Bringing Back McKinley

A 1900 Republican campaign poster for the U.S. presidential election, with portraits of President William McKinley and Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt at center. On the left side "Gone Democratic" shows the U.S. in economic slump and Cuba shackled by Spain; on the right side "Gone Republican" shows the U.S. prosperous and Cuba being educated under U.S. tutelage. Wikimedia Commons

The greatest challenge to McKinley’s reputation in the twenty-first century is the legacy of historians of the mid-twentieth century.

November-December 2017

Robert Merry, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 624 pp., $35.00.

OF ALL American presidents, William McKinley suffers the most from the gap between his historical significance and his public reputation. The twenty-fifth president of the United States, he was elected in 1896 and assassinated by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in 1901, six months into his second term in office. Few presidencies have been as consequential. In domestic politics, his election in 1896 and reelection in 1900 marked the decisive defeat of the Jeffersonian agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan in favor of the Hamiltonian vision of an urban-industrial society organized on the basis of corporate capitalism. He inaugurated four decades of Republican domination of the federal government, a political realignment on the scale of those that followed the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He led the United States in the Spanish-American War, gaining Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines as American protectorates; obtained the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory (which became a state in 1959); and laid the groundwork for the construction of the Panama Canal. The “Open Door” policy of his administration was followed in time by America’s commitment to defending China’s territorial integrity against Japan in World War II. A former arch-protectionist, as president he began the pivot away from infant-industry import substitution toward a strategy of reciprocal trade liberalization that was more appropriate for the United States, which had become the leading industrial economy in the world. McKinley, in short, presided over the transition from Lincoln’s America to the America of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Despite his historical importance, McKinley hardly exists in the popular consciousness of contemporary Americans. There have been attempts to revive McKinley’s reputation in recent years, by George W. Bush’s campaign advisor Karl Rove, who hoped that his boss, like McKinley, would inaugurate a long era of Republican dominance, and by Kevin Phillips, who admires McKinley as much as he despises the Bush dynasty. Now Robert W. Merry, a distinguished journalist and historian, and former editor of this magazine, provides a superb study of this neglected American statesman in President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.

Merry has written a traditional biography, not a polemic with its eye on the present like those of Rove and Phillips. Merry, the editor of the American Conservative and the author of numerous well-received books on American history, unites impressive archival research with astute judgments to offer a riveting portrait of McKinley. He covers a vast amount of territory, focusing on the link between McKinley’s rise and the formation of the modern Republican party. But Merry is also cognizant of the challenge that he faces—not least the bad luck that the quiet, self-effacing McKinley, a Civil War veteran known throughout his life as “the Major,” was succeeded in the White House by one of the most flamboyant characters in American history:

*** “Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, [Theodore] Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To the Major’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved ‘by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,’ as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.” ***

THE DUTIFUL son of pious Protestant parents, McKinley grew up in Ohio, dropped out of college because of a mysterious illness, and became a schoolteacher. Volunteering for the U.S. Army in the Civil War, he served under Rutherford B. Hayes, later his predecessor as president of the United States. Following the war, he practiced law and went into Congress, where he became an expert defender of high tariffs. Popular anger at the McKinley Tariff of 1890 led to his defeat for reelection. But in alliance with Mark Hanna, an iron manufacturer and kingmaker in Midwestern politics, McKinley became governor of Ohio in 1891 and 1893.

His life was not without pain. His two daughters died in childhood, and the ill health and frail mind of his wife Ida was a challenge—one that he met with his customary kindness and patience. His reputation and career were briefly endangered when a loan to a friend that he had cosigned went bad. But remarkably few obstacles confronted this calm and deliberate individual as he ascended the cursus honorum of late-nineteenth-century American politics. If he ever raged at subordinates, went out on a bender with cronies, or flirted with a floozy, history has not recorded the event.

Indeed, McKinley’s career formed a résumé as free of blemish as that of a class president or valedictorian whose yearbook entry reads, “Destined to succeed; liked by all.” Merry is a first-rate scholar and an accomplished writer, but the entire animation team of Disney’s Pixar Studios would have trouble bringing William McKinley to life.

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