William McKinley (1822-1901)

Figure 1.--Here the McKinnley family is in Thomasville, Georgia during 1895 attempting to build support among southern Democrats. The Democrats dominated the South, but southern Republicans were important at the convention. His political adviser Mark Hanna is in the background at the left. I'm unsure who the women in the photograph are. I'm also not sure who the boy in the photograph is.

William McKinley was the 25th United States President. He was not a man of great vision, but was an astute politican and reflected America at the turn of the century. The McKinley presidency was a turning point for America. Under McKinley the Nation gained its first overseas possessions. Presidents from even before the Civil War had been advocating American expansion into the Cariibean with a variety of motives, some related to slavery. This occurred during the McKinley presidency, but more importantly America acuqired extensive Pacific possessions. This made America a major Pacific power and would provide the eventual basis for the resisting the agressive expansion of the Japanese militarists within only a few decades. McKinley is a president often overlooked by historians, in part because of the formidable stature of his sucessor. Mckinnley is, however, the first 20th century president--not only in the chronological sence, but in the fact that he created a great realignment in American politics. Beginning with Mc Kinnely the Republicans, with the exception of the Wilson Administration, dominated the Federal Government until Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.


William was the seventh child of William and Nancy Allison McKinley. His father owned a foundary in Niles. He struggled with it. The family was not rich. There was not enough money, for example to pay foe William's college education. His father was respected in the community and was elected a memember of the school board.


William was born in Niles, Ohio during in 1843. He grew up in rural Ohio. He grew up a serious boy, possessed of a quiet determination to succeed. He loved to read and was not much for the outdoors.

I have little information on McKinley's boyhood or the clothes he wore as a boy.


William attended school in Poland, Ohio, and then went to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. McKinley briefly attended Allegheny College. He left college before graduating for financial reasoins and became a teacher in a rural school. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the 17-year-old McKinley enlisted. After the Civil War, He studied law, opened an office in Canton, Ohio.

Military Service

McKinley and was teaching in a country school and clerking in the post office. He was trying to earn enough money to go back to college. when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted as a private in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Though short and slight, he impressed his superiors with his initiative, and he rose in rank. As a supply seargent he brought hot meat and coffee to the front at Antitem. He destinguished himself in subsequent engagements. He wrote in his diary that he felt himself not only a soldier for his country, but a soldier for Jesus. He was mustered out at the end of the war as a brevet major of volunteers. He was the last Civil war soldier to serve in the White House.

Personal Life

He married Ida Saxton, daughter of a Caton, Ohio banker. They were devoted to each other. However, after the death of their two young children, both girls, Ida became ill and remained an invalid for the rest of her life. McKinnley looked after her devotedly.

Political Career

McKinley won a seat in Congress at 34 years of age. His attractive personality, exemplary character, and quick intelligence enabled him to rise rapidly. He was appointed to the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Robert M. La Follette, Sr., who served with him, recalled that he generally "represented the newer view," and "on the great new questions .. was generally on the side of the public and against private interests." McKinley spent 14 years in the House of Representatives. He became the leading Republican tariff expert, giving his name to the measure enacted in 1890. The next year he was elected Governor of Ohio, serving two terms. He developed a reputation as a conservative, but interested in the rights of labor. He called out the troops when miners sabatoged the railroads, but no one was killed.

1896 Presidential Election

At the 1896 Republican Convention, in time of depression, the wealthy Cleveland businessman Marcus Alonzo Hanna ensured the nomination of his friend William McKinley as "the advance agent of prosperity." The Democrats, advocating the "free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold"--which would have mildly inflated the currency--nominated William Jennings Bryan. While Hanna used large contributions from eastern Republicans frightened by Bryan's views on silver, McKinley met delegations on his front porch in Canton, Ohio. He won by the largest majority of popular votes since 1872. One of the most electrifying losers in American political history is William Jennings Brian. He lost his first campaign to William McKinley. Money was a major factor in the campaign. Jennings spent about $0.25 million on his campaign. Mark Hanna suceeded in raising 10 times that ammount for McKinley.

Presidency (1897-1901)

McKinley is a president often overlooked by historians, in part because of the formidable stature of his sucessor. Mckinnley is, however, the first 20th century president--not only in the chronological sence, but in the fact that he created a great realignment in American politics. Many though that McKinley might loose to Bryan. Not only did McKinley win, but he is what one historian calls a realigning president (the other two were Lincoln and FDR). Beginning with Mckinnley, the Republicans dominated the Federal Government until FDR's New Deal. [Phillips] (The Wilson victories (1912 and 16) were oc course only possible because T. Roosevelt has split the Republican Party.) Mckinnely's majoe achievement in domestic policy was a high protective tariff. The major events surrounding his presidency were in foreign affairs, especially the Spanish American War and its aftermath.

Domestic Policies

Mckinnely's majoe achievement in domestic policy was a high protective tariff. When McKinley became President, the depression of 1893 had almost run its course and with it the extreme agitation over silver. Deferring action on the money question, he called Congress into special session to enact the highest tariff in history. While known for high tariffs, Mckinley was prepared to negotiate reciprocal reductions in tariffs with trading partners in huis second term. [Phillips] American industry, promoted by the McKinley Administration, developed at an unprecedented pace. Newspapers caricatured McKinley as a little boy led around by "Nursie" Hanna, the representative of the trusts. McKinley was not, however, dominated by Hanna who was in fact differential to him. McKinnley condemned the trusts as "dangerous conspiracies against the public good." Historians believe that he was preparing to take on the trusts in his second term. Theodore Roosevelt is known for doing so, but he did so with McKinneley's appointees. [Philips]

Foreign policy

Foreign policy played a major role in the McKinley Administration. Reporting the stalemate between Spanish forces and revolutionaries in Cuba, newspapers screamed that a quarter of the population was dead and the rest suffering acutely. Public indignation brought pressure upon the President for war. Unable to restrain Congress or the American people, McKinley delivered his message of neutral intervention in April 1898. Congress thereupon voted three resolutions tantamount to a declaration of war for the liberation and independence of Cuba. In the 100-day war, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Santiago harbor in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied Puerto Rico. McKinley has been criticized for Americ's imperial expansion which is the subject of ongoing debate. Given the emergence of Japnese and German naval power in the 20th century, it may well be that America's outreach during this period may have been a very important development. "Uncle Joe" Cannon, later Speaker of the House, once said that McKinley kept his ear so close to the ground that it was full of grasshoppers. When McKinley was undecided what to do about Spanish possessions other than Cuba, he toured the country and detected an imperialist sentiment. Thus the United States annexed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. McKinley's political skills are often under rated. The cmpaign of 1896 between McKinley and Bryan was costly contested.

1900 Presidential Election

The 1900 election was a rematch between McKinley and Bryan. While Bryan inveighed against imperialism, McKinley quietly stood for "the full dinner pail." The election was important because New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt received the vice presidential election. This was done in large measure because Republican Party stalwart Mark Hannah and New York Senator Conklin wanted him out of New York. The election was also notable because Bryan had begun his campaign within weeks of losing the 1896 election. Bryan and his wife and political confident Nary published an inpassioned account of their losing campaign. The title, The First Battle left no doubt how Bryan viewed politics and his plans for 1900. Their book proved to be a run-away best seller. Thousand of people wrote to Bryan. Mary and his brother made a list of the correspondants to build an index card (the principal data organizing system before computers) list of supporters througout the country. Bryan began approaching important figures in the state Democratic organization in 1897.

Assasination (September 1901)

President Mc Kinley's second term began auspiciously, but came to a tragic end only months later at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The President delivered a speech (September 5). He announced that he was reconsidering his views on tariff policy. His major domestic achievement had been enacting a high, protective tariff. Now he was consudering the negotistion of recipricol tariff agreements with other countries. In the crowd was Leon Czolgosz, a Detroit-born anarchist of Polish immigrant parents. Anarchists at the time were attacking European leaders with varying success. Czolgosz was not only an archist, but he was mentally deranged. He had been stalking the President. Secret Service agents pevented him from getting near the stage where McKinley delivered his speech. The following day, the president appeared at a public reception in the Temple of Music on the Exposition grounds. A crowd had assembled to meet the president, an opportunity to shake hands and exchange a few words. This was Czolgosz's opportunity. He stood close to the front of the line. He wrapped his right hand in a handkerchief to make it look like he had been injured. In fact he was using it to conceal a .32 caliber revolver. When the President approched, Czolgosz extended his left hand and rapidly fired two shots at point-blank range. McKinnely died 8 days later--to the horror of Republican leaders who thought they had effectively side lined Govenoor Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt thus became president. With the passing of McKinley the United States also passed from one era to another--from an era of internal growth and expansion to one of growing participation in world affairs.


Ida Saxton McKinley (1847-1907)

There was little resemblance between the vivacious young woman who married William McKinley in January 1871--a slender bride with sky-blue eyes and fair skin and masses of auburn hair--and the petulant invalid who moved into the White House with him in March 1897. Now her face was pallid and drawn, her close-cropped hair gray; her eyes were glazed with pain or dulled with sedative. Only one thing had remained the same: love which had brightened early years of happiness and endured through more than 20 years of illness.

Ida was born in Canton, Ohio (1847). She was the eldest daughter of a socially prominent and well-to-do family. James A. Saxton was a prosperous banker who indulged his two daughters. He believed in education, including educating girls which was becoming increasinly accepted. He educated his two girls in local schools and a finishing school before sending them to Europe on the grand tour.

Being pretty, fashionable, and a leader of the younger set in Canton did not satisfy Ida, so her broad-minded father suggested that she work in his bank. As a cashier she caught the attention of Maj. William McKinley, who had come to Canton in 1867 to establish a law practice, and they fell deeply in love. While he advanced in his profession, his young wife devoted her time to home and husband. A daughter, Katherine, was born on Christmas Day, 1871; a second, in April 1873. This time Ida was seriously ill, and the frail baby died in August. Phlebitis and epileptic seizures shattered the mother's health; and even before little Katie died in 1876, she was a confirmed invalid. Surelybthe loss of two beloved children must also have affected her health.

As Congressman and then as governor of Ohio, William McKinley was never far from her side. He arranged their life to suit her convenience. She spent most of her waking hours in a small Victorian rocking chair that she had had since childhood; she sat doing fancy work and crocheting bedroom slippers while she waited for her husband, who indulged her every whim.

At the White House, the McKinleys acted as if her health were no great handicap to her role as First Lady. Richly and prettily dressed, she received guests at formal receptions seated in a blue velvet chair. She held a fragrant bouquet to suggest that she would not shake hands. Contrary to protocol, she was seated beside the President at state dinners and he, as always, kept close watch for signs of an impending seizure. If necessary, he would cover her face with a large handkerchief for a moment. The First Lady and her devoted husband seemed oblivious to any social inadequacy. Guests were discreet and newspapers silent on the subject of her "fainting spells." Only in recent years have the facts of her health been revealed.

When the President was shot by an assassin in September 1901, after his second inauguration, he thought primarily of her. He murmured to his secretary: "My wife--be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her--oh, be careful." After his death, she lived in Canton, cared for by her younger sister, visiting her husband's grave almost daily. She died in 1907, and lies entombed beside the President and near their two little daughters in Canton's McKinley Memorial Mausoleum.


The McKinley's had two daughters, tragically neither of whom survived to adulthood. Both died several years before McKinley became president.

Katherine (1871-75)

Katherine was born on Christmas Day, 1871 and known as Katie. When her baby sister died within a few months of birth, her parents focused their love and attention on her. Tragically she contracted typhoid fever. Katie died in 1875 not yet 4 years old.

Ida (1873)

A second daughter was born during April 1873. This time Ida was seriously ill, and the frail baby died in August. Her mother was never the same after the birth. She had epileptic seizures and suffered from phlebitis. The president was devoted to her care.


Phillips, Kevin. William McKinlry.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: July 25, 1999
Last changed: February 22, 2004