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President McKinley’s devotion to duty

FREMONT, Ohio — Some 120 years ago this month, in the first September of his presidency, a long-ignored and sometimes-discredited president, William McKinley, traveled here, to the hometown of his predecessor and mentor, Rutherford B. Hayes. It was a gentle moment in the young McKinley presidency and in what would soon become a crowded hour in American history, with the sinking of the battleship USS Maine only five months in the future, with war against Spain seven months away, and with a vital debate about imperialism looming.

McKinley came here in September 1897 to visit the grave of Hayes, an embattled president of an embattled nation, and to spend some time with his old fellow soldiers of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The president was still sometimes referred to as “The Major,” and in those dual roles — commander in chief of the country and yet merely a quartermaster and battlefield courier of his old regiment, which fought bravely and well in the Civil War, at Antietam and at the Shenandoah Valley — he addressed his fellow veterans. His remarks were rooted in his time, but are hauntingly relevant to ours.

My comrades, the memories of the war are sweeter than service in the war. It is a good deal pleasanter and very much safer to fight our battles o’er as we are doing today than it was to fight them from ’61 to ’65. But we could not have had these glorious memories if we had not rendered the service — a service rendered in freedom’s cause, and for a country that is forever saved.

In that passage, which followed a simple greeting to the men assembled there, the 25th president spoke lightly, and yet gravely, of the burden and cost of war. He first felt both burden and cost as a young man, when he experienced hostilities and battle defeat firsthand, and would experience them again as president, sending men into combat in Cuba and the Philippines.

The reference in the last sentence of that passage to “freedom’s cause” would become a recurrent theme in the American presidency and in American history, spoken by Woodrow Wilson in World War I; Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in World War II; John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in Vietnam; and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush in Iraq. McKinley himself would set the nation on a wartime course to win freedom for Cubans oppressed by their Spanish minders.

This old flag was never shot down that a hundred men did not fly to pick it up and lift it aloft. You did your duty; that is all that anybody can do. The Union soldiers all did their duty. That is honor enough, but the glory of it is that we have a reunited, a re-created country.

McKinley made these remarks while pointing to the regimental flag that he came to Fremont to honor, and this passage won lusty cheers from the 81 veterans of the 23rd regiment assembled here. But the import of these three sentences comes in two words: duty and reunited. Following the most terrible of American wars — one that pitted Northern duty against Southern duty and tested, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg a third of a century earlier, whether the country “could long endure” — the notion of reuniting the country was a vital task.

Today we face a divided nation, but it is prudent to recall we have been divided before — revolutionary against Tory, Republican against Federalist, South against North, black against white, Greatest Generation against Baby Boomers. The divisions today — conservative against liberal, mainstream media against the insurgents of the right — are significant, but do not compare with many of the divisions that preceded ours. That is all the more reason for national leaders to dedicate themselves to finding common cause and common ground. With difficult budget, race and national-security questions unresolved, we may need them both in more contentious days to come.

That is the price of your sacrifice; and today, instead of having sectional divisions beneath this flag, we have none. They are all obliterated, and the men who fought for this flag and the men who opposed it, on the many battlefields of the South, are now forever united in faith and friendship for its defense.

McKinley was speaking at the end of the century, three decades after the end of the war. But it was within living memory that Republicans had engaged in a practice called “waving the bloody shirt” in an attempt to discredit Democrats by reminding voters of their ties to the rebellious South. Now, the president was saying, sectional divisions were gone and the nation was united.

No man can look on this great American audience today and not feel that the country’s institutions are safe. There is a flag in the hand of every child, and patriotism in every man’s heart.

The tensions of the Civil War were fast receding, but as we would learn in the 20th century, and would reaffirm in the 21st, the sectional and racial tensions that produced the war had a long, painful legacy, some of which is being played out in our debate over Confederate statues. McKinley did not want to linger on those tensions in a speech that was part of a celebratory day that included cannon salutes, band music, a bonfire and events that Robert W. Merry, in a sparkling new McKinley biography to be published in November, described as “reflecting the sturdy patriotism of the day.”

And yet the lessons from September 1897 for Americans in September 2017 are clear, and are reflected in that new biography. McKinley, Merry wrote, “knew that unity and social harmony also required good times and a sense that American prosperity was widely shared.” That notion applies to our time, too. Our political divisions are a reflection of our cultural and economic divisions at a time when there are significant wealth, education, cultural and perception gaps.

Today it is possible for McKinley’s successor, President Donald Trump, to look on our Fourth of July celebrations and see a flag in the hand of every child and patriotism in every American’s heart. But he cannot look on the great American audience and believe the country’s institutions are safe. Making it so is the greatest task he and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress have in the months to come.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

David Shribman

David Shribman

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