Presidential Politics Always Filled with Strange Twists and Turns

This rare 1902 Oklahoma Territorial Red Seal, with a vignette of President William McKinley, sold for $16,450 at an April 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The 56th Congress (1899-1901) had assembled in a spirit of tranquility. For the first time since 1883, Republicans were in control of every branch of government and they rejoiced in an exceptional unity. It was the third and fourth years of President William McKinley’s presidency and included one African-American, George Henry White of North Carolina – the last black member of Congress until 1928 and the last one from the South until 1972.

McKinley was in the midst of a dramatically expanding era of foreign trade and the entire nation was applauding U.S. Secretary of State John Hay’s negotiations for the “Open Door Policy” into China. Republicans were also free to take action on the president’s policy to establish a temporary government in Porto Rico (the name was changed by Congress in 1931), with free trade between the islands and the United States. In addition, they needed to provide a territorial government for newly acquired Hawaii.

The minority lost no time in seeking revenge. Lacking a constructive program and impotent to prevent legislation on which the majority united, Democratic leaders resorted to opposition in its rawest form: Seek any device to divide or delay the Republican steamroller (sound familiar?). Constitutional questions were raised on a wide range of resolutions, with special attention to matters involving the Philippines, another recent addition courtesy of the Spanish-American War in 1898. They accused the administration of censorship and obscuring facts from the people on a broad set of issues. Anything to slow them down.

Despite furious, intermittent debates, the chairman of the Committee on the Philippines recommended granting the president broad legislative authority, almost carte blanche legal authority to do as he pleased. This further outraged Democrats and even seemed radical to many Republican senators. But the legislation had been carefully constructed by the superbly knowledgeable Senator John Spooner and modeled on the act by which Congress had authorized Thomas Jefferson to govern Louisiana nearly 100 years earlier.

This further emboldened the president and he adopted an even broader assumption of power and established a new commission to “build up from the bottom” and create a central government to be established in Manila, with the head likely to become a civilian governor. For this position, McKinley wanted a man of unusual qualifications, not only administrative and judicial, but moral as well. He wanted someone who possessed the extraordinary tact and patience required to bridge an interim period of joint control with a military government.

In the middle of January, the president telegraphed Judge William Howard Taft of Cincinnati politely asking him to call.

Taft was an affable man of 42; jolly but impressive with a big body, big smile and a bigger judicial brain, serving as judge of the U.S. Circuit Court at Cincinnati for eight years. Though Taft was a prominent jurist and a highly respected Republican, he did not know McKinley well during McKinley’s time as governor of Ohio. Taft had mingled in politics without becoming a typical politician. He was far too fastidious for the compromises and bargains, uneasy with the quid pro quo and backslapping of politics. Further, he did not have a high opinion of McKinley, despite a cordial dinner on the night of the Ohio elections of 1899.

Less than three months later came this unexpected call from the White House, presumably at the urging of Mark Hanna, the ultimate kingmaker.

Taft was perplexed by the call since he had a single all-consuming ambition, to become a member of the Supreme Court, and there had been no talk of a vacancy. When he arrived at the White House, McKinley came straight to the point, asking him to be a member of the Philippines commission and intimating he would head it. Years later when he was president-elect of the United States, Taft recalled the conversation in a speech: “Judge, I’d like you to go to the Philippines.” “Mr. President, I would like to help, but I am sorry we got the Philippines and I don’t want them.” “Judge, you don’t want them less than I do, but we’ve got them and I can trust a man who doesn’t want them more than a man who does!”

So Judge William Taft became governor of the Philippines (a job he didn’t want) and, ultimately, the 27th president of the United States (another job he reluctantly accepted). He finally got his dream job as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on July 11, 1921. He would serve until he retired on Feb. 3, 1930. After his death the following month, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the first president and first Supreme Court Justice to be interred there.

Presidential politics took some strange twists and turns along the way … and some things never seem to change.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Fairbanks Never Won the Presidency, But there is That City…

A rare 1904 Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Fairbanks jugate (with a cartoon image by the creator of the Teddy Bear, Clifford Berryman) sold for $8,050 at a June 2005 auction.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” – Prince Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

By Jim O’Neal

Charles W. Fairbanks gave the keynote address at the June 1896 Republican Convention in St. Louis. Following the successful nomination and election of former Governor William McKinley of Ohio, Fairbanks became a U.S. Senator from Indiana.

When 1900 rolled around, Mark Hanna – one of the earliest “kingmakers” in American politics – tried to persuade Fairbanks to run as McKinley’s vice president (Vice President Garret Hobart had died in office). But, Fairbanks thought he had a better chance to become president by staying in the Senate.

Bad decision.

McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became president. Fairbanks recognized his earlier lost opportunity, so in 1904, he accepted the vice presidency with TR in the hope that his shot at the presidency would come in 1908.

Wrong again.

Roosevelt threw his support to friend and colleague William Howard Taft and that squashed Fairbank’s aspirations once again.

Now flash forward eight years to 1916, and we find our old friend Fairbanks running for vice president again, this time with former Governor Charles E. Hughes of New York. Alas, Woodrow Wilson was reelected and Fairbanks finally just gave up.

However, he does have a major city named for him, albeit few people can find it on a map.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President McKinley’s Popularity Soared Despite ‘Imperialist’ Charges

william-mckinley-beaver-top-hat-with-leather-traveling-case
President McKinley’s beaver top hat and leather traveling case realized $17,925 at a December 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Exactly 115 years ago this week, on Sept. 14, 1901, the 25th president of the United States, William McKinley, died from an assassin’s bullet. He had been shot on Sept. 6 in Buffalo, N.Y., while attending the Pan-American Exposition.

As he stood shaking hands with a long line of well-wishers at the Temple of Music, a man approached with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief. As McKinley extended his hand to the man, Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American anarchist, he was shot twice by a concealed .32-caliber revolver. One bullet deflected off a suit button, but the other entered his stomach, passed through a kidney and lodged in his back.

When doctors operated, they were unable to locate the bullet and he died eight days later from the spread of gangrene throughout his body. It was eerily similar to the assassination of President James Garfield 20 years earlier. He had been shot on July 2, 1881, and did not die until Sept. 19. Again, his doctors were unable to locate the bullet and he suffered for over two months as they probed the wound with their unsanitary hands and instruments until they killed him.

william-mckinley
McKinley

Both men would have easily survived if they had the benefit of modern medicine. By the time of McKinley’s death, the X-ray had been invented and doctors in the Balkan war in 1897 were using it to “see inside patients’ bodies.” However, the possible side effects of radiation were not yet recognized.

William McKinley had entered politics following the Civil War and at age 34 was a member of the House of Representatives for 14 years before losing in 1890. He then served two terms as governor of Ohio and by 1896 was the leading Republican candidate for president. Aided by wealthy Ohio industrialist Mark Hanna, he easily defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan by the largest margin since the Civil War.

During his first term, McKinley earned a reputation as a protectionist by advocating high tariffs to protect American business and labor from foreign imports. He was a staunch supporter of the gold standard to back up paper money. However, foreign policy became a major issue in April 1898 when the United States intervened in the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain. The Spanish-American War was over in a quick three months and Cuba became a U.S. protectorate. This was followed by the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Suddenly, the United States had become a colonialist power, with a big interest in Asia, especially China.

President McKinley’s popularity soared during these economic boom times, and despite charges of being an “imperialist,” his margin of victory over William Jennings Bryan was even greater in the 1900 presidential rematch. Theodore Roosevelt was selected as McKinley’s vice president – against Mark Hanna’s strong objections – and naturally became president after McKinley’s unfortunate death.

Teddy “The Rough Rider” Roosevelt, who had charged up San Juan Hill, would bring a new level of energy and spirit to the White House. All Mark Hanna could do was watch and grouse, “Now look! That damn cowboy is president!”

The nation seemed to do just fine.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Intraparty Feuding Over Presidential Politics Not New

This 1900 William McKinley reelection poster realized $17,925 at a May 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“Now look! That damn cowboy is president!” – Mark Hanna (1901)

Major William McKinley was the last veteran of the Civil War to be nominated for president by any party. With the backing of Ohio businessman and U.S. Senator Mark Hanna, McKinley won the 1896 presidential election and was inaugurated on March 4, 1897. This was the last presidential inauguration of the 19th century and the first to be recorded on film.

His vice president, Garret Hobart, died in 1899 at age 55 from heart disease. He would become the last man to serve in that office in the 19th century and the last vice president to die while in office. The vice presidency was then vacant until the next election.

As the incumbent, McKinley was the strong favorite in 1900, but a major dispute erupted over the choice for VP. There was a lot of support for Theodore Roosevelt after his high-profile exploits in the Spanish-American War, however, “King Maker” Hanna was very much opposed. He viewed TR as a maverick who would be hard to control and made his opinion well known:

“Matter! Matter! Why, everybody’s gone crazy. What is the matter with all of you? Here’s this convention going headlong for Roosevelt for vice president! Any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the presidency? … What harm can he do as governor of New York compared to the damage he will do as president if McKinley should die?”

There was also a major dispute over the party platform, and the new Silver Republican Party decided to back Democrat William Jennings Bryan when the main Republican Party supported the gold standard. Silver Republicans included the senators from Utah, Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota, Montana and Nevada.

Of course, McKinley did win the election and after he was assassinated in 1901, that “damn cowboy” did become president. By then, Hanna’s health was failing and he and the new president reached an accommodation. TR would stop calling him “old man” and Hanna would stop calling Roosevelt “Teddy” (he disliked that name). The Silver Republican Party faded away and the 20th century was waiting impatiently.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].