What if Teddy Roosevelt Never Became President? McKinley Was As Important

What if Teddy Roosevelt, popularly known as TR, never became president? He assumed the presidency in 1901 under tragic circumstances. President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist.

McKinley, first elected in 1896, is often over-shadowed by his more dramatic and memorable successor. But McKinley engineered a realignment of the Republican Party to capture a majority of the vote for 32 years, except for 1916. (The party split in the election of 1912, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected with a minority of the vote.)

As Karl Rove explained in his 2016 book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, McKinley ran the first modern campaign, building viral social networks, encouraging supporters to band together by occupation, ethnicity and region, and urged them to visit his home in Canton, Ohio, where he would address them from his porch with a speech tailored to each specific group. Then his message was spread to the masses by the penny press, via the very first public relations men and political consultants. His campaign was also the first to spend millions on campaign literature.

He expanded the Republican Party’s political base from Northern businessmen and Southern blacks, rejecting nativism, anti-Catholicism, and the immigration restrictions fanned by Democrats.

Despite the painful economic panics and recent recessions, McKinley expressed confidence that private businesses and organized labor, combined with voluntary associations, could build a national economy for the 20th century. This was at a time when the frontier was closing, the country was shifting from an agricultural and rural to an industrial and urban economy. His victory against William Jennings Bryan “ended a bitter period of political gridlock,” Rove wrote.

McKinley was the first president of the progressive era. He “was instrumental in passing some of the nation’s premiere legislation that fined employers for firing workers who joined a union, and led the way in the creation of an independent arbitration board for settling labor disputes,” wrote historian Jason W. Stevens. “He forcefully condemned lynching and appointed many African-Americans, including former slaves, to government posts. In late 1898, McKinley, along with most of his cabinet, was the first president to visit Tuskegee Institute and meet with Booker T. Washington.”

And yet McKinley had a serious negative mark on his record. After defeating Spain in war over Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, he crushed the Filipino Independence Movement on the rationale that he had to “civilize and Christianize” them first. He instructed his general to engage in a scorched earth policy, to kill and burn everything in site, and to herd tens of thousands of Filipino prisoners into concentration camps. “Tens of thousands died in direct combat in the guerrilla war, and hundreds of thousands more from disease,” reported Alternet.

A question is posed on Quora.com: “What if McKinley was not assassinated?”

Steven Franklin goes on to list TR’s many accomplishments, and speculates on what would not have happened:

  • There would have been a European presence in the Caribbean when those nations defaulted on foreign loans.
  • Perhaps there would have been battles between the Allied and Central Powers much closer to North America.
  • There might never have been a Panama Canal.
  • Roosevelt expanded and modernized the US Navy, something that would prove useful in the future.
  • Perhaps the Philippines would have gained their independence from the United States sooner and without war.
  • The national government was strengthened by progressive legislation.


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