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.