William McKinley was born the seventh of nine children to Scots-Irish parents in Niles, Ohio, a small community near the western Pennsylvania border. McKinley grew up in Poland, near Youngstown, where the family had moved to improve educational opportunities.
McKinley attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, but his studies were cut short by illness. After regaining his health, he worked for a short time as a teacher.
In 1861, William McKinley volunteered for service in the Union Army. He served under the command of Rutherford B. Hayes and was cited for valor under fire. Following the war, McKinley studied law under a judge in Youngstown and later at a law school in New York. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1867.
McKinley made his initial foray into politics in 1869, when he ran successfully as a Republican for the position of prosecuting attorney for Stark County.
From 1877 to 1891, with one brief interruption, William McKinley served in the House of Representatives and made a reputation for staunch support of protective tariffs. He lost a bid for the speakership, but gained the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.
From that powerful position he managed to maneuver the passage of the Tariff of 1890. Unlike many Republicans, McKinley supported some moderate currency expansion plans. The McKinley Tariff, not universally popular in Ohio, and the gerrymandering of his district worked together to spell defeat in 1890.
In 1891, William McKinley was elected governor of Ohio and established a remarkably progressive record, including far-reaching tax reform. Businessman Marcus A. Hanna promoted McKinley as a presidential possibility at the Republican convention in 1892; he made a respectable showing, but finished behind the incumbent Benjamin Harrison. In 1893, McKinley was reelected to a second term as governor.
Around this time, McKinley faced a severe financial crisis, having cosigned on a note for a friend’s business loan. The business failed and the bank came to McKinley for $100,000. Facing bankruptcy, he was rescued by Mark Hanna and his friends.
The relationship with Hanna has often been misunderstood. It has been claimed that McKinley was simply a puppet manipulated by his wealthy associate. McKinley did indeed draw frequently upon Hanna’s money, advice, and organizational skills, but was a capable political operator in his own right.
Hanna performed to perfection in 1896, sewing up McKinley's nomination well before the Republican convention met. The campaign was one of extremes: McKinley’s muted message was delivered from his front porch while Bryan’s florid style was displayed across the nation. William McKinley’s victory was convincing; he was the first candidate since Grant to receive a majority of the popular vote.
McKinley’s first term saw a further increase in the protective tariff and the passage of the Gold Standard Act (1900), but most of his attention was directed toward Cuba and Spain, and later the Philippines. John Hay served as secretary of state and established an “open door" policy toward China.
Elected to a second term in 1900, McKinley looked forward to concentrating on domestic affairs. His presidency was cut short when he was shot by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. He died nine days later.
For many years, William McKinley was regarded by some contemporaries and many historians as a president of meager talents and subservient to the dictates of his political handlers.
Theodore Roosevelt, unhappy with the president’s slowness in asking for a declaration of war against Spain, remarked that McKinley had no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.
Later observers have viewed him much more favorably and credit McKinley with exercising a sure hand in guiding the United States to the position of a world power.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by William McKinley.
Regarding Public Education
Illiteracy must be banished from the land if we shall attain that high destiny as the foremost of the enlightened nations of the world which, under Providence, we ought to achieve.
Inaugural Address, 1897
We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.
Said to personal secretary, 1898
Quotes regarding William McKinley.
By Former President Grover Cleveland
All our people loved their dead President. His kindly nature and lovable traits of character, and his amiable consideration for all about him will long live in the minds and hearts of his countrymen.
Address to Princeton students
By Henry Cabot Lodge
When the history of his time is written he will stand forth as the great figure in the years which have been so crowded with events. He gained the entire confidence of the nation by his patriotism, wisdom and ability, just as he won its love by his kindness and goodness to all men.
"The Authentic Life of President McKinley"
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Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America by Eric Rauchway.
When President William McKinley was murdered at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, Americans were bereaved and fr...
The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller.
In 1901, as America tallied its gains from a period of unprecedented imperial expansion, an assassin’s bullet shattered the nation’s confidence. The s...
Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward P. Kohn.
One of the worst natural disasters in American history, the 1896 New York heat wave killed almost 1,500 people in ten oppressively hot days. The heat ...
Lost Kingdom: The Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America's First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler.
First colonized around 200 A.D. by intrepid Polynesian islanders, Hawaii existed for hundreds of years in splendid isolation. Foreigners did not visit...
Realigning Americ: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 by R. Hal Williams.
The presidential election of 1896 is widely acknowledged as one of only a few that brought about fundamental realignments in American politics. New vo...