Born in Niles, Ohio, in 1843, McKinley briefly attended Allegheny College,
and was teaching in a country school when the Civil War broke out. Enlisting
as a private in the Union Army, he was mustered out at the end of the war
as a brevet major of volunteers. He studied law, opened an office in Canton,
Ohio, and married Ida Saxton, daughter of a local banker.
At 34, McKinley won a seat in Congress. His attractive personality,
exemplary character, and quick intelligence enabled him to rise rapidly.
He was appointed to the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Robert M. La
Follette, Sr., who served with him, recalled that he generally "represented
the newer view," and "on the great new questions .. was generally on the
side of the public and against private interests."
During his 14 years in the House, he became the leading Republican tariff
expert, giving his name to the measure enacted in 1890. The next year he
was elected Governor of Ohio, serving two terms.
At the 1896 Republican Convention, in time of depression, the wealthy
Cleveland businessman Marcus Alonzo Hanna ensured the nomination of his
friend William McKinley as "the advance agent of prosperity." The Democrats,
advocating the "free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold"--which
would have mildly inflated the currency--nominated William Jennings Bryan.
While Hanna used large contributions from eastern Republicans frightened
by Bryan's views on silver, McKinley met delegations on his front porch
in Canton, Ohio. He won by the largest majority of popular votes since
When McKinley became President, the depression of 1893 had almost run
its course and with it the extreme agitation over silver. Deferring action
on the money question, he called Congress into special session to enact
the highest tariff in history.
In the friendly atmosphere of the McKinley Administration, industrial
combinations developed at an unprecedented pace. Newspapers caricatured
McKinley as a little boy led around by "Nursie" Hanna, the representative
of the trusts. However, McKinley was not dominated by Hanna; he condemned
the trusts as "dangerous conspiracies against the public good."
Not prosperity, but foreign policy, dominated McKinley's Administration.
Reporting the stalemate between Spanish forces and revolutionaries in Cuba,
newspapers screamed that a quarter of the population was dead and the rest
suffering acutely. Public indignation brought pressure upon the President
for war. Unable to restrain Congress or the American people, McKinley delivered
his message of neutral intervention in April 1898. Congress thereupon voted
three resolutions tantamount to a declaration of war for the liberation
and independence of Cuba.
In the 100-day war, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside
Santiago harbor in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied
Puerto Rico. In gratitude for Hawaiian assistance in the war, McKinley
agreed to annex the Republic of Hawaii at the request of the Hawaiian government.
This was accomplished via a Joint Resolution of Congress in 1898. Texas
had also been annexed in this manner.
"Uncle Joe" Cannon, later Speaker of the House, once said that McKinley
kept his ear so close to the ground that it was full of grasshoppers. When
McKinley was undecided what to do about Spanish possessions other than
Cuba, he toured the country and detected an imperialist sentiment. Thus
the United States annexed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico.
In 1900, McKinley again campaigned against Bryan. While Bryan inveighed
against imperialism, McKinley quietly stood for "the full dinner pail."
His second term, which had begun auspiciously, came to a tragic end
in September 1901. He was standing in a receiving line at the Buffalo Pan-American
Exposition when a deranged anarchist shot him twice. He died eight days
later. Interment is in the McKinley Monument (adjacent to West Lawn Cemetery),
Canton, Ohio. Governor Andrew L. Harris and other speakers saluted the
fallen President at the McKinley Memorial.
McKinley's portrait appeared on the U.S. $500 bill from 1928 to 1946.