Politics & Policy

William McKinley’s Overlooked Legacy

William McKinley delivers his inaugural address as outgoing President Grover Cleveland looks on, March 1897 (Library of Congress/via Reuters)
Today’s GOP could do worse than to study the career of Theodore Roosevelt’s less flashy predecessor.

William McKinley belongs, in many ways, to the in-between period of history that Americans are most apt to overlook. The last of the Civil War veterans to serve as president, McKinley is often overshadowed in historical memory by his flamboyant successor, Theodore Roosevelt, whose elevation to the chief executive’s office is seen as a break with an earlier era.

In his new biography, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, Robert W. Merry reexamines McKinley and his legacy and puts a fresh twist on the old tale, one in which McKinley belongs far more to the modern American presidency than is generally known. He also provides a useful primer on the issues of McKinley’s day, some of which are forgotten, others of which have reemerged into the 21st-century political mainstream after long hibernation.

Born in Ohio, McKinley enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. His officers recognized his intelligence and competence quickly, and by the end of the war he had been promoted from private to major, encouraged along the way by his mentor in the regiment, future president Rutherford B. Hayes. After the war, McKinley married, became a lawyer, and got involved with local Republican politics in Canton, Ohio.

As a lawyer, McKinley had his share of corporate clients and he represented them well, which led him to financial comfort and local prestige. But he also became known as a friend to workers just as the organized-labor movement was gaining momentum. In 1876, he represented coal miners arrested after a violent strike; all but one were acquitted. He took the case pro bono, but earned considerable publicity and good will.

Opposition to slavery had led Whigs, northern Democrats, and Know-Nothings to come together in the new Republican party. Within a decade, they achieved their goal: Slavery was vanquished. But in the process, the GOP lost its reason for being a party, and the post-war period in which McKinley entered politics saw Republicans searching for a uniting principle beyond post-war Reconstruction.

They settled on protective tariffs, and McKinley was a staunch adherent of the new program from his first term in the House of Representatives in 1877. Protective tariffs were nothing new in the United States, and had been a part of at least one party’s platform since Alexander Hamilton’s time. Before the war, Whigs had been the protectionist party and, as former Whigs made up the largest faction of the Republican party, the policy was a good fit with their voter base. Protectionism would unite the party for the remainder of the Third Party System — roughly until 1892.

For McKinley, tariffs remained the supreme issue in politics even as rising debates over the gold standard and monopolies threatened to displace it in the 1890s. Given his party and his home in an industrial area, it is not surprising that his views found widespread approval. For manufacturers, tariffs created a haven within the nation’s borders where their factories could compete with foreign producers on fair — or even advantageous — terms. For the workers in those factories, Republicans presented the tariff as the guarantor of high wages: If the Democrats’ free-trade platform were enacted, the thinking went, factories would either go under or be forced to cut wages to stay in business.

As labor tumult increased around the world, a policy that could unite workers and owners was a winner in the industrialized North. In the agrarian South and West, the policy found less fertile ground, because all the farmers there saw from tariffs were the increased prices of manufactured goods. For the Republicans of McKinley’s day, this was not as big a problem as it appeared. The nation’s population was concentrated in the North. Civil War memories ensured that the South was permanently out of reach for the Party of Lincoln, while those same memories kept many Northerners and Westerners firmly in the Republican column.

Support for tariffs kept McKinley in the House through most of the 1880s, despite Democrats’ best efforts to gerrymander him out of office. After a narrow defeat in 1890, he was elected governor of Ohio in 1892, and was spoken of as a likely nominee for president. As new issues began to emerge along with a new party, the Populists, McKinley remained wedded to the idea that protectionism was paramount. It is a theme President McKinley returns to often: This man was not an innovator. He steadfastly adhered to the ideas that had served him throughout his career. As Merry puts it, “dynamic thinking wasn’t his forte.”

Those ideas nevertheless resonated enough with the party rank-and-file to earn McKinley the presidential nomination on the first ballot in 1896. His Democratic opponent, co-nominated by the Populists, was William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was McKinley’s opposite: bold, frenetic, obsessed with the old idea of free silver — intended to create inflation and help debtors — and the new idea of using the government to break up monopolies in business. Bryan’s fast-paced speaking tour of the nation also contrasted with McKinley’s campaign, which he conducted entirely from his home in Canton.

The front-porch campaign is part of what makes McKinley appear to belong to the past, but as Merry describes it, it was actually a shrewd upgrade of old-fashioned politicking that fit the time and place perfectly.

The front-porch campaign is part of what makes McKinley appear to belong to the past, but as Merry describes it, it was actually a shrewd upgrade of old-fashioned politicking that fit the time and place perfectly. McKinley knew he could not match Bryan as a stump speaker, so he invited delegations of various groups to come to him. Once there, they would speak to the press together, allowing McKinley and his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, to maintain what modern political writers would call “message discipline.”

To the existing focus on tariffs, McKinley added ideas that fit neatly within the idea of promoting industry and, through it, prosperity. He had been moderate on the money question before, but now endorsed a strong position in favor of the gold standard, which Republicans saw as a matter of financial prudence and of public honor, believing that the government should issue a dollar that holds its value. He also emphasized patriotism, and the idea that America’s growing strength should be projected into the wider world, both as a means of protecting the country from foreign rivals and of ensuring open markets for its exports. It worked: McKinley found a message that resonated with a majority of the American people, and Hanna’s fundraising and packaging meant that the voters heard it loud and clear.

Once he took office, the tariff and gold planks of the platform proved less important than the call for a more muscular foreign policy. An ongoing rebellion in Spanish-owned Cuba captivated Americans, who supported the rebels against their colonial overlords. After the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor (the cause of which is still debated) Congress declared war.

The Spanish–American War would become the most noteworthy event of McKinley’s presidency, but it was not a fight he undertook willingly. Having seen the carnage of the Civil War first-hand, McKinley was no warmonger. The war began and ended with overwhelming American victories on land and at sea. Like the Russo–Japanese War that would follow in a few years, it presaged the decline of European powers as the undisputed arbiters of world order. It also left America in the unusual position of possessing overseas colonies.

Unsurprisingly, given the nation’s origin as a British colony, many Americans opposed colonialism. But McKinley and others came to see that decaying colonial empires like Spain would soon lose their overseas possessions to someone. And rather than letting another power seize islands in America’s backyard, the president and his allies in Congress accepted the responsibility of holding Puerto Rico and setting up Cuba as an independent but closely aligned republic. Similarly, the Spanish Philippines and the independent Kingdom of Hawaii were folded into the American orbit in the knowledge that if we did not secure them, some other power — likely the rising Japanese Empire — would.

These annexations were not without controversy, but they were presented as a matter of temporary necessity and generally accepted, especially as the administration proclaimed that the occupation of the Philippines would only continue until the island group was prepared for independence. At the same time, the gold–silver debate died down as renewed prosperity dampened people’s dissatisfaction with the economy.

Merry notes that none of this arose out of a grand plan of McKinley’s. Instead, he credits McKinley’s “managerial acumen and a capacity to see how discrete events and actions, as they unfolded, could be meshed into coherent policies.” In McKinley, Americans found an able manager of the nation. Faced again in 1900 with the choice between him and Bryan, the man of grand plans and big changes, they voted for the former, this time by even larger margins.

McKinley’s assassination by an anarchist in 1901 ended his second term prematurely and ushered in a new leader in Theodore Roosevelt. Many of the policies remained the same, but in temperament the sanguine Roosevelt represented a significant departure from the calmer, steadier McKinley. He captivated the public then and now, and shoved McKinley into the shadows of historical memory.

There is reason to believe that the historical judgment is now changing, and that Merry’s book is a timely addition to the discourse. It would be a mistake to compare McKinley to Donald Trump — Trump really resembles no previous chief executive except, possibly, Andrew Jackson. But as Trump is in the vanguard of another political realignment and as protective tariffs are reemerging after a decades-long bipartisan consensus on free trade, the comparison is not completely inapt.

McKinley’s example offers a compelling vision of one path a Trumpified Republican party could take. In seeking to increase prosperity through tariffs, they obviously align. But even in McKinley’s larger political themes, there is a resonance. The platform of 1896 was all about protection — of industry, of the currency, and of American interests abroad. At the same time, McKinley envisaged no nanny state: Within America’s borders lived a people as free as any on Earth, competing in a meritocratic market of labor and capital. The unity created by patriotism and shared prosperity posed an attractive alternative to the class struggles that would soon consume Europe.

In President McKinley, Merry offers a window on the past that also holds a reflection on the present. In it, readers will receive a valuable education on where America has been and, possibly, where it is going.

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