On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot while shaking hands with attendees at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Theodore Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo to be on hand, but the initial grave concern about the President’s life soon subsided. President McKinley was responding to treatment and his health was improving. The nation breathed a sigh of relief, and Roosevelt left on a planned family vacation in the Adirondacks. Sadly, on September 13, the President took a turn for the worse and Roosevelt was sent for again. While Roosevelt was en route to Buffalo, he received the news that President McKinley was dead. The next morning, September 14, 1901, in a quiet ceremony inside Ansley Wilcox’s home, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office and officially became the 26th president of the United States.
The letters Roosevelt received during this critical time tell the story in a more fascinating way than the facts. In the Library of Congress collection alone, we have thousands of letters received between September 6 and September 14 regarding the attempted assassination. These letters reflect the concerns of the nation at the time. On the 6th, the letters are full of sympathy and faith that McKinley will safely recover (though some writers note that if he did not recover, Roosevelt would be a great president in his own right). There is anger towards anarchism, as the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was an anarchist. This anger makes for entertaining reading as crazed calls for all anarchists to be punished came to Roosevelt from ordinary citizens across the country. A favorite here in our office, which came from Charlotteburg, New Jersey, is short and to the point:
“Suspend habeas corpus and arrest every anarchist. A Citizen” From the Library of Congress Manuscripts division.
However, the letters also show a return to normalcy for Roosevelt and the country. By September 10, the letters return to business: a request for Roosevelt to recommend a job for a friend, plans for a luncheon at Sagamore Hill at the end of September, and some campaign business to be attended to in Iowa. Some letters begin with a sentence of sympathy but then move onto the business at hand. By this date, McKinley was recovering nicely. There was no need for anyone to be worried. Letters also started to arrive congratulating Roosevelt on his conduct during the crisis.
Then, on September 13, the letters shift again. Many say they expect Roosevelt will be president before he receives their letter. The letters become sadly funny as the writers are clearly conflicted between wanting to congratulate and to console Roosevelt. Secretary of State John Hay blended these sentiments in his letter’s close: “My official life is at an end – my natural life will not be long extended; and so, in the dawn of what I am sure will be a great and splendid future, I venture to give you the heartfelt benediction of the past.”
Telegrams and letters flooded in following McKinley’s death to both console Roosevelt in his loss and express their faith in him as their new President. Through these communications, the country gave its blessing to Roosevelt’s new role and showed their belief in his strength and courage. Paul Morton from Chicago, Illinois, included a postscript to his congratulatory note:
Detail of the post script in letter from Paul Morton to Theodore Roosevelt, September 15, 1903. From the Library of Congress Manuscripts division.