The Assassination of William McKinley

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In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, who professed to be an Anarchist and disciple of Emma Goldman, also an Anarchist. A word or two about anarchism in America is thus appropriate here. Although the anarchists were the most notorious radical organization of the late 1800s and early 1900s, even during their heyday, they were described by pro-labor elements as "bourgeoisie inspired." The accusation was certainly not spurious. Any attempt to determine the mission of the anarchists must at least consider the effect they had, and the fact is that they damaged the labor movement considerably. The damage was done in at least two arenas. The first is in the legal arena, where their use of violence at least presented the potential for two adverse legal consequences. The first adverse legal consequence was that their violent tactics removed the strikers from the protection of the First Amendment's "freedom of assembly clause." 1 The second adverse legal consequence was that their violent tactics provided the excuse for the imposition of martial law, under which the worker was placed at a huge disadvantage. 2

The second arena in which the anarchists damaged the labor movement was in the arena of public opinion. The Anarchists are most remembered by history for two things: 1) their role in the Haymarket Affair; and 2) their role in the assassination of William McKinley. The Haymarket Affair began on May 1, 1886, with workers conducting a strike aimed at limiting the length of the workday to eight hours. On May 3, Chicago police fired into a crowd of workers picketing McCormick Reaper Works, killing or wounding several of the strikers. On May 4, anarchist and socialist labor leaders organized a rally near Haymarket Square. Police arrived and attempted to disperse those attending the rally. An unknown person threw a bomb in the midst of the police officers that resulted in killing eight. Eight anarchists were tried and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. As noted by one author, the Haymarket affair significantly impacted labor in a very negative way:

The Haymarket affair was disastrous for organized labor, since most Americans were frightened into believing that the Knights of Labor were violent anarchists, out to overthrow the Government and economic system with dynamite. 3

Although labor leaders such as Terence Powderly, the leader of the Knights of Labor, unequivocally denounced the use of violence by strikers, 4 his denouncement and similar ones by other legitimate labor leaders went all but unnoticed when anarchist leaders such Johann Most publicly extolled the virtues of dynamite as labor's "weapon of the weak against the strong." 5 Even if members of the general public lack the courage necessary to protest against atrocities perpetrated by governmental forces on behalf of the bourgeoisie, they certainly don't find these atrocities endearing. By aligning themselves with the labor movement and perpetrating their own atrocities in the name of labor, the anarchists engendered negative public opinion of the labor movement, and their actions invited the general public not only to abhor labor by association, but also to excuse the atrocities - both past and future - perpetrated by the bourgeoisie against the worker. Aside from the fact that an actor is generally presumed to intend the ordinary consequences of his actions, there is certainly other evidence that suggests that this effect was not accidental.

The political platform of the anarchists was internally incoherent. "Anarchy" means the absence of any government whatsoever, a thought that is certainly frightening. As Thomas Hobbes implied all those years ago, the worst government is better than no government at all. However, although anarchy means the absence of any external government, the anarchist manifesto of the Geneva conference of 1882 states "[f]or we are all communists." Regardless of its economic inferiority, communism is unquestionably a form of government. It is thus impossible to advocate coherently both anarchy and communism. From the internal incoherence of their political platform can be inferred that the organization was a sham. From their extreme unpopularity and their self-association with communism can be inferred that the objective of the sham was to promote public disfavor of communism. There is also evidence that the authorities tolerated Ms. Goldman when they need not have. Czolgosz stated that he had gone to hear Ms. Goldman speak in Cleveland. He stated that during this speech, she expounded the doctrine that "all rulers should be exterminated." Her participation in that assembly of anarchists clearly constituted a violation of the common law crime of unlawful assembly. She could and should have been arrested. The Cleveland authorities' failure to do so is thus remarkable. A final, and very telling, indication that Ms. Goldman was not exactly what she said she was is that after spending some time in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, she returned to America and authored a book entitled My Disillusionment With Russia. Pro-labor forces had very good reasons to describe Ms. Goldman and her followers as "bourgeoisie inspired."

The following facts merit closer examination of the assassination than was given it in 1901: 1) McKinley was once the champion of protective tariffs; 2) the assassination occurred one day after McKinley gave a speech in which he reversed his position on protectionist tariffs and spoke against war; 3) those assigned to provide security for McKinley were at the very least grossly negligent; and 4) the radical nature of the American anarchist - who was in fact accused by pro-labor forces of being "bourgeois inspired" - was dubious at best.

McKinley was first elected out of Ohio to the House of Representatives in 1876. His successful campaign advocated the protectionist tariffs then in effect and then under attack by the democrats. These tariffs were imposed upon imported goods and had the effect of increasing their purchase prices. As a result of the increase, the manufacturers of domestic commodities were better able to compete, as they were accordingly able to increase their purchase price. For fourteen years, McKinley played a prominent role in defeating attacks on the tariffs then in existence. His crowning achievement as a legislator occurred in 1890, when, as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he sponsored the McKinley Tariff Law, a measure that, from a protectionist point of view, improved upon the tariffs already extant. Notwithstanding his triumph, McKinley was somehow defeated in the 1890 Congressional election. He was then elected governor of Ohio, were he took office in 1892. In 1895, a group of Cincinnati businessmen convened in Oddfellows Hall (more irony). A total of 583 manufacturing representatives from all over the United States attended, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was formed. The NAM adopted several objectives, two of which were: 1) retention and supply of home markets with U. S. products and extension of foreign trade; and 2) development of reciprocal trade relations between the U. S. and foreign governments. Obviously, protectionist tariffs would help attain the first goal, and the NAM in fact advocated the imposition of even higher tariffs than those resulting after the enactment of the McKinley Tariff Law. Modification, from the NAM point of view, would ideally occur only when it benefited overall domestic interest and only with respect to reciprocating foreign governments. It would seem that the NAM believed that both circumstances would exist only after our merchant marine was improved upon and a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was constructed. McKinley, acting in his role as Governor, addressed the inaugural convention.

McKinley was first elected President in 1896, and then was re-elected in 1900. Notwithstanding the advent of an economic depression in 1893, his protectionist tariff (a slightly different version, actually) had remained in effect up to this point in time. At that point in history, unlike now, few (if any) American manufacturers had factories on foreign soil, and protective tariffs were more beneficial due to the fact that no import duties were imposed upon American goods manufactured abroad. While the benefits of the tariff apparently never trickled down to the working class, its burden was apparently eased by the reduction in the price of tobacco occasioned by the tax and other restrictive measures lifted off the tobacco industry by means of the McKinley Tariff Law.

On September 5, 1901, McKinley gave a speech at the Pan-American exposition held in Buffalo, New York. Following are some excerpts from his speech:

By sensible trade agreements which will not interrupt our home production we shall extend the outlets for our increasing surplus. A system which provides a mutual exchange of commodities is manifestly essential to the continued healthful growth of our export trade. We must not repose in fancied security that we can forever sell everything and buy little or nothing .... The period of exclusiveness is past. . . . Commercial wars are unprofitable. The expansion of our trade and commerce is the pressing problem .... Then, too, we have an inadequate steamship service. Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war. 6

Assuming the circumstances depicted in McKinley's speech were accurate, it would seem that any foreign government with an adequate steamship service would have an instant competitive edge over the United States as the result of any reciprocal agreement. Note that at the time of this speech, Panama was still part of Gran Columbia, and Gran Columbia was negotiating with the Germans as well as the Americans for the right to build and control what is now known as the Panama Canal. 7 Note also that only four years later Theodore Roosevelt - McKinley's successor - would threaten Germany with intervening in the Russo-Japanese War in the event that Germany sided with. 8 Obviously, there were those within the United States government who wanted the option of war to remain on the table. Just as obviously, there were those among the American bourgeoisie who preferred to enjoy the continued benefit of the protective tariff.

On September 6, McKinley held a reception at the Temple of Music that was open to members of the general public. After the introductions, McKinley stood in a receiving line to greet individually those in attendance. Three members of the Secret Service stood at his side. The assassin held the 32-caliber revolver in his right hand. Over both the gun and the hand was wrapped a handkerchief. When it was the assassin's turn to be greeted, he stood in front of McKinley and fired through the handkerchief twice from a distance of about one foot. The assassin was immediately subdued and taken into custody. McKinley died as a result of his wounds eight days later.

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Assassinations of United States Presidents were far from unknown during McKinley's era. In 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. In 1881, James Garfield was assassinated. Given this history, it is difficult to understand how a man with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief would not draw more scrutiny than was given Czolgosz by the Secret Service agents assigned to guard McKinley, especially as he neared the President. The assertion that McKinley's bodyguards permitted him to be assassinated by a member of pro-bourgeoisie forces in retaliation for reversing his stance on protective tariffs is thus at the very least viable. The officers who interviewed Czolgosz must have thought so, because - depending upon point of view - they either eliminated it or covered it up. The authorities obtained the following signed statement from Czolgosz:

I was born in Detroit nearly twenty-nine years ago. My parents were Russian Poles. They came here forty-two years ago. I got my education in the public schools of Detroit and then went to Cleveland, where I got work. In Cleveland I read books on socialism and met a great many Socialists. I was pretty well known as a Socialist in the West. After being in Cleveland for several years I went to Chicago, where I remained seven months, after which I went to Newburg, on the outskirt of Cleveland, and went to work in the Newburg wire mills.

During the last five years I have had as friends Anarchists in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and other Western cities, and I suppose I became more or less bitter. I never had much luck at anything and this preyed upon me. It made me morose and envious, but what started the craze to kill was a lecture I heard some time ago by Emma Goldman. She was in Cleveland and I and other Anarchists went to hear her. She set me on fire.

Her doctrine that all rulers should be exterminated was what set me to thinking so that my head nearly split with pain. Miss Goldman's words went right through me and when I left the lecture I made up my mind that I would do something heroic for the cause I loved.

Eight days ago, while I was in Chicago, I read in a Chicago newspaper of President McKinley's visit to the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo. That day I bought a ticket for Buffalo and got there with the determination to do something, but I did not know just what. I thought of shooting the President, but I had not formed a plan.

I went to live at 1078 Broadway, which is a saloon and hotel. John Nowak, a Pole, a sort of politician who has led his people here for years, owns it. I told Nowak that I came to see the fair. He knew nothing about what was setting me crazy. I went to the exposition grounds a couple of times a day.

Not until Tuesday morning did the resolution to shoot the President take a hold of me. It was in my heart; there was no escape for me. I could not have conquered it had my life been at stake. There were thousands of people in town on Tuesday. I heard it was President's day. All these people seemed bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler. I bought a 32-caliber revolver and loaded it.

On Tuesday night I went to the Fair grounds and was near the railroad gate when the Presidential party arrived. I tried to get near him, but the police forced me back. They forced everybody back so that the great ruler could pass. I was close to the President when he got into the grounds, but was afraid to attempt the assassination because there were so many men in the bodyguard that watched him. I was not afraid of them or that I should get hurt, but afraid I might be seized and that my chance would be gone forever.

Well, he went away that time and I went home. On Wednesday I went to the grounds and stood right near the President, right under him near the stand from which he spoke.

I thought half a dozen times of shooting while he was speaking, but I could not get close enough. I was afraid I might miss, and then the great crowd was always jostling, and I was afraid lest my aim fail. I waited on Wednesday, and the President got into his carriage again, and a lot of men were about him and formed a cordon that I could not get through. I was tossed about by the crowd, and my spirits were getting pretty low. I was almost hopeless that night as I went home.

Yesterday morning I went again to the Exposition grounds. Emma Goldman's speech was still burning me up. I waited near the central entrance for the President, who was to board his special train from that gate, but the police allowed nobody but the President's party to pass where the train waited, so I stayed on the grounds all day waiting.

During yesterday I first thought of hiding my pistol underneath my handkerchief. I was afraid if I had to draw it from my pocket I would be seen and seized by the guards. I got to the Temple of Music the first one and waited at the spot where the reception was to be held.

Then he came, the President - the ruler - and I got in line and trembled and trembled until I got right up to him, and then I shot him twice, through my white handkerchief. I would have fired more, but I was stunned by a blow in the face - a frightful blow that knocked me down - and then everybody jumped on me. I thought I would be killed and was surprised the way they treated me. 9

At this point Czolgosz was asked, "Did you really mean to kill the President?", and Czolgosz responded, "I did." When asked what his motive was, Czolgosz responded, " I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire." 10

The reader will note that the officers were careful to establish that Czolgosz formed the intent to kill before McKinley's speech in which he reversed his stance on protectionist tariffs. If Czolgosz's statement is taken at face value with regard to when the intent to kill was first formed, and if it assumed that Czolgosz didn't have knowledge that McKinley was about to make his reversal public from some other source, then the reversal could not have been the motive behind the assassination. The question thus becomes whether the officers intended to eliminate McKinley's reversal as a motive or to obscure that McKinley's reversal was the motive. From this perspective, the interrogator's second-to-last question is interesting. Aside from the fact that the law presumes that an actor intends the ordinary consequences of his actions, Czolgosz had been quite specific in his statement regarding the formation of his intent to kill. The officer's question and Czolgosz's answer were thus redundantly redundant. Perhaps the officer was masking the emphasis given to the timing of the formation of the intent to kill by pretending there had been some doubt about whether it existed.

If it is agreed that the mission of the Anarchists was anti-labor, then two bottom-line facts of the McKinley assassination are that he was killed by a member of pro-bourgeoisie forces and that his death occurred almost immediately after advocating an anti-bourgeoisie economic policy and anti-bourgeoisie war policy. It is noteworthy that America steered exactly the opposite course after McKinley’s death than that which he outlined in his last speech. Another fact is that officers assigned to McKinley for security purposes were at the very least grossly negligent. A man with a gun under a towel was permitted to approach the President. Really? Even standing alone, without motive, gross negligence is a very kind label. Still another fact is that the timing of the formation of the intent to kill was unduly emphasized in the prosecution of Czolgosz. In conclusion, and in most basic terms, motive plus timing plus enabling plus attempt to obscure timing equals guilt.



1. See
2. See (For the Skeptical subheading).
3. Jules Archer, Strikes, Bombs, and Bullets: Big Bill Haywood and the IWW , Julian Messner, New York, 1972, p. 18.
4. Id. at 17.
5. Ibid.
6. The entire speech can be read at
7. Dwight Carroll Minor, The Fight for the Panama Route: The Story of the Spooner Act and the Hay-Herran Treaty, Columbia University Press, 1940, p. 312-14.
8. William H. Harbaugh, The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, Oxford University Press, New York, 1961, p. 266.
9. Marshall Everett, Complete Life of William McKinley and Story of His Assassination, Memorial Edition, (publisher unknown) 1901, p. 70-72.
10. Id at 72.