A rich, rapacious America clashes with its downtrodden and idealistic in this ambitious, wide-ranging study.
The era leading up to the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 was defined by enormous expansion in American industry and muscle-flexing abroad as well as the potent rise of labor unrest and revolutionary ideas such as anarchy. The growth of railroads, steel output, consumer goods, patents and sheer American ingenuity enriched the captains of industry, while the laborers, assembly-line workers, coal miners and armies of poor immigrants performed mind-numbing tasks for quarters and dimes per day. Wall Street Journal correspondent Miller harnesses several narratives successively. He moves between the coffer-rich Republican election of the self-made man and Civil War hero McKinley against the populist William Jennings Bryan, to the meeting between the painfully shy working-class loner in Cleveland, Leon Czolgosz, and the charismatic anarchist speaker Emma Goldman. Fired up by Goldman’s words on social revolution and liberty—which in turn had emerged from a movement that Miller neatly traces from the work of Edmund Burke, William Godwin and the Transcendentalists—Czolgosz steeled himself for the “propaganda of the deed”—e.g., the kind of deadly terrorism that was rocking European capitals in the 1890s. Meanwhile, McKinley was faced with international crises that he would manipulate effectively for American imperialist gain, such as the annexation of Hawaii, defeat of Spain for the protectorate of Cuba and the Philippines, takeover of Guam and Puerto Rico and an attempted Open Door policy toward China (thwarted by the Boxer Rebellion).
This is a wildly complex and significant period in American history, and Miller does a solid job of attending to the many boiling pots on the stove.