Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

McKinley's Backbone

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

McKinley's Backbone

Article excerpt

Theodore Roosevelt is known for his forceful expressions and pungent wit. One of his most cited statements is a description of President William McKinley--he "has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair."

For much of the twentieth century, McKinley was portrayed as a man of limited ability. Historians, biographers, and political commentators cast doubt on his capacities, describing him as weak, indecisive, feckless, and so forth. Roosevelt's eclair quotation would then cap the argument, providing a useful and colorful summary. The judgment, after all, was provided by an intelligent man, one who as assistant secretary of the Navy would have been knowledgeable, an astute observer of the president and his performance.

For roughly six decades, the portrait of McKinley as weak and vacillating dominated much of the relevant literature. This view appeared, complete with the backbone statement, in Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, probably the most influential American history textbook ever published (1927, 2: 372). They give the context as April 1898. They provide no source. (1)

Later, however, with the biographies of Margaret Leech (1959, 35-36, 233-34), Wayne Morgan (2003 [1963], 210-11, 222, 254, 361, 364; also Morgan 1966), and Lewis L. Gould (1980, 88-90), a different reading came to prevail, these accounts portraying McKinley as a cautious decision maker and as operating with considerable intelligence and capacity. Several other historians have reviewed relevant materials and they too support the revised reading (see Holbo 1967; Fry 1979; Hilderbrand 1981; Gould 1985; and Smith 1993).

In a recent study, three groups of experts, professors of history, law, and political science, were asked to rate the nation's first forty presidents. McKinley was ranked as number 14, putting him in the "above average" category, coming just after John Adams and just before James Madison and James Monroe. There was a remarkable consensus among the three groups of raters, their rankings, respectively, being 15, 14, and 13 (Taranto and Leo 2004, 253-54, 264, 265).

Three uses of the famous quotation will be reviewed in this account, the basic concerns being those of documentation and context. The key questions are, first, what sources attest to the statement? And, second, when and where was the statement made? Put differently, what was the context, what circumstances stimulated the utterance?

The first work to be reviewed here is W. A. Swanberg's biography of William Randolph Hearst (1961, 141). The statement appears in a discussion of events in mid-March 1898, a month after the sinking of the Maine--Roosevelt "privately referred with contempt to McKinley as having 'no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.'" Swanberg gives his source as Henry F. Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt (1956 [1931], 177-78). Pringle reviewed Roosevelt's reaction to the Maine catastrophe. On hearing the news, Roosevelt wrote that: "I would give anything if President McKinley would order the fleet to Havana tomorrow.... The Maine was sunk by an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards." (2) Pringle comments that this judgment came "before any details had been received and while Captain Sigsbee, who had survived the disaster, was asking the public to suspend judgment." The "rantings of Hearst" are mentioned followed by a few indications of war clamor. Roosevelt "watched with contempt the efforts of McKinley to avoid the struggle" and at this time, Pringle states, "told his intimates" about the composition of the president's backbone.

Pringle supplies three sources--"Wister, Owen, Op. cit., p. 50; Kohlsaat, H. H., From McKinley to Harding, p. 77; Peck, Harry Thurston, Twenty Years of the Republic, p. 462." Owen Wister's comment (1930, 50-51) appears in a paragraph that discusses the major political issue of 1896--William Jennings Bryan and "free silver." Over lunch four friends, Roosevelt, Wister, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Winthrop Chanler, were discussing whether "such a wind-bag" as Bryan could ever become president. …

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