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American President Essays: William McKinley

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William McKinley: Life in Brief

For a long time, William McKinley was considered a mediocre President, a chief executive who was controlled by his political cronies and who was pressured into war with Spain by the press. Recent historians have been kinder to McKinley, seeing him instead as a decisive President who put America on the road to world power. McKinley's difficult foreign policy decisions, especially his policy toward China and his decision to go to war with Spain over Cuban independence, helped the U.S. enter the twentieth century as a new and powerful empire on the world stage.

Political Opportunities

Born in 1843 and raised in Ohio, William McKinley planned as a young man to become a Methodist minister. When the Civil War started, McKinley proved a valiant soldier, rising in the ranks from a private to a brevet major on the staff of Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. When he returned to Ohio to practice law, he used his connections with Hayes to rise rapidly in Ohio politics. He served in Congress from 1877 to 1891 before becoming governor of Ohio. Congressman McKinley was the Republican Party's leading spokesman for protectionism in foreign trade. His McKinley Tariff of 1890 established substantially higher tariff rates on imported goods in order to protect U.S. business and manufacturing.

The nation's devastating economic collapse in 1893 turned voters against the Democratic Party's hold on the presidency, giving McKinley a good shot at the White House in 1896. McKinley argued that his commitment to protective tariffs on imported goods would cure unemployment and stimulate industrial growth. McKinley's political ally from Ohio, the industrialist Marcus Hanna, helped McKinley organize and fund his campaign. McKinley beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the greatest electoral sweep in twenty-five years. Four years later, the popular McKinley ran on a strong record and defeated Bryan again, by even larger margins.

Strong International Presence

McKinley led the U.S. into its first international war with a European power since the War of 1812. The decision to come to the aid of the Cubans struggling to throw off Spanish rule was hastened by reports that Spain was responsible for the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine. On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war, promising to secure independence for Cuba once the war ended. To secure America's position in the Pacific, McKinley immediately pushed a joint resolution through Congress to annex the Hawaiian Islands. After three short months of fighting, the U.S. was victorious. The peace treaty between the United States and Spain granted Cuba its independence—although the island became a U.S. protectorate—and gave the United States control of former Spanish colonies, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Practically overnight, the United States became a colonial power, but not without costs. The United States almost immediately entered into a brutal conflict with Filipino nationalists who rejected American rule.

Further asserting American power on the global scene, McKinley sent 2,000 troops to China to help the Europeans put down the Boxer Rebellion. He also intervened twice in Nicaragua to protect U.S. property interests. Both of these actions were examples of the United States as a rising hemispheric and world power.

To obtain a hold on world markets, McKinley authorized his secretary of state, John Hay, to issue the "Open Door" notes on China. These notes declared U.S. support for an independent China and expressed the American desire that all nations with commercial interests in China compete on an equal footing. The war with Spain and the Open Door strategy laid the groundwork for a new American empire.

Personal Challenges and Assassination

First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley never recovered from the devastating loss of both her infant children as well as her mother within three years of her marriage to McKinley. She developed epilepsy, a disease for which there was no treatment in the late nineteenth century. McKinley gave the First Lady his full attention, breaking White House protocol in seating her by his side at State dinners. When he was shot by an assassin in 1901, McKinley said to his personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, "My wife, be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful." McKinley died from his wounds eight days later, on September 14, 1901.

Despite criticism from contemporaries and historians, many of whom disagreed with his policies and found his leadership wanting, McKinley was a President who acted decisively in going to war with Spain, asserted great presidential authority over his cabinet and generals, and understood the link between foreign markets and national prosperity. During his administration, the United States acquired possessions that allowed it to become a major world power.

William McKinley: Life Before the Presidency

William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843, in the small town of Niles, Ohio. He lived there until age ten, when he moved with his family to nearby Poland, Ohio. His loving family provided William Jr., the seventh of eight children, with a fun-filled childhood that was also carefully guided by his parents. Like most young boys, he spent his childhood fishing, hunting, ice skating, horseback riding, and swimming. His father owned a small iron foundry and instilled in young William a strong work ethic and a respectful attitude. Nancy Allison McKinley, his devoutly religious mother, taught him the value of prayer, courtesy, and honesty in all dealings.

Education and Military Service

Education was important to William, and he studied hard at a school run by the Methodist seminary in his hometown of Poland, Ohio. Upon graduation, he entered Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1860. He attended Allegheny for only one term, however, because of illness and financial difficulties.

When the Civil War started, William joined the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. During the war, the young private proved himself a valiant soldier on the battlefield, especially at the bloody battle of Antietam. As a commissioned officer, Second Lieutenant McKinley served on the staff of Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, future President of the United States. His relationship with Hayes, whom he considered his mentor, remained constant throughout his life. He ended his four-year stint in the Army as a brevet major, gaining a title that would stay with him throughout his political career.

Law and Political Career

When the Civil War ended, McKinley returned to Ohio to begin his career in law and politics. He studied law at Albany Law School and, after passing the bar exam in 1867, began his legal practice in Canton, Ohio. At a Canton picnic in 1869—the year he entered politics—McKinley met and began courting his future wife, Ida Saxton, marrying her two years later. He was twenty-seven and she was twenty-three at the time.

Although practicing law was his profession, being involved with the Republican organization secured his future. His first election in 1869 was for county prosecutor. He ran successfully for Congress in 1876 and served until 1891, with the exception of one brief period when he lost in the election of 1882. As a congressman, McKinley became chair of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1889. In that powerful position, he drafted and steered to passage the McKinley Tariff of 1890. Because this strongly protectionist measure increased consumer prices considerably, angry voters rejected McKinley and many other Republicans in the 1890 election. Stunned by his defeat, McKinley returned home to Ohio and ran for governor in 1891, a race which he won, but only by a narrow margin.

As governor, McKinley worked to control—and, he hoped, to lessen—the discord between management and labor. He developed a system of arbitration designed to settle labor disagreements and convinced Ohio Republicans, many of whom refused to acknowledge the rights of labor, to support his arbitration program. McKinley, while sympathetic to workers, proved unwilling to acquiesce to all of their demands, calling out the National Guard in 1894 to curtail strike-related violence by the members of the United Mine Workers. In the face of the economic woes of the mid-1890s, McKinley showed himself to be a skilled and able politician. He even gained widespread public sympathy when his own financial fortunes suffered during the economic depression of 1893—he had co-signed the loans of a friend who subsequently went bankrupt. Winning favor with the voters, he was returned to the governor's office in 1894. With congressional and gubernatorial experience under his belt, as well as widespread popularity in the Republican Party, McKinley was in position to make a run for the White House in 1896.

William McKinley: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1896:

The Panic of 1893, one of America's most devastating economic collapses, placed the Democrats on the defensive and restored Governor McKinley's stature in national politics. McKinley dominated the political arena at the opening of the 1896 Republican presidential nominating convention held in St. Louis. His commitment to protectionism as a solution to unemployment and his popularity in the Republican Party—as well as the behind-the-scenes political management of his chief political supporter, affluent businessman Marcus Hanna of Ohio—gave McKinley the nomination on the first ballot. He accumulated 661 votes compared to the 84 votes won by his nearest rival, House Speaker Thomas B. Reed of Maine.

The Republican platform endorsed protective tariffs and the gold standard while leaving open the door to an international agreement on bimetallism. It also supported the acquisition of Hawaii, construction of a canal across Central America, expansion of the Navy, restrictions on the acceptance of illiterate immigrants into the country, equal pay for equal work for women, and a national board of arbitration to settle labor disputes.

The Democrats, meeting in Chicago, rallied behind William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman from Nebraska. A superb orator, Bryan stirred Democrats with his stinging attack on the gold standard and his defense of bimetallism and free silver. He won the nomination on the fifth ballot. The Democrats pegged their hopes for victory on their opposition to (1) the protective tariff, (2) the immigration of foreign "pauper labor," and (3) the use of injunctions to end strikes. They also supported a federal income tax, a stronger Interstate Commerce Commission, statehood for the western states (Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona), and the anti-Spanish revolutionaries in Cuba, who were also supported by the Republicans.

Realizing that the Democrats had stolen their thunder on free silver, the insurgent Populist Party, which sought to organize and support farmers' interests, fused with the Democrats to nominate Bryan for President. Faced with the loss of the Solid South and the Far West, owing to the silver issue, the Republicans raised a staggering $4 million for the campaign. A majority of the contributions came from business, particularly protectionist manufacturers who supported high tariffs and bankers who wanted to maintain sound money policies. Most of these funds went into the printing and distribution of 200 million pamphlets. McKinley, following the tradition of previous candidates who campaigned for President from their homes, delivered 350 carefully crafted speeches from his front porch in Canton to 750,000 visiting delegates. Some 1,400 party speakers stumped the nation, painting Bryan as a radical, a demagogue, and a socialist. Republican speakers de-emphasized their party's stand on bimetallism and instead championed a protective tariff that promised full employment and industrial growth.

Bryan, in response, stumped the nation in a strenuous campaign, covering 18,000 miles in just three months. He spoke to wildly enthusiastic crowds, condemning McKinley as the puppet of big business and political managers. However, midway through his campaign, Bryan's pace faltered. His strategy for dual party support failed. Gold Democrats bolted the party, unhappy with Bryan's stand on bimetallism and free silver. Some urban-based progressives, who worried about Bryan's evangelistic style and moralistic fervor, also deserted the Democrats. Moreover, Bryan failed to build support outside his Populist and agrarian base, especially in the face of McKinley's effective campaigning on economic issues.

Bryan lost to McKinley by a margin of approximately 600,000 votes, the greatest electoral sweep in twenty-five years. McKinley received over a third more electoral college votes than Bryan. The Republican victory reflected a winning coalition of urban residents in the North, prosperous midwestern farmers, industrial workers, ethnic voters (with the exception of the Irish), and reform-minded professionals. It launched a long period of Republican power lasting until 1932, broken only by Woodrow Wilson's victory in 1912, which occurred principally because of a split in the Republican Party.

The Campaign and Election of 1900

After four years in office, McKinley's popularity had risen because of his image as the victorious commander-in-chief of the Spanish-American War (see Foreign Affairs section) and because of the nation's general return to economic prosperity. Hence, he was easily renominated in 1900 as the Republican candidate. The most momentous event at the Philadelphia convention centered on the vice presidential nomination of Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Vice President Garret A. Hobart of New Jersey had died in office, and Roosevelt's candidacy added a popular war hero and reform governor to the ticket. Setting up the stage for a rematch of the 1896 election, the Democrats again nominated Bryan at their convention in Kansas City. Grover Cleveland's former vice president, Adlai E. Stevenson, took the second spot on the Democratic slate.

The rematch played to old and new issues. Bryan refused to back off his call for free silver even though the recent discoveries of gold in Alaska and South Africa had inflated the world's money supply and increased world prices. As a result, the U.S. farming industry saw its profits grow as crops such as corn commanded more money on the market. Farmer dissatisfaction was less than it was in 1896, and gold was the reason behind it. Hence, Bryan's silver plank was a nonissue to the farming community, which was one of his main constituent groups. Responding to these voter sentiments, Democratic Party managers included the silver plank in their platform but placed greater emphasis on expansionism and protectionism as the key issues in the election. The Democrats also opposed McKinley's war against Philippine insurgents and the emergence of an American empire, viewing the latter as contrary to the basic character of the nation. The Republicans countered with a spirited defense of America's interests in foreign markets. They advocated expanding ties with China, a protectorate status for the Philippines, and an antitrust policy that condemned monopolies while approving the "honest cooperation of capital to meet new business conditions" in foreign markets.

Duplicating the campaign tactics of 1896, the Republicans spent several million dollars on 125 million campaign documents, including 21 million postcards and 2 million written inserts that were distributed to over 5,000 newspapers weekly. They also employed 600 speakers and poll watchers. As in 1896, McKinley stayed at home dispensing carefully written speeches. His running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, campaigned across the nation, condemning Bryan as a dangerous threat to America's prosperity and status.

Although not a landslide shift comparable to election swings in the twentieth century, McKinley's victory ended the pattern of close popular margins that had characterized elections since the Civil War. McKinley received 7,218,491 votes (51.7 percent) to Bryan's 6,356,734 votes (45.5 percent)—a gain for the Republicans of 114,000 votes over their total in 1896. McKinley received nearly twice as many electoral votes as Bryan did. In congressional elections that year, Republicans held fifty-five Senate seats to the Democrats' thirty-one, and McKinley's party captured 197 House seats compared to the Democrats' 151. Indeed, the Republican Party had become the majority political party in the nation.

William McKinley: Domestic Affairs

Among the most important domestic issues that President William McKinley had to deal with during his presidency, bimetallism and tariff legislation loomed large. Through most of 1897, the McKinley administration pursued an international agreement to include silver, along with gold, as an acceptable backing for the major European currencies. McKinley indicated his support for bimetallism if England, France, Russia, and Italy would go along. When negotiations with these nations over bimetallism failed in late 1897, McKinley began advocating a gold-based currency. In 1900, he signed the Gold Standard Act, which formally placed U.S. money on the gold standard. All currency was fully backed by gold, with a fixed price at $20.67 an ounce.

Tariff Legislation

True to his campaign promises, McKinley called a special session of Congress to revise the tariff upward. In 1896, customs duties earned $160 million in revenue for the United States—the largest component of government income. Various internal revenue duties brought in approximately $145 million—alcohol taxes earned $114.5 million, tobacco taxes brought in another $30.7 million, and stamp taxes garnered $260,000. McKinley had campaigned to increase the tariff income both as a means of reducing internal taxes and as a means of encouraging the expansion of domestic industry and employment of American workers. The resulting Dingley Tariff Act, sponsored by Republican Congressman Nelson R. Dingley of Maine, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, raised rates to an average rate of 49 percent. The bill included a grant of authority to the President empowering him to negotiate reductions of up to 20 percent, to move products to a so-called free list, or to drop items from the list based upon mutual negotiations. McKinley, however, did not remain a protectionist nor a supporter of tariffs for the duration of his presidency. In 1901, only a day before his death, he announced his support for reciprocal trade treaties, a considerable shift in his thinking about trade policy.

Race Relations

Among the other domestic issues that occupied McKinley's attention were race relations, trust regulation, labor relations, and the civil service. Unwilling to alienate the white South, the President did little to address the growing disfranchisement and exclusion of black Americans from political power. McKinley denounced lynching in his 1897 inaugural address but failed to condemn that practice formally. He also refrained from taking action to curtail the general anti-black violence in the South that had reached near epidemic proportions in the last four years of the century. Instead, McKinley's initiatives in race relations were largely cosmetic. He appointed thirty African Americans to "positions of consequence," which were principally in diplomatic and records offices, but that number fell far short of what black Republicans had wanted from the leader of Abraham Lincoln's party. During the Spanish-American War, he countermanded orders preventing the recruitment and service of black soldiers. Neither of these actions did much to stem the deteriorating position of blacks in American society.

Trust Regulation

In the matter of monopolies, McKinley differentiated in his mind between good and bad trusts. He thought that great consolidations of industry were necessary in the face of international competition, but he wanted some way to insure that the public interest would be protected. His administration endorsed the opinion of the Supreme Court, which had limited, in United States v. E. C. Knight (1895), antitrust suits to those cases in which a corporation possessed a monopoly of interstate commerce. McKinley's 1899 annual message talked of strengthening the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, but he proposed no new legislation. It would remain for his successor in office, Theodore Roosevelt, to move decisively to discipline "bad" trusts.

Labor Relations

McKinley increased his favorable standing with organized labor by his support for the Dingley Tariff and his appointment of various labor leaders to government positions. For example, Terence V. Powderly, one-time head of the Knights of Labor, became commissioner general of immigration. Additionally, the endorsement of the Erdman Act of 1898, which created a mechanism for mediating wage disputes on interstate railroads, as well as support for the exclusion of Chinese workers encouraged labor leaders. McKinley further indicated his support of labor by holding cordial meetings with Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. The one presidential action that upset labor involved the President's use of federal troops to keep order during a strike of mine workers in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. But it was not enough, in view of the general patriotism of most workers during the Spanish-American War, to sour organized labor on President McKinley.

Civil Service

With regard to civil service, the great reform issue of the 1870s and 1880s, McKinley sought a middle ground. Republicans were upset with President Grover Cleveland's expansion of the merit list of office holders—jobs open to appointment and removal only for cause or merit—because it had entrenched numerous Democrats in key secretarial and customs positions. McKinley bowed to the pressure and issued an executive order that removed approximately 4,000 positions from the list. Civil service reformers painted McKinley as a party hack controlled by his managers, especially his friend Mark Hanna, a recently elected U.S. senator from Ohio and a longtime political supporter.

William McKinley: Foreign Affairs

As the new century loomed just over the horizon, the time seemed ripe for many Americans to look beyond their continental borders to a place of destiny in the world. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner had warned Americans, in his much-reproduced speech delivered at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, that the new century would be the first in U.S. history in which no frontier existed for them to conquer. Many Americans interpreted this to mean that new frontiers were integral to national greatness. For example, Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan preached the doctrine of American expansionism in twenty books and numerous widely quoted essays. He asserted that no modern nation could be a great nation without a powerful navy, a superior merchant fleet, and overseas colonies. Turner's lectures and Mahan's writings greatly influenced political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. These individuals looked beyond American shores for new frontiers, world markets, and overseas colonies.

American Empire

The quest for empire was not a universally accepted project, however. A sizeable number of Americans feared that overseas expansion would be too costly, would bring non-white peoples into the American nation, and would deviate from the traditional isolationist stance of the nation's foreign policy. Sugar producers in the lower South viewed the potential absorption of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines as an economic threat. The "anti-imperialists," as their leading historian called them, included former Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, author Mark Twain, and dissident Republicans like Andrew Carnegie and Benjamin Harrison. While the anti-imperialists came from different occupations, political parties, and ideological backgrounds, they all opposed territorial expansion.

Spanish-American War

In this contentious political atmosphere, McKinley was forced to deal with the problem of Cuba—a foreign policy issue the Cleveland administration had little success in solving. Spain's repressive rule over Cuba had caused the Cubans to revolt in 1895. Spain responded with ferocity, launching its reconcentrado campaign that herded 300,000 Cubans into camps where, the Spanish reasoned, they could not help the insurgents. Spain's brutal attempts to put down the rebellion infuriated many Americans, who began to raise money and even fight on the side of the Cuban nationalists. American businesses with economic interests on the island, moreover, worried about the safety of their investments. McKinley wanted an end to the Cuban-Spanish conflict but demanded that Spain act responsibly and humanely and that any settlement be acceptable to Cuban nationals. Throughout 1897, McKinley pressured Spain to make concessions to meet these ends.

In November 1897, a resolution appeared possible when the Spanish granted the Cubans limited autonomy and closed the reconcentration camps. But after pro-Spanish demonstrators rioted in Havana in January 1898 to protest Spain's more conciliatory policies, McKinley ordered the U.S. battleship Maine to Havana harbor, both to protect American citizens and property and to demonstrate that the United States still valued Spain's friendship. With the Maine safely moored in Spanish waters, the Spanish-American relationship was jolted by the publication in the New York Journal of a letter, intercepted by Cuban nationals, written by Enrique Dupuy de Lome, Spanish minister to the United States. De Lome's letter described McKinley as "weak and a bidder for the admirations of the crowd . . .," and, more importantly, revealed that the Spanish were not negotiating in good faith with the United States. Americans saw the letter as an attack on both McKinley's and the nation's honor. The public's anger only intensified following an explosion on the Maine and its sinking on February 15, 1898, in Havana Harbor, killing 266 crew members. McKinley ordered an investigation of the Maine explosion even while some Americans cried, "Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!" and pressed for war. As Spain and the United States searched earnestly and unsuccessfully for a diplomatic solution, the Navy, on March 21, reported that an external explosion, presumably from a Spanish mine, had destroyed the ship. With his diplomatic initiatives exhausted and the American public wanting an end to the Cuban crisis, McKinley, in mid-April, asked Congress for authority to intervene in Cuba, which it granted. Spain soon broke relations with the United States, and the U.S. blockaded Cuba's ports. On April 23, Spain declared war on the United States, an act the United States returned in kind two days later. Congress added the Teller amendment to its declaration of war, committing the United States to the independence of Cuba once the war had ended, disclaiming "any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island, except for the pacification thereof."After the declarations of war, events moved quickly and decisively in America's favor. On May 1, Commodore George Dewey destroyed Spain's ten-ship Pacific fleet in Manila Bay without losing a single man. McKinley pushed through a joint resolution of Congress annexing the Hawaiian Islands. In Cuba, U.S. forces, including the Rough Riders led by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, captured Santiago. The U.S. Navy destroyed Spain's Atlantic fleet in the waters between Cuba and Jamaica, and U.S. troops captured Puerto Rico. Spain sued for peace, and a cease-fire was declared on August 12. One day later, Commodore Dewey's forces completed their campaign against the Spanish in the Philippines by taking Manila. During the fighting, McKinley operated a war room from the White House, complete with detailed maps and a battery of telephones through which he kept in constant contact with his generals in the field. The war had lasted just over three months, and the Americans killed in action numbered less than 400, although many more had died from malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases.

The Paris Peace Treaty was signed on December 10, 1898. Under this treaty, the United States obtained Puerto Rico, Guam, and—for $20 million—the Philippine Islands. Spain also renounced its claim to Cuba, which remained under U.S. military occupation until 1902. Thereafter, Cuba would be a U.S. protectorate until 1934. Congress took nearly two months to ratify the treaty, but did so—securing the necessary two-thirds majority by a single vote—on February 6, 1899. Despite the heated debates and protests of congressional lawmakers, McKinley was able to secure the treaty's approval and to convince the House to appropriate funds for implementing and building the American empire. In demonstrating his political influence on the outcome of these matters, McKinley became the undisputed leader of the Republican Party. Furthermore, his actions represented a real expansion of presidential power at the turn of the century. Under McKinley's leadership, the United States had become one of the world's colonial powers.

Filipino Revolt

Almost as soon as the war with Spain had ended, a grassroots insurgency broke out in the Philippines led by Filipino nationalist Emilio Aguinaldo. McKinley responded by sending thousands of American marines and sailors to the islands. This action engaged the nationalists in a bloody war that left the United States open to atrocity charges similar to those lodged against Spain in its dealings with Cuba and the reconcentration camps. The war lasted until 1902, and before it was over, it claimed the lives of more than 5,000 Americans and some 200,000 Filipinos.

Open Door Trade Policy in China and the Boxer Rebellion

American interests in Asia were not limited to the Philippines. China emerged as a major foreign policy concern for the McKinley administration, especially as Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and Japan, among others, scrambled throughout the 1890s to establish their own "spheres of influence" in that nation. Fearful that the Europeans and Japanese might close Chinese ports to U.S. commerce, McKinley authorized Secretary of State John Hay to issue an "Open Door" note on China. This circular strongly expressed the American desire to place all commercial nations on an equal footing in China, unencumbered by discriminatory tariffs or other restrictions. It also declared U.S. support for a non-colonized and independent China. The "Open Door" policy stands as one of the most important policy statements ever issued by the U.S. State Department. In June 1900, a group of Chinese nationalists who objected to foreign intrusions in their country massacred numerous western missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity. Popularly known as the Boxers, this group also laid siege to the foreign community of diplomats in Peking. McKinley dispatched 2,500 U.S. troops—without seeking congressional approval—and several gunboats to assist a combined expeditionary force of British, German, Russian, and Japanese troops in the liberation of the foreign delegations. Secretary of State John Hay issued a second "Open Door" note in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion that warned America's expeditionary partners that the United States supported intervention only to rescue the diplomats, not to bring China under European and Japanese control. By August, the allied force had successfully put down the Boxer Rebellion. China was forced to pay an indemnity in excess of $300 million, $25 million of which went to the United States.

William McKinley: Death of the President

William McKinley traveled more than any American President up to that time, and he was on the road again on the morning of September 6, 1901. Impeccably dressed in a boiled white shirt with a starched collar and cuffs, pin-striped trousers, a black frock coat, and a black satin necktie, he was off to Buffalo, New York, where he gave a speech at the Pan-American Exposition. That afternoon, he attended a public reception at the exposition's Temple of Music. Standing at the head of a moving line of greeters, McKinley shook hands and smiled, enjoying the adulation and the public contact.

At seven minutes past four o'clock, as McKinley reached for another hand to shake, two sharp cracks broke the hum of human voices. Leon F. Czolgosz, age twenty-eight, a Detroit resident of Polish heritage and an unemployed mill worker of anarchist sentiments, had fired a concealed .32 Iver Johnson revolver point blank into the President's chest. McKinley doubled over and fell backward into the arms of his Secret Service escorts. As he lay bleeding from his wounds, he managed to tell his guards not to hurt his assailant. Then he turned to his private secretary and said: "My wife, be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful." Rushed to a nearby hospital by ambulance, McKinley's doctors predicted a recovery. Gangrene had set in around the bullet wounds, however, and he died on September 14, 1901, just six months after his second inauguration.

Czolgosz admitted the shooting. He had taken aim at the President because he believed him to have been the "enemy of the people, the good working people." Czolgosz expressed no remorse for his actions and died in the electric chair on October 29, 1901.

William McKinley: Family Life

With no surviving children and an invalid wife, President McKinley's private and family life was narrowly drawn. He usually spent his evenings playing cards with his wife or his personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, answering letters, and taking walks or carriage rides. He enjoyed smoking cigars—only in private—and occasionally chewed them as well. Just before retiring for the night, he liked to take a drink of whiskey.

He also enjoyed dressing up and meeting people. His trademark pink carnation always decorated his lapel, and he liked giving it to acquaintances as a personal token of his affection. A complete Christian gentleman, he winced at swearing and often prayed before making momentous decisions, including the decision to go to war with Spain. In fact, McKinley opposed going to war in Cuba unless he deemed it necessary to free the island—a stance that Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's assistant secretary of the Navy at the time, once described as leaving the President with "no more backbone than a chocolate eclair." Although some of McKinley's supporters expressed frustration over his fair-minded approach to life, almost anyone who had spent time with him liked him.

William McKinley: The American Franchise

According to the Bureau of the Census, the nation's population reached 72.2 million in 1897. Three years later, the census showed the population divided between 38.8 million men and 37.2 million women. It also reported 66.9 million whites; 9.2 million blacks; 238,196 American Indians; 24,326 Japanese; and 89,863 Chinese in the nation. The majority of Americans (47.4 million) lived in the northeastern and north central areas of the country. The South's population stood at 24.5 million. The West contained a much smaller population of 4.1 million.

Urban Growth

Although more people (45.8 million) still lived on farms and in rural settings in 1900 than in urban areas (30.2 million), urban population increases from 1890 to 1900 were far greater than those in rural areas—a 38 percent increase compared to 11 percent, respectively. The number of individuals in cities of 1 million or more reached 6.4 million: New York (3.4 million), Chicago (1.7 million), and Philadelphia (1.3 million).


Most of these Americans, even the rural dwellers, were tied together as never before by railroads, the telegraph, rural postal delivery service, and even the telephone. Railroads carried 501 million passengers a year over 245,334 miles of track. A large percentage of these travelers were salesmen and manufacturing representatives. Countless others were European immigrants who traveled on trains from eastern port cities to work in midwestern meat-packing houses and the interior flour mills. Texas longhorn cattle were butchered in Chicago and transported in refrigerated railcars to wholesalers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and hundreds of other urban centers around the nation.

Women's Political Movement

During the 1890s, hundreds of thousands of women joined local women's clubs, self-help organizations, and public associations. Thirty-nine percent of all college students were women (85,400) in 1900, and nearly 25,000 women attended all-female colleges. Many of these club women and college graduates joined the chorus for progressive reforms that included women's suffrage, prohibition, child labor laws, municipal ownership of urban public service industries (gas and water), and other social justice issues.

This new activism of American women began to pay political dividends in the 1890s, particularly with regard to suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, leading American suffragists, formed a new organization in 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), to spearhead the drive to give women the vote. NAWSA articulated a new argument for suffrage, one that downplayed equality in favor of regarding women as different from men. Women, NAWSA claimed, possessed a moral sense and a nurturing quality that would introduce—when they were granted suffrage—an element of virtue and compassion into politics. While NAWSA failed more than it succeeded in the 1890s, suffragists could point to some successes, especially in the western United States. Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Idaho (1896), and Utah (1896) each gave women the right to vote, although these advances resulted from each state's particular political circumstances rather than the power of the suffragist movement.

Employment and Economics

In 1900, more than 29 million Americans made up the U.S. work force, representing 38 percent of the total population of nearly 76 million people. Most of these workers tilled the land as farmers or hired farm laborers (between 11 to 13 million) while nearly 5 million Americans worked in manufacturing industries. Construction and transportation employed over 3 million workers while another 2 million worked in the trade, finance, and real estate. Four million Americans held down service jobs as clerks, sales representatives, telephone operators, secretaries, etc., and a little over 300,000 Americans worked for the government, principally at the state and local levels. Those without work, the unemployed, numbered nearly 2 million people.

Workers labored, on the average, around fifty-nine hours a week in the non-agricultural sectors of the economy. Average annual income for all professions in 1897 was $411, and a family of five needed $500 per year to achieve subsistence. Nearly 2 million children were employed in some form of work in 1900. When Andrew Carnegie sold his Carnegie Steel Mills to a syndicate of investment bankers and corporate industrialists, he pocketed $500 million dollars—equivalent in 1999 prices to over $50 billion.

Status of African Americans

Black Americans experienced another decade of disfranchisement, dislocation, and dismay in the 1890s. African Americans remained a predominantly rural and southern people; however, nearly 200,000 blacks left the rural South for the North and West between 1890 and 1910. Every southern state passed Jim Crow laws in the 1890s, which legalized the rigid separation of black and white races. During the 1890s, well more than 100 blacks were lynched each year, a horrible testimony to the power of white racism at the dawn of the new century.

Suffrage Movement

Voter participation peaked in the election of 1896 at around 80 percent of the eligible voters in non-southern states. Thereafter, voter participation in non-southern states began a steady drop from 74 percent in 1900 to less than 60 percent in 1920. Much of the decline stemmed from intensified restrictions on the franchise. In the 1880s, eighteen states allowed immigrants to vote without first becoming citizens. By 1912, only seven states—all with small immigrant populations—still allowed alien suffrage. Also, virtually every state passed some form of personal registration law between 1890 and 1920, often requiring personal registration and proper identification, a period of residency, intervals between registration and voting, literacy tests, property qualification, and poll taxes.

These registration laws kept many recent immigrants and working-class citizens from the polls in non-southern states. In the South, African American voting participation suffered terribly as literacy tests, poll taxes, and property qualifications as well as threats of violence disfranchised black voters. A combination of northern progressives—including leading women suffragettes who opposed machine politics—and white racists in the South supported these measures that limited the franchise of blacks, workers, and recent immigrants.

William McKinley: Impact and Legacy

President William McKinley's reputation has undergone considerable revision in recent years. For the first sixty years of the twentieth century, historians believed that McKinley had been a weak President pressured into the war with Spain by popular passions and a nationalistic press. Most interpretations held that McKinley's weakness extended to the domestic political arena. McKinley was a managed President, so the thinking went, a chief executive handled by his political cronies, especially Mark Hanna. McKinley, moreover, suffered in comparison to his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, whom historians thought possessed—often in abundance—many of the characteristics that McKinley lacked. In the 1960s, a new assessment of McKinley emerged, however. Revisionist historians, suspicious of politicians generally and critical of American imperialism, began to portray McKinley as a cunning and manipulative leader bent on expanding American influence in the world.Current scholarship paints a different picture of McKinley: Regarding the Spanish-American crisis over Cuba, he is now viewed as a President who tried mightily to avoid war—in spite of public pressure and flash points such as the sinking of the Maine—who acted decisively when all the diplomatic cards had been played, and who asserted great presidential authority over his cabinet and generals. Recent historians have reinterpreted McKinley's relationship with Hanna as well. They portray McKinley using Hanna for his own ends rather than the other way around, noting Hanna's inability to stop the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for Republican vice president in 1900 regardless of his protests to McKinley. At almost every turn, McKinley is now viewed as the chief determinant and mover of Republican domestic and foreign policy in the last years of the nineteenth century.No issue has inspired more spirited debate among scholars than the course of American foreign policy amid McKinley's presidency. During his tenure, the United States acquired overseas territories, fought and won a war with a European power, and attempted to set international norms regarding trade with China. In short, the United States emerged on the world stage in new and unprecedented ways. There is little agreement among scholars, however, on exactly why this occurred. Some historians argue that economic considerations and the search for open markets drove America's foreign policy in these years. Others contend that a sense of moral responsibility—the "white man's burden"—led America into Cuba and the Philippines. Geostrategic concerns, according to other scholars, launched the United States on an imperial path. Still other historians assert that a desire to protect and enhance notions of America's "manhood" led the United States into conflict in Cuba and toward imperialism. Each of these explanations has strengths and weaknesses, with none proving completely satisfactory. In contrast, a consensus is emerging among scholars on the ways in which McKinley helped create the modern presidency. His use of the telephone, the press, and publicity to conduct and manage war and political campaigns became staples of his successors. He invited the nation's press to regular briefings by him or his assistants, establishing the forerunner of the presidential press conference. He understood the political advantage to be found in the use of mailings and printed propaganda. He greatly expanded the presidential staff, and he traveled widely across the nation making speeches, attending public ceremonies, and meeting his constituency.Even so, the McKinley years merely suggested the changes that would occur to the American presidency during the twentieth century. McKinley was not a charismatic leader, and he did not inject drama into presidential affairs like his successors, especially the two Roosevelts and Wilson. Nor did he try to use his office as a bully pulpit to rally Americans to his policies and programs—initiatives which, in themselves, were small in scale compared to those put forward by his successors. Rather, William McKinley was an affable man and an astute and patient politician whose political skills and confidence enabled him to make firm decisions even when they were not popular ones. He did not reinvent the presidency, but he did work very successfully within the prevailing limitations and conception of the office.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Lewis L. Gould

Professor Gould is the Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas. His writings include:

The Modern American Presidency (University Press of Kansas, 2003)

The Spanish-American War and President McKinley (University Press of Kansas, 1982)

The Presidency of William McKinley (University Press of Kansas, 1981)