William McKinley (January 29, 1843 – September 14, 1901) was the 25th president of the United States from 1897, until his assassination in 1901. During his presidency, McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish–American War, raised protective tariffs to promote American industry, and kept the nation on the gold standard in a rejection of the expansionary monetary policy of free silver.
McKinley was the last president to have served in the American Civil War and the only one to have started the war as an enlisted soldier, beginning as a private in the Union Army and ending as a brevet major. After the war, he settled in Canton, Ohio, where he practiced law and married Ida Saxton. In 1876, he was elected to Congress, where he became the Republican Party’s expert on the protective tariff, which he promised would bring prosperity. His 1890 McKinley Tariff was highly controversial and, together with a Democratic redistricting aimed at gerrymandering him out of office, led to his defeat in the Democratic landslide of 1890. He was elected governor of Ohio in 1891 and 1893, steering a moderate course between capital and labor interests. With the aid of his close adviser Mark Hanna, he secured the Republican nomination for president in 1896 amid a deep economic depression. He defeated his Democratic rival William Jennings Bryan after a front porch campaign in which he advocated “sound money” (the gold standard unless altered by international agreement) and promised that high tariffs would restore prosperity.
Rapid economic growth marked McKinley’s presidency. He promoted the 1897 Dingley Tariff to protect manufacturers and factory workers from foreign competition and in 1900 secured the passage of the Gold Standard Act. McKinley hoped to persuade Spain to grant independence to rebellious Cuba without conflict, but when negotiation failed he led the nation into the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States victory was quick and decisive. As part of the peace settlement, Spain turned over to the United States its main overseas colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines while Cuba was promised independence, but at that time remained under the control of the United States Army. The United States annexed the independent Republic of Hawaii in 1898 and it became a United States territory.
Historians regard McKinley’s 1896 victory as a realigning election in which the political stalemate of the post-Civil War era gave way to the Republican-dominated Fourth Party System, which began with the Progressive Era. McKinley defeated Bryan again in the 1900 presidential election in a campaign focused on imperialism, protectionism and free silver. His legacy was suddenly cut short when he was shot on September 6, 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, a second-generation Polish-American with anarchist leanings. McKinley died eight days later and was succeeded by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt. As an innovator of American interventionism and pro-business sentiment, McKinley’s presidency is generally considered above average, though his highly positive public perception was soon overshadowed by Roosevelt.
Early life and family
William McKinley Jr. was born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, the seventh of nine children of William McKinley Sr. and Nancy (née Allison) McKinley. The McKinleys were of English and Scots-Irish descent and had settled in western Pennsylvania in the 18th century, tracing back to a David McKinley who was born in Dervock, County Antrim, in present-day Northern Ireland. There, the elder McKinley was born in Pine Township, Mercer County.
The family moved to Ohio when the senior McKinley was a boy, settling in New Lisbon (now Lisbon). He met Nancy Allison there and married her later. The Allison family was of mostly English descent and among Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers. The family trade on both sides was iron-making, and McKinley senior operated foundries throughout Ohio, in New Lisbon, Niles, Poland, and finally Canton. The McKinley household was, like many from Ohio’s Western Reserve, steeped in Whiggish and abolitionist sentiment, the latter based on the family’s staunch Methodist beliefs. William followed in the Methodist 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, Ohio so that their children could attend the better schools there. Graduating from Poland Seminary in 1859, he enrolled the following year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He was an honorary member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. He remained at Allegheny for only one year, returning home in 1860 after becoming ill and depressed. He also spent time at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio as a board member. 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, Ohio.
Western Virginia and Antietam
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 June 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’s death in 1893.
After a month of training, McKinley and the 23rd Ohio, now led by Colonel Eliakim P. Scammon, set out for western Virginia (today part of West Virginia) in July 1861 as a part of the Kanawha Division. McKinley initially thought Scammon was a martinet, but when the regiment finally saw battle, he came to appreciate the value of their relentless drilling. Their first contact with the enemy came in September when they drove back Confederate troops at Carnifex Ferry in present-day West Virginia. Three days after the battle, McKinley was assigned to duty in the brigade quartermaster office, where he worked both to supply his regiment, and as a clerk. In November, the regiment established winter quarters near Fayetteville (today in West Virginia). McKinley spent the winter substituting for a commissary sergeant who was ill, and in April 1862 he was promoted to that rank. The regiment resumed its advance that spring with Hayes in command (Scammon by then led the brigade) and fought several minor engagements against the rebel forces.
That September, McKinley’s regiment was called east to reinforce General John Pope’s Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Delayed in passing through Washington, D.C., the 23rd Ohio did not arrive in time for the battle but joined the Army of the Potomac as it hurried north to cut off Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it advanced into Maryland. The 23rd was the first regiment to encounter the Confederates at the Battle of South Mountain on September 14. After severe losses, Union forces drove back the Confederates and continued to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where they engaged Lee’s army at the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The 23rd was also in the thick of the fighting at Antietam, and McKinley himself came under heavy fire when bringing rations to the men on the line. McKinley’s regiment again suffered many casualties, but the Army of the Potomac was victorious and the Confederates retreated into Virginia. The regiment was then detached from the Army of the Potomac and returned by train to western Virginia.
Shenandoah Valley and promotion
While the regiment went into winter quarters near Charleston, Virginia (present-day West Virginia), McKinley was ordered back to Ohio with some other sergeants to recruit fresh troops. When they arrived in Columbus, Governor David Tod surprised McKinley with a commission as second lieutenant in recognition of his service at Antietam. McKinley and his comrades saw little action until July 1863, when the division skirmished with John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry at the Battle of Buffington Island. Early in 1864, the Army command structure in West Virginia was reorganized, and the division was assigned to George Crook’s Army of West Virginia. They soon resumed the offensive, marching into southwestern Virginia to destroy salt and lead mines used by the enemy. On May 9, the army engaged Confederate troops at Cloyd’s Mountain, where the men charged the enemy entrenchments and drove the rebels from the field. McKinley later said the combat there was “as desperate as any witnessed during the war”. Following the rout, the Union forces destroyed Confederate supplies and skirmished with the enemy again successfully.
McKinley and his regiment moved to the Shenandoah Valley as the armies broke from winter quarters to resume hostilities. Crook’s corps was attached to Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah and soon back in contact with Confederate forces, capturing Lexington, Virginia, on June 11. They continued south toward Lynchburg, tearing up railroad track as they advanced. Hunter believed the troops at Lynchburg were too powerful, however, and the brigade returned to West Virginia. Before the army could make another attempt, Confederate General Jubal Early’s raid into Maryland forced their recall to the north. Early’s army surprised them at Kernstown on July 24, where McKinley came under heavy fire and the army was defeated. Retreating into Maryland, the army was reorganized again: Major General Philip Sheridan replaced Hunter, and McKinley, who had been promoted to captain after the battle, was transferred to General Crook’s staff. By August, Early was retreating south in the valley, with Sheridan’s army in pursuit. They fended off a Confederate assault at Berryville, where McKinley had a horse shot out from under him, and advanced to Opequon Creek, where they broke the enemy lines and pursued them farther south. They followed up the victory with another at Fisher’s Hill on September 22 and were engaged once more at Cedar Creek on October 19. After initially falling back from the Confederate advance, McKinley helped to rally the troops and turn the tide of the battle.
After Cedar Creek, the army stayed in the vicinity through election day, when McKinley cast his first presidential ballot, for the incumbent Republican, Abraham Lincoln. The next day, they moved north up the valley into winter quarters near Kernstown. In February 1865, Crook was captured by Confederate raiders. Crook’s capture added to the confusion as the army was reorganized for the spring campaign, and McKinley found himself serving on the staffs of four different generals over the next fifteen days—Crook, John D. Stevenson, Samuel S. Carroll, and Winfield S. Hancock. Finally assigned to Carroll’s staff again, McKinley acted as the general’s first and only adjutant. Lee and his army surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant a few days later, effectively ending the war. McKinley found time to join a Freemason lodge (later renamed after him) in Winchester, Virginia before he and Carroll were transferred to Hancock’s First Veterans Corps in Washington. Just before the war’s end, McKinley received his final promotion, a brevet commission as major. In July, the Veterans Corps was mustered out of service, and McKinley and Carroll were relieved of their duties. Carroll and Hancock encouraged McKinley to apply for a place in the peacetime army, but he declined and returned to Ohio the following month.
McKinley, along with Samuel M. Taylor and James C. Howe, co-authored and published a twelve-volume work, Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, 1861–1866, published in 1886.
Legal career and marriage
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 less than 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. His 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 and 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, Katherine died of typhoid fever. Ida never recovered from her daughters’ deaths, and the McKinleys had no more children. Ida McKinley developed epilepsy around the same time and thereafter disliked when her husband left her side. He remained a devoted husband and tended to his wife’s medical and emotional needs for the rest of his life.
Ida McKinley insisted that William continue his increasingly successful career in law and politics. He attended the state Republican convention that nominated Hayes for a third term as governor in 1875, and campaigned again for his old friend in the election that fall. The next year, McKinley undertook a high-profile case defending a group of striking coal miners arrested for rioting after a clash with strikebreakers. Lynch, McKinley’s opponent in the 1871 election, and his partner, William R. Day, were the opposing counsel, and the mine owners included Mark Hanna, a Cleveland businessman. Taking the case pro bono, he was successful in getting all but one of the miners acquitted. The case raised McKinley’s standing among laborers, a crucial part of the Stark County electorate, and also introduced him to Hanna, who would become his strongest backer in years to come.
McKinley’s good standing with labor became useful that year as he campaigned for the Republican nomination for Ohio’s 17th congressional district. Delegates to the county conventions thought he could attract blue-collar voters, and in August 1876, McKinley was nominated. By that time, Hayes had been nominated for president, and McKinley campaigned for him while running his own congressional campaign. Both were successful. McKinley, campaigning mostly on his support for a protective tariff, defeated the Democratic nominee, Levi L. Lamborn, by 3,300 votes, while Hayes won a hotly disputed election to reach the presidency. McKinley’s victory came at a personal cost: his income as a congressman would be half of what he earned as a lawyer.
Rising politician (1877–1895)
Spokesman for protection
William McKinley, speech made October 4, 1892, Boston, Massachusetts
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.
Gerrymandering and defeat for re-election
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.
For 1890, the Democrats gerrymandered McKinley one final time, placing Stark County in the same district as one of the strongest pro-Democrat counties, Holmes, populated by solidly Democratic Pennsylvania Dutch. The new boundaries seemed good, based on past results, for a Democratic majority of 2000 to 3000. The Republicans could not reverse the gerrymander as legislative elections would not be held until 1891, but they could throw all their energies into the district, as the McKinley Tariff was a main theme of the Democratic campaign nationwide, and there was considerable attention paid to McKinley’s race. The Republican Party sent its leading orators to Canton, including Blaine (then Secretary of State), Speaker Reed and President Harrison. The Democrats countered with their best spokesmen on tariff issues. McKinley tirelessly stumped his new district, reaching out to its 40,000 voters to explain that his tariff
was framed for the people … as a defense to their industries, as a protection to the labor of their hands, as a safeguard to the happy homes of American workingmen, and as a security to their education, their wages, and their investments … It will bring to this country a prosperity unparalleled in our own history and unrivalled in the history of the world.”
Democrats ran a strong candidate in former lieutenant governor John G. Warwick. To drive their point home, they hired young partisans to pretend to be peddlers, who went door to door offering 25-cent tinware to housewives for 50 cents, explaining the rise in prices was due to the McKinley Tariff. In the end, McKinley lost by 300 votes, but the Republicans won a statewide majority and claimed a moral victory.
Governor of Ohio (1892–1896)
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 Republican 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.
Soon after Cleveland’s return to office, hard times struck the nation with the Panic of 1893. A businessman in Youngstown, Robert Walker, had lent money to McKinley in their younger days; in gratitude, McKinley had often guaranteed Walker’s borrowings for his business. The governor had never kept track of what he was signing; he believed Walker a sound businessman. In fact, Walker had deceived McKinley, telling him that new notes were actually renewals of matured ones. Walker was ruined by the recession; McKinley was called upon for repayment in February 1893. The total owed was over $100,000 (equivalent to $2.8 million in 2019) and a despairing McKinley initially proposed to resign as governor and earn the money as an attorney. Instead, McKinley’s wealthy supporters, including Hanna and Chicago publisher H. H. Kohlsaat, became trustees of a fund from which the notes would be paid. Both William and Ida McKinley placed their property in the hands of the fund’s trustees (who included Hanna and Kohlsaat), and the supporters raised and contributed a substantial sum of money. All of the couple’s property was returned to them by the end of 1893, and when McKinley, who had promised eventual repayment, asked for the list of contributors, it was refused him. Many people who had suffered in the hard times sympathized with McKinley, whose popularity grew. He was easily re-elected in November 1893, receiving the largest percentage of the vote of any Ohio governor since the Civil War.
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.
Election of 1896
Obtaining the nomination
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.
Backed by Hanna’s money and organizational skills, McKinley quietly built support for a presidential bid through 1895 and early 1896. When other contenders such as Speaker Reed and Iowa Senator William B. Allison sent agents outside their states to organize Republicans in support of their candidacies, they found that Hanna’s agents had preceded them. According to historian Stanley Jones in his study of the 1896 election,
Another feature common to the Reed and Allison campaigns was their failure to make headway against the tide which was running toward McKinley. In fact, both campaigns from the moment they were launched were in retreat. The calm confidence with which each candidate claimed the support of his own section [of the country] soon gave way to … bitter accusations that Hanna by winning support for McKinley in their sections had violated the rules of the game.
Hanna, on McKinley’s behalf, met with the eastern Republican political bosses, such as Senators Thomas Platt of New York and Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania, who were willing to guarantee McKinley’s nomination in exchange for promises regarding patronage and offices. McKinley, however, was determined to obtain the nomination without making deals, and Hanna accepted that decision. Many of their early efforts were focused on the South; Hanna obtained a vacation home in southern Georgia where McKinley visited and met with Republican politicians from the region. McKinley needed 453½ delegate votes to gain the nomination; he gained nearly half that number from the South and border states. Platt lamented in his memoirs, “[Hanna] had the South practically solid before some of us awakened.”
The bosses still hoped to deny McKinley a first-ballot majority at the convention by boosting support for local favorite son candidates such as Quay, New York Governor (and former vice president) Levi P. Morton, and Illinois Senator Shelby Cullom. Delegate-rich Illinois proved a crucial battleground, as McKinley supporters, such as Chicago businessman (and future vice president) Charles G. Dawes, sought to elect delegates pledged to vote for McKinley at the national convention in St. Louis. Cullom proved unable to stand against McKinley despite the support of local Republican machines; at the state convention at the end of April, McKinley completed a near-sweep of Illinois’ delegates. Former president Harrison had been deemed a possible contender if he entered the race; when Harrison made it known he would not seek a third nomination, the McKinley organization took control of Indiana with a speed Harrison privately found unseemly. Morton operatives who journeyed to Indiana sent word back that they had found the state alive for McKinley. Wyoming Senator Francis Warren wrote, “The politicians are making a hard fight against him, but if the masses could speak, McKinley is the choice of at least 75% of the entire [body of] Republican voters in the Union”.
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”.
General election campaign
Before the Republican convention, McKinley had been a “straddle bug” on the currency question, favoring moderate positions on silver such as accomplishing bimetallism by international agreement. In the final days before the convention, McKinley decided, after hearing from politicians and businessmen, that the platform should endorse the gold standard, though it should allow for bimetallism through in coordination with other nations. Adoption of the platform caused some western delegates, led by Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller, to walk out of the convention. However, compared with the Democrats, Republican divisions on the issue were small, especially as McKinley promised future concessions to silver advocates.
The bad economic times had continued, and strengthened the hand of forces for free silver. The issue bitterly divided the Democratic Party; President Cleveland firmly supported the gold standard, but an increasing number of rural Democrats wanted silver, especially in the South and West. The silverites took control of the 1896 Democratic National Convention and chose William Jennings Bryan for president; he had electrified the delegates with his Cross of Gold speech. Bryan’s financial radicalism shocked bankers—they thought his inflationary program would bankrupt the railroads and ruin the economy. Hanna approached them for support for his strategy to win the election, and they gave $3.5 million for speakers and over 200 million pamphlets advocating the Republican position on the money and tariff questions.
McKinley speaks from his front porch
Historic recording of William McKinley. The final 1: 08 of this sound file (starting at 5: 40) contains an excerpt from one of his 1896 campaign speeches.
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Bryan’s campaign had at most an estimated $500,000. With his eloquence and youthful energy his major assets in the race, Bryan decided on a whistle-stop political tour by train on an unprecedented scale. Hanna urged McKinley to match Bryan’s tour with one of his own; the candidate declined on the grounds that the Democrat was a better stump speaker: “I might just as well set up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak.” Instead of going to the people, McKinley would remain at home in Canton and allow the people to come to him; according to historian R. Hal Williams in his book on the 1896 election, “it was, as it turned out, a brilliant strategy. McKinley’s ‘Front Porch Campaign’ became a legend in American political history.”
McKinley made himself available to the public every day except Sunday, receiving delegations from the front porch of his home. The railroads subsidized the visitors with low excursion rates—the pro-silver Cleveland Plain Dealer disgustedly stated that going to Canton had been made “cheaper than staying at home”. Delegations marched through the streets from the railroad station to McKinley’s home on North Market Street. Once there, they crowded close to the front porch—from which they surreptitiously whittled souvenirs—as their spokesman addressed McKinley. The candidate then responded, speaking on campaign issues in a speech molded to suit the interest of the delegation. The speeches were carefully scripted to avoid extemporaneous remarks; even the spokesman’s remarks were approved by McKinley or a representative. This was done as the candidate feared an offhand comment by another that might rebound on him, as had happened to Blaine in 1884.
Most Democratic newspapers refused to support Bryan, the major exception being the New York Journal, controlled by William Randolph Hearst, whose fortune was based on silver mines. In biased reporting and through the sharp cartoons of Homer Davenport, Hanna was viciously characterized as a plutocrat, trampling on labor. McKinley was drawn as a child, easily controlled by big business. Even today, these depictions still color the images of Hanna and McKinley: one as a heartless businessman, the other as a creature of Hanna and others of his ilk.
The Democrats had pamphlets too, though not as many. Jones analyzed how voters responded to the education campaigns of the two parties:
For the people it was a campaign of study and analysis, of exhortation and conviction—a campaign of search for economic and political truth. Pamphlets tumbled from the presses, to be read, reread, studied, debated, to become guides to economic thought and political action. They were printed and distributed by the million … but the people hankered for more. Favorite pamphlets became dog-eared, grimy, fell apart as their owners laboriously restudied their arguments and quoted from them in public and private debate.
McKinley always thought of himself as a tariff man and expected that the monetary issues would fade away in a month. He was mistaken—silver and gold dominated the campaign.
The battleground proved to be the Midwest—the South and most of the West were conceded to Bryan—and the Democrat spent much of his time in those crucial states. The Northeast was considered most likely safe for McKinley after the early-voting states of Maine and Vermont supported him in September. By then, it was clear that public support for silver had receded, and McKinley began to emphasize the tariff issue. By the end of September, the Republicans had discontinued printing material on the silver issue, and were entirely concentrating on the tariff question. On November 3, 1896, the voters had their say. McKinley won the entire Northeast and Midwest; he won 51% of the vote and an ample majority in the Electoral College. Bryan had concentrated entirely on the silver issue, and had not appealed to urban workers. Voters in cities supported McKinley; the only city outside the South of more than 100,000 population carried by Bryan was Denver, Colorado.
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.”
Inauguration and appointments
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, such as the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy the previous year, 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, after hearing a speech by anarchist Emma Goldman in Cleveland, had decided to do something he believed would advance the cause. After his failure to get close enough on September 5, Czolgosz waited the next day at the Temple of Music on the Exposition grounds, where the President was to meet the public. Czolgosz concealed his gun in a handkerchief, and, when he reached the head of the line, shot McKinley twice in the abdomen.
McKinley urged 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 to the Exposition aid station, where the doctor was unable to locate the second bullet. Although a primitive X-ray machine was being exhibited on the Exposition grounds, it was not used. McKinley was taken to the Milburn House.
In the days after the shooting McKinley appeared to improve. Doctors issued increasingly optimistic 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. Leech wrote,
It is difficult to interpret the optimism with which the President’s physicians looked for his recovery. There was obviously the most serious danger that his wounds would become septic. In that case, he would almost certainly die, since drugs to control infection did not exist … [Prominent New York City physician] Dr. McBurney was by far the worst offender in showering sanguine assurances on the correspondents. As the only big-city surgeon on the case, he was eagerly questioned and quoted, and his rosy prognostications largely contributed to the delusion of the American public.
On the morning of September 13, McKinley’s condition deteriorated. Specialists were summoned; although at first some doctors hoped that McKinley might survive with a weakened heart, by afternoon they knew the case was hopeless. Unknown to the doctors, the gangrene that would kill him was growing on the walls of his stomach, slowly poisoning his blood. McKinley drifted in and out of consciousness all day; when awake he was the model patient. By evening, McKinley too knew he was dying, “It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have prayer.” Relatives and friends gathered around the death bed. The First Lady sobbed over him, “I want to go, too. I want to go, too.” Her husband replied, “We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours” and with final strength put an arm around her. He may also have sung part of his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”, although other accounts have her singing it softly to him.
At 2: 15 a.m. on September 14, President McKinley died. Theodore Roosevelt had rushed back to Buffalo and took the oath of office as president. Czolgosz, put on trial for murder nine days after McKinley’s death, was found guilty, sentenced to death on September 26, and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901.
Funeral, memorials, and legacy
Funeral and resting place