The Dord of Darien

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Presidential Rankings #25: William Howard Taft

Jay Ward, creator of Rocky & Bullwinkle
Enthusiasm for a cause sometimes warps judgment.

In the popular recollection, the Progressive Era is dominated by the madness of Theodore Roosevelt and the evil of Woodrow Wilson. Stuck in between them is the forgotten progressive, William Howard Taft — Roosevelt’s protégé, though later disowned. Taft is often regarded as a more conservative interlude in between two bastions of progressivism, but nothing could be farther from the truth; in reality, Taft was, in many ways, far more progressive than either of his better-known contemporaries; he was more aggressive about regulation and trust-busting, for example, and far more willing to meddle in the affairs of foreign countries to serve American interests. Taft was, however, not a warmonger — this may seem odd, considering that Taft was not only Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor but also his Secretary of War, but he alone among the progressives truly appeared to desire peace.

The outcome of the election of 1908 was never really in question. Whatever I may have to say about him, president Roosevelt had been extremely popular among the American people, and he made quite a public spectacle of handing the reins over to Taft; there was no doubt which candidate Roosevelt’s fans should be supporting. Meanwhile, his opponent, Democrat William Jennings Bryan, was deep in the twilight of his political career; he had run (and lost) several presidential campaigns already, and his signature issue, free silver, no longer commanded the interest of the electorate the way it had in the previous century. Bryan won only one state outside the reliably-Democratic south — his own home state of Nebraska — and Taft was swept into the White House in a landslide, with a clear mandate to continue the Republican Party’s befouling of the American economy, and he leapt to it with gusto.

Theodore Roosevelt is known as the great trust-buster, but, in actual fact, William Howard Taft busted far more trusts than his predecessor, bringing more than twice as many suits under the dreadful Sherman Antitrust Act in his single term as Roosevelt had in two. In total, ninety-nine different individuals or companies were charged by the Taft administration with being "monopolistic" or otherwise operating "in restraint of trade," for the purpose, as president Taft put it, of "the suppression of the lawlessness and abuses of power of the great combinations of capital invested in railroads and in industrial enterprises carrying on interstate commerce." To put this into perspective, the actions taken by the Taft administration come down to focusing the power of the great combinations of capital invested in the federal government — a fiercely-protective territorial monopoly — for the express and singular goal of restraining other entities from engaging in trade. The attentive reader also spotted in Taft’s words the invocation of the phrase "interstate commerce," that wonderful, all-purpose phrase that can be invoked to render the monstrously tyrannical act of the government telling a private business what prices it must and must not sell its products at and who it can and cannot do business with into a perfectly ordinary act of no legal dubiousness whatsoever.

President Taft’s trust-bust-mania reached a fever pitch in 1911, with the U.S. Steel case. Having already broken up Standard Oil for its outrageous monopolistic behavior — which resulted in the wholesale price of kerosene falling from thirty cents per gallon to only eight cents — the Taft administration set its sights on Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire, which had produced similar results in its own field. This was a step too far even for Roosevelt, who complained that Taft couldn’t tell the difference between a "good trust" and a "bad trust," a trait I must confess I share with him. The prosecution of U.S. Steel dragged on for a staggering nine years before the Supreme Court ruled in 1920 that the company’s market share, having fallen precipitously during the interim, was no longer so large as to qualify as a trust. This is, of course, a wonderful case of the government winning either way; though the verdict was in favor of U.S. Steel, nine years of expensive litigation and the attendant uncertainty had weakened the company sufficiently that its competitors — most notably Bethlehem Steel, founded by former U.S. Steel president Charles Schwab — were able to overtake it. It’s difficult to see what the average American gained from nine years of expensive legal harassment and the reduced ability of U.S. Steel to compete in the marketplace, but it’s not difficult to find the people who really did benefit: government lawyers and, of course, rival steel companies that were unable or unwilling to match U.S. Steel’s performance.

To president Taft, of course, this all somehow made sense. His goal was to secure "freedom from alarm on the part of those pursuing proper and progressive business methods," which makes the point quite clear: firms that were too good or too productive were to be brought to heel so as to avoid causing "alarm" to politically-connected firms that may have difficulty competing with them. As Taft himself put it in his inaugural address:

It is believed that with the changes to be recommended American business can be assured of that measure of stability and certainty in respect to those things that may be done and those that are prohibited which is essential to the life and growth of all business. Such a plan must include the right of the people to avail themselves of those methods of combining capital and effort deemed necessary to reach the highest degree of economic efficiency, at the same time differentiating between combinations based upon legitimate economic reasons and those formed with the intent of creating monopolies and artificially controlling prices.

It is impossible to see by what means a business firm could "artificially control prices." No market price is any more or less artificial than any other; prices only become "artificial" when someone violently interferes with the normal operation of the market and compels people to exchange on terms they otherwise wouldn’t accept. It should go without saying that neither U.S. Steel nor any of the other companies attacked by the Taft administration were so much as accused of any such behavior — no, this behavior is the exclusive purview of the federal government. Needless to say, president Taft never even considered attempting to break up that monopoly.

The Taft administration sought (and received, though to a lesser extent than the president desired) tariff reductions — this is an odd position coming from a Republican, and, indeed, it caused a great schism in the Republican Party that probably, more than any other action Taft undertook, led to the party split in 1912 and the election of Woodrow Wilson. The Republican Party had historically been the party of high protectionist tariffs, and its 1908 platform had called for "revision" without clearly spelling out what that meant; the platform stated only that

In all tariff legislation the true principle of protection is best maintained by the imposition of such duties as will equal the difference between the cost of production at home and abroad, together with a reasonable profit to American industries. We favor the establishment of maximum and minimum rates to be administered by the President under limitations fixed in the law, the maximum to be available to meet discriminations by foreign countries against American goods entering their markets, and the minimum to represent the normal measure of protection at home; the aim and purpose of the Republican policy being not only to preserve, without excessive duties, that security against foreign competition to which American manufacturers, farmers and producers are entitled, but also to maintain the high standard of living of the wage-earners of this country, who are the most direct beneficiaries of the protective system.

Underneath all the scientific-sounding language, it’s plain to see that there are no definitions provided (or even possible) for most of the terms in this paragraph; the tariff called for in the Republican platform could, and would, be purely arbitrary, set at the whim of the president. This much was likely obvious to the party at large, but they probably were not prepared for Taft’s whims to be in favor of lower tariffs, and indeed no tariffs of any sort on any trade with the Philippines. Protection aside, the federal government was, in 1908, principally funded through tariffs; how did president Taft intend to make up the shortfall? Again, from his inaugural address, he declared that "new kinds of taxation must be adopted, and among these I recommend a graduated inheritance tax as correct in principle and as certain and easy of collection." Setting aside the question of how "correct in principle" an inheritance tax actually is, what did president Taft mean when he described it as "certain and easy of collection?" In a sense, his language here was rather circumspect; Taft strongly favored a graduated income tax, but the Supreme Court had already rejected such a tax once, in the 1895 case Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, stating:

Taxes on real estate being indisputably direct taxes, taxes on the rents or income of real estate are equally direct taxes.

Taxes on personal property, or on the income of personal property, are likewise direct taxes.

The tax imposed by sections twenty-seven to thirty-seven, inclusive, of the act of 1894, so far as it falls on the income of real estate and of personal property, being a direct tax within the meaning of the Constitution, and therefore unconstitutional and void became not apportioned according to representation, all those sections, constituting one entire scheme of taxation, are necessarily invalid.

We’ll leave aside the question of whether or not the court was correct in its reasoning (which is a bit less than obvious, to say the least); correct or not, this ruling was very recent and was not at all unclear, meaning that an income tax simply was not possible as ordinary legislation. An inheritance tax, on the other hand, was quite widely understood to be a variety of excise, and a preëminent example of an indirect tax; the graduated inheritance tax was, thus, the closest thing to a graduated income tax that was going to be possible without a Constitutional amendment. Taft’s scheme sailed through the House, but hung up in the Senate; the Senate voted the Taft proposal down in favor of recommending "to make up the deficit by the imposition of a general income tax, in form and substance of almost exactly the same character as that which in the case of Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company (157 U. S., 429) was held by the Supreme Court to be a direct tax, and therefore not within the power of the Federal Government to impose unless apportioned among the several States according to population." An irritated Taft responded by chastising congress for proposing a bill effectively identical to one already struck down by the Court, claiming that such behavior could call the whole concept of judicial review into disrepute; instead, he called upon congress to propose an amendment to the Constitution "granting to the Federal Government the right to levy and collect an income tax without apportionment among the States according to population." Historians — myself included — are often inclined to blame Woodrow Wilson for the income tax, and, while it surely is true that the sixteenth amendment was not ratified until 1913, when president Wilson was in office, it was William Howard Taft who got the ball rolling to enable this most pernicious of government powers.

Taft wasn’t yet done imposing new schemes of taxation, either. In the very same address in which he called upon congress to create the sixteenth amendment, he also called for "an amendment to the tariff bill imposing upon all corporations and joint stock companies for profit, except national banks (otherwise taxed), savings banks, and building and loan associations, an excise tax measured by 2% on the net income of such corporations." President Taft believed that this would be accepted by the Court as an excise tax rather than a direct income tax because it was "an excise tax upon the privilege of doing business as an artificial entity and of freedom from a general partnership liability enjoyed by those who own the stock;" this sounds like so much sophistry, but it turns out the president was correct: the congress did enact his corporate excise tax (though at a 1% rather than a 2% level), and the Supreme Court did uphold it, ruling in Flint v. Stone Tracy Co. that this was an excise tax on the privilege of doing business, and that the fact that the level of taxation was determined by the income of the business was insufficient to show that it was an income tax; according to the court, the tax was not on the income, it was just relative to the size of the income. One is given to wonder precisely what taxes could fail to meet this "standard."

The modern United States has the highest corporate taxes in the world, and they are all pyramided atop this original tax manufactured by president Taft. Taft also is no innocent party who had no idea what evils the tax code would eventually engender, either. Here are his closing remarks in urging the adoption of a corporate income tax:

Another merit of this tax is the federal supervision which must be exercised in order to make the law effective over the annual accounts and business transactions of all corporations. While the faculty of assuming a corporate form has been of the utmost utility in the business world, it is also true that substantially all of the abuses and all of the evils which have aroused the public to the necessity of reform were made possible by the use of this very faculty. If now, by a perfectly legitimate and effective system of taxation we are incidentally able to possess the Government and the stockholders and the public of the knowledge of the real business transactions and the gains and profits of every corporation in the country, we have made along step toward that supervisory control of corporations which may prevent a further abuse of power.

The first thing that jumps out is that president Taft is hailing the invasive, pervasive, privacy-destroying surveillance the modern tax system has brought into being as not an accidental side effect, but a positive good. The federal government did not, in 1909, have any power to surveil the books of private businesses, which was a major impediment to those who, like president Taft, wanted to privilege those businesses "pursuing proper and progressive business methods" against their competitors; Taft, in a moment of remarkable shrewdness, clearly saw that the tax law could be used to enable the government to get away with invasions of liberty and privacy that it never could have justified otherwise — in the years since, this has become quite a regular feature of the tax law, all the way down to the Lois Lerner scandal. Since president Taft was so keenly attuned to the idea of using tax policy to effect social change, it is perhaps ironic that he promoted his new corporate tax by stating that "the tax on net income is preferable to one proportionate to a percentage of the gross receipts, because it is a tax upon success and not failure;" consider briefly that one of the primary tenets of using taxation as a vehicle for social policy is that one taxes what one wants less of.

While president Taft, much to his credit, was not a warmonger, and he neither sought out nor received any full-blown wars, he should not be misconstrued as a dreaded "isolationist;" far from being isolationist, Taft believed that America had vital interests in foreign countries, and that it was vital to meddle in their affairs. He was not, however, especially interested in Europe; nearly all of president Taft’s attention was spent on South America and Asia. Having served previously as the governor of the Philippines (following the American conquest during the McKinley administration), Taft was keenly interested in the territory, and was a passionate advocate for nearly everything that could be done to improve conditions on the islands or relations between the islands and the United States. Taft also meddled frequently in Chinese affairs, and this eventually led to disastrous consequences.

China, at the dawn of the twentieth century, was being industrialized, though not entirely of its own accord. Many years of de facto western imperial domination had left China itself weak and impoverished, meaning that its industrialization was mainly funded and directed by western powers — typically the British. With the emergence of the United States as a global imperial power following the Spanish-American War, American companies and the United States government itself began to take an interest in the commercial opportunities to be had by industrializing China as well, and began to involve themselves in the crazy mercantilism of the Chinese railroad contracts. The way it worked was quite simple: foreign powers would lend the Chinese government large amounts of money to build railroads. In return, the Chinese government would pledge to buy the materials from the lending country, and also to repay the loan with interest (typically 5%). Specific to this case, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France had worked a contract to lend the Chinese government twenty-seven million dollars to construct a railroad between Hankow and Szechuan. The United States wanted a piece of this deal, so the Taft administration sent the Chinese a letter gently insisting that it be included. So a deal was worked out to increase the size of the loan package to thirty million dollars so the United States could become a Chinese creditor too.

Think about that for a moment. To build exactly the same railroad, the government of China agreed to spend an additional three million dollars it didn’t have, and it did so for the express purpose of becoming indebted to yet another foreign power. One can expect that this sends up red flags all over the place, and that’s precisely what happened; before long, the governments of Japan and Russia were also politely insisting on being added to the loan package, with the total amount of the loan continuing to increase for no actual reason whatsoever. Meanwhile, the Chinese people — who had by this point been exploited by these one-sided "deals" for quite a long time — became increasingly agitated, and began to protest the situation, asserting (not unreasonably) that the railroad could be constructed domestically without the dubious "help" of no fewer than seven foreign powers. They also pointed to the Imperial Edict of 1899, which stated that the Chinese would have prior right in the construction of any Chinese railroads, and which was clearly being abrogated by the government’s deal. Still and all, in 1911, the government of China nationalized the railroads and handed them over to the foreign powers, compensating the previous owners only with rapidly-depreciating government bonds, rather than with silver. This would be the final indignity that led to the Xinhai Revolution, the fall of Imperial China, and (eventually) the rise of Mao. While it’s clear that bloodshed was never president Taft’s goal as such, it’s equally clear that his meddlesome policies were not as harmless as he wished to believe.

In South America, the Taft administration was firmly committed to the Monroe Doctrine, though it was apparently also willing to pretend the Roosevelt Corollary never happened; while president Taft never openly repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary, he proceeded according to older traditions, declaring that:

there are expenditures of Government absolutely necessary if our country is to maintain its proper place among the nations of the world, and is to exercise its proper influence in defense of its own trade interests in the maintenance of traditional American policy against the colonization of European monarchies in this hemisphere, and in the promotion of peace and international morality. I refer to the cost of maintaining a proper army, a proper navy, and suitable fortifications upon the mainland of the United States and in its dependencies.

We should have an army so organized and so officered as to be capable in time of emergency, in cooperation with the national militia and under the provisions of a proper national volunteer law, rapidly to expand into a force sufficient to resist all probable invasion from abroad and to furnish a respectable expeditionary force if necessary in the maintenance of our traditional American policy which bears the name of President Monroe.

A bit Trumpian perhaps, no? President Taft was a believer in military strength, but not in aggressive warfare; he wanted a big army and a big navy to show those Europeans that America was not to be messed with, and also, evidently, to show them that Bolivia, Chile, and El Salvador were not to be messed with, per the Monroe Doctrine. Taft attempted the same kind of mercanitilist approach that so successfully destabilized China throughout Latin America, pressuring foreign governments (such as, most notably, Nicaragua) to accept loans from the United States that would be spent buying products from the United States and then paid back with interest. Latin America showed more backbone than China had, however, and the American economic imperialism led chiefly to violent backlash throughout the subcontinent, which often (again, as in the case of Nicaragua) resulted in the Taft administration deploying American troops to "protect American interests" in those countries. President Taft’s commitment to peace, however, was on full display when the government of Mexico collapsed, and the country devolved into civil war. Taft refused to be drawn into the war, stationing troops at the border as a show of force, but actually — and unusually — refusing the send them into combat. Even when violence on the border resulted in the deaths of two Americans in the Arizona Territory, president Taft still refused to pull the trigger, and the world was spared another senseless and destructive Mexican-American War.

The election of 1912 was a losing proposition from the beginning. Taft had alienated much of the Republican base, and the Morgan interests took full advantage of this, dressing Theodore Roosevelt for a third-party run. As expected, the result was a Democratic landslide, as the Republicans in most states were split between Taft and Roosevelt, leaving almost all the electoral votes for Woodrow Wilson. Taft would not fade into obscurity, however, involving himself in the Harding campaign in 1920 in return for what he had always wanted in the first place: a seat on the Supreme Court. Indeed, after some politicking, president Harding acquiesced, and William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court on 11 July 1921, serving on the court until 3 February 1930, becoming at the time (and remaining to this day) the only man to be both president of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Indeed, he remained on the court until he was physically incapable of doing so; his health declined quite rapidly after he left the White House, but he refused to leave the bench due to concerns that "the Bolsheviki" — by which he meant the court’s hard-left wing, and Justice Harlan F. Stone in particular — would take control. He finally stepped down after president Hoover assured him that Justice Charles Evan Hughes, and not Stone, would succeed him; scarcely a month later, on 8 March 1930, William Howard Taft suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Washington. His last words are lost to history.

President Taft is often wrongly viewed as a conservative; perhaps there is some merit to this if one is looking at his career on the Supreme Court, but, if one considers only his presidency (as we are here), he is a hard-line progressive through and through. As we’ve seen, Taft worked hard (and with great success) to increase federal oversight of business, increase taxes, and increase American involvement in foreign countries, none of which is even remotely conservative. President Taft once described himself as a faithful disciple of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, and there’s really nothing for it but to take him at his word: that is exactly what he was, and that is exactly how he governed. This is William Howard Taft’s legacy: the wolf in sheep’s clothing — the man who sold the American people big, powerful government and somehow left them thinking they’d gotten small, weak government.

May 19th, 2016 Posted by | Liberty | no comments

Presidential Rankings #26: William McKinley

President Denali
The mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation.

The War to Prevent Southern Independence was a horrible, senseless waste of capital and human life. There were, in fact, only two unequivocally good things to come out of the war. The first, and most obvious, was the abolition of slavery — while it was certainly not the purpose of the war, and while no war was necessary to achieve it, the end of slavery was nonetheless a consequence of the war, and was of course an unalloyed good in and of itself. The other beneficial consequence of the war is that it took the United States off the path of empire it had been treading for fifteen years; the people were so busy with the attempt to rebuild a devastated and depopulated nation, and the would-be tyrants so busy attempting to establish and support the military junta assigned to rule over the conquered Confederate States, that scarcely a thought was given to foreign conquest, and, in the postbellum years, America no longer went abroad in search of monsters to destroy. All of this changed on 15 February 1898, when the USS Maine sank into Havana Harbor.

In 1898, Cuba was under Spanish rule, but Madrid’s grasp on the island had grown tenuous; many of the Cuban people believed that Spain was not living up to its obligations, and had organized El Partido Revolucionario Cubano under the leadership of the Georgist revolutionary José Julián Martí Pérez, marking the beginning of the Cuban Revolutionary War. The Spanish general Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau was installed as governor of Cuba in 1896 in the hopes that he would restore order and suppress the revolutionaries, but he immediately encountered a problem: the Spanish forces couldn’t easily distinguish the guerrilla revolutionaries from the ordinary citizens. Weyler’s solution was simple: he would simply herd all the normal citizens together in "reconcentration camps," thereby depriving the guerrillas of their cover, and then stamp out the revolution. It’s not known exactly how many people were "reconcentrated" under the Weyler regime, but it is known that upwards of three hundred thousand of them died of disease and malnutrition while in the camps, which, as one might expect, didn’t do much to increase the Spanish colonial government’s popularity among the people. Indeed, anger over the horrible injustice and inhumanity of Weyler’s policy fueled even more revolutionary activity, and made the situation even more dangerous. Into this situation sailed the USS Maine.

The Maine was a brand-new armored cruiser, built only three years prior to her sinking (though, as is usual with government projects, the Maine cost far more and took far longer to make than was projected, and was considered entirely obsolete before her maiden voyage), and had been sent to Cuba to meddle in internal Cuban affairs. The previous president, Grover Cleveland, had been entirely too cagey to get involved, and indeed went so far as to order that American naval vessels should no longer visit Cuba, as he didn’t wish to provoke either the Spanish or the revolutionaries; president McKinley, however, while he did not want war at first, was inclined toward meddlement, and he dispatched the Maine to Havana after being urged by his Cuban Consul, Fitzhugh Lee, that American sugar interests in Cuba were in jeopardy. The Spanish were insulted and worried, and declared that they would consider the arrival of the Maine to be an "unfriendly act," but they were mollified by the American offer to allow a Spanish warship to land in New York, and the Maine sailed into Havana Harbor on 25 January. It would never sail back out.

The immediate cause of the sinking of the Maine is not in dispute: all investigations have concluded, in unison, that a major explosion in the forward magazine occurred, led to a series of other, minor explosions, and ultimately to the destruction of the vessel. The real question is: what caused the explosion in the magazine? To this day it’s not entirely certain, but a number of possibilities present themselves: it could have been a deliberate attack by the Spanish (or a false flag attack by the revolutionaries), an act of sabotage, or an accident. It has been suggested that a mine may have come unmoored from the harbor defenses and drifted into the Maine. It’s also a possibility that the ship’s load of bituminous coal could have ignited spontaneously due to the high temperatures and confined spaces — which problem afflicted many warships of the day — and set off the magazine. The United States government’s official inquest, under the direction of Captain William T. Sampson, determined that the cause of the explosion was indeed collision with an external mine, though the Sampson Board did not reach any conclusions regarding the origin or intent of the mine. A later inquiry, held in 1911, determined that the characteristics of the mine did not match the mines used by the Spanish navy — it was a small, low-explosive mine, whereas the Spanish used large, high-explosive mines. Also of note is that, when the Maine sank, the Spanish were on the scene immediately, helping to rescue as much of the crew as possible. So who actually sank the Maine? We may never know, but it was almost definitely not the Spanish; they stood to gain nothing from such an attack, and it appeared to be as much of a surprise to Madrid as it was to Washington, as the Spanish cruiser Vizcaya would discover upon its arrival in New York on 18 February, as the other part of the mutual visitation deal.

According to the McKinley administration, it didn’t actually matter who sank the Maine. The United States was bound and determined to get into this war somehow, and this was too good a pretext to let go; in McKinley’s own words, from his War Message:

The naval court of inquiry, which, it is needless to say, commands the unqualified confidence of the Government, was unanimous in its conclusion that the destruction of the Maine was caused by an exterior explosion — that of a submarine mine. It did not assume to place the responsibility. That remains to be fixed.

In any event, the destruction of the Maine, by whatever exterior cause, is a patent and impressive proof of a state of things in Cuba that is intolerable. That condition is thus shown to be such that the Spanish Government can not assure safety and security to a vessel of the American Navy in the harbor of Havana on a mission of peace, and rightfully there.

Further referring in this connection to recent diplomatic correspondence, a dispatch from our minister to Spain of the 26th ultimo contained the statement that the Spanish minister for foreign affairs assured him positively that Spain will do all that the highest honor and justice require in the matter of the Maine. The reply above referred to, of the 31st ultimo, also contained an expression of the readiness of Spain to submit to an arbitration all the differences which can arise in this matter, which is subsequently explained by the note of the Spanish minister at Washington of the 10th instant, as follows:

As to the question of fact which springs from the diversity of views between the reports of the American and Spanish boards, Spain proposes that the facts be ascertained by an impartial investigation by experts, whose decision Spain accepts in advance.

To this I have made no reply.

Note well that the Spanish explicitly communicated a willingness to "submit to an arbitration" regarding its responsibilities in the case of the Maine, and has acceded in advance to any conclusions reached by an impartial investigation. The McKinley administration’s response was to ignore this in favor of its march to war. Why would the president do such a thing? The obvious conclusion is that the loss of the Maine was beside the point; the president didn’t want compensation, he wanted an excuse to do what he had been planning in the first place. To quote McKinley’s War Message again:

The long trial has proved that the object for which Spain has waged the war can not be attained. The fire of insurrection may flame or may smolder with varying seasons, but it has not been and it is plain that it can not be extinguished by present methods. The only hope of relief and repose from a condition which can no longer be endured is the enforced pacification of Cuba. In the name of humanity, in the name of civilization, in behalf of endangered American interests which give us the right and the duty to speak and to act, the war in Cuba must stop.

In view of these facts and of these considerations I ask the Congress to authorize and empower the President to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the Government of Spain and the people of Cuba, and to secure in the island the establishment of a stable government, capable of maintaining order and observing its international obligations, insuring peace and tranquillity and the security of its citizens as well as our own, and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary for these purposes.

Humanitarian intervention. Presidents in the modern day recite these platitudes and these formulas by rote, but they learned them all from William McKinley. The United States must invade and conquer Cuba because it’s for their own good. So too with Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Uganda. Cuba was the first of America’s "humanitarian interventions," and, like all of them, it built its humanitarianism on a large pile of corpses: seventy thousand in this case. The fading Spanish Empire, as it turned out, did not have the wherewithal to fight a war against the rising United States — certainly not when the war was fought right at the American border, and four thousand miles from Spain — and the war lasted a mere three and a half months. In keeping with his humanitarian promise, president McKinley won independence for Cuba — independence from Spain, anyhow, as the island found itself coming entirely under the thumb of its humanitarian savior. The Platt Amendment, enacted by a congress wondering what to do with its newfound conquest, stipulated, among other things:


That the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.


That all Acts of the United States in Cuba during its military occupancy thereof are ratified and validated, and all lawful rights acquired thereunder shall be maintained and protected.

In short, the Cuban occupation that the McKinley administration so stridently insisted would not be an annexation created a Cuban government that was nothing but a shadow puppet of the United States. Cuba was required to consent in advance to all acts of the United States within its borders, and to permit the intervention of the United States in its internal affairs whenever Washington deemed it necessary. This was not independence for Cuba, of course, but the substitution of a new master for the old one.

Casting further doubt on the true "humanitarianism" of the McKinley administration’s war on Spain was the utterly ruinous peace treaty Spain was forced to sign. Perhaps, had the Americans insisted on Cuban independence and otherwise left Spain alone, president McKinley could be taken at his word as a misguided but sincere altruist. The reality of it is quite different, however; in addition to Cuba, the United States took possession of all of Spain’s colonies outside of Africa: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. This, finally, would bring the United States the empire on the Pacific that president Polk had dreamt of, and, just as his critics had warned, brought a series of Pacific wars. The United States would be dragged into war in the Philippines almost immediately, killing two hundred thousand Filipino civilians in the attempt to subdue the nation’s independence movement — in other words, the exact unendurable crime against humanity that the Americans supposedly intervened in Cuba to prevent. The Philippine-American War is also president McKinley’s baggage, and is an undisguised war of imperial expansion and conquest.

So far, we’ve seen president McKinley engaged in a war for "humanitarian intervention" and a war for open conquest. One needn’t look too far for the third leg of the imperial stool — the foreign aid puppet regime — as the annexation of Hawaii provides a prime example. The United States had installed a puppet government (the Republic of Hawaii) in the stead of the old royal government as early as 1893, in an open attempt to annex the nation; president Harrison wasn’t able to get the job done before his term of office expired, however, and his replacement, the old faithful Grover Cleveland, refused to proceed with the annexation, as it was obviously not in the interest of the Hawaiians — Cleveland regarded the US-led ouster of queen Lilioukalani as a shameful and criminal act, and indeed began investigations to determine exactly who the culprits were. He ran out of time also, however, and in came William McKinley, who had always been a supporter of the annexation, and who made it a top priority in his presidency, in much the way president Polk had been obsessed with obtaining California; indeed, McKinley went so far as to remark to his personal secretary, George Cortelyou, that "we need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny." That phrase again: manifest destiny. As it had in the 1840s, it presaged in the 1890s a renewed focus on American empire. Indeed, no sooner had the United States declared war on Spain than did William McKinley maneuver congress into passing the annexation — after a massive petition signed by over twenty thousand Hawaiians opposing the annexation, he failed to get the two-thirds vote in the senate that would be required to approve the treaty, however. Undeterred, president McKinley then engineered a joint resolution declaring the annexation of Hawaii. This move was clearly Constitutionally spurious; the power to enter into treaties is explicitly granted by the Constitution to the president and the senate, and absolutely requires a two-thirds vote of the senate to ratify; the house plays no role whatsoever. A joint resolution is nothing more or less than an act of ordinary legislation, and to suggest that the United States can subsume into itself entire foreign countries through ordinary legislation is absurd. What would the reaction be if the United States congress passed a joint resolution unilaterally declaring Germany part of the United States? Or, similarly, if Germany declared that, from now on, the United States is a German territory? This would obviously be regarded as beyond the scope of legislation. As senator William V. Allen explained on the senate floor during the debate:

Mr. President, how can a joint resolution such as this be operative? What is the legislative jurisdiction of Congress? Does it extend over Hawaii? May we in this anticipatory manner reach out beyond the sea and assert our authority under a resolution of Congress within the confines of that independent nation? Where is our right, our grant of power, to do this? Where do we find it?

The joint resolution itself, it is admitted, amounts to nothing so far as carrying any effective force is concerned. It does not bring that country within our boundaries. It does not consummate itself.

Senator A. O. Bacon got straight to the heart of the matter:

If we pass the joint resolution, we enter upon a revolution which shall convert this country from a peaceful country into a warlike country. If we pass the resolution, we transform this country from one engaged in its own concerns into one which shall immediately proceed to intermeddle with the concerns of all the world.

If we pass the joint resolution, we inaugurate a revolution which shall convert this country from one designed for the advancement and the prosperity and the happiness of our citizens into one which shall seek its gratification in dominion and domination and foreign acquisition.

Bacon was exactly correct.

It often gets lost in the shuffle, but William McKinley was the president who began the Progressive Era — when he wasn’t busy crusading around the world to make it safe for democracy, he was using the dread powers of government to create scientifically engineered fairness at home. Still and all, McKinley was the bridge between the older, Henry Clay progressives and the more modern, Lyndon Johnson progressives; the sixteenth amendment was still years off, and William McKinley had no income tax to rely on, so, in classic Republican fashion, he was focused on tariffs. Also in classic Republican fashion, he busied himself blurring the classical distinction between "revenue" tariffs and "protective" tariffs. As he put it in his first inaugural address:

The country is clearly opposed to any needless additions to the subject of internal taxation, and is committed by its latest popular utterance to the system of tariff taxation. There can be no misunderstanding, either, about the principle upon which this tariff taxation shall be levied. Nothing has ever been made plainer at a general election than that the controlling principle in the raising of revenue from duties on imports is zealous care for American interests and American labor. The people have declared that such legislation should be had as will give ample protection and encouragement to the industries and the development of our country.

Historically, a distinction has been drawn between revenue tariffs, which are designed to make money for the government, and protective tariffs, which are designed to provide advantages to protected industries, and have raising revenue as only a secondary goal. Throughout the nineteenth century, Democrats were in favor of revenue tariffs, and insisted that the Constitution required that the burden or the protection from those tariffs must be applied equally to all people and all industries, rather than singling out specific producers or specific industries to declare "protected" at the expense of all others. The Republicans (née Whigs), meanwhile, believed that tariff policy should be used for the benefit of specific, favored industries; certain industries should be insulated from foreign competition via high tariffs, and the money so raised should be spend subsidizing other favored industries (chiefly the railroads). In this regard, president McKinley was an absolute by-the-book Republican; in his words, "legislation helpful to producers is beneficial to all." While this is obviously true in a trivial sense — we are all producers, after all, and so legislation that literally benefits all producers will benefit all people by definition — it wasn’t meant to be taken quite so literally. McKinley championed the charmingly-named Dingley Act, which raised tariffs to extraordinary rates across the board, and established new tariffs on products (such as wool) that had previously been duty-free. While this was clearly beneficial to domestic wool producers, the majority of Americans did not produce wool, and now faced higher prices for woolen articles due to the reduced supply, so clearly it’s not the case that everybody benefited from the new tariff.

President McKinley also was an avid supporter of the gold standard, going so far as to sign the Gold Standard Act of 1900 into law, famously using a gold pen to do so. On the surface, this sounds like just the sort of thing libertarians would be in favor of (not least because William Jennings Bryan and his "free silver" crowd were so far off base), but it’s important here to note the difference between what libertarians often mean when they say "gold standard" and what the McKinley administration actually did. First, however, it’s important to understand the free silver position. The silverites called for a policy known as "bimetallism," whereby silver would convert freely with gold at a governmentally-fixed exchange rate of 16:1. This was understood (by its proponents as well as its opponents) as a wildly inflationary policy; at the time, the market rate held silver at about 30:1 against gold, so bimetallism would (in accordance with Gresham’s Law) result in the gold being purchased at the artificially reduced price, along with a general, massive inflation (nearly 100%) of the currency. Supporters of free silver cited this as a benefit, because it would make outstanding debts artificially easy to pay off; while this is absolutely true, it ignores the effect of the policy on creditors, which is, of course, ruinous. On the face of it, the government refusing to stiff creditors for the benefit of debtors seems to be the sort of thing a libertarian would appreciate, but the Gold Standard Act of 1900 is anything but a free market reform. A true free market currency regime would permit the people to circulate as money whatever they see fit; under the Gold Standard Act, government paper was still granted the privilege of legal tender (meaning that, through force of arms, the government will compel people to accept it as payment). The fact that the treasury was required to maintain gold reserves, and to redeem paper for gold on demand (at the rate of 25.8 grains of 90% fineness gold to the dollar), was all to the good, and clearly better than the inflationary schemes of the contemporary Democrats, but should not be confused with true monetary freedom.

President McKinley surely had his good points. He was an avid opponent of government debt, and held that "the Government should not be permitted to run behind or increase its debt in times like the present," by which he meant peacetime. He was exactly as good as his word, too; during his wars, the federal government ran a (very small, by today’s insane standards) deficit, but the McKinley government lived within its means before and after. President McKinley was also an adamant supporter of the cold justice of the courtroom rather than the immediate hot retribution of the lynch mob; he emphasized the distinction himself by saying that:

Lynchings must not be tolerated in a great and civilized country like the United States; courts, not mobs, must execute the penalties of the law. The preservation of public order, the right of discussion, the integrity of courts, and the orderly administration of justice must continue forever the rock of safety upon which our Government securely rests.

In this, perhaps moreso than in any other regard, president McKinley walked the walk.

On 6 September 1901, only a few months after being sworn in for his second term as president, William McKinley was visiting the World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York. The day before, he had given a speech, but on the sixth he was just making the rounds, enjoying the fair and shaking hands with people. One of the people the president met that day was Leon Czolgosz, an unemployed steelworker who fancied himself a left-anarchist, and who had determined that the cause of all the injustice in America was an institutional bias in favor of the rich. Inspired by the murder of King Umberto I of Italy, Czolgosz resolved to do something for "the common man." At 4:07 p.m. that afternoon, in the exposition’s Temple of Music, president William McKinley extended his left hand to shake with Leon Czolgosz — whose right hand was wrapped in a handkerchief, as though it were injured — and Czolgosz shot him twice in the abdomen. The crowd immediately leapt on Czolgosz and began administering the peculiar form of justice known only to the mob, and William McKinley demonstrated the great steel he was truly made of and ordered them to stop. Having just been assassinated, he still found the strength of character (not to mention the presence of mind) to demand that the mob cease abusing his assassin. To my view, this is one of the few truly great acts committed by any president.

President McKinley would recover from the immediate injury, but was subsequently beset by gangrene. After initially appearing as though he would survive, he suddenly took a turn for the worse, as the infection destroyed him from the inside out. He maintained his composure until the end, eventually telling the doctors attending him that "it is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer." On 14 September 1901, at 2:15 a.m., William McKinley died, leaving the nation in the hands of a downright madman. Leon Czolgosz was murdered by the government on 29 October of that year, announcing that "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."

Virtually the entire modern United States government is the legacy of William McKinley: a man who reintroduced empire to America, who established the United States as the global policeman, and who first fancied himself capable of microengineering domestic society for the common weal. Though he is often overshadowed by his bombastic successor, this is unfair; virtually all of Roosevelt’s excesses were nothing more than extensions of the policies McKinley had already put in place. Essentially the only aspect of the McKinley legacy that hasn’t survived to the present day is his steely reverence for true justice as against emotional retribution, and we could dearly use it.

May 8th, 2016 Posted by | Liberty | no comments