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The McKinley Record
Two major pieces of economic legislation ushered in and out the first term of President William McKinley.  Upon taking office in March 1897, McKinley called the Republican-controlled Congress into special session in order to enact the party’s campaign pledge of raising tariff rates cut by the previous Democratic majority.  That July, the president signed the Dingley Tariff Act, which increased the average rate from 41 % to 46% and authorized the president to negotiate reciprocal trade treaties.  After years of economic depression, the return of prosperity in 1897 crippled the movement for inflationary “free silver.”  Its political death occurred in March 1900 when Congress enacted the Gold Standard Act, making all American currency redeemable only in gold coins.

It was foreign policy, however, that took center stage during McKinley’s first term.  The most pressing issue was the Cuban rebellion (begun in 1895) against Spanish imperial rule.  Under pressure from the McKinley administration, Spain granted limited autonomy to Cuba on January 1, 1898.  Rioting by Spanish loyalists provoked concern for the safety of Americans in Cuba.  With the reluctant approval of Spain, President McKinley ordered the battleship Maine from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, where it arrived on January 25.  On February 9, American newspapers published a letter intercepted from Spanish diplomat Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, which revealed Spain’s bad-faith negotiations and ridiculed McKinley as weak and indecisive. 

On February 15, two explosions sank the Maine, killing 266 American crewmen aboard.  The American press assumed pro-Spanish forces had planted mines, although later investigations questioned that conclusion.  McKinley demanded that Spain reach a truce with the rebels and allow U.S. mediation with the goal of Cuban independence.  In late March, Spain agreed to an armistice, though without the possibility of ending imperial rule.  Tensions escalated until Spain declared war on April 24 and the U.S. Congress reciprocated the next day.

On May 1, 1898, American naval forces under Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and American troops entered the Spanish colony of the Philippines.  McKinley closely supervised the operations of General William Shafter in Cuba, where the Spanish at Santiago surrendered on July 14.  The Spanish relinquished 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.  On December 10, 1898, Spain ceded Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States in a treaty that the Senate narrowly ratified two months later.  Although fewer than 400 U.S. servicemen had been killed in combat during the brief conflict, nearly 5500 had died from disease.  An investigation by a presidential commission resulted in the resignation of War Secretary Russell Alger.  In the Philippines, an undeclared war between Filipino nationalists and the United States lasted from early 1899 until 1902, during which 10,000 Americans and 200,000 Filipinos died.

The McKinley administration also sought to prevent Europeans nations 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.  To that end, McKinley and Secretary of State John Hay formulated the Open Door policy, which had been accepted by all powers by March 1900.  When the Chinese Boxer Rebellion erupted that June, President McKinley dispatched 2500 American servicemen from the Philippines to take part in an international force, which suppressed the uprising by August.  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 Republican Nomination
Given the tradition against an incumbent president campaigning openly for reelection, McKinley used the 1899 state elections to promote the record of his administration and the Republican Party.  That October, the popular president spent two weeks traveling through nine midwestern states, where he delivered 80 speeches emphasizing the return of economic prosperity and the need for continued American commitment in the foreign lands occupied after the Spanish-American War.  The Republican Party did well in the elections, winning in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota, while Democrats fared poorly outside the South.  Even in Nebraska, the home state of 1896 Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic-Populist fusion ticket only eked out a victory. 

By the end of 1899, it was clear that McKinley was seeking reelection and would be nominated without opposition.  The president again tapped his friend, Senator Mark Hanna, as campaign manager.  However, Hanna’s publicizing and exaggerating his influence over McKinley to the press caused a strain in their relationship.  Therefore, the president waited until April 1900 before endorsing the senator for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, which Hanna was awarded. 

The death of Vice President Garret Hobart in November 1899 left a vacancy expected to be filled by the nominee of the Republican National Convention of 1900.  President McKinley would have preferred Secretary of War Elihu Root, but the two men decided in December 1899 that the situation in Cuba and especially the Philippines required that Root remain at his current post.  Western Republicans touted Theodore Roosevelt, as did political bosses, former senator Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania and Senator Thomas C. Platt of New York, who both thought the reform governor of New York would do less harm in the political exile of the vice presidency.  Ardent opposition to the Roosevelt boom came from Mark Hanna, who viewed the governor as a threat to his own ambition and influence.  The Ohio senator promoted several politicians for the position, including Root, Interior Secretary Cornelius N. Bliss, Navy Secretary John D. Long, and Senator William Allison of Iowa.  McKinley remained noncommittal, but only Roosevelt generated excitement in party ranks. 

Roosevelt himself sent mixed signals about accepting the vice presidential nomination, probably because of his own uncertainty.  He wanted to be president, but knew that to challenge McKinley was out of the question and feared that the vice-presidency was a political dead-end job.  His friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, tried to persuade the reluctant Roosevelt to seek the position and extolled the governor’s attributes to the president.  In February 1900, Roosevelt privately rejected Lodge’s argument and then told the press that he would “under no circumstances” accept the vice presidential nomination.  However, enthusiasm for his candidacy refused to wane, and Senator Platt came under increasing pressure from businessmen to get the pro-regulation governor out of Albany.   

Although Roosevelt did not relish the limited duties of the vice presidency and did not want to leave New York with Platt’s foot in his backside, the idea of being the nation’s second-highest official proved too good to pass up.  By April, he began expressing openness to accepting the nomination.  Nevertheless, when he visited Washington in May, Roosevelt left contradictory impressions with politicians about whether he did or did not want the vice presidency.  McKinley may have preferred a less colorful running mate, but decided to leave the choice to convention delegates. 

In the days leading up to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on June 19-21, Senator Hanna telephoned the White House several times in an urgent attempt to stop the Roosevelt bandwagon.  McKinley refused to cooperate with Hanna and stated firmly that he had no favored candidate.  Without an alternative of equal appeal to the delegates, the president’s stance virtually assured Roosevelt the nomination.  On June 21, McKinley was unanimously nominated for president, followed by the near-unanimous nomination of Roosevelt for vice president.  The New York governor himself had cast the only “no” vote, although he readily accepted the nomination.

The Republican platform credited the return of economic prosperity to the McKinley administration and Republican rule.  It characterized the Spanish-American War as “a war for liberty and human rights … a war unsought and patiently resisted,” and called Americans to “a new and noble responsibility” in foreign affairs.  The document reaffirmed the party’s traditional commitments to the gold standard, tariff protectionism, trade reciprocity, veterans’ pensions, voting rights for all races, and an interoceanic canal in Central America.  It approved the annexation of Hawaii (1898), antitrust legislation, and the creation of a cabinet-level department of commerce.   

McKinley formally accepted the presidential nomination on July 12, speaking from his front porch in Canton, Ohio.  He proclaimed, “We have prosperity at home and prestige abroad.”  He insisted that “American authority must be supreme” in the Philippines, but would “never be used as a weapon of oppression.”

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