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My Life in Words

A brief biography of William McKinley

The following is an exceprt from a paper biographying William McKinley for a course on the American Presidency
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               William McKinley was born January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio.   That in itself may not seem so special, but as biographer Kevin Philips points out, all of the Republicans elected President from 1868 to 1900 would be from that state, an impressive dynasty to say the least.   On top of that, Ohio had become a kind of crossroads at the middle of America.   Its steel industry was second only to that of neighboring Pennsylvania.   In addition to this, there were a number of other large industries that made their homes in Ohio, including rubber makers like Firestone and Goodrich, names still in the American corporate vocabulary today.   Ohio, it seems, was a grand place to be when McKinley was born.

McKinley's beginnings however were anything but grandiose.   He grew up in the home of a small businessman.   His family was devoutly Methodist, and the values he learned from this would guide McKinley all his life.   He attended a small private primary school in Poland, OH. and first began college at Allegheny College.   College life however did not suit McKinley and he soon came home.   He would later recall, according to Philips, that he left due to, "a nervous condition that turned into depression."   Without a clear idea of where he wanted to go, and financial restraints on his family, McKinley became a school teacher.   The outbreak of war   in 1861 would give him the direction he needed.

When the Civil War broke out, McKinley enlisted that same year in a local regiment.   He exhibited great ability as well as valor and courage and rose quickly through the ranks of the army.   By 1862 he had already   made captain, and by the time the war ended in 1865, he was a major and a personal aide to General Sheridan.   At the end of the conflict, McKinley was offered the opportunity to remain as an officer in the army.   Although he declined, his experiences during the war would influence his decisions, both politically and personally.   When considering the Spanish American War decades later he stated to a colleague, " I have been through one war; I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another."

After leaving the army, McKinley opted not to return to Allegheny College.   In stead he went to read law with a judge in his home state of Ohio and later finished his schooling in law at Albany Law School in New York.   From there, McKinley began his political career by campaigning for the gubernatorial candidate Rutherford Hayes, a fellow Ohio Republican and friend.   His hard work led to his appointment as the Republican committee chairman for his home county of Stark.   From this post, he also assisted in the campaign for President of Ulysses Grant.  

McKinley was first elected to public office in 1869 when he won the race for Stark Country Prosecutor.   His failure to achieve reelection in 1871had little effect on him though, and he maintained his private practice.   That same year he married Ida Saxon, the daughter of a prominent businessman.   Their first daughter Katie was born in December of that year.   Two years later, in 1873, Ida's second birth was difficult, damaging both the mother and the child.   Ida developed a tendency for seizures, indicating epilepsy.   The child died after only five months.   During this time, McKinley took on one of his most important cases.   He volunteered to defend a group of striking coal miners who were accused of multiple offenses.   Although advised against taking the case, McKinley's sense of moral duty drove him to accept it, and his defense was largely successful.   When offered recompense, he refused.   This acknowledgement of labor was surprising for a Republican of that time, and an act not soon forgotten by the laborers he defended.   Later that year (1876) his first daughter, Katie, would also die.  

In an ironic twist, 1876 also marked McKinley's election to the U.S. House of Representatives.   Despite his personal setbacks, he was a successful representative.   He served consecutive terms until 1889 when a redistricting by the Democrat controlled Ohio State Legislature caused his reelection campaign in 1890 to fail.   During the more than a decade McKinley spent in the house, he came to wield an impressive amount of power.   He was appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee, where he was the foremost Republican voice on the issue of tariffs.   During his final term, he came exceptionally close to winning the speakership of the House.   When he failed to win this, the newly-elected speaker appointed him Chair of the Ways and Means Committee.   By the time he left the Congress, there was little doubt that McKinley was destined for greater things.  

Upon returning to Ohio, McKinley quickly picked up the campaign for Governor in 1891.   He won the election handily, and held office until he ran for President in 1896.   His Governorship was marked by increasing labor unrest and protest.   Several times he sent troops to intervene and regain control in places where the laborer's situation had become so desperate that they felt violence to be their only option.   On the same token, most of these incidents were settled peacefully through the court system and negotiators.   While McKinley's critics claimed he was giving into outlaws, he maintained the respect of the laborers that he had gained as a private lawyer.   He further bolstered that by calling on several occasions for aide to be sent to the poorest and most desperate areas in the form of food and warm clothing.   McKinley, it seemed, always had the interest of common Americans at heart.   This image would help him a great deal come 1896.

With the help of his friend, the highly influential Marc Hanna, McKinley won the Republican nomination with more ease than anyone since before the Civil War.   The unity which he gave the party gave McKinley a sense of legitimacy going into the election, which he won by a landslide, and then again as President.   The major issue of the campaign was free coinage of both silver and gold, but predominantly focused on silver, which had special relevance in the recovery period after the depression of 1893.   The Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who favored the silver currency.   While his supporters drummed up support and funds across the country, McKinley ran a humble campaign from his front porch.   He met delegations at least once a day in his front yard.   This gave him the ability to care for Ida, whose condition had worsened, and make sure his word was heard at the same time.  

McKinley launched his Presidential career rather auspiciously, by announcing in his inaugural address that he would be calling the Congress into emergency session to deal with the currency problem.   The result was the largest tariff in American History.   It was not domestic affairs that would dominate his Presidency however.   A growing concern over the issue of Spanish atrocities in Cuba combined with a growing imperialist undercurrent in American society came to a head when the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor in 1898.   Despite his decidedly anti-war stance, McKinley had little choice but to acknowledge the public outcry and ask Congress for war with Spain.   The conflict was short and cost little, both in terms of money and lives.   McKinley came out of the war extremely popular as did several other prominent figures, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's former Assistant Secretary of the Navy.   McKinley maintained this popularity despite growing debate over what to do with the territories won in the war.  

There was little doubt that McKinley would run for a second term in 1900, and probably win it handily.   The question became who would run with him.   Extensive politicking resulted in the fateful choice of New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who only two years earlier had been the Spanish-American War's biggest hero.   McKinley ran his campaign much the same as he had four years earlier, with Roosevelt on the road most of the time and himself giving stump speeches from his porch.   The strategy worked a second time.   McKinley's second inaugural is much more upbeat and energetic than his first, indicating the optimistic outlook he had for the coming four years.   Tragically he would never see it through.   While shaking hands at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, he was shot by an anarchist.   He died days later on September 14, 1901.  

 

 

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