You don’t hear much these days about former President William McKinley (er, well, aside from the whole mountain in Alaska thing). But William McKinley, in his day, was as popular as they come. His assassination, six months into his second term, left the nation mourning just as strongly as it had when JFK was shot.
He was our last president to fight in the Civil War and the president who led our nation into the 20th century. He led us to victory in the Spanish-American War, helped make a name for America as a superpower and he was also our third president to be assassinated.
So what’s the deal then? Why is he so unknown these days? Well, according to former White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who recently authored a book on McKinley, you can blame it on progressive historians.
Just as today’s media leans left, back in the gilded age, historians kind of did the same thing. They wrote what they wanted remembered and they sorta preferred a few other politicians over McKinley. The result was that McKinley’s presidency was… let’s say, left out. In Rove’s opinion, the generation that followed McKinley were the first progressive historians and they preferred the message of William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt over McKinley. So throughout the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, history was written with more of an emphasis on them instead of William McKinley.
True? Who knows. Interesting theory? Definitely.
Even though historians may have given McKinley the shaft, we’ve got you covered on all things related to our 25th president, our president of the week.
Background of William McKinley
William McKinley was born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio. When the Civil War broke out, he was teaching in a country school. He immediately heeded President Lincoln’s call to serve and enlisted as a private in the Union Army.
This guy has quite the tale of bravery during the war. It’s said he even once rode through the middle of a battle just to deliver a message to his commanding officer, who happened to be future president Rutherford B. Hayes. Because of his stellar character, he promptly rose through the ranks and by the time the war ended, he was a major.
After the war, he studied law, opened a law office in Canton, Ohio and married Ida Saxton. The couple had two children together. Sadly, both died young–one in infancy and the other at age five. Their deaths took their toll on Ida–more on her later.
McKinley entered politics young. By the time he was 34 he had already been elected to Congress. He served in the House for 14 years, winning over friends from both sides of the aisle by his ability to lead. He then served two terms as governor of Ohio.
The First Modern Campaign
If you’re anything like me, you might yawn at the mere mention of the word “campaign.” However, it is important to note that William McKinley’s presidential campaign, against William Jennings Bryan, was said to be the first modern campaign in history.
McKinley’s campaign focus said a lot about him. It focused on the interests of working man and creating jobs. He believed that when they were successful, everyone was successful and always looked for ways to help them rise to the top. He also conducted the majority of his campaign from the front porch of his home so that he wouldn’t leave behind his invalid wife, Ida.
The country was in the midst of the worst depression in history up to that point. At the time, innovation, usually a good thing, was also a major factor in the economy. Artisans were now competing with factory machines that could make things faster and cheaper. So the average American was hurting in more ways than one.
There were five presidential elections in a row leading to this one, where no winner won the popular vote. Can you imagine the outcry that would create these days? There’s enough of an uproar when one election ends up that way.
The 1896 campaign is said to be one of the greatest elections in our country’s history. To take that title, a pretty great candidate had to be in the arena. William McKinley was such a candidate. Presidential candidates, up to this point, didn’t really campaign for themselves. They left it in the hands of friends and staff. William McKinley changed that. He methodically organized getting delegate votes–the first convention in which someone was nominated on the first ballot. It was a huge accomplishment.
William McKinley’s Personality
What personality factors made William McKinley so great? He was hard working and valiant; he was calm but dynamic. Of all the titles he had in his life, “the Major” was his preferred title because he knew he had earned it in the war.
He was charming and devoted to his wife. They had two children together but lost both of them at young ages. His wife developed epilepsy as a result of a fall during one of her pregnancies. Her husband never waivered from her and showed enormous compassion and character.
It’s also said he had a knack for spotting talent. He wanted to inspire the rising generation and often gave young people a chance. His campaign manager was in his early 30s, for example. Another good example was someone named Teddy Roosevelt–even though he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with him, he gave him an appointment to the Navy.
President George W. Bush was often compared to him for his religious approach to politics.
William McKinley’s Presidency (March 1897-September 1901)
Foreign policy dominated William McKinley’s presidency. He recognized the need for America to play a big roll in the world. He knew that not only could America benefit from being a world super power but that the rest of the world could benefit as well. So he expanded that power by creating military bases overseas, creating U.S. territories (Guam, Puerto Rico) and annexing Hawaii.
In addition, he hated war. He wanted every other option to be depleted before war would ever be considered. So, when the option came to start the Spanish-American War, McKinley knew what he was doing. He chose to go to war for humanitarian reasons. The Spanish had been oppressing and abusing Cubans for years. People–children–were literally starving to death. He knew something had to be done and made the call.
The result of the 100 day war was the destruction of the Spanish fleet outside of Cuba and the annexation of the Phillippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.
He won a second term, again running against William Jennings Bryan. Unfortunately, his second term didn’t last long.
The 1901 Assassination
On September 14, 1901, while President McKinley was standing in a receiving line at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, a 28-year-old anarchist pulled out a gun and shot him in the stomach twice. Ironically, President McKinley had a security detail with him that day. But no one paid any attention to the young Leon Czolgosz, a former steel worker from Ohio.
As Czolgosz went up to shake President McKinley’s hand, a white handkerchief covered the gun in his right hand. Later President McKinley recalled that he had thought Czolgosz had a hurt hand and was about to go in for a shake with his other hand when the shots fired. A brave, tall African American man named Jim Parker got to Czolgosz before he could fire another shot, punched him in the face, and dragged him down. Then a team of detectives and the security detail continued to beat him until a kind and compassionate McKinley, blood pouring from his stomach, told them to stop.
At first, doctors were hopeful and it looked like President McKinley was going to pull through. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was so sure the president was going to recover that he left on a camping trip. Then, a few days into it he developed gangrene in his stomach and a severe case of blood poisoning. Within hours, he was unconscious and all hope was lost. Eight days after the shooting, William McKinley was dead.
The Birth of the Modern-day Secret Service
You might wonder what took so long to get a better, more aware security detail on the president. Despite the fact that two presidents had already been assassinated within a few decades, Americans really thought they had no reason to believe their presidents were in any danger. What they didn’t take into account was the mentally ill–which all of the assassins were to some degree or another. The president’s death–in all three situations–could have been prevented with better security in place.
In the case of William McKinley, he actually did have a security detail that day. However, circumstances of the event made the assassination possible. First, a security agent was tasked that day with checking people’s hands before they greeted the president. But because it was such a hot day, the security allowed handkerchiefs to be held to wipe off sweat. So, that created the perfect hiding place for Czolgosz’s gun. Second, another agent would have normally been standing directly to McKinley’s left. But that day, a local guard stood next to McKinley instead so that he could tell him the names of the local dignitaries coming to shake his hand. Two little deviations from the norm made a huge difference that day.
Americans could no longer deny that something had to change.
The Secret Service had actually already been in existence for several decades (ironically, it was put into place by President Lincoln). However, its role was vastly different from what we know it as today. When established, it was primarily tasked with fighting the wide-spread issue of counterfeiting currency–a serious problem in the 19th century. In 1901, following McKinley’s death, Congress officially tasked the Secret Service with protecting the president and put a plan in place for them to do so.
Ida McKinley was working at her father’s bank when in walked a young Colonel McKinley. The two fell in love and had two children. Unfortunately, their tale doesn’t end happily. Both their daughters died quite young–one as an infant and the other as a five-year-old. By the time the second baby had died, Ida was suffering from epilepsy and considered an invalid.
However, despite her turn in health, William was completely devoted to his wife. He was always at her side even as he got involved in politics. It’s said her husband waited on her hand and foot and completely arranged their lives so that it was convenient for her. She spent most of her day in an old rocking chair working on needlework projects for which she apparently had quite the talent, making over 4000 pairs of crocheted slippers that she gave away as gifts or for orphans. You can see a picture of one of them here.
Though she was obviously at a disadvantage when it came to First Lady responsibilities, the McKinleys acted like there were no differences at all. One thing that changed though was that they broke protocol during official state dinners. Instead of being seated separately, they were seated together so that William could watch for impending seizures. If he saw one coming on, he would cover her face with a handkerchief for a moment and then continue on like nothing happened.
After he was shot, his first thoughts were of how his wife would take the news. He told his aide “My wife–be careful how you tell her! Oh, be careful!” She visited his grave every single day and only outlived him by five years. The two were buried next to their daughters.
His first term vice president was Garrett Hobart. Amazingly, he never held a political office outside of state legislature before being named vice president. McKinley’s second term vice president was none other than Theodore Roosevelt.
Why William McKinley Is Cool
Though his assassination didn’t nearly raise him to the pedestal of fellow-assassinated president Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley still deserves his place in history. His accomplishments alone were great, but his personality and devotion to his wife also speaks volumes about him.
William McKinley was the first president to ride in an automobile while president.
McKinley’s portrait appeared on the $500 bill at one time.
It’s said McKinley often wore a red carnation in his lapel for good luck. Ohio’s state flower is the carnation because of President McKinley (who was also once their governor). Ohio even holds a “Red Carnation Day” in his honor in January.
William McKinley was the first president to have his inauguration filmed (footage of the 1896 parade and swearing-in and 1901). Though there was no sound, you can watch the 1901 video here and read his inauguration speeches here and here.
Additionally, if you’re in the Cleveland or Akron, Ohio area, you can visit the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.
Sources: As I referenced above, Karl Rove wrote a fascinating book on the importance of William McKinley’s presidential election. It’s more than just an election memoir though–it dives into McKinley’s stellar character too. It’s called the Triumph of William McKinley and you can find it here.
Also, if you haven’t checked out the Washington Post’s Presidential podcast, I honestly don’t know what you’re waiting for. It may be the most fascinating historical type lectures I’ve ever heard. It truly brings history to life!
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.