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Digital History ID 3139

 

On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shaking hands with a line of well-wishers at the Pan American Exposition held in Buffalo, N.Y. Fifty soldiers and secret service agents roamed the premises, scrutinizing the crowd. A 28-year-old ex-Cleveland factory worker and farm hand named Leon Czolgosz (pronounced Chol-gots) moved toward the president and drew a 32-caliber revolver from his pockets. He wrapped his left hand and the gun with a large handkerchief.

A secret service agent touched Czolgosz shoulder. "Hurt your hand?" the agent asked. Czolgosz nodded. "Maybe you better get to the first aid station." Czolgosz replied: "After I meet the president. I've been waiting a long time."

Czolgosz approached McKinley and said, "Excuse my left hand, Mr. President." McKinley shook his hand and the farm hand moved on. After several more citizens extended their greetings, Czolgosz lunged toward the president. As a secret service agent tried to grab him, Czolgosz fire twice in rapid succession. One bullet was deflected by McKinley's breastbone, but the other ripped through his stomach and lodged in his back. "I done my duty!" Czolgosz cried out. The president died eight days later.

Czolgosz was an anarchist who didn't believe in governments, rulers, voting, religion, or marriage. In a handwritten confession, he complained that McKinley had been going around the country shouting about prosperity, when there was no prosperity for the working man.

McKinley's assassination marked the symbolic end of one era in national politics and the beginning of a new one. The 1890s had been a decade of depression, labor strife, and agrarian unrest, and the upheaval was not confined to the United States. The great European powers were struggling to control Africa, the Near East, and the Far East. An attempted revolution took place in Russia. At the turn of the century, six heads of state were assassinated by anarchists.

By 1900, many of the great questions of the 19th century seemed to be settled. Corporate enterprise would dominate the American economy, justified by Social Darwinism. The United States had decided to join the global struggle for trade and markets. The status of African Americans was going to be largely defined by white Southerners.

But in fact, the 20th century would not be a continuation of the 19th century. It was obvious from the moment that Theodore Roosevelt became president that new issues would dominate the 20th century.

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