Complete HarpWeek Biography:
William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States (1897-1901), a Republican congressman (1877-1883; 1885-1891), and two-term Ohio governor (1892-1896). He was born in Niles, Ohio, the seventh child of Nancy Allison McKinley and William McKinley, a coal-furnace manager and small pig-iron manufacturer. In his youth, McKinley attended school in Niles and Poland, Ohio. When 17 years old, poor health prompted him to leave Allegheny College (Meadville, Pennsylvania) after one semester and lack of funds prevented him from returning. He taught briefly at a country school until the Civil War began in 1861, when the 18-year-old joined the 23rd Ohio Infantry as a private. McKinley fought bravely at Antietam (September 1862), was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and made a major at the war’s conclusion.
After reading law in Youngstown, Ohio, and attending classes at Albany Law School (New York), he passed the Ohio bar in 1867 and established a practice in Canton, Ohio. Four years later, he married Ida Saxton; the couple had two daughters who both died in childhood. Grief and epilepsy made Mrs. McKinley an invalid for the rest of her life.
In 1869, “Major” McKinley (as he was called throughout his political career) won election as Stark County Ohio’s prosecuting attorney. In 1876, he was elected as a Republican to the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S. House, where he quickly became a spokesman for high protective tariffs. In 1880, he was assigned to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Two years later, he lost a bid for reelection, but was returned to office in 1884. In 1889, he lost the Republican nomination for House speaker to Thomas B. Reed of Maine, but was selected to chair the Ways and Means Committee. He used that position to ensure passage of the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which raised the average levy on imports to 48% (the highest peacetime rate in American history to that date). Angry voters turned him and other protectionist Republicans out of office later that year.
However, McKinley remained popular in his party and state, and was elected governor of Ohio in October 1891, with businessman Mark Hanna serving effectively as his campaign manager. In early 1893, McKinley suffered serious financial difficulty when a friend whose notes he had endorsed went bankrupt. Hanna and other rich colleagues paid off the governor’s debt of $130,000 ($2.6 million in 2002 dollars). The situation benefited McKinley politically because he gained popular sympathy for his economic plight, which occurred during the first year of a national economic depression, and won reelection that fall. As governor, he successfully pushed for railroad safety legislation, a new state tax system, a board of arbitration for labor disputes, and private aid to unemployed coal miners. In 1894, he called out the Ohio National Guard to restore law and order during a coal strike and to end a string of lynchings of black men.
Although McKinley did not openly campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1892, he received a respectable number of votes from delegates who wanted to replace President Benjamin Harrison with a younger candidate. After Harrison’s nomination, the Ohio governor loyally supported the president’s unsuccessful quest for a second term. During the 1894 campaign season, McKinley collected a number of political IOUs by delivering stump speeches for Republican candidates across the country. In 1895, Hanna retired from business to dedicate his time to electing McKinley president. The Ohio governor could boast several assets in the race: executive experience in a key electoral state, nationwide support, identification with the national issue of tariff protection, a reputation for good moral character, and skillful avoidance of the divisive money question.
McKinley rejected Hanna’s suggestion of gaining the Republican nomination by promising patronage to party bosses, and instead ran on the slogan of “The People Against the Bosses.” When the Republican National Convention began on June 16, 1896, McKinley had a virtual lock on the nomination. He won an overwhelming victory on the first ballot, far outdistancing Congressman Thomas Reed, Senator Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania, and others. Garret Hobart, a businessman and state politician from New Jersey, was nominated for vice president. Democrats chose William Jennings Bryan for president and ratified a platform calling for the free coinage of silver.
During the campaign, Hanna applied his business skills to “selling” McKinley to the voters by organizing party workers into effective bureaus, distributing millions of pamphlets, dispatching hundreds of speakers, and raising an enormous sum of money. Meanwhile, the candidate conducted a traditional Republican “front porch” campaign. Approximately 750,000 supporters traveled to McKinley’s home in Canton, Ohio, where he answered questions and delivered short speeches that criticized free silver and advocated protective tariffs. On November 3, 1896, he won the presidency by defeating Bryan 276-176 in the Electoral College, and he took the popular vote 51%-46%. It was the largest margin of victory since President Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection in 1872.
Once taking office in March 1897, President McKinley called Congress into special session to enact the Republican campaign pledge of restoring protective tariffs. The result was the Dingley Tariff Act, passed that July, which raised the average rate to 46%. The law also authorized the president to negotiate reciprocal trade treaties, a policy the administration followed. Failure to secure an international agreement on silver opened the way for enactment of the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which made all American currency redeemable only in gold coins. With the return of economic prosperity, foreign policy took center stage during the McKinley presidency.
The most pressing issue was the Cuban rebellion (begun in 1895) against Spanish imperial rule. It had received considerable support of American men and materiel, despite the previous Cleveland administration’s declaration of United States neutrality. The American press ran emotional stories of atrocities committed by the Spanish rulers, and many Americans sympathized with the fight for Cuban independence. Under pressure from the McKinley administration, Spain granted limited autonomy to Cuba on January 1, 1898. Rioting by Spanish loyalists, however, provoked concern for the safety of American lives in Cuba.
As a precautionary measure, the president had already ordered the battleship Maine toward Havana, where it arrived on January 25. On February 9, American newspapers published a letter intercepted from the Spanish minister to the United States, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme. In it, he revealed that Spain was negotiating with the rebels in bad faith, and he characterized McKinley as weak and indecisive. On February 15, two explosions damaged and sank the Maine, killing 266 American crewmen aboard. The American press assumed pro-Spanish forces had planted mines, though the exact cause was never determined. McKinley demanded that Spain reach a truce with the rebels and allow U.S. mediation with the goal of Cuban independence. Spain initially refused in late March, but, under pressure from other European governments, soon agreed to an armistice, though without the possibility of Cuban independence.
On April 11, President McKinley sought approval of American intervention from Congress, which complied on April 18. Spain broke diplomatic ties two days later and declared war on April 24; the U.S. Congress passed a war resolution the next day. On May 1, American naval forces under Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and American troops entered the Philippines (a Spanish colony). McKinley closely supervised the operations of General William Shafter in Cuba, where the Spanish at Santiago surrendered on July 14. The Spanish surrendered Puerto Rico on July 24 and the next day asked the United States for peace terms. The war ended officially on August 12 and negotiations for a peace settlement began.
Having already signed a Congressional resolution annexing Hawaii on July 7, 1898, President McKinley decided it was best for the United States to retain control of the Philippines, fearing the interest that other world powers had in the island chain. In order to gain popular and political support for the plan, he went on a speaking tour through the Midwest and named three senators to the peace commission. On December 10, 1898, Spain signed a treaty giving the United States formal possession of the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico. To win support for ratification, the president went on a speaking tour in the South, used patronage, and lobbied Congress. On February 6, 1899, the Senate approved the treaty by one vote over the required two-thirds, 57-27. Cuba remained a protectorate of the United States until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba was established. A bloody, undeclared war in the Philippines between Filipino nationalists and American soldiers lasted from early 1899 until 1902.
Although fewer than 400 U.S. servicemen had been killed in combat during the four-month Spanish-American War, nearly 5500 had died from various diseases. While criticism focused on War Secretary Russell Alger, the president visited sick servicemen and appointed a presidential commission, headed by General Grenville Dodge, to investigate the War Department’s conduct. The Dodge Commission’s final report faulted the War Department’s overall lack of efficient administration and discipline during the war, but pointed to longstanding organizational problems in the U.S. military as the basic culprit. Its findings helped secure passage of a military reform bill. Secretary Alger was cleared of corruption charges, but the president forced his resignation in July 1899.
In 1899, McKinley and Secretary of State John Hay formulated the Open Door policy for China. It sought to prevent the Great Powers—Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan—from restricting trade within their spheres of influence in China and from extending their political authority by carving that nation into several colonies. By March 1900, Secretary of State Hay had publicly declared all their responses as acceptance of the Open Door policy. When the Chinese Boxer Rebellion erupted in June, President McKinley dispatched 2500 American servicemen from the Philippines to take part in an international force, which suppressed the uprising by August. At that time, the administration issued another Open Door note emphasizing the need to preserve the political and territorial integrity of China and to safeguard free trade there. All the Great Powers agreed except for Japan.
The Spanish-American War had driven home to American politicians the need for a shorter interoceanic route for warships as well as commercial vessels. In November 1901, Secretary of State Hay and British Foreign Minister Julian Pauncefote signed a treaty giving the United States exclusive rights to a canal across the Central American isthmus, and allowing the U.S. to be the sole guarantor of the canal’s neutralization (access to the ships of all nations). Although the assumed site was Nicaragua, construction of the Panama Canal began in 1904 under President Theodore Roosevelt.
With the American economy performing well throughout his first term, McKinley ran for reelection in 1900 claiming he had given workers “A Full Dinner Pail.” Since Vice President Garret Hobart had died in 1899, Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York was selected as McKinley’s Republican running-mate. Democrats again nominated William Jennings Bryan, who made anti-imperialism the cornerstone of his presidential campaign. However, the areas of Bryan’s electoral strength in 1896—the South and West—had been at the forefront of popular calls for a war to liberate Cuba from the Spanish. In November 1900, McKinley’s margin of victory—292-155 in the Electoral College and 52-46% in the popular vote—was even larger than in the previous contest, and made him the first president to win a second consecutive term since Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
On the agenda for his second term, McKinley was planning stronger antitrust legislation, reciprocal trade treaties, and to break precedent for sitting presidents by traveling outside the United States. Instead, his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. On September 6, 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The president was taken to the Exposition hospital, where the physician on call, a gynecologist by training, performed the surgery. The doctor was unable to locate the bullet, but sewed up the entrance and exit wounds in the president’s stomach. Gangrene quickly set in and on September 14, 1901, William McKinley became the third president in 36 years to die of an assassin’s bullet. Vice President Roosevelt was sworn in as the nation’s youngest president (42). Czolgosz was convicted of murder and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.
Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress (online); William DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents; Grolier Encyclopedia (online); Louis Gould, The Presidency of William McKinley; “Ohio Governors,” Ohio Historical Society (online); and “Presidents,” White House History (online).