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Roosevelt Discovers He’s President: September 14, 1901

Imperialism was an important issue in the election of 1900. Should the United States take on colonies? Many prominent Americans — including Grover Cleveland, William James, Mark Twain, and William Vaughn Moody — said no. The Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, said no. But McKinley and his vice-presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, voiced a resounding yes. Dressed as a Rough Rider, Teddy was going about the country stumping for himself and McKinley. The war victory, the economic prosperity that had begun in 1897, and the vibrant power of Roosevelt’s personality were more than Bryan could overcome. His issues of anti-imperialism and free silver could not win the day. McKinley and Roosevelt garnered 292 electoral votes with a 900,000 plurality in the popular vote, while Bryan took only Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and the “Solid South” — 155 electoral votes.

McKinley campaign poster, 1900

In April 1901, soon after his inauguration, McKinley began a rail journey around the country, speaking to cheering crowds about the prosperity and glory of America. Later that year, Roosevelt and his family took a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in New York. The energetic Teddy must have found the vice presidency somewhat boring after his stint as governor of New York. Then, he had worked to root out corruption in government and thereby won an enemy in Senator Thomas Platt, head of the Republican machine in the state. Platt had for years handed out the political “contributions” of big business to the various Republican office holders in the state and didn’t want the “bull in the china closet,” as he called Roosevelt, to interfere with what had been a rather comfortable system. It was Platt who pushed to have Roosevelt run for vice president at the Republican party convention — to get him out of New York. Mark Hanna opposed this move; when he saw that the convention wanted Roosevelt for vice president, he said, “Everybody’s gone crazy! What’s the matter with all of you? . . . Don’t any of you realize there’s only one life between that mad­man and the Presidency?”

Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt was certain that the vice presidency destined him for political oblivion. He wanted to be president himself, but the governorship of New York was a more obvious stepping stone to that office than the vice presidency. He contemplated studying law again. Circumstances, however, worked out differently than he or anyone (except for maybe Mark Hanna) expected. On September 6, 1901, an anarchist’s bullet struck President McKinley at a public reception for the opening of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

When Roosevelt received the news, he came to Buffalo; but, as the president seemed to be recovering, he returned to the Adirondacks. But McKinley’s wound became infected, and gangrene began to set in. On September 14, while sitting in a meadow in the Adirondacks, Roosevelt saw a runner coming up the trail. “I instinctively knew he had bad news, the worst news in the world,” Roosevelt later wrote. McKinley was dead, and Roosevelt was to be sworn in as president.

President McKinley shortly before he was shot

Mark Hanna’s fears had come to pass — that “mad-man” was president! While riding on McKinley’s funeral train, Hanna fumed: “I told William McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wild man at Philadelphia. I asked him if he realized what would happen if he should die. Now look, that damned cowboy is President of the United States!”

Film Footage of a Doomed Man

An early film showing President McKinley speaking at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Shortly after giving this speech, the president was shot.

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