1892 - 1896
Ohio's thirty-ninth governor and the twenty-fifth president of the United States, William McKinley, symbolized the passing of nine- teenth-century America. Typical of his era, he stood fast for certain post-Civil War beliefs during his career as congressman and governor and for four years as president. But in the last year of his presidency he came to recognize, as did many Americans, that the isolationism of the country was breaking down and that Americans must come to play a larger role in world affairs. So, too, he came to sense the deep maladjustment of American life and the dominance of powerful business interests.
McKinley was born at Niles, Ohio, January 29, 1843, the seventh son of William and Nancy Allison McKinley. His ancestors on both sides were Scotch, Scotch-Irish, and English; his American ancestors settled in central Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century. The McKinley family in Pennsylvania and later in Ohio was engaged in the manufacture of iron. William McKinley, Sr., operated a small pig-iron furnace in Niles.
Because of poor school facilities in Niles, the McKinley family moved to Poland, although McKinley's father continued his work in Niles. During his boyhood years McKinley attended the local school and Poland Seminary. At the age of ten, during the religious fervor of a revival meeting, he joined the Methodist Church.
At seventeen he entered Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, but returned after a short time because of ill health. Family financial reverses prevented resumption of his college studies, and in 1861 he took a job teaching school. Caught up in the excitement of the Civil War, he enlisted on June 11, 1861, in Company "E," 23d Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a unit noted for its distinguished leaders, William S. Rosecrans, Stanley Matthews, and Rutherford B. Hayes. With the 23d, in 1862 he saw extensive action in West Virginia, then at Antietam; in 1864 he fought in Virginia in the campaign to halt the Confederate army under General Jubal Early. In the summer of 1864 he was appointed to General George Crook's staff. At war's end he was made a brevet major and was mustered out on July 26, 1865.
Soon after his release from the army he began the study of law, first in Poland and then for a time at the Albany Law School. In 1867 he was admitted to the bar and set up practice in Canton. As a lawyer he won a reputation for stating issues clearly and forcibly and for honesty before the bar. Meanwhile, he had taken an interest in politics, making speeches in the Canton area for his old commander, Rutherford Hayes, then running for governor.
In 1869 McKinley was elected prosecuting attorney of Stark County. Seven years later he was elected congressman from the eighteenth district of Ohio. Despite constant gerrymandering of this district, he served as congressman from 1876 to 1890, with the exception of the period from May 27, 1884, to March 3, 1885, when he was unseated in a contested election by Jonathan H. Wallace.
In congress McKinley became a leading exponent of protection. Through hours of study he came to possess a thorough knowledge of American industry and was able to contest sharply the Democrats who labored for a lower tariff, especially in 1884 and 1888. Such was his political stature by 1889 that he was able to compete with Thomas B. Reed for speaker of the house. He lost the contest but was rewarded by the appointment as chairman of the powerful ways and means com- mittee. In this capacity he championed a new tariff bill which became law in 1890 and bore his name. Although he first voted for the Bland Bill to promote silver coinage, he later became a staunch adherent of "sound" money.
Following his defeat for congressman in 1890, he returned to private life, but was persuaded to run for governor in 1891. He was easily elected. By this time he had received support of the Sherman- Hanna faction of the Republican party. Major McKinley, as he was familiarly called, was a popular speaker in Ohio and the Midwest. His honesty, dignity, and kindly manner won him thousands of loyal followers. He served as an Ohio delegate at the Republican national conventions in 1884, 1888, and 1892; at the latter two he received powerful support as a dark horse.
As governor McKinley developed a new and more comprehensive tax system which, by levying excise taxes on corporations, aided in the reduction of the state debt. At his insistence legislation was enacted which required installation of certain safety devices on railroads. During the industrial strife of the nineties he introduced and promoted the enactment of a law which set up a state board of arbitration. This board settled numerous labor disputes but failed to prevent the serious coal strike of 1894. At the height of the strike McKinley called out the national guard to prevent the destruction of private property in several strike-bound counties. That same year he used the guard to put down a series of lynchings. In 1895 he organized private groups to aid in rendering assistance to the suffering unemployed coal miners in the Hocking Valley.
Soon after McKinley's reelection as governor, he became the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Mark Hanna retired from his prosperous coal and iron business to manage the major's campaign. McKinley easily won the nomination at the 1896 convention at St. Louis. During the campaign, one of the most memorable in the nation's history, he remained at his Canton home, receiving delegations from various sections of the country and delivering to them carefully prepared "front porch speeches." This astute maneuver proved a dramatic contrast to the extensive whirlwind campaign tour of the brilliant Demo- cratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. McKinley won by well over a half million votes. The first year of his presidency, 1897, was marked by the passage of the Dingley Tariff and the appointment of commissioners to the International Monetary Conference. In his second year the public interest in Cuba swelled to bursting, and following the historic Maine incident, McKinley asked congress to declare war on Spain. During the brief Spanish-American War, April to August 1898, he maintained direct control over the armed forces, making most of the important decisions himself.
Similarly, after the war., McKinley made the far-reaching decision to retain the Philippines and Puerto Rico, thus launching the United States upon the course of imperialism. In the first days of the war he had urged the annexation of Hawaii as the natural result of "manifest destiny." He also encouraged American interest in China, through the Open Door notes, and in world trade, through the exploration of possible routes for an isthmian canal.
The imperialistic policies proved popular with the American people who returned McKinley to office for a second term. His plans for reciprocal tariffs with foreign countries and for curbing the trusts were cut short only six months after his second inauguration by his untimely death. At the Buffalo Exposition, where he had delivered a speech on the significance of recent American progress and the prospects for the future, he was shot down by an assassin. He died on September 14, 1901, from complications resulting from his wounds. The American people mourned his death for they had come to revere him for his deep religious convictions, his devotion to his invalid wife, Ida, his dignity, and his kindliness. In 1904 the Ohio General Assembly adopted the red carnation, McKinley's favorite flower, as the state flower in honor of the martyred president. The Ohio State University
Ohio History Center 800 E. 17th Ave. Columbus, OH 43211 © 1996-2012 All Rights Reserved.