The Death of McKinley and the Presidency of Roosevelt

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | September 14, 2012

September 14, 2012
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This time, there would be no telephone call; the Vice President could not be reached. A week before, on September 6th, when the President had been shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, Vice President Roosevelt had been on an island in Lake Champlain, preparing to address the annual meeting of the Vermont Fish and Game League. Called to the phone, he exclaimed “Oh my God!” then wired for details, then hurtled – by boat, by train, by carriage – to the President’s side. But when, three days later,  it appeared that the President was well on his way to a full and speedy recovery, Roosevelt took off again – to hike, characteristically, the highest peak in New York State. He was halfway up Mount Marcy on Friday the 13th, in fact, when a courier approached from below, waving a yellow envelope. Inside was a telegram, bearing the dread news: “the President’s condition,” it declared, “has changed for the worse.” Roosevelt – ten miles away from the nearest telephone, fifty miles away from the nearest railroad, four hundred and forty miles away from Buffalo – started down immediately.  On a buckboard wagon, dashing through the night down roads dangerous even in daylight, Roosevelt tore the mountain to arrive, finally, in Buffalo on the afternoon of the 14th. Jumping into a carriage, he went, almost immediately, to stand silently beside McKinley’s body; as he left, tears streamed down his face.  An hour later, standing in the library of a friend’s home, and wearing formal clothing borrowed for the occasion, Theodore Roosevelt took the Oath of Office, and so began, at 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of September 14, 1901, the most transformative presidency in American history.

Cover from the October 2, 1901 edition of Puck Magazine, as Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Theodore Roosevelt Center, Dickson State University.
Cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt assuming the presidency, dressed in a morning suit, with his Rough Rider uniform hung up

A First Letter

It was typical, then, that this letter, written later that day – in response to a note from an old and dear friend – is on “Executive Mansion” stationery from President McKinley’s traveling cache; Roosevelt did not wait to assume, whole, the presidency. But what is atypical (indeed, almost antithetic) is that this most buoyant of men should write of the heaviness he felt on his ascension:

“I have about as heavy and painful a task out upon me as can fall to the lot of any man in a civilized country…”

Roosevelt’s dismay at becoming President, however, did not last long; nor did his promise to uphold McKinley’s policies, made as he was sworn-in, last long either. Indeed, even to look at the very heading of this letter, “Executive Mansion”, is to see a break with precedence…

McKinley, a 19th century man, lived in the Executive Mansion; his successor, definitively a 20th century type, would live in the White House.  Everyone had been calling the “Executive Mansion” the “White House” for years – but it took Theodore Roosevelt to acknowledge the fact.  He moved into the “Executive Mansion” on September 22, 1901, and had the stationery changed to the “White House” as soon as possible.  This letter, then, signed by the new President on the old letterhead, is scarce, and emblematic, too, of the huge change that Roosevelt would bring, overnight, to the presidency, the country, and the world. He was just forty-two years old – the youngest president, ever – and he liked, he said, to have his hand on the lever.

This letter, it remains to be noted, is of great rarity, in that it was written on the first day of a presidency assumed, suddenly, by a Vice-President upon the death of a President – and remarks on that terrible fact. In the history of American presidential letters, there are believed to be only two such examples of this phenomenon.  One is the letter featured here, and it may well be the first that Roosevelt wrote as President. The other is by Harry Truman, begun on the morning of April 12, 1945 but signed by him, later that evening, as President.  Truman added to his letter an autograph postscript about his new “terrible responsibilities” – for, like Theodore Roosevelt, he too felt that the weight of office, and the world, had fallen on him.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. 1858-1919. 26th President of the United States.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, octavo, on Executive Mansion letterhead but datelined Buffalo, New York, September 14, 1901. To New York aristocrat and Roosevelt’s Harvard friend and club mate, Winthrop Chanler.  With typed transmittal envelope bearing the September 14, 1901 Pan American Exposition cancellation.

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