President McKinley’s mountain has, for better or worse, been renamed Denali. That doesn’t mean his name has to be severed entirely from his erstwhile natural monument. Mount McKinley is now Denali; Denali National Park should be renamed McKinley National Park.
You could certainly argue that McKinley deserves a mountain, and a good one. Most of the sturm und drang surrounding the Denali-naming has to do with President Obama’s disregarding a conclusion reached by Congress, and his perceived flipness toward a Republican ex-president (a good, assassinated one at that). Surprisingly little has been said about McKinley the man — not much more than that he supported the Alaska-preferred gold standard, that he campaigned from his front porch, and that he won the Spanish-American War. A few important things have been left out.
Democrats shrink from their Jefferson–Jackson civil-rights legacy; Republicans don’t spend nearly enough time celebrating their own legacy — which is much, much better. No president since McKinley can claim to have done more for the rights of black Americans: McKinley fought against bigotry in a real-life shooting war. When the slave states seceded, he quit his job as a schoolteacher and enlisted in the Union Army. He started as a private and finished as a brevet major, having seen rapid promotions for competence and conspicuous courage. At the battle of Antietam, he served as a commissary sergeant and — without orders — braved intense enemy fire to bring food and drink to the starving men at the front. According to Politico, when McKinley’s star rose after the war, “a movement began to award him the Medal of Honor for his actions at Antietam. McKinley, by all accounts a humble man, quashed it.”
McKinley’s performance at Antietam did, however, earn him an officer’s commission. As an officer, he was an effective commander and a hard fighter. He helped lead a rout of entrenched Confederates at Cloyd’s Mountain. After Union lines broke at Cedar Creek, McKinley rallied the troops and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. At Shenandoah Valley, McKinley was “gently chided” by his commanding officer, according to historian William Howard Armstrong, for joining a cavalry charge without orders. McKinley answered, “How could anybody help it?”
Valuable soldier that he was, McKinley was encouraged by Generals Samuel Carroll and Winfield Hancock to stay in the army after the war; he decided instead to go home to Ohio — but he never gave up his civil-rights idealism. As president, McKinley said that “equality and justice” had to be “a living birthright,” “administered in every part of the Republic to every citizen thereof.”
Of Jim Crow laws, he said: “No palliation can be found for the wicked and willful suppression of the ballot, and unless it can be checked it will sap the very foundations of the Republic. . . . This question . . . underlies all other political problems. Nothing can be permanently settled until the right of every citizen to participate equally in our state and national affairs is unalterably fixed. Tariff, finance, civil service, and all other political and party questions should remain open and unsettled until every citizen who has a constitutional right to share in their determination is free to enjoy it.”
McKinley is gone, but he shouldn’t be forgotten. Call the mountain Denali, and the park McKinley. ‘McKinley National Park’ has a nice ring to it.
Apart from his economic, diplomatic, and military successes — and his protectionism, which should appeal to the modern Democrat — who would shrink from honoring such a man? Such a mensch: On September 6, 1901, he was shot twice by leftist-anarchist Leon Czolgosz; McKinley was mortally wounded, but still managed to tell his security detail to keep the angry mob from beating his assassin.
Politics being what they are, I don’t think there’s any chance of Mount- McKinley-that-was being renamed Mount McKinley. (Anyway, there is a good case, in this circumstance, for indigenous naming.) But the park the mountain sits in — Denali National Park — is a federal invention; there’s no reason it shouldn’t have a federal name. It used to be Mount McKinley National Park; renaming it Denali was meant to be a compromise. Compromise is still in order. McKinley is gone, but he shouldn’t be forgotten. Call the mountain Denali, and the park McKinley. “McKinley National Park” has a nice ring to it.
Write your favorite Ohio congressman.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard. He is a founder of the tech startup Dittach.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.