President #25, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #16
The War With Spain Starts Mainly With the Maine
While many kids grew up with toy soldiers, my childhood featured a set of plastic toy Presidents. (And much to my glee, a complete set is on display at the Smithsonian now. It includes an intact Lyndon Johnson. Our LBJ was missing part of his right arm. The family set remains, as it has since 1970, in a Pangburn’s Frappe Creams box. It is presently at my brother’s home in Clayton, Missouri. You can make an appointment to see them.) While these should have been educational toys for my brothers and I, we tended to use them to set up football plays. When forming teams, Taft and Cleveland were almost always used as linemen, but so was William McKinley. He just looked so big.
As it turned out, McKinley wasn’t a big guy. He was actually just 5’7″ and probably didn’t weigh all that much. I really should have been using McKinley as a wide receiver or a running back.
So, what is the point of this introductory story? After reading Kevin Phillips’ biography of McKinley, it seems that there was a lot I didn’t know about our 25th President. Have I spent my whole life completely misunderstanding the life of William McKinley? And if I have, does anyone care? If you don’t care, presumably you’ll stop reading.
OK. Now, I’ll continue for those who might care or just aren’t reading carefully.
I had been taught that McKinley was little more than a tool of Big Business, who used him as a puppet to line their pockets. I was also led to believe that McKinley also started the United States on an imperialist path because he was cowed into it by a sensationalist press. Finally, I knew McKinley had been assassinated in 1901, and a young Theodore Roosevelt took over and brought America to true greatness.
However, Phillips thinks that McKinley has been greatly underestimated by historians. He argues that McKinley was much more independent minded than people gave him credit for. McKinley was not the last President before the Progressive movement swept the country; rather, he was the first Progressive President, according to Phillips. Only an untimely assassination early in his second term prevented McKinley from taking his place alongside the likes of Jefferson, Jackson, and the two Roosevelts.
William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He attended both Mount Union and Allegheny Colleges, but did not receive a degree from either institution. When the Civil War began, McKinley enlisted. One of the officers McKinley served under was future president Rutherford Hayes. By the time war ended, McKinley had been promoted from private all the way to brevet major. McKinley’s Civil War experiences would help to shape his future.
During the war, McKinley became well-known among Ohio Republicans. McKinley attended law school in Albany, New York and started up a practice back home in Canton, Ohio.
While in Canton, McKinley met and married a wealthy woman, Ida Saxton. The couple had two children who died young. These deaths, combined with the death of Ida’s mother, turned out to be both a physical and mental strain on Ida. She developed a form of epilepsy and was bed-ridden for most of the rest of her life. When she would venture out in public, she would frequently have a seizure. William would cover her face with a napkin and carry her out of the room. William would be intensely, yet quietly devoted to Ida for the rest of his life.
By 1877, McKinley had won a seat in the House of Representatives. He served until 1891; although, he was out of office for one term starting in 1883.
In his final term in the House, McKinley was chairman of the House Ways and Mean Committee. He authored a protective tariff bill that bore his name in 1890. McKinley actually didn’t like the finished product all that much. But, McKinley supported the bill anyway. However, the high tariffs in the bill proved unpopular at the ballot box. In the 1891 election, McKinley was voted out of office.
However, McKinley wasn’t out of politics for long as he was quickly elected Governor of Ohio later in the year. He was sworn into office in 1892.
McKinley surprised some in office with his support for the plight of a group of starving coal miners. They had sent a telegram to him describing their plight. McKinley was moved and marshaled State resources to help the miners and their families. McKinley also started a statewide charity drive to help others in need.
Around the same time, McKinley was also in dire financial straits personally. A loan he had given a friend had gone bad, and McKinley was now facing a debt of over $100,000. However, thanks to the financial resources of Ida (whose money was tied up in a trust) and the help of many of Ohio’s major businessmen, including Marcus Hanna, McKinley was able to avoid bankruptcy.
Some had already thought of McKinley as a Presidential candidate back in 1892; but, McKinley knew that 1896 would be a better time to run. Also, McKinley did not want to look disloyal to Republican party faithfuls by unseating a Republican incumbent, Benjamin Harrison.
1896 would be a good year for Republicans. The main reason for this was that the country had entered into a deep recession starting in 1893 (the Panic of 1893 as it was called.) The Democratic party was being taken over by candidates who wanted to increase the use of silver over gold as currency. However, at the time, silver was far more plentiful than gold and the Democratic plan would have led to a high rate of inflation.
The Democrats nominated a previously little known Nebraska Representative named William Jennings Bryan as their candidate for President. Bryan had delivered a stirring address where he said, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
Bryan was the first nominee of either major party in the United States to run a campaign that was targeted almost exclusively at the lower classes. He viewed the election as a battle between the forces of good in rural areas against those of evil in the cities. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
McKinley won the Republican nomination easily. He and his advisors decided not to try to match Bryan’s oratorical feats on the campaign trail. Instead, McKinley ran a “front porch” campaign. Crowds of supporters trained into Canton to listen to the Republican nominee.
The Election of 1896 would be a pivotal one in American history. McKinley triumphed with 51.1% of the popular vote, and winning in the Electoral College by a margin of 271-176. McKinley was able to hold on to a few key states in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota) and the West (California and Oregon) to win the election. The United States was not going down a populist path.
Soon after taking office, McKinley began to firm up American support for the gold standard. The economy began to improve. The growing economy needed markets to sell its goods. The United States was going to need foreign markets to take more exports.
The popular way of achieving this at the time was to take over some distant point on the globe. European powers were carving up Africa and parts of Asia. The United States needed to get into the act.
The first place the United States aimed to add was Hawai’i. The island group had overthrown its monarchy during the second Grover Cleveland administration and wanted to be annexed by the U.S. Cleveland did not feel this was right; but, McKinley had no reservations. By 1898, Hawai’i had become a U.S. territory.
Closer to home, there were rumblings in Cuba. An insurgency by Cubans against the ruling Spanish authority had gathered sympathy in the United States. The Spanish began to gather Cubans from the countryside and put them into what were called “concentration camps.” (At the time, this phrase did not have the same implication as it would during World War II. It just meant that there were a lot of people in one place.)
McKinley had ordered the Navy to protect U.S. interests in Cuba. The battleship Maine was in the harbor in Havana on February 15, 1898, when it exploded. The ship was destroyed and 267 men were killed.
American public opinion blamed Spain for the loss of life. Whether or not this was true is still hotly debated. However, McKinley was put into a position where he could no longer ignore Spanish atrocities in Cuba once they were combined with the deaths of American sailors.
Some wanted McKinley to ask for a declaration of war immediately. But, McKinley waited until April before asking Congress to declare war. This allowed American forces to gather themselves and prepare for war. McKinley feared that other European powers, namely Germany, would come to Spain’s aid.
However, that was not the case. The Navy was already in position in Manila to wipe out the Spanish fleet there when war was finally declared. Spanish troops in Cuba were easily beaten by a small American force. The war began on April 25, 1898 and was over on August 12. The United States ended up with control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.
More importantly, the United States Navy had grown from being the 12th largest in the world to the second largest, behind only Great Britain. The United States had served notice that it was a world power.
The popular view of the Spanish-American War was that McKinley vacillated before declaring war, and only overwhelming public opinion, and the influence of pro-war Cabinet members, such as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, pushed McKinley into going to war. Phillips argues that McKinley was well aware of the situation, but only wanted war as a last resort. His Civil War experience had stayed with him. McKinley was greatly relieved that there were few casualties in this war.
In the 1898 midterm elections, McKinley and the Republicans lost just 19 seats, a good mark for that era. The Republicans still enjoyed a healthy 187-161 majority in the House. (There were nine Representatives from other parties.)
McKinley was personally popular. He pushed for higher tariffs, but on a more scientific basis. He wanted high tariffs only in areas that would help promote American business. In some areas, he wanted lower tariffs in order to help Americans buy cheaper goods. He also pushed to set up a series of reciprocal trade agreements with other countries. The last goal would not be achieved during his time in office, however.
After the war, McKinley made two key changes to his Cabinet. John Hay took over as Secretary of State and Elihu Root became Secretary of War. Both men were capable diplomats and administrators. McKinley had originally staffed the job with political appointees, John Sherman and Russell Alger. When McKinley saw that neither man was up to the job, he eased them out. Hay and Root’s influences on American foreign policy would persist into the 1950s.
By the time the 1900 Election rolled around, it was evident that it was going to be a rematch of 1896. Bryan was still the Democratic nominee. McKinley had to find a new running mate. Garret Hobart, his Vice President, had passed away in 1899.
The Republican leaders wanted McKinley to choose Secretary of the Navy John Long. But, McKinley had his eye on New York Governor Thedore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, after famously serving in the Spanish-American War, had made enemies in New York with a property tax plan that many thought was just a scheme to redistribute wealth. However, the plan was popular among most New Yorkers. McKinley told the Republican Convention that he didn’t want Long as his running mate. Instead, he hinted that it should be Roosevelt. And so it was.
McKinley won about the same percentage of the popular vote in 1900, but his electoral lead was slightly larger (292-155). The Republican House contingent moved back up to 200 seats, a gain of 13.
With a healthy amount of political capital gained from a successful war, a booming economy, and a friendly Congress, McKinley likely had big plans for his second term, according to Phillips. McKinley was preparing a plan to go after business trusts, which he felt were undemocratic and anti-competitive. McKinley also was hoping to ease tensions between management and labor.
At the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, McKinley made a speech pushing for reciprocal trade agreements, one of his favorite issues. The day after the speech, September 6, 1901, McKinley went to shake hands with the crowd. One of the people in the crowd was a man named Leon Czolgosz, a Michigan native with anarchist sympathies. Czolgosz had concealed a revolver under a handkerchief. He fired twice at McKinley. The second bullet lodged deeply in McKinley, hitting several vital organs.
Although there was an X-ray machine available at the site, the device was in its infancy and no one knew if using it to find the bullet would cause more harm than good. McKinley lingered for eight days, passing away on September 14, 1901. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President, the youngest man (42 years old) to ever hold the office.
Phillips argues that if McKinley had not been assassinated, he would have accomplished just as much as Roosevelt did during his administration. McKinley’s problem was that he left a very short paper trail of his plans. McKinley’s thoughts about what he planned to do in his second term are very sketchy. Theodore Roosevelt followed most of McKinley’s policies, except that he was a far more charismatic figure. Phillips also asserts that Roosevelt did not push for any reciprocal trade agreements because he didn’t understand the issue as well as McKinley did.
The issue of America becoming a colonial power is one that is even more problematic. Phillips believes that it was a necessity for the U.S. to become one, both for strategic and economic reasons. Phillips asserts that McKinley tried his best to make the move as peacefully as possible. However, a bloody insurrection in the Philippines that would last for years past McKinley’s death may be evidence against that. Nevertheless, both Democratic (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman) and Republican (Theodore Roosevelt) made the U.S. a world power. McKinley was the President who started the country on that path.
The best evidence for McKinley’s influence on American history is the legacy of his appointees. In an appendix, Phillips lists people appointed by or associated with McKinley who went on to greater fame. Besides Roosevelt, Hay, and Root, there was also McKinley’s secretary, George Corteylou, who would serve as the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Charles Dawes was Comptroller of the Currency under McKinley and would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to restructure Europe’s World War I debts and serve as Vice President under Calvin Coolidge. (There are 12 total listed by Phillips.)
However, McKinley has never been ascribed the fame in history that Phillips wish he had earned. The bright light of Theodore Roosevelt makes it difficult to appreciate William McKinley. This was even true during McKinley’s time as the linked cartoon seems to indicate. Also, the biggest political issue of McKinley’s era, the primacy of the gold standard, was made a nonissue after the Great Depression.
Phillips tries to make McKinley’s accomplishments out to be earth shattering, but not everyone might believe it. It’s hard to look back at McKinley and see if he had, in the words of George H.W. Bush, “the vision thing.” Theodore Roosevelt definitely did. McKinley worked quietly and often behind the scenes. And no matter what Phillips writes, McKinley will likely remain behind the scenes for most of us.
Theodore Roosevelt ended up on Mount Rushmore. William McKinley perhaps should have had a better fate than ending up as an offensive lineman in a game of toy presidents played by nerdy kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley.
Other stuff: The William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum is in Canton, Ohio. It is operated by the Stark County Historical Association. It is also McKinley’s burial spot.
The highest point in the United States is often referred to as Mount McKinley, although the native Athabaskan name of Denali is now also used to describe the 20,320 feet high peak in Alaska.
William McKinley was the first incumbent U.S. president to visit California. He was making plans to become the first president to visit outside the country before he died. Thedore Roosevelt would be the first U.S. President to visit a foreign country, Panama.