The 25th president, William McKinley, Jr., was born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, the seventh child of William and Nancy (Allison) McKinley. The McKinleys were of English and Scots-Irish descent and had settled in western Pennsylvania in the 18th century. There, the elder McKinley was born in Pine Township. The family moved to Ohio when the senior McKinley was a boy, settling in New Lisbon (now Lisbon). He met Nancy Allison there in 1829, and married her the same year. The Allison family was of mostly English blood and among Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers. The family trade on both sides was iron-making, and McKinley senior operated foundries in New Lisbon, Niles, Poland, and finally Canton, Ohio.
The McKinley household was, like many from Ohio’s Western Reserve, steeped in Whiggish and abolitionist sentiment. Religiously, the family was staunchly Methodist and young William followed in that tradition, becoming active in the local Methodist church at the age of sixteen. He was a lifelong pious Methodist. In 1852, the family moved from Niles to Poland so that their children could attend the better school there. Graduating in 1859, he enrolled the following year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He remained at Allegheny for only one year, returning home in 1860 after becoming ill and depressed. Although his health recovered, family finances declined and McKinley was unable to return to Allegheny, first working as a postal clerk and later taking a job teaching at a school near Poland.
When the southern states seceded from the Union and the American Civil War began, thousands of men in Ohio volunteered for service. Among them were McKinley and his cousin William McKinley Osbourne, who enlisted as privates in the newly formed Poland Guards in July 1861. The men left for Columbus where they were consolidated with other small units to form the 23rd Ohio Infantry. The men were unhappy to learn that, unlike Ohio’s earlier volunteer regiments, they would not be permitted to elect their officers; they would be designated by Ohio’s governor, William Dennison. Dennison appointed Colonel William Rosecrans as the commander of the regiment, and the men began training on the outskirts of Columbus. McKinley quickly took to the soldier’s life and wrote a series of letters to his hometown newspaper extolling the army and the Union cause. Delays in issuance of uniforms and weapons again brought the men into conflict with their officers, but Major Rutherford B. Hayes convinced them to accept what the government had issued them; his style in dealing with the men impressed McKinley, beginning an association and friendship that would last until Hayes’ death in 1893.
After the war ended in 1865, McKinley decided on a career in the law and began studying in the office of an attorney in Poland, Ohio. The following year, he continued his studies by attending Albany Law School in New York. After studying there for a year, McKinley returned home and was admitted to the bar in Warren, Ohio, in March 1867. That same year, he moved to Canton, the county seat of Stark County, and set up a small office. He soon formed a partnership with George W. Belden, an experienced lawyer and former judge. McKinley’s practice was successful enough for him to buy a block of buildings on Main Street in Canton, which provided him with a small but consistent rental income for decades to come. When his Army friend Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated for governor in 1867, McKinley made speeches on his behalf in Stark County, his first foray into politics. The county was closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, but Hayes carried it that year in his statewide victory. In 1869, McKinley ran for the office of prosecuting attorney of Stark County, an office usually then held by Democrats, and was unexpectedly elected. When McKinley ran for re-election in 1871, the Democrats nominated William A. Lynch, a prominent local lawyer, and McKinley was defeated by 143 votes.
As McKinley’s professional career progressed, so too did his social life blossom as he wooed Ida Saxton, the daughter of a prominent Canton family. They were married on January 25, 1871, in the newly built First Presbyterian Church of Canton, although Ida soon joined her husband’s Methodist church. Their first child, Katherine, was born on Christmas Day 1871. A second daughter, Ida, followed in 1873, but died the same year. McKinley’s wife descended into a deep depression at her baby’s death and her health, never robust, grew worse. Two years later, in 1875, Katherine died of typhoid fever. Ida never recovered from her daughters’ deaths; the McKinleys had no more children. Ida McKinley developed epilepsy around the same time and thereafter disliked her husband's leaving her side. He remained a devoted husband and tended to his wife’s medical and emotional needs for the rest of his life.
McKinley first took his congressional seat in October 1877, when President Hayes summoned Congress into special session. With the Republicans in the minority, McKinley was given unimportant committee assignments, which he undertook conscientiously. McKinley’s friendship with Hayes did McKinley little good on Capitol Hill; the President was not well-regarded by many leaders there. The young congressman broke with Hayes on the question of the currency, but it did not affect their friendship. The United States had effectively been placed on the gold standard by the Coinage Act of 1873; when silver prices dropped significantly, many sought to make silver again a legal tender, equally with gold. Such a course would be inflationary, but advocates argued that the economic benefits of the increased money supply would be worth the inflation; opponents warned that “free silver” would not bring the promised benefits and would harm the United States in international trade. McKinley voted for the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which mandated large government purchases of silver for striking into money, and also joined the large majorities in each house that overrode Hayes’ veto of the legislation. In so doing, McKinley voted against the position of the House Republican leader, his fellow Ohioan and friend, James Garfield.
From his first term in Congress, McKinley was a strong advocate of protective tariffs. The primary purposes of such imposts was not to raise revenue, but to allow American manufacturing to develop by giving it a price advantage in the domestic market over foreign competitors. McKinley biographer Margaret Leech noted that Canton had become prosperous as a center for the manufacture of farm equipment because of protection, and that this may have helped form his political views. McKinley introduced and supported bills that raised protective tariffs, and opposed those that lowered them or imposed tariffs simply to raise revenue. Garfield’s election as president in 1880 created a vacancy on the House Ways and Means Committee; McKinley was selected to fill it, placing him on the most powerful committee after only two terms.
McKinley increasingly became a significant figure in national politics. In 1880, he served a brief term as Ohio’s representative on the Republican National Committee. In 1884, he was elected a delegate to that year’s Republican convention, where he served as chair of the Committee on Resolutions and won plaudits for his handling of the convention when called upon to preside. By 1886, McKinley, Senator John Sherman, and Governor Joseph B. Foraker were considered the leaders of the Republican party in Ohio. Sherman, who had helped to found the Republican Party, ran three times for the Republican nomination for president in the 1880s, each time failing, while Foraker began a meteoric rise in Ohio politics early in the decade. Hanna, once he entered public affairs as a political manager and generous contributor, supported Sherman’s ambitions, as well as those of Foraker. The latter relationship broke off at the 1888 Republican National Convention, where McKinley, Foraker, and Hanna were all delegates supporting Sherman. Convinced Sherman could not win, Foraker threw his support to the unsuccessful Republican 1884 presidential nominee, Maine Senator James G. Blaine. When Blaine stated he was not a candidate, Foraker returned to Sherman, but the nomination went to former Indiana senator Benjamin Harrison, who was elected president. In the bitterness that followed the convention, Hanna abandoned Foraker, and for the rest of McKinley’s life, the Ohio Republican Party was divided into two factions, one aligned with McKinley, Sherman, and Hanna and the other with Foraker. Hanna came to admire McKinley and became a friend and close adviser to him. Although Hanna remained active in business and in promoting other Republicans, in the years after 1888, he spent an increasing amount of time boosting McKinley’s political career.
In 1889, with the Republicans in the majority, McKinley sought election as Speaker of the House. He failed to gain the post, which went to Thomas B. Reed of Maine; however, Speaker Reed appointed McKinley chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. The Ohioan guided the McKinley Tariff of 1890 through Congress; although McKinley’s work was altered through the influence of special interests in the Senate, it imposed a number of protective tariffs on foreign goods.
Recognizing McKinley’s potential, the Democrats, whenever they controlled the Ohio legislature, sought to gerrymander or redistrict him out of office. In 1878, McKinley faced election in a redrawn 17th district; he won anyway, causing Hayes to exult, “Oh, the good luck of McKinley! He was gerrymandered out and then beat the gerrymander! We enjoyed it as much as he did.” After the 1882 election, McKinley was unseated on an election contest by a near party-line House vote. Out of office, he was briefly depressed by the setback, but soon vowed to run again. The Democrats again redistricted Stark County for the 1884 election; McKinley was returned to Congress anyway.
Even before McKinley completed his term in Congress, he met with a delegation of Ohioans urging him to run for governor. Governor James E. Campbell, a Democrat, who had defeated Foraker in 1889, was to seek re-election in 1891. The Ohio Republican party remained divided, but McKinley quietly arranged for Foraker to nominate him at the 1891 state Republican convention, which chose McKinley by acclamation. The former congressman spent much of the second half of 1891 campaigning against Campbell, beginning in his birthplace of Niles. Hanna, however, was little seen in the campaign; he spent much of his time raising funds for the election of legislators pledged to vote for Sherman in the 1892 senatorial election. McKinley won the 1891 election by some 20,000 votes; the following January, Sherman, with considerable assistance from Hanna, turned back a challenge by Foraker to win the legislature’s vote for another term in the Senate.
Ohio’s governor had relatively little power - for example, he could recommend legislation, but not veto it - but with Ohio a key swing state, its governor was a major figure in national politics. Although McKinley believed that the health of the nation depended on that of business, he was evenhanded in dealing with labor. He procured legislation that set up an arbitration board to settle work disputes and obtained passage of a law that fined employers who fired workers for belonging to a union.
President Harrison had proven unpopular; there were divisions even within the Republican party as the year 1892 began and Harrison began his re-election drive. Although no declared candidate opposed Harrison, many Republicans were ready to dump the President from the ticket if an alternative emerged. Among the possible candidates spoken of were McKinley, Reed, and the aging Blaine. Fearing that the Ohio governor would emerge as a candidate, Harrison’s managers arranged for McKinley to be permanent chairman of the convention in Minneapolis, requiring him to play a public, neutral role. Hanna established an unofficial McKinley headquarters near the convention hall, though no active effort was made to convert delegates to McKinley’s cause. McKinley objected to delegate votes being cast for him; nevertheless he finished third, behind the renominated Harrison, and behind Blaine, who had sent word he did not want to be considered. Although McKinley campaigned loyally for the Republican ticket, Harrison was defeated by former President Cleveland in the November election. In the wake of Cleveland’s victory, McKinley was seen by some as the likely Republican candidate in 1896.
McKinley campaigned widely for Republicans in the 1894 midterm congressional elections; many party candidates in districts where he spoke were successful. His political efforts in Ohio were rewarded with the election in November 1895 of a Republican successor as governor, Asa Bushnell, and a Republican legislature that elected Foraker to the Senate. McKinley supported Foraker for Senate and Bushnell (who was of Foraker’s faction) for governor; in return, the new senator-elect agreed to back McKinley’s presidential ambitions. With party peace in Ohio assured, McKinley turned to the national arena.
It is unclear when William McKinley began to seriously prepare a run for president. As Phillips notes, “no documents, no diaries, no confidential letters to Mark Hanna (or anyone else) contain his secret hopes or veiled stratagems.” From the beginning, McKinley’s preparations had the participation of Hanna, whose biographer William T. Horner noted, “what is certainly true is that in 1888 the two men began to develop a close working relationship that helped put McKinley in the White House.” Sherman did not run for president again after 1888, and so Hanna could support McKinley’s ambitions for that office wholeheartedly.
By the time the national convention began in St. Louis on June 16, 1896, McKinley had an ample majority of delegates. The former governor, who remained in Canton, followed events at the convention closely by telephone, and was able to hear part of Foraker’s speech nominating him over the line. When Ohio was reached in the roll call of states, its votes gave McKinley the nomination, which he celebrated by hugging his wife and mother as his friends fled the house, anticipating the first of many crowds that gathered at the Republican candidate’s home. Thousands of partisans came from Canton and surrounding towns that evening to hear McKinley speak from his front porch. The convention nominated Republican National Committee vice chairman Garret Hobart of New Jersey for vice president, a choice actually made, by most accounts, by Hanna. Hobart, a wealthy lawyer, businessman, and former state legislator, was not widely known, but as Hanna biographer Herbert Croly pointed out, “if he did little to strengthen the ticket he did nothing to weaken it”.
The 1896 presidential election is often seen as a realigning election, in which McKinley’s view of a stronger central government building American industry through protective tariffs and a dollar based on gold triumphed. The voting patterns established then displaced the near-deadlock the major parties had seen since the Civil War; the Republican dominance begun then would continue until 1932, another realigning election with the ascent of Franklin Roosevelt. Phillips argues that, with the possible exception of Iowa Senator Allison, McKinley was the only Republican who could have defeated Bryan—he theorized that eastern candidates such as Morton or Reed would have done badly against the Illinois-born Bryan in the crucial Midwest. According to the biographer, though Bryan was popular among rural voters, “McKinley appealed to a very different industrialized, urbanized America.”
William McKinley was sworn in as president on March 4, 1897, as his wife and mother looked on. The new President gave a lengthy inaugural address; he urged tariff reform, and stated that the currency issue would have to await tariff legislation. He warned against foreign interventions, “We want no wars of conquest. We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression.”
McKinley’s most controversial Cabinet appointment was that of John Sherman as Secretary of State. Sherman was not McKinley’s first choice for the position; he initially offered it to Senator Allison. One consideration in Senator Sherman’s appointment was to provide a place in the Senate for Hanna (who had turned down a Cabinet position as Postmaster General). As Sherman had served as Secretary of the Treasury under Hayes, only the State position, the leading Cabinet post, was likely to entice him from the Senate. Sherman’s mental faculties were decaying even in 1896; this was widely spoken of in political circles, but McKinley did not believe the rumors. Nevertheless, McKinley sent his cousin, William McKinley Osborne, to have dinner with the 73-year-old senator; he reported back that Sherman seemed as lucid as ever. McKinley wrote once the appointment was announced, “the stories regarding Senator Sherman’s ‘mental decay’ are without foundation ... When I saw him last I was convinced both of his perfect health, physically and mentally, and that the prospects of life were remarkably good.”
In the wake of McKinley’s election in 1896, African Americans were hopeful of progress towards equality. McKinley had spoken out against lynching while governor, and most African Americans who could vote supported him in 1896. McKinley’s priority, however, was in ending sectionalism, and they were disappointed by his policies and appointments. Although McKinley made some appointments of African Americans to low-level government posts, and received some praise for that, the appointments were less than they had received under previous Republican administrations. Blanche K. Bruce, an African American who during Reconstruction had served as senator from Mississippi, received the post of register at the Treasury Department; this post was traditionally given to an African American by Republican presidents. McKinley appointed several black postmasters; however, when whites protested the appointment of Justin W. Lyons as postmaster of Augusta, Georgia, McKinley asked Lyons to withdraw (he was subsequently given the post of Treasury register after Bruce’s death in 1898). The President did appoint George B. Jackson, a former slave, to the post of customs collector in Presidio, Texas. However, African Americans in northern states felt their contributions to McKinley’s victory were overlooked; few were appointed to office.
The administration’s response to racial violence was minimal, causing him to lose black support. When black postmasters at Hogansville, Georgia in 1897 and at Lake City, South Carolina the following year were assaulted, McKinley issued no statement of condemnation. Although black leaders criticized McKinley for inaction, supporters responded there was little the president could do to intervene. Critics replied that he could at least publicly condemn such events, as Harrison had done.
After the retirement of Justice Stephen Johnson Field, McKinley appointed Attorney General Joseph McKenna to the Supreme Court of the United States in December 1897. The appointment aroused some controversy as McKenna’s critics in the Senate said he was too closely associated with railroad interests and lacked the qualifications of a Supreme Court justice. Despite the objections, McKenna’s nomination was approved unanimously. McKenna responded to the criticism of his legal education by taking some courses at Columbia Law School for several months before taking his seat.
Along with his Supreme Court appointment, McKinley appointed six judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 28 judges to the United States district courts.
Republicans were generally successful in state and local elections around the country in 1899, and McKinley was optimistic about his chances at re-election in 1900. McKinley’s popularity in his first term assured him of renomination for a second. The only question about the Republican ticket concerned the vice presidential nomination; McKinley needed a new running mate as Hobart had died in late 1899. McKinley initially favored Elihu Root, who had succeeded Alger as Secretary of War, but McKinley decided that Root was doing too good a job at the War Department to move him. He considered other prominent candidates, including Allison and Cornelius N. Bliss, but none were as popular as the Republican party’s rising star, Theodore Roosevelt. After a stint as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt had resigned and raised a cavalry regiment; they fought bravely in Cuba, and Roosevelt returned home covered in glory. Elected governor of New York on a reform platform in 1898, Roosevelt had his eye on the presidency. Many supporters recommended him to McKinley for the second spot on the ticket, and Roosevelt believed it would be an excellent stepping stone to the presidency in 1904. McKinley remained uncommitted in public, but Hanna was firmly opposed to the New York governor. The Ohio senator considered the New Yorker overly impulsive; his stance was undermined by the efforts of political boss and New York Senator Thomas Platt, who, disliking Roosevelt’s reform agenda, sought to sideline the governor by making him vice president.
When the Republican convention began in Philadelphia that June, no vice presidential candidate had overwhelming support, but Roosevelt had the broadest range of support from around the country. McKinley affirmed that the choice belonged to the convention, not to him. On June 21, McKinley was unanimously renominated and, with Hanna’s reluctant acquiescence, Roosevelt was nominated for vice president on the first ballot. The Democratic convention convened the next month in Kansas City and nominated William Jennings Bryan, setting up a rematch of the 1896 contest. The candidates were the same, but the issues of the campaign had shifted: free silver was still a question that animated many voters, but the Republicans focused on victory in war and prosperity at home as issues they believed favored their party. Democrats knew the war had been popular, even if the imperialism issue was less sure, so they focused on the issue of trusts and corporate power, painting McKinley as the servant of capital and big business. As in 1896, Bryan embarked on a speaking tour around the country while McKinley stayed at home, this time making only one speech, to accept his nomination. Roosevelt emerged as the campaign’s primary speaker and Hanna helped the cause working to settle a coal miners strike in Pennsylvania. Bryan’s campaigning failed to excite the voters as it had in 1896, and McKinley never doubted that he would be re-elected. On November 6, 1900, he was proven correct, winning the largest victory for any Republican since 1872. Bryan carried only four states outside the solid South, and McKinley even won Bryan’s home state of Nebraska.
Soon after his second inauguration on March 4, 1901, William and Ida McKinley undertook a six-week tour of the nation. Traveling mostly by rail, the McKinleys were to travel through the South to the Southwest, and then up the Pacific coast and east again, to conclude with a visit on June 13, 1901 to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. However, the First Lady fell ill in California; causing her husband to limit his public events and cancel a series of speeches he had planned to give urging trade reciprocity. He also postponed the visit to the fair until September, planning a month in Washington and two in Canton before the Buffalo visit.
Although McKinley enjoyed meeting the public, Cortelyou was concerned with his security due to recent assassinations by anarchists in Europe, and twice tried to remove a public reception from the President’s rescheduled visit to the Exposition. McKinley refused, and Cortelyou arranged for additional security for the trip. On September 5, the President delivered his address at the fairgrounds, before a crowd of some 50,000 people. In his final speech, McKinley urged reciprocity treaties with other nations to assure American manufacturers access to foreign markets. He intended the speech as a keynote to his plans for a second term.
One man in the crowd, Leon Czolgosz, hoped to assassinate McKinley. He had managed to get close to the presidential podium, but did not fire, uncertain of hitting his target. Czolgosz, since hearing a speech by anarchist Emma Goldman in Cleveland, had decided to do something heroic (in his own mind) for the cause. He had initially decided to get near McKinley, and on September 4, he decided to assassinate him. After the failure on the 5th, Czolgosz waited the next day at the Temple of Music on the Exposition grounds, where the President was to meet the public after his return from Niagara Falls. Czolgosz concealed his gun in a handkerchief, and, when he reached the head of the line, shot McKinley twice in the abdomen.
McKinley’s concerns, after unsuccessfully trying to convince Cortelyou that he was not seriously wounded, were to urge his aides to break the news gently to Ida, and to call off the mob that had set on Czolgosz - a request that may have saved his assassin’s life. McKinley was taken by electric ambulance to the Exposition hospital, which despite its name and the inclusion of an operating theatre generally only dealt with the minor medical issues of fairgoers. One bullet had apparently been deflected by a button and only grazed the President. Cortelyou selected Dr. Matthew D. Mann from the doctors who hastened to the scene; he had little experience in abdominal surgery or in dealing with gunshot wounds and proved unable to locate the other bullet. Although a primitive X-ray machine was being exhibited on the Exposition grounds, it was not used, and Mann carefully cleaned and closed the wound. After the operation, McKinley was taken to the Milburn House, where the First Lady had taken the news calmly.
In the days after the shooting McKinley appeared to improve. Doctors issued increasingly cheerful bulletins. Members of the Cabinet, who had rushed to Buffalo on hearing the news dispersed; Vice President Roosevelt departed on a camping trip to the Adirondacks.
By September 12, McKinley’s doctors were confident enough of his condition to allow him toast and coffee. He proved unable to digest the food. Unknown to the doctors, the gangrene that would kill him was growing on the walls of his stomach, slowly poisoning his blood. On the morning of September 13, McKinley took a turn for the worse, becoming critically ill. Frantic word was sent to the Vice President, who was 12 miles (19 km) from the nearest telegraph station or telephone. By the evening, McKinley roused from a stupor and realized his condition: “It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer.” Relatives and friends gathered around the dying man’s bed as Ida McKinley sobbed over him, stating that she wanted to go with him. “We are all going, we are all going,” her husband replied. “God’s will be done, not ours.” By some accounts, those were his final words; he may also have sung part of his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”. Sometime that evening, Mark Hanna approached the bedside. The senator addressed McKinley as “Mr. President”; when he received no intelligible response, he abandoned formality and cried out to his friend, “William, William, don’t you know me?
At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901, President McKinley died. Theodore Roosevelt was hastily returning to Buffalo by carriage and rail; that afternoon he took the oath of office as president in Buffalo at the house of his friend Ansley Wilcox, wearing borrowed formal clothing and pledging to carry out McKinley’s political agenda. Czolgosz, put on trial for murder nine days after McKinley’s death, was found guilty, sentenced to death on September 26, and was executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.
According to Gould, “The nation experienced a wave of genuine grief at the news of McKinley’s passing.” The stock market, faced with sudden uncertainty, suffered a steep decline - almost unnoticed in the mourning. The nation focused its attention on the casket that made its way by train, first to Washington, where it first lay in the East Room of the Executive Mansion, and then in state in the Capitol, and then was taken to Canton. A hundred thousand people passed by the open casket in the Capitol Rotunda, many having waited hours in the rain; in Canton, an equal number did the same at the Stark County Courthouse on September 18. The following day, a funeral service was held at the First Methodist Church; the casket was then sealed and taken to the McKinley house, where relatives paid their final respects. It was then transported to the receiving vault at West Lawn Cemetery in Canton, to await the construction of the memorial to McKinley already being planned.
There was a widespread expectation that Ida McKinley would not long survive her husband; one family friend stated, as William McKinley lay dying, that they should be prepared for a double funeral. This did not occur; the former first lady accompanied her husband on the funeral train. Leech noted “the circuitous journey was a cruel ordeal for the woman who huddled in a compartment of the funeral train, praying that the Lord would take her with her Dearest Love”. She was not able to attend the services in Washington or Canton, though she listened at the door to the service for her husband in her house on North Market Street. She remained in Canton for the remainder of her life, setting up a shrine in her house, and often visiting the receiving vault, until her death at age 59 on May 26, 1907. She died only months before the completion of the large marble monument to her husband in Canton, which was dedicated by President Roosevelt on September 30, 1907. William and Ida McKinley rest there with their daughters, atop a hillside overlooking the city of Canton.
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