President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, Robert W. Merry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Summary: A biography of McKinley’s life, from Civil War hero to Canton attorney, congressman, governor, and to a presidency ended by an assassin’s bullet, arguing he was a far more consequential president than usually credited.
My home state of Ohio holds the distinction of producing the most presidents, and many would also say, the most mediocre presidents. In many rankings of presidents, William McKinley is included in this number. He is often portrayed as the colorless pawn of Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna. Robert Merry is one of those who would argue that he was far more consequential as a president, and able as the nation’s leader than he is often credited.
Merry’s account traces his life from its beginnings in Niles, Ohio, the family move to Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, from where he enlisted to serve with the Union army in the Civil War. It is often not known that he rose from private to major during the war, based on his meritorious and occasionally heroic service, notably at Antietam, where as quartermaster, he made his way through enemy lines and fire to bring rations to his pinned down unit.
Legal studies followed his war service and a move to Canton, which he called home for the rest of his life. It was here where he courted and married Ida Saxton, and sadly buried two daughters, Katherine and Ida, both dying of typhoid fever in childhood. After the second daughter dried, Ida began to have epileptic seizures, and the biography recounts the struggle McKinley lived with between his political ambitions and his lifelong devotion to her care. He was rarely far from her side, although some of the doctors he worked with may have caused her more harm than good with their bromides.
McKinley’s rise in politics followed a defense of mine workers involved in a clash with strikebreakers. Even though mine owner Mark Hanna was on the opposing side, McKinley’s conduct of the case caught his attention. Hanna became a backer of his political ambitions, first in Congress, where he became an expert on tariff policy, later as state governor, and finally as president in 1896. Merry chronicles the divided Republican party in Ohio at this time, and McKinley’s shrewd efforts to gain control of it from his rival, Joseph Foraker. This introduces a quality Merry notes that runs through McKinley’s presidency as well, that quietly and assiduously, McKinley worked to achieve the outcomes he wanted, often against more fiery and public opponents.
McKinley was elected in 1896 adhering to the gold standard against William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” rhetoric. As president, his tariff policies and economic conditions and growth in the gold supply led to a booming economy. Like many presidencies, circumstances beyond his control created challenges to which he responded in ways that expanded American power and influence. He accomplished the annexation of Hawaii through a joint resolution of Congress when approval of a treaty of annexation appeared doomed, projecting American presence into the Pacific. While trying to avoid war with Spain until findings (later considered dubious) attributing the explosion on the Maine to hostile Spanish action made war unavoidable, he prosecuted war diligently, leading to defeats of the Spanish navy in the Philippines and in the Caribbean, and the seizure of Santiago, Cuba, and the island of Puerto Rico. In the settlement with Spain, Cuba gained independence, and Puerto Rico and the Philippines became American territories, making America an imperial power. He also nurtured the Hay-Pauncefote negotiations that renegotiated agreements with Great Britain, fostering a closer relationship between English-speaking peoples that cleared the way for the U.S. to build a canal in Central America.
In consequence, McKinley easily won a second term, though both William and Ida longed for a simpler life in Canton. McKinley refrained from personal campaigning in both, relying on an increasingly sophisticated political machine and surrogates to do the work on his behalf, including “Rough Rider” Teddy Roosevelt, who had been nominated his running mate. Six months into his second term, which he had announced would be his last (presidents were not then limited to two terms except by custom), anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired two bullets at close range into McKinley at the head of a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Though seriously wounded, McKinley interceded with agents to show restraint in their efforts to subdue the assassin. He died of infection after initially rallying, putting Roosevelt, a very different leader, into the presidency.
Merry argues that while not a visionary nor dynamic leader, McKinley was an effective president who, for good or ill, expanded American power including the size of its army and navy, a shrewd politician whose party would occupy the White House for sixteen years, and who presided over the economic growth that propelled the United States into world leadership at the beginning of a new century, an American century, aided by a growth oriented monetary policy. His youthful heroism, his personal integrity, and devotion to Ida commend our attention. He was criticized, notably by the Democrat-oriented William Randolph Hearst, for his association with Mark Hanna, yet no president is elected without the support of such figures, and Hanna combined both resources and organizational skills, along with a genuinely warm personal relationship with McKinley. Yet in matters of patronage and policy, McKinley listened to Hanna, but also others, and made decisions on his own terms.
Whether or not you agree with Merry’s case for McKinley, you will find this a highly readable and extensive biography. My own suspicion, as well as Merry’s, is that McKinley has been overlooked because of the far more dynamic president who followed him. Yet he was elected to the presidency twice in an era of one-term presidents, a claim even Roosevelt could not make, and fulfilled his office with dignity, competent leadership, and honorable character to the very last. In my estimate, he is a president, if not among the greatest, certainly one my state can be proud of.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.