant ruin and death. Again his policy was most amply vindicated. Peace has come to the islands, together with a greater measure of individual liberty and self-government than they have ever before known. All the tasks set us as a result of the war with Spain have so far been well and honorably accomplished, and as a result this Nation stands higher than ever be fore among the nations of mankind.
President McKinley's second campaign was fought mainly on the issue of approving what he had done in his first administration, and specifically what he had done as regards these problems springing out of the war with Spain. The result was that the popular verdict in his favor was more overwhelming than it had been before.
No other President in our history has seen high and honorable effort crowned with more conspicuous personal success. No other President entered upon his second term feeling such right to a profound and peaceful satisfaction. Then by a stroke of horror, so · strange in its fantastic iniquity as to stand unique in the black annals of crime, he was struck down. The brave, strong, gentle heart was stilled forever, and word was brought to the woman who wept that she was to walk thenceforth alone in the shadow. The hideous infamy of the deed shocked the Nation to its depths, for the man thus struck at was in a peculiar sense the champion of the plain people, in a peculiar sense the representative and the exponent of those ideals which, if we live up to them, will make, as they have largely made, our country a blessed refuge for all who strive to do right and to live their lives simply and well as light is given them. The Nation was stunned, and the people mourned with a sense of bitter bereavement because they had lost a man whose heart beat for them as the heart of Lincoln once had beaten. We did right to mourn; for the loss was ours, not his. He died in the golden fulness of his triumph. He died victorious in that highest of all kinds of strife—the strife for an ampler, juster, and more generous national life. For him the laurel; but woe for those whom he left behind; woe to the Nation that lost him; and woe to mankind that there should exist creatures so foul that one among them should strike at so noble a life.
We are gathered together to-night to recall his memory, to pay our tribute of respect to the great chief and leader who fell in the harness, who was stricken down while his eyes were bright with "the light that tells of triumph tasted." We can honor him best by the way we show in actual deed that we have taken to heart the lessons of his life. We must strive to achieve, each in the measure that he can, something of the qualities which made President McKinley a leader of men, a mighty power for good—his strength, his courage, his courtesy and dignity, his sense of justice, his ever-present kindliness and regard for the rights of others. He won greatness by meeting and solving the issues as they arose—not by shirking them—meeting them with wisdom, with the exercise of the most skillful and cautious judgment, but with fearless resolution when the time of crisis came.
He met each crisis on its own merits; he never sought excuse for shirking a task in the fact that it was different from the one he had expected to face. The long public career, which opened when as a boy he carried a musket in the ranks and closed when as a man in the prime of his intellectual strength he stood among the world's chief statesmen, came to what it was because he treated each triumph as opening the road to fresh effort, not as an excuse for ceasing from effort. He undertook mighty tasks. Some of them he finished completely, others we must finish, and there remain yet others which he did not have to face, but which, if we are worthy to be the inheritors of his principles, we will in our turn face with the same resolution, the same sanity, the same unfaltering belief in the greatness of this country, and unfaltering championship of the rights of each and all of our people, which marked his high and splendid career.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at a Banquet in Honor of the Birthday of the Late President McKinley in Canton, Ohio Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343425