Thursday, December 20, 2012

The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller

I finished reading The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller. I brought the book after seeing the author interviewed on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I have started a long term project to read one or more books about every American President. This book provides an overview of the life and presidency of William McKinley, but really focuses on the last ten years of the 20th century. The book also tells the story of Leon Czolgosz, McKinley's killer.

There are two major story lines interwoven through the book. First, the late 20th century is marked by the growth of the industrial complex, including large factories and very large market dominating trusts. With few labor laws and almost no unions, workers were disposable cogs in the system. The treatment of workers in most large companies was horrific.

The growth of anarchist movement was partly driven by the treatment of workers. During this period, anarchists assassinated a number of political figures. Czolgosz claimed to have been heavily influenced by anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. In addition to McKinley, Umberto I (King of Italy), Sadi Carnot (the President of France), Empress Elisabeth (the consort of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary) and King Carlos (Portugal) and his son, Crown Prince Luis Filipe were killed by anarchists.

Second, the Spanish-America War is a seminal event of this period. It marked America's emergence on the world stage. The United States gained Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico as result of the war with Spain. McKinley's motivation for entering the war was at least partially driven by a desire to provide additional markets for American goods produced by the large companies.

Sinking of the Maine plays a key role in the Spanish-America War. We walked through the memorial to the Maine at Arlington Cemetary last year. Additionally, there is a monument to Commodore Dewey's victory over the Spanish fleet in the Phillippines in Union Square in San Francisco.

I enjoyed the book. I love the idea of looking at a historical figure largely in the context of the events of the period. I know a lot more about the late 20th century than I did before. While I liked it, the book is not as crisply written as some biographies as I have read. I grade the book a solid B.

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