When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. . . And one night late it came to me this way. . .1) That we could not give them back to Spain- that would be cowardly and dishonorable; 2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany-our commercial rivals in the Orient-that would be bad business and discreditable; 3) that we not leave them to themselves-they are unfit for self-government-and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain's wars; and 4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.Source: General James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate 22 January 1903. The meeting had occurred on November 21, 1899.
A passerby to Myths_Americana observed that Lewis Gould's The Presidency of William McKinley (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1980) disputes the accuracy of the religious portion of this quotation (p. 141), expressing suspicion toward James F. Rusling. Wikipedia has popularized this doubt with a section labeled Disputed Quotation. Its authenticity is important to history writing, because it has been cited in this form so often on nothing more than Rusling's authority. While I can't really prove that McKinley said it, I believe that there are persuasive circumstances surrounding it and an independent confirmation that Gould ignored. I divide the issue into (a) the contestability of the "president on his knees" report, and (b) the evidence regarding the the quote's language.
Two Presidents on their Knees in Prayer?. Gould is rightly suspicious that Rusling would print stories of two different presidents--Lincoln and McKinley--praying for divine guidance about their wars and then reporting it to Rusling. Rusling, who had risen to Brigadier General during the Civil War before he became a historian, wrote about Lincoln in the first chapter of his Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days (1899). This book is now, but Google's project has rescued Men and Things, so that we can study what Gould found to be the source of suspicious parallels. Rusling does not in fact assert that Lincoln made the disclosure to him alone, but to General Dan Sickles, whose leg was shatered by a cannon ball at the Battle of Gettsyburg. It was Sickles himself, recovering from his amputation, who posed a question to Lincoln about his thought process during the Gettysburg ordeal. Rusling happened to be present. Since Sickles was a famous/notorious person, the story likely circulated often after the 1863 hospital encounter. Sickles later became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, living until 1914. As regards the authenticity of the account, Rusling's Men and Things includes an Appendix relating to , and it includes correspondence with Sickles himself, who cannot confirm that Rusling had the exact words right. Sickles after all, was still suffering from the recent amputation of his leg in 1863, and Rusling's initial published account in 1892 came 25 years after the event. (See pages 355ff for the various confirmations that Rusling offers as well as the earlier published version.) In an important qualificaton to his skepticism, Gould notices that McKinley himself had used the Lincoln-on-his-knees-in-prayer story in a speech he gave in 1892 (note 36, p. 266). Could it be that McKinley had received his version from Rusling, enjoyed it, liked its effect on his audience--and then used the heart of the story later to give a religious stamp to to his account of meditation on the Philippines. In seeing the matter that way, McKinley leans on Rusling, rather than Rusling leaning on his earlier story to recast McKinley.
The Religious Context. Gould's book is not attentive to religion or to the significant role of the Methodist Church in McKinley's life. In this regard, Gary Scott Smith's essay "William McKinley: America as God's Instrument" is far more instructive because he pays attention to McKinley's life a man solidly grounded in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Beyond quoting Rusling's Christian Advocate article to call it into question, Gould did not include the Methodists' own history of their relationships with McKinley as president. J. Tremayne Copplestone's History of Methodist Missions, Vol. IV: Twentieth Century Perspectives (The Methodist Episcopal Church, 1896-1986 (New York: The Board of Global Ministries/The United Methodist Church, 1973) tells a decisive story here. The Methodists, like other groups in American society, experienced the expansionist/imperial fever. Matthew T. Herbst has described how one Annual Conference acted in the heat of the imperial moment in his well documented essay "Michigan Methodism and Aggressive Christianity." Once the war with Spain was underway, Methodist foreign mission advocates saw the Philippines as both fertile target and a kind of beachhead that could be used for more effective launches of evangelism into Asia. The Methodists began to lobby McKinley early and often for the right to missionize the Philippines, which was dominated by the Catholics prior to its annexation by the United States. As the Methodists put it, they wanted "complete religious toleration" (Copplestone, 174, citing a Sept. 6, 1898 letter from the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church ) and the freedom for competition with the Catholics, who were linked in their minds with heathen superstition, idolatry, and political tyranny. As relates to the authenticity of the quotation, Bishop James M. Thoburn, prior to the famous August 21, 1899 meeting of the Missionary Comittee with McKinley, had a private audience with the president to plead the Methodist case for permission to evangelize. and this session supplemented a White House reception for the Committee in the Blue Room with Admirals Dewey and Schley. (Copplestone, p. 187) Three days later the delegation from the Missionary Committee, which included Rusling, came to the White House to thank the president for the encouragement given to Bishop Thoburn for their ventures. In that session the Committee members read to McKinley a statement saying: "The Methodist Episcopal Church believes in the dignity, the dignity and the destiny of this Great Republic as a Providential institution among men--to uplift, and civilize, and christianize our fellow men." (Copplestone, p. 188) This written statement and details surrounding the meeting appeared in the "Minutes, General Missionary Committee" for November 9, 10, 15, 18, 21--the last being the exact date of the meeting with McKinley. (Copplestone's source notes, p. 1217) It has often been observed that no member of the committee ever contradicted Rusling's account. Why would they, since McKinley was simply repeating the language read to him? They were all Methodists with a shared missionary purpose and spoke the same language to one another. It's true that McKinley in his public rhetoric spoke more vaguely about "the duties of civilization" and that is doubtless why Gould could not believe that McKinley would have spoken so fervently about a world religious mission for America. McKinley was sensitive about his public audiences and could politically tune the level of secularity/religiosity in his rhetoric. In this case of the disputed quote, with documentary evidence that he was merely repeating the language brought to his private chamber by his religious peers, there seems little reason to question it.
In my opinion, it is not the quotation that should now be disputed, but the doubt about its authenticity. One could go to those same archives that Copplestone drew upon as he wrote the history for the Methodist Church. It is always possible to learn something new from a second look.
John Shelton Lawrence March 8, 2007