Historians generally view William McKinley as a president who tried to
avoid war but who remained firm in his commitment once it was made.
As the last president of the Gilded Age (approximately the end of the
1870s through the 1890s), McKinley paved the way for the twentiethcentury leaders who would guide America through the constantly changing times of the Progressive Era (the first two decades of the twentieth
McKinley was born on January 29, 1843, the seventh of eight children. He spent the first ten years of his life in the small town of Niles,
Ohio, where his father, William, owned an iron foundry. When he was
ten, McKinley and his family moved to the nearby town of Poland. From
his mother, he learned the value of honesty, while his father instilled in
him a strong work ethic.
After finishing his basic education, McKinley attended Allegheny
College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He never graduated, though,
because of financial hardships and illness. McKinley fought in the
American Civil War (1861–65). As a second
lieutenant, McKinley served under future U.S.
president Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893;
served 1877–81). After the war, McKinley studied law at Albany Law School in New York.
After passing the bar exam in 1867,
McKinley opened his legal firm in Canton,
Ohio. In 1869, he met Ida Saxton (1847–1907).
The two married in January 1871 and had two
daughters, Katherine and Ida. Katherine, born
on Christmas Day 1871, lived only until 1875.
Her sister, born in 1873, died at the age of four
McKinley earned a living as a lawyer, but he was
passionate about politics. He won a Republican
seat in Congress in 1876, where he served until
1891. McKinley was appointed chair of the
powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 1889. He helped pass the McKinley Tariff (tax) of 1890. The bill
increased the cost of imported goods by almost 49.5 percent, which
angered consumers who saw prices go up. The tariff was a key reason
McKinley was defeated in the 1890 election.
McKinley was elected governor of Ohio in 1891. He spent his first
term trying to improve relations between management and labor in
industry. He developed an arbitration (negotiation) program and convinced the state’s Republicans to support it. Traditionally, Republicans
refused to recognize the rights of labor, but McKinley changed their
Although McKinley publicly acknowledged the rights of workers, he
refused to honor their demands if he believed their requests were not
rational. In 1894, he called in the National Guard to break up a United
Mine Workers strike (a formal protest of workers who refuse to work
until negotiations are made).
America suffered an economic depression (a time of high unemployment, minimal investment and spending, and low prices) in 1893, one
of the worst in American history. The unemployment rate (the percentage of the total working population that was out of a job) exceeded 10
percent for half a decade, something that had never happened before and
would not happen again until the Great Depression of the 1930s. No
city or region was left unscarred.
McKinley himself suffered financial hardship through the depression. He had cosigned a loan for a friend who subsequently went bankrupt, leaving McKinley to pay off the debt. That he suffered along with
millions of other Americans only increased his popularity, and he was
reelected for another term.
Election of 1896
The presidential campaign and election of 1896 was one of the most
complicated and interesting in history. In addition to the Democratic
Party and Republican Party, the Populist Party, formed in 1892, had a
large following. It consisted of displeased farmers and laborers who
believed the other two parties did not adequately represent their interests
and concerns. Unlike the two major political parties, the Populist Party
represented the working class and tried to give these voters a voice.
McKinley was the Republican candidate. The Democrats opted
against renominating incumbent president Grover Cleveland
(1837–1908; served 1885–89 and 1893–97) due to his unpopularity following his lack of response to a severe downturn in the economy known
as the Panic of 1893. Instead, the party chose former U.S. representative William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) of Nebraska.
Early in the election, the Populists realized they were not powerful
enough to compete against the other two parties. They chose to support
Bryan because he supported a monetary program that could help ease
the financial burden of farmers and workers and bring them out of the
economic depression of the past three years.
The Republicans raised $4 million for their campaign, an unheardof amount in 1896. Most of that money came from big business and
bankers, all of whom wanted to keep tariffs high. Republican campaigners used the money to print and distribute 200 million pamphlets.
McKinley delivered 350 speeches from his front porch in Canton.
Campaigners traveled the nation rallying support for their candidate.
Bryan was much more active in his campaigning. He traveled
18,000 miles in three months. An engaging speaker, Bryan painted
McKinley as a puppet of big business. His speeches were moralistic in
tone, almost as if he were a church preacher. This turned some of his
more progressive supporters against him.
McKinley beat Bryan. His victory marked the beginning of what
would be a Republican White House until Democrat Woodrow
Wilson’s (1856–1924; served 1913–21) inauguration in 1913.
First years in office
McKinley remained in favor of high tariffs; he believed in limiting
imports to help ensure a healthy marketplace for the American production of goods. One of the first acts he took as president was to call a special session of Congress to pass the Dingley Tariff Act in 1897. The act
raised tariff rates to an average of nearly 49 percent.
An important entity in business was the trust—a group of companies that band together to form an organization that limits the competition by controlling the production and distribution of a product or
service. (See Monopolies and Trusts.) McKinley believed trusts were
useful in terms of international competition to help Americans compete against foreign businesses. He considered them less desirable within the
American market, however, where they curbed competition between
American businesses. He limited his support of legal suits against trusts
that hurt interstate (within the nation) commerce only.
McKinley was a supporter of the labor movement, and his time in
the White House increased his popularity among workers throughout
the nation. He endorsed the Erdman Act of 1898, which developed a
means for negotiating wage disputes involving international railroad
companies. McKinley also favored the Chinese Exclusion Act, which
prohibited Chinese immigrants from settling in America and taking jobs
that Americans could fill. (See Asian Immigration.) The president had
strong professional relationships with a number of leaders in the labor
movement as well. Despite his support of America’s workers, McKinley
sent in federal troops to keep order at a mining strike in Coeur d’Alene,
Idaho, in 1899. The incident ended in the arrest of about five hundred
miners, who were kept in a large pen from the time of their arrest in
April until September. This five-month detention was the one incident
during his presidency in which McKinley angered the organized-labor
McKinley put little effort into improving race relations while in
office. He spoke against lynching (illegal hanging) in his first presidential address in 1897 but did not condemn the practice formally with legislation or any other efforts. Nor did he take measures to limit the racial
violence in the South.
In 1897, McKinley negotiated a treaty with Hawaii that would
annex it (make it a U.S. territory). He not only recognized the island’s
value as a military strategic point but also realized other world powers
would want to lay claim to the land if the United States did not. Antiimperialists (those against the idea of expanding America’s territory) and
Democrats were against the annexation and delayed it until 1900. At
that point, Congress successfully petitioned McKinley to pass the resolution for annexation with a simple majority (more than 50 percent)
vote, rather than the usual two-thirds majority vote. Much later, in 1959,
Hawaii became the fiftieth state admitted to the Union.
America at war In 1898, America declared war on Spain in an effort to
help Cuba win its independence. The Spanish-American War was a
four-month conflict that ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty on December 10, 1898. The treaty gave Guam and Puerto Rico to the
United States and allowed America to buy the Philippine Islands for $20
million. Spain gave up its hold on Cuba, which would be a protectorate
(under the protection and partial control) of the United States until
1934. The United States, under McKinley’s leadership, had become one
of the world’s great colonial powers.
That same year, McKinley sent troops to the Philippines because he
believed the islands were incapable of governing themselves. He sent
twenty thousand troops overseas to show the Filipinos how to run their
islands, but the Filipinos revolted. Although McKinley predicted the
conflict would be short and bloodless, it lasted until 1902 and cost more
than five thousand American lives and two hundred thousand Filipino
McKinley turned his sights next to China. The country was important to American international commerce, and the president wanted to
protect that relationship by limiting the influence of other powerful
countries. To this end, he initiated the Open Door Policy, which put
China on the same level as the United States in terms of trade and business. There would be no restrictions or tariffs, and the United States
would support an independent China.
In June 1900, a group of Chinese rebels known as Boxers killed a
number of western missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity.
The Boxers did not want foreign influences in their country or on their
national identity. The group also invaded foreign populations in the city
of Beijing (then called Peking). McKinley sent over twenty-five hundred
troops and several gunboats to China without first getting congressional
approval. In addition to U.S. military support, Russia, Great Britain,
Germany, and Japan assisted China. The allied (combined) troops put
down the Boxer Rebellion by August. China was forced to pay reparations (costs of war) of more than $300 million, $25 million of which
went to the United States.
An early death
McKinley won reelection in the 1900 presidential race with Theodore
Roosevelt (1858–1919) as his vice presidential running mate. The
Democratic candidate was again William Jennings Bryan.
On September 5, 1901, McKinley delivered a speech at the PanAmerican Exposition in Buffalo, New York. At its conclusion, he
attended a reception where he greeted the public. Just after 4 PM, a
twenty-eight-year-old Polish immigrant named Leon Czolgosz
(1873–1901) shot McKinley. The bullet hit the president in the chest
and knocked him to the ground. He was rushed to a hospital, where doctors expected him to recover. Gangrene (the decay of skin tissue due to
blood loss) set in around his wounds, however, and the president died on
September 14, 1901, just six months after his second term had begun.
His assassin died in the electric chair on October 29, 1901.