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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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