Twenty-fifth President of the United States
Nickname: Major McKinley
Terms in Office: 1897–1901; 1901
- Born January 29, 1843, in Niles, Ohio
- Parents: William and Nancy Campbell Allison McKinley
- Died September 14, 1901, in Buffalo, New York; age 58
- Age upon Start of First Term: 54; Age upon Conclusion of First Term: 58
- Age upon Start of Second Term: 58; Age upon Assassination: 58
- Religious Affiliation: Methodist
- Political Party: Republican
- Height: 5 feet 7 inches
- Vice President: Garret Hobart (1897–1899); Theodore Roosevelt (March–September 1901)
The Bottom Line
William McKinley was the twenty-fifth president of the United States. He served two terms in office, during which he oversaw the beginning and conclusion of the Spanish-American War and worked to resolve the bimetallism issue in America at the time. His second term was cut short when he was assassinated just over seven months into his term in office.
What Was He Thinking?
William McKinley believed in preserving the limited nature of the government, which came in handy during the start and end of the Spanish-American War. McKinley also wanted to ensure the stability of America’s economy by preserving the value of its currency. This belief prompted McKinley to end the bimetallism debate that was threatening to destabilize the U.S. economy.
Bimetallism: Two factions of thought emerged during the debate over silver and gold. Much of the south believed that adding silver to the national treasury would allow the government to print more money and thus allow people to buy more necessities such as food and clothing. The northern portion of the United States believed adding silver to the treasury would lead to the devaluing of the dollar and inflation, causing economic instability in the country.
William McKinley was the first president to ride in an automobile.
“That is all a man can hope for during his lifetime—to set an example—and when he is dead, to be an inspiration for history.”—William McKinley
Why Should I Care?
The Spanish-American War was a major war in the history of the United States. By winning this war, America acquired Puerto Rice, Guam, and the Philippines—the first time American land extended outside the North American continent. Also, McKinley returned America’s economy to the gold standard (with much help from the Klondike, Alaskan Gold Rush), preventing an economic collapse.
Breakin’ It Down
William McKinley was the seventh of nine children born to William and Nancy McKinley in Niles, Ohio, where his father and grandfather worked in a small pig-iron factory. Young William had a very close relationship with his mother, a woman who taught the McKinley children religious values and the importance of education, hoping William would one day become a preacher. As a youth, William attended the Poland Academy, where the other students considered him unusually shy. His shy personality was not a reflection of his intelligence, however, which became obvious when the schoolteachers required William to sit in the back of the class to allow “slower” students time to catch up. Eventually, William outgrew his shyness, joined the school’s debate club, and became a great public speaker and even the president of the local community debating club.
William attended Allegheny College, but withdrew within a month of enrollment because of exhaustion, illness, possible depression, and a lack of funds. After abandoning higher education for the time being, he instead became a postal clerk and a part-time schoolteacher, although this, too, changed at the outbreak of the Civil War when he enlisted in the 23rd Voluntary Ohio Regiment at the age of eighteen. At the Battle of Antietam, McKinley was commissioned to deliver supplies through enemy fire to isolated Union units and barely escaped death when his wagon was hit with a Confederate cannonball. Later in the war, McKinley fought under future president Rutherford B. Hayes and eventually rose to the position of second lieutenant.
After the Confederate surrender, McKinley attempted to continue his education by enrolling in Albany Law School, but he failed to graduate this college as well. During the presidential election of 1864, McKinley campaigned for Ulysses S. Grant, helping the former Union general carry the state of Ohio. Intrigued by his first taste of politics, McKinley decided to run for office himself.
In 1871, William McKinley married Ida Saxton during an extravagant wedding ceremony attended by more than one thousand friends, relatives, and guests. Ida and William had two daughters, but neither of them lived to adulthood: their first daughter succumbed to typhoid fever and their second daughter died shortly after she was born prematurely. After the death of both her children, Ida herself became ill and never mentally or physically recovered. Among other illnesses, she fell victim to epileptic seizures, depression, and phlebitis (the painful swelling of the veins). Despite her constant near-invalid state, William remained true to his wife and never left her side for more than a few days. William wasn’t embarrassed by his wife’s condition, and she frequently accompanied him to White House dinner parties or socials. When Ida had a seizure in public, however, William would hold a large handkerchief over her face to hide her from embarrassment.
Previous Political Career
- 1867: Elected county chairman for the Republican Party.
- 1876: Elected to the U.S. Congress, holding the position until 1883.
- 1885: Elected to Congress again, holding the position until 1891. During his time in Congress, two major issues arose: bimetallism and the raising/lowering of tariffs. McKinley supported bimetallism by voting for the Bland-Allison Act in 1878 and later the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890. McKinley wanted to raise tariffs to protect businesses, even forming his own tariff legislation: the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890. McKinley’s bill raised tariffs to such extremes, however, that McKinley was voted out of the House.
- 1889: Appointed the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee until 1891.
- 1892: Elected governor of Ohio, earning reelection two years later.
- 1892: Served as the chairman of the Republican Convention, increasing his recognition in the Republican Party.
“I have never been in doubt … that I would someday be president.”—William McKinley
McKinley usually wore a red carnation in his jacket buttonhole for good luck.
In 1878, while still serving in Congress, McKinley won the election for prosecutor of Stark County, Ohio, winning despite the Democratic majority in the region, and thus holding two government positions at once. However, McKinley lost reelection the following election cycle.
Election of 1896: McKinley notably switched his views to match the party he represented in the election: instead of favoring bimetallism, McKinley favored the gold standard. This flip led many businesses to support the Republican candidate, which they would not have done if McKinley had remained true to bimetallism.
In turn, gold businesses gave somewhere between $3.5 million and $16 million to the McKinley campaign to ensure his election. McKinley’s opponent William Jennings Bryan, covered twenty thousand miles in three months to speak to constituents all across America, beginning the trend of “traveling campaigns.” Maybe it was in part because the McKinley campaign printed two hundred million campaign pamphlets in fourteen different languages and distributed them across the United States.
Election of 1900: William McKinley campaigned once again from his own home, promising a “full dinner bucket” for everyone. He expressed his plans to increase America’s involvement in international trade as well as his concern about the growing business-monopolies. McKinley chose Theodore Roosevelt to serve as his vice president, bringing Theodore’s unique personality and recognition as a war hero to the ticket.
William McKinley was known as a man who genuinely enjoyed pleasing people. Among his constituents, he was very well liked and known to be a lighthearted optimist. He was often one to joke around, but this in no way undermined his ability to effectively lead the nation.
The inauguration of William McKinley in 1896 was the first recorded by a gramophone and a motion picture camera.
The American economy was on the upswing after the Panic of 1893, when McKinley assumed the presidency. McKinley relaxed government interference in businesses, allowing them to prosper in the economic recovery, and increased tariff rates (though not nearly as dramatically as his McKinley Tariff) to protect American businesses even further. The bimetallism issue, so long at the center of American politics, finally came to an end when the Alaskan Gold Rush supplied enough gold for the federal treasury to become solely dependent on the gold standard.
The Spanish-American War
Americans across the country opposed Spanish occupation of the Cuban island, especially after the major newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst began spreading awareness of (and sometimes over-exaggerating) the despicable humanitarian treatment of the people on the island, including concentration camps. Two events occurred within the following months, which practically forced McKinley to declare war on Spain.
William Randolph Hearst’s printing a supposed letter by the Spanish ambassador to America. Its validity was questioned because of Hearst’s reputation of printing anything that would sell more papers. In the letter, Enrique Dupuy de Lome called McKinley “weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, [and] a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes [a pro-war faction] of his party.” Americans—and McKinley—were infuriated.
Then, an unexpected explosion occurred on the U.S.S. Maine while it was docked in a Cuban harbor, killing 226 American sailors. Although no one knew what caused the explosion, Americans used it as proof that Spain was out to attack the United States. In April, McKinley asked Congress to declare war, which they did by an overwhelming majority in the House (310 to 6) and a slightly narrower margin in the Senate (42 to 35).
China, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Panama
U.S negotiated an Open Door Policy with China, which encouraged trade between the two nations. McKinley also ordered seventy thousand troops to maintain order in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, where the people of the Philippines had begun to rebel against the recent American takeover. McKinley hoped to secure the string of islands, because they proved an ideal location for the new China-America trade policies. Battles in the Philippines continued until 1902—a series of skirmishes sometimes referred to as the Philippine-American War—but finally the rebellion was controlled and America moved to officially take the region.
The United States continued to expand its borders elsewhere in the Pacific. McKinley believed that the long-standing American policy of Manifest Destiny called for the annexation of Hawaii, and this occurred after the signing of the Newlands Resolution.
William McKinley demanded to be a part of every stage of the Spanish-American War. He was directly involved in the diplomatic negotiations before the war, demanded first-hand control of the war operations, and personally oversaw the peace negotiations.
Thoughts on the Constitution
“I shall use the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the statutes to uphold the sovereignty of the United States in those distant islands as in all other places where our flag rightfully floats. Aiming only at the public good, we cannot err.” – William McKinley
Declaration of War on Spain: this declaration was issued on April 25, 1898, and officially approved the Spanish-American War
Newlands Resolution: this resolution was approved by Congress on July 4, 1898, and issued the annexation of Hawaii
Treaty of Paris: this treaty, ratified on February 6, 1899, officially ended the Spanish-American War. Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico came under U.S. control
Gold Standard Act of 1900: this act made gold the only medium of exchange in the national government and all national banks
Shortly after winning reelection in 1901, McKinley planned a transcontinental tour. However, once the tour began, it took a terrible turn, as if it were cursed. First, Ida McKinley fell terribly ill. Then, at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot by Leon R. Czolgosz. Immediately after the shot was fired, McKinley begged his guards not to hurt his assassin, crying, “Don’t let them harm him.” McKinley then thought of his wife and her unstable health, and pleaded, “My wife—be careful … how you tell her—oh, be careful.” Only then did McKinley think of himself. The doctors used an X-ray machine to attempt to locate the bullets so they could remove them, and the president seemed to recover. After a week, gangrene set in. McKinley died eight days after Czolgosz fired his gun.
The Presidential Times
The Klondike Gold Rush
August 17, 1896—Gold has been found in the Klondike and Yukon Rivers in the Yukon Territory in Canada. It is expected that close to thirty thousand people will be rushing to the site in an attempt to make a quick fortune.
USS Maine Explodes! War Cries Erupt!
February 16, 1898—The U.S. battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba, yesterday at 9:40 p.m. The explosion is being blamed on the Spanish and is calling many to advocate declaring war, though no substantial facts point to the Spanish as the perpetrator of the explosion. It is speculated that underwater mines placed by the Spanish in the harbor exploded beneath the bottom of the ship. A more realistic cause is that a spontaneous combustion of coal in a storeroom next to the ammunitions storeroom on the ship caused the explosion.
McKinley Assassin Executed
October 29, 1901—William McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz was executed for treason early this afternoon. Last month, McKinley died eight days after being shot during his transcontinental tour. Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist, declared he believed McKinley to represent an oppressive government. It is believed he was inspired by the recent assassination of Italy’s King Umberto I, carried out by Gaetano Bresci. Despite McKinley’s pleas for his assassin to not be harmed, Czolgosz was executed by electrocution. Czolgosz’s last words? “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.”
The Spanish-American War Begins . . . and Ends
The Spanish-American War lasted less than four months, ending in August 1898. American forces won quick and decisive battles in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The first American war presence in the Asian theater occurred on May 1 in the Philippines in Manila Bay, when Admiral George Dewey destroyed the entire Spanish fleet without a single American casualty. At the conclusion of the war, America took possession of lands outside the North American continent for the first time in history: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
State of the Union
(1) States: 50
(2) U.S. Population: (1897) 73,455,418
(3) U.S. Debt: (1897) $1,808,864,053
(4) Value of the Dollar: $1 in 1897 would be worth $27.78 today. $1 in 1901 would be worth $27.78.
- February 15, 1898—the USS Maine sinks in Havana Harbor, Cuba
- 1898—Ernest Hemmingway is born
- 1898—Marie Curie discovers radium
- April 20, 1898—the U.S. declares war on Spain
- August 12, 1898—ceasefire with Spain takes place, leading to the end of the Spanish-American War
- 1898—the Newland Resolution orders the U.S. annexation of Hawaii
- 1899—the Second Boer War begins in South Africa
- 1899—the Boxer Rebellion breaks out in China
- 1899—the Philippine-American War begins
- 1900—the Gold Standard Act is passed
- 1900—a hurricane hits Galveston, Texas, leaving six to eight thousand dead
- 1900—McKinley sends five thousand troops to Peking, China, to rescue westerners caught in the crosshairs of the Boxer Rebellion
- 1901—the Platt Amendment is passed
- 1901—Queen Victoria of Great Britain dies; Edward VII becomes king
- September 6, 1901—McKinley is shot by Leon Czolgosz and dies eight days later
“The credit of the Government, the integrity of its currency, and the inviolability of its obligations must be preserved. This was the commanding verdict of the people, and it will not be unheeded.” – William McKinley
McKinley said this in his first inaugural address in 1897. He believed that preserving the United States’ good financial credit was vital to the success of America.
What Has He Done for Me Lately?
William McKinley accomplished the rare and difficult task of starting and ending a war within a four-year term in office. This being said, small skirmishes continued within the Philippines, which preoccupied some of Theodore Roosevelt’s term in office. Yet, the Spanish-American War was a success, and an American victory increased America’s power in the world.
Juliette Turner is the National Youth Director of Constituting America, and the author of three books: Our Constitution Rocks, Our Presidents Rock and the novel, based on life at her ranch with her mom, actress Janine Turner, That’s Not Hay In My Hair (all published by HarpersCollins/Zondervan).
Our Presidents Rock, HarpersCollins/Zondervan, 2014. Reprinted with permission.