The apogee of William McKinley's career was his election as the 25th president of the United States in the hotly contested election of 1896. As the Republican standard-bearer he represented the antithesis of the Populist drive for change. McKinley symbolized both the gold standard and the high tariff policies that had been often blamed for the impoverishment of American agriculture and the American farmer. His victory in 1896 helped forge a Republican hegemony in national politics that lasted until 1932, with only the Woodrow Wilson presidency breaking this domination.
Born in Niles, Ohio, of mixed Scottish and English heritage, McKinley's American roots stretched back to eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. The McKinley family became early settlers in Ohio in the 1790s, and William McKinley Jr. was one of nine children born to William and Nancy McKinley. He attended local schools in Poland, Ohio, and later Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, and for a term at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
The coming of the Civil War saw McKinley enlist as a private in the 23rd Ohio Infantry in June 1861. Stationed largely in West Virginia, McKinley served under Rutherford B. Hayes, a future president. Hayes promoted McKinley to sergeant in recognition of his bravery in battle against Confederate units. Other promotions followed during the course of the war with McKinley becoming a second lieutenant after the battle of Antietam in 1862. By the time his enlistment ended in September 1865, he had achieved the rank of brevet major.
Following the war McKinley continued his education at Albany Law School in New York and was admitted to the bar in 1867. He established a law practice in Canton, Ohio, and served as a prosecuting attorney for Stark County. He also entered the political ring, giving his support to his former Civil War commander in Rutherford Hayes's campaign for the Ohio governorship. It was also in this period that he met and married Ida Saxton.
In 1896, after leaving the governorship and with the support of his rich friend, the Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna, McKinley began to campaign earnestly for the Republican presidential nomination. Republican prospects seemed particularly good following major sweeps in the 1894 congressional elections. With the lingering effects of the 1893 panic associated with Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland, and with the many divisions within the Democratic Party over the silver issue and Populist challenges to its base, McKinley's prospects were flourishing. In addition, Mark Hanna emerged as a master manipulator and the first of a breed of campaign managers who would have such an impact on U.S. politics in the future. McKinley won the nomination handily and, with the advice of Mark Hanna, designed his “Front Porch” campaign strategy that saw him remain at home and address the nation from his Ohio base.
As a candidate McKinley took on the Democrat nominee and Populist favorite William Jennings Bryan in a transformative election that introduced twentieth-century politics to the American public. Backed by a huge campaign fund of more than $3.5 million, Hanna made use of the new advertising media to persuade the public. McKinley linked the gold standard to prosperity, deflected the bimetallist challenges of “free silver” as economically destructive, and offered a place for all the United States’ new immigrants in the political process. His strategy worked well, for McKinley won the election handily with more than 51 percent of the popular vote and with an unassailable 271 Electoral College votes.
A return to prosperity and industrial growth also aided McKinley during the election. Industrial trusts continued to expand and consolidate and were not yet confined by the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, which gave evidence to this growth. It was not until the Progressive Era that these constraints of trade issues, posed by the growing monopolies, were partially addressed. The monetary system was also temporarily stabilized by the Gold Standard Act of 1890, which established set values, ending many of the deflationary issues that had plagued the economy since the 1870s and contributed much to the agricultural unrest of the Populist era.
McKinley's presidency also witnessed the United States’ emergence on the world stage through the acquisition of overseas territories. The United States was joining the ranks of the major powers. As a first step in this drive, the Hawaii annexation issue reappeared with the necessary support for acceptance. The annexation treaty was finally signed in June 1897, backed by a joint resolution in July 1898, followed by the creation of a territorial government in 1900.
The Spanish-American War further contributed both to the expansionistic atmosphere and the emergent economy. Stemming from long-term Spanish abuses in Cuba and sparked by the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, a war fury was stoked by “yellow journalism,” leaving McKinley little option but to take the United States to war in April 1898. After a swift and highly successful 90-day campaign, Spain was utterly defeated. As a result of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines became U.S. territories, and as an immediate aftermath Cuba became an occupied territory, although permanent withdrawal and independence were guaranteed. Although the war and the acquisition of overseas territory received massive public support, those in the anti-imperialist camp saw these events as real challenges to the United States’ republican ideals.
For McKinley and the Republicans the war strengthened an expanding economy that characterized domestic growth until the Panic of 1907. In particular, the politics of the protective tariff continued in McKinley's first term, most clearly seen in the passage of the 1897 Dingley Tariff. This tariff's effect was to obliterate the modest reductions seen in the 1894 Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act. McKinley signed the new tariff bill in July 1897. The Dingley Tariff increased duties from 40 to 50 percent and also restored some aspects of reciprocity treaties. In addition, McKinley's presidency was, at times, subject to criticism over the standard cronyism of the period. A particular example was the promotion of aged Ohio Senator John Sherman to head the State Department, which led to accusations that this was payback for Mark Hanna's elevation to the Senate.
The McKinley presidency witnessed the further rise of Jim Crow restrictions on African Americans and the steady reversal of Reconstruction-era civil rights gains. This direction was most notably reflected in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that institutionalized segregation through its separate-but-equal provisions. McKinley did little, other than a few African American governmental appointments, to take a stand against the period's increasingly racist atmosphere, which was accompanied by a rise in intimidation and lynching. As a committed Christian and abolitionist, McKinley was sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, but he failed to fully employ or enforce existing civil rights legislation through fear of further alienating the South.
The election of 1900 saw President McKinley emerge as the Republican standard-bearer with a young Theodore Roosevelt, whose popularity arose from his Spanish-American War celebrity, as his vice-presidential nominee. The 1900 election again saw the Democrats nominate William Jennings Bryan with Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois as his vice-presidential running mate. The Democratic Party chose to drop free silver as a campaign issue and adopt imperialism as its key campaign plank. This decision marked an essential end to the Populist ethos that had gained entrance to the party platform in the 1896 election.
Theodore W. Eversole
See also: African Americans and Populism ; Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Cleveland, Grover (1837–1908) ; Czolgosz, Leon (1873–1901) ; Gilded Age ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Hanna, Mark (1837–1904) ; Progressivism ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919) ; Wilson-Gorman Tariff (1894)
Glad, Paul W. McKinley, Bryan, and the People. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott Company, 1964.
Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of William McKinley. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1980.
Jones, Stanley L. The Presidential Election of 1896. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
Kent, Noel J. America in 1900. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.
Knoles, George H. The Presidential Campaign and Election of 1892. New York: AMS Press, 1971.
Morgan, H. Wayne. William McKinley and His America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1963.
Phillips, Kevin. William McKinley. New York: Times Books, 2003.