William McKinley (1843-1901) was the twenty-fifth president of the United States. During his administration the Spanish-American War of 1898 over shadowed the two important issues of tariff and currency, presenting the United States with new problems of world power and territorial expansion.
With the growth of post-Civil War industrialism, serious social and economic problems developed in the United States. Agricultural depression brought severe hardship and farm unrest; relations between laborers and employers deteriorated; and Americans argued over what monetary policies the U.S. government should adopt to maintain a healthy economy.
As congressman, governor, and president, William McKinley emphasized obtaining prosperity by stimulating American business via a favorable tariff structure. Although early in his career he directed his energies toward protective tariffs on finished materials, he later favored tariffs modified by reciprocity treaties. Under these, he hoped that raw materials would enter the United States at low tariff rates, making possible low prices on finished goods, which could then compete on the world market. By agreeing to admit raw materials with low tariffs, the United States would gain low tariff entry to other nations for finished products.
Second in McKinley's thinking was the currency problem. Much of the political debate in the late 19th century focused on the currency question—whether the amount of currency in circulation should be increased and, if so, by what means. For 30 years McKinley advocated limited silver coinage. Yet, by the time he became president, he had been converted to international bimetallism: an agreement by several countries to base currency on both gold and silver, set at a fixed ratio. If international bimetallism was unobtainable, he favored maintaining currency soundness by using the gold standard. Devoted to business interests and a healthy economy, McKinley supported a foreign policy creating new markets for United States products. This was particularly manifest in his handling of the Spanish-American War and in the open-door policy with China.
Background and Early Career
William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio, on Jan. 29, 1843. He was educated and later taught school in Ohio. In the Civil War he fought with the Union Army. Discharged with the brevet rank of major, he studied law briefly at the Albany Law School and opened an office in Canton, Ohio, in 1867, simultaneously plunging into Republican politics.
First elected to public office as Stark County prosecuting attorney in 1869, McKinley became a congressman in 1876. In and out of the House of Representatives until 1890 (depending on the gerrymandering of his district) he rose steadily in influence within Ohio Republican politics as well as in national circles. During this period, many prominent politicians came from Ohio. Although this made competition for leadership in the state very keen, it also assisted ambitious young men. For example, having served under Rutherford B. Hayes in the Civil War, McKinley continued to benefit from his counsel and prominence.
The Ohio Republican party, mirroring the diversity of the state, was held together through compromises, by middle-of-the-roaders. Moreover, Ohio was a two-party state, with Democrats effectively vying for all offices. A successful politician had to be sensitive to the wishes of farmers, steel mill owners, emerging labor unions, urban ethnic enclaves, city machines, soft-currency men, and powerful figures in commerce and finance. Aware of this, McKinley tried to balance between extreme positions on tariffs and on fiscal policy. This moderation was a key to his handling of men and his approach to problems.
McKinley made some concessions to the Ohio forces demanding bimetallism, cloaking his restrained advocacy of silver coinage with exhortations that currency must be stable and safe. On one side, gold proponents argued that every dollar should be backed by gold and the government should purchase no other metals. On the other side, silver forces argued for widespread silver purchasing and distribution of paper based on silver. Greenback forces advocated increasing the volume of paper money, without attempting to maintain deposits of metal sufficient for redemption. Finally, some argued that the best system would be an international agreement for currency based on both gold and silver. McKinley accepted something of each argument, emerging with views that were palatable rather than consistent or rational.
Not innovative in approaching issues, McKinley responded to others' suggestions without becoming a captive of their ideas. To some extent, his interest in tariff problems exceeded the sophistication of his economic analysis: in this, he shared the view widespread in the Republican party that tariff legislation was critical to the nation's economy.
Skilled in organization and administration, McKinley was effective with other politicians and convincing to constituents. He was considered sincere and amiable. Identified first with the Ohio gubernatorial campaign of Rutherford B. Hayes, he later supported Joseph Foraker for governor, Hayes for president, and, still later, John Sherman and then James G. Blaine for the presidency. At several national Republican conventions, he played a prominent role, primarily because he was able to compromise party disharmony and to defend the tariff policy.
Congressman and Governor
McKinley's forte in Congress was the tariff, which he believed was the key to economic vitality. He defended the tariff as a means of producing higher wages by expanding home markets; expanding home markets would be possible only if low-cost foreign products were kept off United States markets. Initially he supported high protective tariffs, but later he advocated a scheme of selective tariffs tied to reciprocity provisions.
After serving on the House Judiciary Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, McKinley became chairman of the latter in 1889, charged with bringing forth a new tariff bill. The McKinley Tariff of 1890, including limited reciprocity provisions, was oriented toward protection and included many compromise provisions favorable to special-interest groups. His tariff posture helped spread his fame outside the halls of Congress, even though he was defeated in the election of 1890.
Mark Hanna, a wealthy Cleveland industrialist, lent assistance to McKinley after 1890, helping him win the Ohio gubernatorial race in 1891 and secure reelection in 1893. Hanna, a skillful organizer and generous donor, encouraged McKinley to travel and to speak on public issues, especially the tariff. McKinley's views on fiscal policy had not been consistent, and he viewed the passion of the silver issue as misdirected.
As governor, McKinley won labor sympathy by contributing to relief funds for strikers, as well as by passing laws favorable to labor. Labor leaders, normally suspicious of a politician so sympathetic to industry, gave him lukewarm backing.
By the opening of the 1896 Republican convention in St. Louis, McKinley was the logical choice for the presidential nomination. Hanna's planning, McKinley's identification with tariffs as the protectors of prosperity, plus his ability to blur issues and to hold together a party split over both tariffs and currency gave him important advantages. As nominee, McKinley campaigned from Canton, Ohio, in a restrained manner, stressing that a Republican victory would mean prosperity for the nation. His opponent, William Jennings Bryan, traveled extensively, emphasizing the merits of free silver and seeming to challenge the familiar patterns of American politics. To many, Bryan seemed a threat to the whole system of government, if not to the social order. After a bitter campaign, McKinley, benefiting from the anti-Democratic voting pattern visible since 1893, swept handily into the White House.
For his Cabinet, McKinley chose politicians and businessmen, including John Sherman as secretary of state. Later, he added several other men of considerable stature and ability. Though he had enjoyed cordial relations with colleagues in Congress, he settled for a cautious domestic program, central to which was tariff reform. The Dingley Tariff, incorporating additional reciprocity features, raised tariffs to new heights. Administration efforts to promote international bimetallism came to naught, opening the way to the passage of the Gold Standard Act of 1900 (legalizing the gold standard and setting aside special funds for currency redemption). The battle between gold and silver was for all practical purposes at an end, as world production of gold increased simultaneously with the return of prosperity.
Benefiting from better times, McKinley skillfully manipulated both politicians and the public, welding a more united Republican party with tours and personal charm. His domestic program and achievements as party leader were overwhelmed, however, by the diplomatic imbroglio that led to the Spanish-American War and annexation of overseas territories.
The Cuban revolution of 1895 against Spain inflamed United States citizens for various reasons: the press reported in detail the savage repressive techniques used by the Spanish army; American sugar companies decried the interruption of their trade and profit by protracted war; and some business and financial leaders saw declaration of war against Spain as necessary for the growth of American trade and the stability of the stock market. Meanwhile, proponents of world power and leadership for the United States spread the opinion that Spanish tyranny had to be curtailed in the Western Hemisphere. The fever pitch of interest in the 1896 election and the agrarian resentment of the 1890s were replaced by widespread calls for war.
To these pressures McKinley responded reluctantly, resisting congressional insistence on war in favor of negotiation with Spain. He preferred an autonomous Cuba, perhaps loosely linked to Spain—a suggestion that Spain at first resisted strongly and then accepted. But events moved too fast: domestic pressure for war was very strong, and McKinley hardened his policy, going to Congress with a war message in April 1898. By that time Spain had met most of McKinley's earlier demands, but it was too late to avert a military clash.
The Spanish-American War was brief, with United States forces triumphant over the Spanish fleet in the Philippines and later over both land and naval forces in Cuba. In establishing peace terms, the United States faced the vexatious problem of how to dispose of former Spanish colonies. The President, admitting to indecision and lack of knowledge, was urged by anti-imperialists to renounce permanent sovereignty or protectorate arrangements as hostile to American traditions of freedom of choice for peoples. However, the proannexation forces carried the day, arguing that national interest lay with expansion, that it was America's duty to uplift the people of the Spanish possessions, and that relinquishing the Philippines would invite a power scramble among other nations. Confused and uncertain, McKinley finally opted for annexation of the Philippines, which was accomplished by the Treaty of Paris (ratified in 1899). Cuba was set free of Spain; Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States. In choosing territorial expansion, McKinley was enhancing the prospects for development of United States trade, an end to which he had long been devoted.
One of the key pins of American diplomacy was securing trade rights, preferably without political or military intervention. To safeguard trading rights in the Far East, McKinley sent to the Great Powers the open-door notes of 1899 and 1900. Basically, these stipulated that the United States expected nations with spheres of influence in China not to interfere with American rights and privileges nor to discriminate against other nations in setting port and railroad rates.
The major issue of the 1900 campaign, in which McKinley was again opposed by Bryan, was imperialism, though for all practical purposes the decisions had already been taken. McKinley was reelected by a large margin. Of great concern during his second administration were problems of governing the new dependencies. But before McKinley could turn to another round of tariff reform, he was shot by Leon F. Czolgosz, an anarchist, in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 6, 1901. McKinley died eight days later.
Further Reading on William McKinley
The best biographies of McKinley are Margaret Leech, In the Days of McKinley (1959), and Howard W. Morgan, William McKinley and His America (1963). George H. Mayer, The Republican Party, 1854-1966 (2d ed. 1967), describes Republican politics on the national level; and Joseph R. Hollingsworth, The Whirligig of Politics: The Democracy of Cleveland and Bryan (1963), emphasizes the contest between the Republican and Democratic parties at the turn of the century. The excitement of the 1896 election is captured in Paul W. Glad, McKinley, Bryan and the People (1964). For an overview Harold U. Faulkner, Politics, Reform, and Expansion, 1890-1900 (1959), is helpful. A broader view of the problems in the United States faced after Reconstruction is offered by Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (1967).