Bob Holcomb: McKinley – history tells us he was above average, not a monster

The message was clear from the attendees at the Feb. 21 Arcata City Council meeting: if you oppose taking the McKinley statue down you are complicit in racism and, yes, the murder of oppressed people. If you don’t accept the Wiyot position favoring removal, you are guilty of continuing the imperialist oppression of which McKinley was the poster boy. If you couldn’t accept that this was a vote from the heart, maybe you lack a heart. If you put the issue to a vote of the people, the white majority would trample the rights of the minority. Whew!

One disturbing thing that seemed to pervade the council meeting was the notion that because the Wiyot tribe favored removal, well, that’s all people of good will need to know. “Done deal,” said many. I too do believe the tribe’s views should be treated with respect and given weight. Likewise, I applaud efforts to expand the Native Studies curriculum at Humboldt State — it should set a standard for the entire state and I strongly support the efforts of the Eureka City Council to turn back large amounts of Indian Island to the tribe.

In this particular case, however, the views of the tribe should not simply be rubber-stamped. It is unfair to demonize those of us who see this issue differently.

The heartfelt passion of a number of Native American speakers about the evils committed against their people is both understandable and incontrovertible. Likewise, a number of Anglo speakers expressed true contrition for what their ancestors had done and sought to make amends.

I have no difficulty with those sentiments. My problem is the connection being made to the person and presidency of William McKinley.

For over half a century, historians and political scientists have, on average every seven years, rated American presidents. In every survey McKinley was rated an above-average president. In the most recent survey, released just weeks ago, McKinley was ranked 19th out of 45, ahead of folks like James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. Were all these distinguished scholars blind to McKinley’s alleged racist, murderous ways?

A number of speakers talked about massacres right here in Humboldt County. Some talked of oppression throughout the West. We heard about what had been done at missions in California. Absolutely horrible but the reality is that none of it had anything to do with McKinley! For example, the massacres occurred nearly half a century before he became president. Despite living in the Trump era, facts still do matter.

One of the few specifics leveled at McKinley was his support for the Dawes Act, a pernicious piece of legislation that effectively stole Indian lands for white settlers to occupy. Now of course it is the Congress, not the president, that pass laws. One cannot find any statement from McKinley urging its passage by Congress. That is understandable, since the law was passed during the administration of Grover Cleveland, a decade prior to McKinley’s taking office. Another historical inaccuracy put forward as part of the evening agitprop.

The lone gentleman who stood up to oppose the statue’s removal was also the only speaker all evening to be jeered and heckled. Most amazingly, he was harangued when recounting McKinley’s heroic service on behalf of the Union in the Civil War.

If you find it unbelievable that someone would be heckled for stating the factual historical record, see it for yourself on line. Maybe the fact he was wounded fighting to end slavery doesn’t fit so well with the slur of racism hurled at McKinley throughout the meeting.

One of the leaders of the statue removal group used his time to read a report of atrocities carried out by U.S. troops in the Philippines, often against civilians. Up to 300,000 may have died. He omitted a couple of key points.

There is ample documentation about significant atrocities committed by both sides. And the majority of truly regrettable deaths did not occur from Mei Lai types of massacres but from disease, most notably an awful outbreak of cholera.

No context was provided by the speaker about why American forces were in the Philippines, a glaring omission if one hopes to understand the issues. And certainly no mention was made of the plans McKinley had put in place for the war’s conclusion.

Like the martyred Lincoln who also didn’t live to see his plans fulfilled, McKinley’s proposal was based on “malice toward none, charity for all,” calling for significant self government along with economic and social reforms. Does anyone really believe Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines would have been better off under their former Spanish rulers?

Currently, Southern progressives are helping bring down the statues of slave supporting traitors to the United States based on irrefutable evidence of treason. Arcata “progressives” are willing to bring down a statue of a decorated fighter for the Union based on a historical and spurious charges.

And just how did today’s council majority come to the decision to pull down the 112-year-old sculpture crafted by Armenian immigrant Haig Patigian and gifted to a grateful city by another immigrant, 81-year-old George Zehnder (at a cost of $365,000 in modern equivalency)?

Did they pay attention to expertise provided by national historians and political scientists as to McKinley’s worth? Did they seek input from local professors of American history at our institutions of higher learning to obtain an objective picture of his administrations? Did they read one of several serious biographies of McKinley?

I’m afraid the answers to those queries is No, No and No. Instead, in the words of former Democratic legislator and former Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser, “They got rolled” by an outdoor rally moved into council chambers.

McKinley deserves better, historical truth deserves better, and our community deserves a more fact-based process to decide this contentious issue fairly.

Bob Holcomb has a Bachelor’s Degree in History from U.C. Riverside and a Masters degree from Rutgers University in Political Science, the subject he taught at a predominantly minority college for more than a quarter century.


Related posts