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William McKinley as a Political Leader

  • H. Wayne Morgan

On the cold, clear morning of March 4, 1897, William McKinley took the oath of office as president of the United States. The very air seemed to promise better times. The newspapers called it “McKinley weather,” and all Americans hoped “The Advance Agent of Prosperity” would fulfill his title and restore political peace and economic prosperity to a nation that had passed through years of depression, social strife, and party turmoil.

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1 Limitations of space and design make it impossible to recapitulate the events of McKinley's career; see Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley (New York, 1959); and my own book, William McKinley and His America (Syracuse, 1963).

2 Washington Post, March 4–5, 1897. A fickle press had called the same phenomenon in 1893 “Cleveland weather.”

3 He lost his seat briefly in 1884 after a disputed election; see Morgan, , William McKinley and His America, pp. 7577.

4 Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley … (New York, 1893), p. 218.

5 Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley … (New York, 1900), p. 326.

6 Ibid., p. 129.

7 McKinley lamented not having time for systematic study of many subjects that interested him. “You make me envious,” he once told Theodore Roosevelt. “You've been able to get so much out of books….” Beer, Thomas, Hanna (New York, 1929), pp. 108109.

8 Foraker, Julia B., I Would Live It Again (New York, 1932), p. 140.

9 Manuscript speech to the Akron Commercial Club, 1893; in Charles Dick papers, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus.

10 White, William Allen, Autobiography (New York, 1942), p. 140.

11 The Education of Henry Adams (New York, Modern Library, 1931), pp. 373374.

12 Follette, Robert La, La Follette's Autobiography (Madison, 1919), pp. 9293.

13 Ibid., p. 133. Thomas B. “Czar” Reed, speaker of the House, once remarked after observing McKinley in debate: “My opponents in Congress go at me tooth and nail, but they always apologize to William when they are going to call him names …”; Beer, , Hanna, p. 110.

14 Olcott, Charles S., Life of William McKinley, 2 vols. (New York, 1916), II, 346.

15 The most outstanding example of this technique was his decision to acquire foreign territory after the war with Spain. I have argued elsewhere that the president privately decided to retain the Philippines shortly after Dewey's victory at Manila Bay in early May, but did not publicly commit himself to this course until October for fear of alienating potential support. He skillfully brought large blocs of public opinion to his view and then seemed to “surrender” to the demands for overseas expansion; see Morgan, H. Wayne, America's Road to Empire: The War with Spain and Overseas Expansion (New York, 1965), pp. 7477, 80–83, 85–115 passim.

16 Carp's Washington (New York, 1960), p. 178.

17 Mark Hanna: Bis Book (Boston, 1904), p. 58.

18 See Jones, Stanley L., The Presidential Election of 1896 (Madison, 1964); Glad, Paul W., McKinley, Bryan and the People (New York, 1964); Follette, La, Autobiography, p. 129; my own views are in William McKinley and His America, pp. 183–248.

19 Steevens, G. W., The Land of the Dollar (New York, 1897), p. 174. Steevens was a correspondent for the London Daily Mail who toured the United States during the campaign of 1896. He talked with most of the country's leading politicians, including McKinley. His dispatches home make up this small but interesting volume.

20 Hoar, George F., Autobiography of Seventy Years, 2 vols. (New York, 1904), II, 4647; Cullom, Shelby M., Fifty Years of Public Service (Chicago, 1911), pp. 275277; Olcott, , William McKinley, II, 346348;Richardson, Leon Burr, William E. Chandler (New York, 1940), p. 542.

21 Bristow, Joseph L., Fraud and Politics at the Turn of the Century (New York, 1952), p. 31.

22 Cullom, , Fifty Years of Public Service, pp. 276278.

23 It is instructive to compare two famous contemporary episodes of executive-congressional relations. In 1893 when he wished to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, President Cleveland used all the levers supposedly inherent in presidential power — patronage, persuasion, and public appeals. But largely because of his aloofness and misunderstanding of congressional sensitivity, he helped fragment the Democratic party and made enemies in Congress who effectively blocked future action. McKinley used much the same tools in 1898 on a similarly explosive issue, with opposite results, largely because of his understanding of Congress, use of public opinion, patronage, and his own personal talents. His relations with Republican Senator Hoar well illustrated the last. The old man told McKinley that he would oppose the Treaty of Paris at whatever cost. Accepting the inevitable, the president took Hoar's hand and said: “I shall always love you, no matter what you do.” After the treaty's acceptance, Secretary Hay and Senator Lodge were amazed to see Hoar in the president's office, laughing and joking as though nothing unpleasant had ever passed between them. The moral of the story was clear: to hold a grudge was pointless and dangerous since McKinley might need Hoar in the future. Hoar, , Autobiography, II, 315.

24 Leonard D. White is one of the few recent scholars who has seen the degree to which McKinley, succeeded in “restoring presidential leadership” and making the awkward federal system work; see his The Republican Era, 1869–1901 (New York, 1958). Binkley, Wilfrid E., in American Political Parties: Their Natural History (New York, 1956), pp. 324336, also long held the view of McKinley as a harmonizer, nationalist, and moderate Republican.

25 Speeches and Addresses … (1900), p. 102.

26 He once talked at length with La Follette about expanding American markets. “It was McKinley's greatest ambition, now that the country had reached its highest development under the protective system, with an excess of production demanding an outlet, to round out his career by gaining for America a supremacy in the markets of the world; and this he hoped to do without weakening the protective system.” Autobiography, p. 114; see also Morgan, H. Wayne, “William McKinley and the Tariff,” Ohio History, 74 (Autumn, 1965), 215231.

27 Follette, La, Autobiography, p. 127.

28 For these last two programs see Beer, , Hanna, p. 254.

29 The Education of Henry Adams, pp. 373–374.

30 Parsons, Julia Stoddard, Scattered Memories (Boston, 1938), p. 87.

31 See the documentation cited in Morgan, , William McKinley and His America, pp. 479481. Theodore Roosevelt gathered information and advice on the trust question shortly after becoming president, and remarked to his brother-in-law: “I may add that I happen to know that President McKinley was uneasy about this so-called trust question and was reflecting in his own mind what he should do in the matter”; see Roosevelt to Douglas Robinson, October 4, 1901, in Morison, Elting and Blum, John M., editors, Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, 8 vols. (Cambridge, 19511954), III, 159 ff.

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The Review of Politics
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