Richard Olney: The Worst Person in the World?

If Keith Olbermann lived a hundred-odd years ago, there’s no doubt that Richard Olney would have made his “Worst Person in the World” segment.

For starters Olney’s politics are not exactly Olbermannian. Richard Olney (not to be confused with the food writer of the same name) is known to historians for two acts in public life. In 1894, as attorney general, he convinced President Grover Cleveland to send federal troops to crush the massive Pullman railroad strike (and this despite the fact that the Illinois governor not only did not request the troops, but actually begged Washington not to send them). The following year, as secretary of state, Olney famously stated that “To-day the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” By “continent,” he seemed to indicate the entire Western hemisphere; by “fiat,” he seemed to suggest American empire. This is a record of capitalist class warfare and jingoism to make George W. Bush blush.

Then there is Olney’s personality. To call Olney a “flinty” New Englander (he grew up in Central Massachusetts before attending Brown and Harvard Law School) would be to understate things dramatically. Olney was nearly friendless, apparently by choice. His family feared him. He insisted on formal attire for home dinners and referred to his wife of many decades as “Mrs. Olney.” He banished his daughter on slim pretext. Many years later, when he happened to be seated across the aisle from her at a show, he marched out of the theater at the first opportunity without saying a word.

Olney kicked dogs. He fired servants for tiny infractions. He refused to write an approving letter of reference for his gardener of twenty years . (In response to the question “What failings?” on the reference form, Olney responded “The customary failings of a man employed so long in one place as to think himself indispensable.”) In college, as his biographer, Gerald Eggert, notes, Olney “seems to have given vent to his feelings from time to time by physically assaulting people who angered him.” In short, Richard Olney has a strong claim as the assholiest of assholes in the history of assholery. Considering the thoroughness of his misanthropy, one might best describe him as an asswhole.

Interestingly, when it came to foreign policy, Olney’s apparently Bush-ian positions were on closer inspection more Romneyesque. His 1895 declaration of hemispheric dominance seems more like a bluff to force the settlement of a long-standing diplomatic dispute, rather than an assertion of well-considered expansionism. Yet after leaving office, Olney gave a high-profile speech at Harvard calling on the country to join in “the colonization of uninhabited and unappropriated portions of the globe.” Within a couple of years, he had reversed himself yet again, giving his support to the anti-imperialism of William Jennings Bryan. Ex-President Grover Cleveland, in whose cabinet Olney had served, found it passingly strange that Olney, who was “largely responsible…for the doctrine of expansion and consequent imperialism, should now be so impressed with the fatal tendency of imperialism as to be willing to take Bryanism as an antidote.” Olney subsequently passed through several more twists and turns before ending up by his death in 1917 as an opponent of gunboat diplomacy in the Caribbean and a supporter of a multilateral Monroe Doctrine and hemispheric cooperation. His foreign policy might not be as bad as generally remembered. But he remained, to the end, a terrible person.

Ben Coates

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