One Christmas present I was pleased to receive was Robert W. Merry’s new book, "President McKinley: Architect of the American Century."
For years, I have admired this much overlooked president and have read all the major works about him. I have a three-foot bust of him in my office and an autographed letter hanging on its wall.
Merry’s book is an excellent read. He ably describes how McKinley, a “purposeful, deliberate, self-effacing politician moved men and events stealthily, but effectively, through tumultuous times.”
Born on January 29, 1843, in Niles, Ohio, William McKinley was the seventh of nine children.
When the Civil War commenced in 1861, McKinley began his military career not as an officer, but as a private who rose to the rank of brevet major. This small-town Ohioan learned to appreciate the values and thinking of the common soldier when serving in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Elected Stark County’s district attorney in 1869, the affable McKinley was serving in Congress by 1877. He got along in Washington power circles and he had the advantage of being on a first-name basis with three fellow Ohioans — Presidents Hayes, Garfield, and Harrison.
In the late 1880s, the United States government was incurring large surpluses. Believing that this money would be wasted on pork projects, McKinley proposed a restructuring of tariff rates to bring down revenues and to protect American interests. His plan reduced the tax on many projects but also increased the tariff rate on specific commodities that harmed domestic production.
This “McKinley Tariff,” as it became known, was viciously attacked by reformers as a sop to special interests. This smear caused a Democratic landslide in the 1890 election, and McKinley himself was one of the 78 Republicans who went down into defeat.
This loss did not, however, end his career. He was nominated for governor of Ohio in 1892 and was elected twice. He succeeded at the polls because he was different from other Republicans; he sought to bring working-class folks, many of whom were Catholics, under the GOP tent.
Nominated for president in 1896, McKinley campaigned on three basic themes: Free silver would cause runaway inflation and would endanger workingmen’s wages and savings; judicious tariffs would end the depressed markets, help create jobs, and improve the economy; and the class warfare espoused by Democrat William Jennings Bryan would be disastrous for the country.
McKinley’s positive attitude toward Catholic laborers disgusted with the country’s leading anti-Catholic organization, the American Protective Association (APA), benefited his campaign. In April 1896, the APA‘s national board publicly announced that they were troubled that McKinley was overly favorable to Catholics.
McKinley won with 7,102,246 votes to Bryan’s 6,492,559. He carried 23 states and 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 22 states and 176.
McKinley carried industrial voters handily — both management and labor. And the most significant contribution to Bryan’s failure was the movement of large segments of the Catholic voting population toward the GOP.
It is estimated that 40 percent to 45 percent of the Catholic vote was cast for William McKinley, which explains why McKinley carried America’s ten largest cities.
In the presidential election of 1900, McKinley once again beat his old foe, Bryan 292 electoral votes to 155.
Rejecting the view of many leftist historians that McKinley was not a president of consequence, Merry details the momentous events that occurred during the McKinley presidency. He concludes that “few chief executives have presided over so many pivotal developments in so many civic areas: the definitive embrace of the gold standard, annexation of Hawaii, destruction of the Spanish Empire and consolidation of America’s Caribbean sphere of influence, the rescue of Cuba, the push into the Pacific with Philippines and Guam, the open door policy in China, the doctrine of noncolonial imperialism, the emergence of reciprocity as a trade policy synthesis (called ‘fair trade’ in later decades), growing momentum toward an isthmian canal, the forging of a ‘special relationship’ with Great Britain.”
In his welcoming speech on September 5, 1901, at the opening of the Pan-American Exposition — a fair dedicated to peace in the Western Hemisphere — McKinley, the man once called “Mr. Tariff,” told his 100,000-plus listeners that “Isolation is no longer possible or desirable.” He called for “reciprocity: mutual trade agreements designed to reduce tariffs and enhance trade.” McKinley stressed, “The period of exclusiveness is past. Reciprocity treaties are in harmony with the spirit of the times; measures of retaliation are not.”
Twenty-four hours later, while touring Niagara Falls, McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. He died eleven days later at 2:15 a.m., September 15, 1901.
William McKinley was “a man of prudence, character, compassion, competence, patriotism.” He was successful as a politician and as president because he was a subtle force who, in Merry’s judgment, always outmaneuvered his rivals while avoiding showdowns. McKinley’s Secretary of War, Elihu Root, said that the president “always got his way, in part because he never cared who got the credit.”
To learn how a president can succeed without being a showman or a narcissist, read Robert Merry’s "President McKinley."
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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