William McKinley Jr. was the seventh of eight children sired by William and Nancy Allison McKinley Sr., and was born on January 29, 1843 in the small town of Niles, Ohio. His father – in practicing the family trade - opened and operated a small iron foundry, and his mother was a devoutly religious Methodist who was a leader in the small town.
The roots of William Jr.’s family tree shows that his forefathers had been early settlers in Pennsylvania, establishing their homes there in the mid-18th Century. Both of his grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution – on the side of the Colonial patriots. But the ‘west’ of the day beckoned these early pioneers, and the family moved west to the territory of Ohio, settling in Lisbon – where his father met, wooed, and married Nancy Allison in 1829, eventually moving to and settling in Niles.
As a child William Jr. did what most of the youngsters of the day did… fishing, hunting, ice skating, horseback riding, and swimming, and helping his father in the foundry when he could, as well as the regular family ‘chores’ assigned to him.
However, the type of educational foundation that the McKinley’s wanted for their children was lacking in Niles, so they made a difficult decision. In 1853 William Sr. stayed in Niles to operate the family business, while his wife and children moved to nearby Poland, Ohio, so the children could attend Poland Seminary, a private Methodist school. Because of this move, and the work-related long-term absences of his father, young William McKinley would be deeply influenced by his mother and his sisters.
In Poland, he would give up most of the various sports and hobbies that he did, except playing ball, swimming and skating. As much as he enjoyed the cool water of the stream, McKinley was not a good swimmer. It was during one of his swimming expeditions that he got in water too deep for him, and had to be saved from drowning by a passerby.
He also was a constant reader, and was fond of such poets as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and Lord Byron.
William Jr. would graduate from school, and in 1860 enrolled at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. However, he became ill, had to return home, and by the time his health recovered, the family finances had declined to the point that he could not afford to attend school, so he earned money working as a postal clerk, and later as a teacher in a nearby school.
When the American Civil War started, McKinley joined the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He started as a private, eventually rising to the rank of brevet major. As a Second Lieutenant he served on the staff of a future US President and fellow Ohioian, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, with whom McKinley would form a close bond that would continue throughout his political career.
In 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, McKinley was a Commissary Sergeant in Col. Ewing’s Brigade. During the battle, he served every soldier in his regiment coffee and food – often placing himself under enemy fire to do so. His future mentor, Rutherford B. Hayes, stated:
"Early in the afternoon, naturally enough, with the exertion required of the men, they were famished and thirsty, and to some extent broken in spirit. The commissary department of that brigade was under Sergeant McKinley’s administration and personal supervision. From his hands every man in the regiment was served with hot coffee and warm meats.... He passed under fire and delivered, with his own hands, these things, so essential for the men for whom he was laboring."
McKinley served for the entire war. When the war ended and he was discharged McKinley returned to Ohio, studying law at Albany Law School where he passed the bar exam in 1867. He began his legal practice at Canton, Ohio. It was at a Canton picnic in 1869 that two great events occurred in his life: he met and began courting his future wife, Ida Saxon (marrying on January 25, 1871), and he entered politics, running for county prosecutor on the Republican ticket.
His home life in the early 1870s was rocked by the loss of his two young daughters – Katharine, who died in 1875 at the age of 3; and Ida, who died in 1873 at the age of 4 months. His wife, suffering from the loss of her two daughters and her mother within a short span of time, suffered depression and developed epilepsy, becoming an invalid who was totally dependent on her husband for her medical and emotional needs - and on pain-killing drugs. McKinley was compassionate, giving patient devotion and loving attention to his wife. After he was elected President, McKinley broke tradition, having Ida sit next to him at state dinners instead of opposite of him at the far end of the table, so he could assist her when needed. McKinley’s friend and supporter Mark Hanna would comment concerning the President’s devotion to his wife:
"President McKinley has made it pretty hard for the rest of us husbands here in Washington."
In 1876 McKinley ran successfully for the US Congress, serving from 1876-1882, then again from 1884 to 1891. It was as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1889 that he drafted a strong protective tariff in 1890 – the McKinley Tariff – that was passed by the house, with unexpected results: Because consumer prices skyrocketed under this Tariff, the angry voters rejected McKinley (and many other Republicans) in the 1890 elections.
Returning home to Ohio, McKinley – though stunned by his defeat in his race for reelection to the House, ran for Governor of Ohio in 1891. He won by a narrow margin, a tribute to the people’s respect for his morality and honesty. He would go on to be reelected in 1894, despite the economic depression of 1893 – and partially because he, too, had been hard hit by the depression. He had co-signed with a businessman who went bankrupt, and was responsible for the unpaid debt. Basically, it took all of the McKinley money to pay off his friend’s debt, leaving the McKinley family in the same financial straits as many of their constituents.
As governor, he often supported labor rights during an era when many politicians refused to acknowledge that labor had any rights. But, he also would use force when labor crossed the line and grew violent during a strike.
By 1896 McKinley was being seriously considered as the Republican candidate for the Presidency. He had been a successful congressman, was governor of a crucial ‘swing’ state in elections, and was very popular with the voters. He friend and advisor, businessman Mark Hanna, began a process of advocating McKinley with the Republican leadership so effectively that when the Republican convention was held in St. Louis, McKinley won the nomination on the first ballot. His opponent: Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
McKinley would run a ‘front-porch’ campaign. Realizing that Bryan was an excellent orator that he could not hope to beat in a debate, McKinley decided to stay at home tending to the needs of his wife, and speaking from his porch to various groups that would visit him at his home in Canton, Ohio. While Bryan went to see the people, the people came to see McKinley.
The 1896 election saw McKinley win by a clear majority. The same story would be repeated in the 1900 election.
McKinley would follow conservative, protectionist policies at home during his administration, and benefited from the nation’s recovery from the Panic of 1893. However, he is remembered more for his foreign involvement than for his domestic programs – despite the fact that during his 1897 inaugural address he said:
"We want no wars of conquest. We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression."
However, a war of conquest did occur – with the SpanishAmerican War of 1898. In defeating Spain, the Americans became an imperialistic power, gaining naval bases in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Americans soon became embroiled in an intense Imperialism/Anti-Imperialism debate that would continue into the next century. With the Spanish American War, the United States was no longer just a continental power – the country had far-flung interests and a developing world-wide trade network for the products produced by its burgeoning industry.
Under McKinley the US promoted the Open Door policy for opening up trade ports and opportunities in China for the US, and sent US troops to assist an international force in putting down the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. He also sought to begin a canal across Central America linking the Caribbean with the Pacific.
At home, McKinley dealt with the major economic issues of the day: establishing tariff rates to protect American industry; and ending bimetallism by signing the Gold Standard Act of 1900 – making gold the only standard for redeeming paper money became the dominant domestic focus.
In September 1901 McKinley was visiting the Pan-AmericanExposition in Buffalo, New York, promoting American innovation and industry – and what he had hoped would be the cornerstone of his second administration – trade reciprocity between America’s trading markets around the world.
On September 6th McKinley was shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers when anarchist Leon Czolgosz took his turn in line and, when he was next to the President, pulled the trigger of a gun he had hidden in his hand with a large bandage. McKinley was wounded, and it was hopeful that he would recover. However, he suffered a relapse and, on September 14, 1901, he passed away. Czolgosz was later tried and executed.
The nation mourned McKinley’s death, and he was eventually interred in a massive mausoleum honoring him in Canton, Ohio. His wife, Ida, who survived him by 6 years, was also interred there, as are the remains of his two infant daughters.
And so a new century was heralded with violence… and would become the century of violence. McKinley was honored by the people of the day, although he is often forgotten – and underrated - in today’s world.
19-Year Old Sgt. William McKinley, Giles County HistoricalSociety
McKinley Monument at Antietam Battlefield, National ParkService
Mrs. William Mckinley, Vassar Project
1896 Presidential portrait of William McKinley, Wikipedia
1900 McKinley Campaign Poster, Atlantic Monthly
Assassination of McKinley, Culture Magazine