McKinley is a fascinating president. It’s easy to forget how momentous his presidency was but that short burst of time from 1897 to 1901 was what catapulted the US onto the world stage. While McKinley definitely seems like a decent chap, albeit impenetrable (he left very little by way of letters or diaries), and his presidency to have been sound, the reason for this is what was happening around him. Curiously, whereas other presidents who have steered their countries through crises tend to be remembered for so doing, McKinley comes across as a little neglected. Possibly because the crisis was partly of America’s making. Possibly because he was followed by Theodore Roosevelt, who easily eclipses McKinley with his personality.
Like many of his predecessors, McKinley served in the Civil War (he was the last president to have done so) and practised law until he became involved in politics. He spent time in Congress where he built a strong reputation for honesty and analytical rigour not least through his involvement in the McKinley tariff where he led a group trying to build a compromise tariff item-by-item, listening to interest parties and balancing their interests. He served as the governor of Ohio and finally won the 1896 election running against William Jennings Bryan, a strong socialist voice at the time. McKinley ran a sound administration and, at the time of his assassination at the hands of the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, was popular amongst the electorate.
But domestic policy is not why McKinley’s presidency is significant. It’s easy to forget given America’s vast power and influence now, that America’s dominance internationally is a recent phenomenon. In the 1890s, the US was a minor player on the world stage. The wars that mattered to the major powers were being played out on the European, Asian and African continents, largely between the Old World powers. The only significant conflict the US had been involved in from the Old World perspective had been in the 1860s fighting itself. The US had a strong military and a strong economy; they were trading internationally and had many ambassadors abroad. But they didn’t have a reputation as a world power. Other countries were developing sizeable empires, whereas the US had only recently declared the frontier closed.
Then in February 1895, uprisings sprang up on Cuba. The Cubans had fought their Spanish rulers before in the Ten Years’ War and the Little War, but with limited success. Spain’s influence in the Americas had been dwindling and Cuba mattered to Spanish pride. In fact, the US had offered to purchase Cuba from Spain previously but been rejected. Since then, Americans had been involved in stoking anti-Spanish sentiments among the Cubans and in pushing for US intervention in Cuba.
In January 1898, riots broke out in Havana leading to concerns for the safety of US citizens. The US response was to send the USS Maine to Havana, not to engage in conflict, but to safeguard citizens. At 9.40pm on 15th February, the USS Maine exploded and sank, killing 260 men. The American public demanded a response and, despite McKinley’s apparent reluctance for war, Congress voted to declare war on Spain. Thus began the Spanish-American War. I’m not going to cover it more here but the potted version is that with little loss of life, the US acquired Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, cataputing them onto the world stage. It’s a fascinating subject, not least the opening battle of Manila Bay where George Dewey destroyed 8 Spanish ships, killing 77 men and wounding 271, at the cost of 9 Americans injured, and 1 man dying from heatstroke, and if you would like to look into it, I recommend Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” episode, “The American Peril” as a decent place to start.
McKinley oversaw the administration responsible for making the US a major world player. While it probably was not his intention to do so, taking advantage of events as they come up is part of the job of a good president and he handled this well. H. Wayne Morgan’s biography does an excellent job of capturing McKinley’s political career, and a good job of summarising the man given the deficiency of material in some cases.