I’d love to tell you what a fascinating guy Will McKinley was, his foibles, his vices, what possessed this unassuming man to choose the larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt as his second vice president. I’d love to, but unfortunately, I selected Kevin Phillips’ entry into Arthur Schlesinger’s series on the Presidents for McKinley’s bio. Unfortunately, Phillips spends most of his tome in fanboy mode, a flaw Joseph Ellis had with his Thomas Jefferson bio American Sphinx. However, Phillips is no Joseph Ellis. Worse, Phillips doesn’t really give a chronological account of McKinley’s life. His assassination is mentioned, but not directly addressed.
Too bad, because while McKinley is not a towering figure like his successors, Roosevelt and Wilson, he did slam the door on three-decade era of weak presidents starting with the hamstrung Andrew Johnson and scandal-plagued Ulysses Grant through a series of obscure men mostly from Ohio and mostly Republican. I’ll skip the facial hair cliche; it’s been hammered to death here.
From 1866 on, the American presidency was hamstrung by the Senate starting with the Tenure in Office Act, which barred the President from dismissing cabinet members without the consent (ie – approval) of the Senate. Even when the law ended, the Senate never really yielded its power, leaving presidents such as Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison weak and passive mainly through necessity. But McKinley, an earthy Methodist from Canton, Ohio with a taste for chewing tobacco and the odd Scotch, came to White House with something none of his predecessors had since Lincoln was assassinated: a electoral mandate.
McKinley also entered the presidency with extraordinary run of luck. The boss system that plagued his most recent predecessors had taken several fatal blows, making McKinley the first GOP nominee in decades who wasn’t a compromise candidate. The depression following the Panic of 1893 ended early in McKinley’s first term. The gold standard arguments that dominated post-Civil War America had largely ended. And America’s status as Britain’s BFF solidified.
So McKinley has a lot in common with another president elected in the 90’s who presided over a period of tech-driven prosperity, Bill Clinton, just without the scandal baggage. McKinley is often portrayed as a weak president subject to the whims of Wall Street. Of course, you don’t pay tribute to the establishment by appointing Theodore Roosevelt to run your Navy or share the ticket with you. McKinley spent most of his term implementing policies that would kick-start the Progressive Era. Among them was pushing a Constitutional amendment to change how senators were elected. Prior to 1913, US Senators were chosen by state legislatures. McKinley, as far back as his days in the House of Representatives, supported attempts to wrest the vote from state legislators and give it to the general population.
McKinley was ahead of his time in many ways. He supported women’s suffrage before the Progressive movement made it inevitable. He also insisted on equal voting rights for blacks in the South in the wake of Plessy Vs. Ferguson, and even would change hotels in southern states when they refused to admit black visitors he had come to see. He was, at heart, a reformer. So why does McKinley often get lumped with the likes of Rutherford Hayes and Grover Cleveland?
Blame Leon Czolgosz.
Like James Garfield twenty years earlier, McKinley fell victim to a gunman’s bullet in manner that should not have been possible after the death of Abraham Lincoln. Czolgosz walked up to the President, shook his hand, and shot him at point-blank range. Like Charles Guiteau and John Hinckley, Czolgosz in another time and place would be annoying commuters for spare change on a street corner. While visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, McKinley shook hands with the crowd where Czolgosz shot him. Inexplicably, twenty years after Charles Guiteau strolled up behind James Garfield and shot him in the back, the President of the United States still had no security detail surrounding him. The next presidents to be shot, Kennedy and Reagan, were hit through chinks in the virtual armor that has since sprung up. And that protective crowd around Reagan saved his life from wounds that would have killed Garfield in days instead of months.
McKinley might have lived, now that doctors better understood wound infection and had better methods and equipment that either did not exist or was too new for doctors to trust in Garfield’s time. (Plus, and let’s be honest, McKinley’s doctors behaved more professionally than Garfield’s physician, whose hubris ultimately killed the President.) However, the technology failed McKinley. The X-ray machine had been displayed at the expo, but since no one knew what it would do to McKinley, doctors did not want to use it. Also, the emergency room where McKinley was operated on had only candlelight, a bad idea in the age of ether as an anesthetic. They were forced to use reflective pans to redirect sunlight. Had both electric lighting and the X-ray been ready for prime time at McKinley’s shooting, he would have gone on to finish his second term.
And it’s too bad, because the seeds sown by McKinley in his four-and-a-half years in the White House started bearing fruit during Theodore Roosevelt’s term. Had he lived, he would likely have been among the higher second-tier presidents of the twentieth century. Already, he had accelerated the expansion of the Navy, essentially kicked Spain out of the Western Hemisphere, and presided over an unprecedented era of prosperity not matched until the post-World War II era and the tech boom of the 1990’s.
Alas, he died only six months into his second term. Because of this, he is left standing in the shadow of Theodore Roosevelt. It must be pointed out, however, that Roosevelt was very much McKinley’s protege, as were most of the younger members of his inner circle. Under the tutelage of McKinley and Lincoln confidant John Hay (Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt), Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Charles Dawes, and others guided their party and influenced American foreign policy well into the early days of the Great Depression. Furthermore, these men helped bring the Progressive Movement to the fore, a movement that straddled both parties and set off a two-decade era of reform.
So is McKinley just a political hack no more relevant than Hayes or Cleveland? Hardly. He was very much the prototype of the twentieth-century President: Powerful, wired in by technology, mobile, and the focus of domestic and foreign policy.