A presidential assassination is a tragedy that burns itself into the memories of a generation. Most Americans who were alive in 1963 can tell you exactly where they were when they heard about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And it was the same for Lincoln’s death: In the 1890s, federal interviewers found that elderly citizens could still remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of Lincoln’s assassination.
The specter of presidential assassination lingers in the back of the American mind, but a recent comment about “second-amendment people” has brought it to the fore. Many Americans are now pondering the question of how far we should go — or, put another way, what we are willing to give up — to protect the life of our president. The following article provides one perspective from over a century ago.
President William McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901, while making a public appearance in Buffalo, New York. He died of gangrene on September 14. America’s citizens, concerned for the safety and protection of their chief executive officer, were weighing the question of presidential safety versus public access. Some even advocated the complete removal of the president from public venues.
While America was still recovering from this disaster — while McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was still waiting in prison for his execution day — McKinley’s predecessor, Grover Cleveland, offered Post readers his viewpoint on why it’s so important for the public to have access to the president, more important even than the threat of assassination.
The Safety of the President
By Grover Cleveland
Excerpted from an article originally published on October 5, 1901
It is suggested that the safety of the president can be much increased by curtailing his accessibility to the public. It is even said that the custom which has always permitted the people large latitude in meeting and greeting their chief executive, by taking him by the hand, is absurdly dangerous.
A radical diminution of the popular enjoyment of those privileges would be much more difficult of accomplishment than at first blush is apparent. The relations between all the decent people of the land and the president are very close. On the part of the people this situation is the outgrowth of their feeling that they have a more direct proprietary interest in the presidential office than in any other instrumentality of their government. They have determined by their united and simultaneous suffrages who the president shall be. In his high office they regard him as the representative of their sovereignty and self-government; and, as the administrator of laws made for their welfare and advantage, they look upon him as their near friend — alive to their needs and anxious for their prosperity and happiness. Closely allied to these sentiments and perhaps directly resulting from them there is an immensely strong band of attachment between all good citizens and their president which, though difficult to define, is nevertheless unmistakably real and distinctively American. In the minds of all law-abiding people, excepting an insignificant minority whose love of country is selfish or who make party scheming an occupation, this attachment overreaches party affiliations and crowds out of memory the exciting incidents of party strife. It may be said to rest upon a feeling of sincere and generous goodfellowship or comradeship which includes the idea that, though the president has been clothed with high honor by his fellow-countrymen, he is still one of the people, that he still needs their support and approbation, and that he is still in sympathy with them in every condition of their daily life.
This attachment and affection of our plain and honest people for their president is not only manifested by their desire to see, hear, and greet him, but these kindly sentiments are stimulated and strengthened by every indulgence of this desire. When danger is charged against this indulgence, let us remember that, while only one of our three presidential assassinations can be in any way related to a public opportunity for the people to greet the president, such opportunity has in many millions of honest hearts rekindled wholesome Americanism, and made more deep and warm patriotic impulse. Against one miscreant who, with a desperate foolhardiness that can hardly be again anticipated, has through access to the head of our nation accomplished a murderous purpose, we should not forget the countless numbers of those who in the privilege of like access would prevent such accomplishment with their lives. All things considered, it is a serious question, even at a time when all are aroused to the need of better protection of the president, whether a serious limitation of the people’s public access to him is justified as either necessary or effective.
It is not amiss to add that in discussing the curtailment of the privileges long accorded to the public in this regard, the president himself must be reckoned with. We shall never have a president who is not fond of the great mass of his countrymen and who is not willing to trust them. His close contact with them is inspiring and encouraging. Their friendly greeting and hearty grasp of his hand, with no favors to ask and no selfish cause to urge, bring pleasant relief from official perplexities and annoying importunities. The people have enjoyed a generous access to their president for more than a hundred years. Weighing the remote chance of harm against the benefit and gratification of such access both to himself and the people, it can hardly be predicted that a project for its abolition would be sanctioned by any incumbents of the presidential office.
It is by no means intended to suggest that this access should be unregulated and entirely free from all precaution. Those charged with care for the president on such occasions should never in the least degree tolerate the idea that there can be a harmless person of unsound mind; nor should they relax their watch for such persons and for all others that may properly be suspected of a liability to do harm. Every doubtful case should be determined on the side of safety, and all suspicious movements or conduct should challenge prompt and effective caution. Such precautions can be taken quietly and unostentatiously. It may be safely said, however, that among the millions interested in having such precautions for presidential safety adopted, the president himself will be the least anxious concerning them. This will always be so.
A serious and thorough consideration of the peril which has so shockingly broken in upon the peace of our national life would be incomplete in its lesson and warning if it failed to lead to an honest self-examination and a frank inquiry whether there are not causes other than anarchistic teachings, and perhaps near our own doors, whose tendency, to say the least, is in the wrong direction. Have not some of our public journals, under the guise of wholesome criticism of official conduct, descended to such mendacious and scandalous personal abuse as might well suggest hatred of those holding public place? Has not the ridicule of the coarse and indecent cartoon indicated to those of low instincts that no respect is due to official station? Have not lying accusations on the stump and even in the halls of Congress, charging executive dishonesty, given a hint to those of warped judgment and weak intellect that the president is an enemy to the well-being of the people?
Many good men who are tearful now, and who sincerely mourn the cruel murder of a kindly, faithful, and honest president, have perhaps from partisan feeling or through heedless disregard of responsibility supported and encouraged such things. They may recall it now and realize the fact that the agents of assassination are incited to their work by suggestion, and this suggestion need not necessarily be confined to the dark councils of anarchy.
Not the least among the safeguards against presidential peril is that which would follow a revival of genuine American love for fairness, decency, and unsensational truth.