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Biography

Early Years

William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, was born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio, a town of about 300 people. He was the seventh child born to William, who leased an iron foundry in Niles, and Nancy Allison McKinley (of Irish and Scotch descent). William attended a one-room schoolhouse that stood on the site of the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial. When he was nine years old, the family moved to Poland, Ohio so the children could attend a private school there, the Poland Academy. There William, who enjoyed reading, debating, and public speaking, became the president of the school’s first debate club. At 16, he attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania for a short time before illness forced him to return home. When he regained his health he did not return to Meadville because of the family’s changed financial situation. Instead, he gained work as a postal clerk.

When the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, William was teaching at Kerr School near Poland, Ohio. He and a cousin, Will Osbourne, who later became mayor of Youngstown, enlisted as privates in the 23rd regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Rutherford B. Hayes, the future United States president and fought his first battle at Carnifax Ferry, which at the time was part of Virginia. Later he was promoted to commissary sergeant, and while his regiment was under intense enemy fire at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, and against the advice of his superiors, he took food to the troops. Because of this act of bravery, he was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant, and by the time the war ended, he had attained the rank of brevet major.

William returned to Poland, Ohio where he studied law with Judge Charles Glidden. In 1866 he entered law school in Albany, New York, but although he did not graduate, he was admitted to the bar in Warren, Ohio in 1867.

He then moved to Canton, Ohio, where two of his sisters were schoolteachers, and acquired a job working for Judge George Belden. Belden, so over-burdened with work, offered a case to McKinley. When William who won the verdict, the judge was so impressed he paid him $25.00 for the case, and offered him a job. Later, McKinley opened his own law office, became active in the politics of the Republican Party, and was elected Prosecuting Attorney of Stark County in 1869. While doing business at a local bank he met Ida Saxton, the daughter of a local banker and also known as the "Belle" of Canton. They married in January, 1871 and their first daughter, Katherine, was born on Christmas day of that year. Their second child, Ida, born in 1873, died at the age of 4 ½ months. That same year, Mrs. McKinley’s mother also died. Two years later, their first daughter, Katie, died of typhoid fever. Due to these tragedies, Mrs. McKinley became ill with depression, phlebitis, and epilepsy, which left her a semi-invalid who needed constant care. Mr. McKinley was always concerned about her and was known for his devotion to her.

Political Career

McKinley won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1876. His opponent, Levi Lamborn, had been wearing a scarlet carnation during a debate. Shortly after this debate, McKinley began wearing a scarlet carnation in his lapel, which became his trademark, and was rarely seen without it while serving as congressman and governor. In 1904, Ohio adopted the scarlet carnation as its official state flower.

McKinley served 7 terms in Congress from 1877-1891, except for a 9-month period in 1884-1885. In the 1882 election, the House ruled that his opponent, lawyer Jonathan Wallace, had actually received the most votes, therefore, Wallace took McKinley’s seat for the rest of the term. But McKinley easily regained the office in the 1884 election, and consistently won re-election even though the districts he represented were heavily Democratic and the district boundaries were often changed so as to bring about Democratic victories. As a congressman, he focused his energies on the tariff problem and became known as a protectionist and as a persuasive speaker. He was generally associated with being on the side of big business, but he also worked hard for labor and later, as governor of Ohio, he encouraged employees to join labor unions and criticized employers who refused workers the right to organize. Also, as congressman he supported gold over silver as the backbone of America’s money system. In 1889, Thomas Reed of Maine defeated him for the position of Speaker of the House. McKinley also lost his next bid for Congress, and returned to Canton in 1891. Reasons for his defeat were gerrymandering of the Democrats and unpopularity brought about by the McKinley Tariff, which had greatly increased consumer prices.

As governor, a position he held for two terms from 1891-1895, he proposed laws to protect railroad workers, addressed the issue of child labor, and established a state board of arbitration to deal with labor and business problems. It is said that McKinley defended mineworkers in suits they had against the mine owner Mark Hanna, millionaire industrialist from Cleveland, Ohio. Mark Hanna was so impressed with McKinley that they became good friends. Popular opinion has it that Hanna led McKinley to political power and success. But some think that McKinley used Hanna to meet his own political goals. In 1892, McKinley chaired the Republican National Convention and was almost nominated for the presidency. Mark Hanna had unofficially opened a McKinley-for-President headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota (site of the convention). In 1893, McKinley faced a personal crisis that almost sidetracked his political career. He had co-signed bank notes totaling more than $100,000.00 to help a friend start a business, and when the business failed, McKinley, who did not have the money, was expected to repay the bank loans. His friends, led by Mark Hanna, raised enough funds to repay the loans. The public, sympathetic for McKinley, re-elected him as governor in 1893.

Presidential Years

In 1896, the Republicans again supported McKinley and he was nominated as the Republican presidential contender with Garret Hobart, a New Jersey senator, as his running mate. McKinley’s platform was based on the protective tariff and the gold standard, which became the main issue of the campaign. William Jennings Bryan, a great orator from Nebraska, and his running mate, Arthur Sewall, a wealthy Maine shipbuilder were the Democratic opponents. Bryan, who favored an unlimited number of silver coins being made to increase the nation’s money supply, attracted national attention at the Democratic National Convention with his "cross of gold" speech. Bryan traveled all over the country, traveling 18,000 miles, giving whistle-stop speeches, while McKinley conducted a "front-porch" campaign in Canton, Ohio, partly because he didn’t want to leave his ailing wife. Over 750,000 people visited Canton to hear him speak, and newspapers nationwide reprinted his speeches. This campaign is noted for being the first one to hand out campaign buttons and memorabilia such as walking sticks, umbrellas, ribbons, soap babies, etc. McKinley won the election with more than 7 million of the nearly 14 million votes.

His priorities as president were to increase the protective tariff and make gold the standard of our money system. The passing of the Dingley Tariff in 1897 increased the tariff, and in 1900 Congress passed the Gold Standard Act.  Although domestic issues dominated the campaign, foreign affairs would occupy a large part of President McKinley’s terms in office. Because of growing interest in Cuba, which was fighting for independence from Spain, the president sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect American interests. Earlier he had tried to get Spain to negotiate with the rebels, but on February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded, and 266 of its 354 men were killed. At this time, there was much anti-Spain sentiment in the U.S., partly because of the "yellow journalism" brought about by the sensational headlines in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Greatly pressured by public opinion, McKinley asked Congress for authority to take action. Subsequently, the U.S. declared war on Spain.

The war last approximately 110 days. During this time, the U.S. blockaded the Spanish ships inside Santiago Harbor, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stormed up San Juan Hill and took possession of the area, and in the Philippines, Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and sank all the Spanish ships there. At the ensuing "Treaty of Paris," Puerto Rico and Guam became U.S. possessions, and, for $20 million we acquired the Philippines as a territory. With the accession of these lands, the U.S. became a world power under President McKinley. 

Because of its new possessions in the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. became more involved in Asian politics. In 1898, McKinley’s administration issued the "Open Door Policy" in trade relations with China, a policy which supported equal access to the profitable Chinese trade. In 1900, a secret Chinese society known as the Boxers began an uprising to drive out foreigners. President McKinley sent 5,000 troops to help Germany, Japan, Russia, and others put down the Boxer Rebellion. By using his authority as commander-in-chief, McKinley helped to strengthen the office of the presidency. 

In 1899, Vice President Hobart died in office. At this time, there was not a measure in place to replace a vice president, and so McKinley finished his first term without a vice president. McKinley chose Teddy Roosevelt as his running mate for the 1900 election. In this election, McKinley again faced William Jennings Bryan as his presidential opponent. Bryan attacked McKinley on the issues of American imperialism (in regard to our overseas acquisitions), free silver, and the growth of big business and illegal monopolies, called trusts. But the major campaign issue became prosperity. McKinley asserted that, "We have prosperity at home and prestige abroad." McKinley won the election with a relatively easy victory. In this same year, the Hay Pauncefote Treaty gave the U.S. the right to build the Panama Canal.

By 1901, McKinley no longer supported the growth of big business. Business trusts and monopolies had hurt competition and kept prices high for the consumers. Also by this time, he had modified his views on tariffs. He no longer supported protective tariffs to help businesses, but instead, favored free commerce through reciprocal trade agreements. 

During McKinley’s presidency there were also civil rights violations, murders, and torturing of blacks. McKinley was unhappy with these events but he was reluctant to return to the methods of control used during the Reconstruction

Assassination

In Buffalo, New York, on September 5, 1901, at the Pan American Exposition which celebrated 100 years of progress in North and South America, President McKinley gave a speech. The next day, September 6, McKinley was shaking hands with the public at a reception held at the Temple of Music. One man in the line was Leon Czolgosz, (pronounced Tchollgosh) an anarchist, whose right hand had been wrapped with a handkerchief concealing a .32 caliber revolver inside. When Czolgosz reached the president, he shot McKinley twice. A button deflected one bullet that struck the president’s chest, but the other bullet pierced the president’s stomach, went through the colon and kidney, and lodged in the muscles of his back. As the president was awaiting medical aid, he said to his secretary, "My wife, be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her-oh, be careful." He also told the aide not to let the crowd hurt the assassin.

McKinley was rushed to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery. Of the doctors qualified to perform the surgery at the hospital at that time, Dr. Mann was chosen as the best. Surgery was performed, and although the bullet could not be located, McKinley was stitched closed and sent to the home of the president of the Exposition to recover. For several days he improved, but eventually took a turn for the worse and died on September 14 from infection. One of the items on display at the exhibition was an X-ray machine, recently invented by Thomas Edison. Ironically, doctors had decided not to use Edison’s machine to find the bullet because they were not sure of what side effects it might have had on the president.

He was the third president to be assassinated, the others were Lincoln and Garfield, and his death was mourned both at home and abroad. The assassin was tried, found guilty, and electrocuted in Buffalo shortly after the shooting.  

The president’s body was first moved to the Buffalo City Hall to be viewed by the public for several days, then to Washington D.C. for two days, and finally to Canton, Ohio on September 18 where he was buried at Westlawn Cemetery. 

McKinley’s wife, Ida, returned to Canton where a sister cared for her until her death on May 26, 1907.

In October 1907, McKinley was moved to the McKinley National Memorial in Canton, Ohio, where he rests with his wife and young daughters.

Prepared by the Reference Staff at McKinley Memorial Library