McKinley: looking after Americans

WE live so much in the present that we often fail to recognize that each generation of Americans has had an enormous respect for the occupant of the White House. And many of those former chief executives have had to grapple with problems that would sound surprisingly relevant today. Take, for example, President William McKinley, whose name isn't exactly a household word, born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He entered the White House in 1897. As President, McKinley had to deal with challenging trade and tariff issues, questions of war and peace involving the Caribbean, repression in the Philippines, and the rebuilding of the Republican Party. Sound familiar?

Like so many chief executives, McKinley illustrated the American success story of rising from modest means. In this pre-microphone era, McKinley learned to develop and refine his oratorical skills -- so much so that politics lured him. In 1876 he began a career in the House of Representatives that would span seven terms and illustrate strong attachment to a protective tariff policy. ``Let England take care of herself,'' McKinley said in defense of his position, ``let France look after her own interests, let Germany take care of her own people, but in God's name, let Americans look after Americans.''

McKinley's leadership in this area of American economic policy (with his name actually attached to the tariff legislation of 1890) moved him to the front ranks of Republican presidential nominees. In 1896 he received his party's nomination and in the ensuing campaign bested Democrat Williams Jennings Bryan. Not only was McKinley's margin of victory unique -- he was the first candidate in a quarter century to win a majority of popular votes cast for all party nominees -- but his campaign was conducted differently: from his front porch in Canton to enable him to be close to his invalid wife. Also unique to the campaign was an explorer's naming the highest mountain in North America after the Republican nominee. Mt. McKinley was an impressive tribute to the Ohio-born politician untested in the nation's highest office.

As President, McKinley pursued a foreign policy that led to the war with Spain in 1898 and the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, the latter annexation involving significant warfare with the Filipinos and bringing forth no little criticism. Yet the closing years of the century also brought prosperity (there had been a major depression in 1893), and McKinley campaigned in 1900 for ``four more years of the full dinner pail.'' Again his opponent was William Jennings Bryan and again the campaign was unique: McKinley permitted the Republican convention to choose his vice-presidential running mate, Gov. Theodore Roosevelt of New York. McKinley's reelection victory was also record-setting, the largest popular majority a presidential candidate had received up to that date.

President McKinley's second term was cut short by an assassin's bullet in September 1901, and the outpouring of emotion was enormous for an era in which the media had not yet come of age.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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