Term in Office: 25th president, 1897-1901
Political Party: Republican
Home State: Ohio
William McKinley was the president who ushered the United States into the 20th century, and appropriately so. In some respects, McKinley was utterly, hopelessly Victorian, especially in his political views, personal mannerisms, and his private life. But in his approach to the office, McKinley inaugurated an invigorated and modernized presidency. On a more ominous note, McKinley ushered in an uncomfortable era in United States history, one of overt imperialism. Much U.S. activity that took place before the Spanish-American War can be characterized as backdoor imperialism, but the Spanish-American conflict with a weakened European power, and its direct-to-video sequel, the Philippine War, turned the United States into Nova Roma, a new imperial republic.
One thing that stands out, even today, is McKinley’s exemplary character. We have talked about presidential deportment and we will again. This was, after all, one characteristic that kept Clinton at a lower-than-average #19 on my list. I cannot think of any one, George Washington not excepted, who did a better job behaving as the president ought to than McKinley. Without fail, the same set of personal remembrances come back at us: a warm man who could nonetheless identity fools and scoundrels. He was an exemplary husband to his invalid wife. McKinley was well-mannered and stately, but also sincere and personal, a rare combination. He loved meeting ordinary Americans, even if his “front porch campaign” for the presidency kept him at his Ohio residence during the campaign season. I think having a president you would want your children to emulate matters, and at least as decorum and behavior goes, I do not think you could find a better exemplar than McKinley.
William McKinley is also not recognized for his role in modernizing many aspects of the presidency. Lewis Gould has shed more useful light on the McKinley years than any historian alive. His Modern American Presidency stresses the institutional innovations McKinley inaugurated, with an assist from his secretary, George Cortelyou. Cortelyou’s portfolio soon expanded to becoming McKinley’s liaison to the press. For the first time, the executive branch worried about messaging, provided space and time for the president to talk with reporters on and off the record, and made the office one very concerned with public relations. Earlier generations of presidents would have dismissed these maneuvers as rank demagoguery. McKinley saw it as an opportunity to enhance the ability of his office to persuade.
So, McKinley’s personal qualities work in his favor, as does his approach to the presidency. Conspicuously, we have not yet talked about what McKinley actually did as president. And this is where the McKinley presidency kind of falls apart. While often seen as a blindly pro-business dupe under Mark Hanna’s Svengali-like control, this is not quite the whole story. He had, in 1899, commissioned a long-term study on monopolies, and was awaiting the results at the time of his death. It is possible that, had he lived, he might have overseen a more mild version of the mild reforms his predecessors Roosevelt and Taft put into action. This is tepid praise. McKinley was a rather standard-issue, business-friendly, labor-hostile “sound money man.” When we look at the problems that T. Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson addressed: labor laws, environmental protection, monopoly, food safety– aren’t these problems that McKinley left unresolved?
But the true elephant in the room is acquisitional war: first with Spain, and then with the Philippines. It is well known today that the explosion of the Maine was more likely a mechanical failure and not, as alleged at the time, a sneak attack by Spain. Nevertheless, any investigations conducted were short-lived and fraught with foregone conclusions.
Instead, the voices of war won out. Part of the problem was that the question of Cuba and eventually the Philippines was often depicted in very gendered terms– the Caribbean islands depicted as virtuous virgins defiled by a swarthy Spain, and casting the U.S. as the righteous, square-jawed man that defends her honor. Indeed, McKinley’s very masculinity was called into question while he debated the decision for war. “McKinley” taunted his eventual successor Theodore Roosevelt, “has as much backbone as a chocolate eclair.” War skeptics like Massachusetts senator George Hoar were portrayed as nagging matrons in bonnets, and in this manner, the “Antis,” as in the anti-war men, became “aunties.” To a Victorian like McKinley, whose understanding of gender roles was so calcified, these barbs stung at him, clawed at him. Go look at the political cartoons from this era; in nearly any one of them, Cuba begs for rescue, and the Philippines begs for civilization. In his own mind, he must have justified the decision for war as a Christian act of defense for the weak. The reality would become very different.
When we think of the Spanish-American War, we think of a “splendid little war”, the absurdly jingoist “Message to Garcia” and Teddy Roosevelt posing triumphantly on San Juan Hill. What isn’t remembered is the raw level of devastation Cuba underwent during the conflict. Houses destroyed, livestock slaughtered, 90% of the cattle gone, sugar mills and bridges burned, and 200 people each day dying from the squalid conditions in Santiago alone. McKinley tried his best to alleviate some of the suffering with medical and infrastructure aid, but the damage was done. Reagan would say in later years, “My opponents say I want to take us back to the days of McKinley. Well, what’s wrong with that? Under McKinley, we freed Cuba.” We may have aided Cuba’s nascent independence movement, but we vanquished the island itself in the process, and inaugurated a period of Cuban rule by less-than-democratic toadies like Battista. Come meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Walter Lafeber was correct when he said in The New Empire over fifty years ago that there was nothing accidental or absent-minded about the United States’ acquisition of the Philippines; they were vital in getting toeholds on the Asian markets. Go back to John Tyler, go back to William Seward, go back to Alfred Mahan, and you will invariably observe thrusts forward toward Asia, the economic and military and philosophical and territorial groundwork for expansion being laid. McKinley didn’t start that fire (although his predecessor Cleveland did a fine job of holding it off), and cannot fully be blamed for a force that was in some respects out of his control. Honor, American visions of greatness, and the desire to spread liberty are powerful things, and it would have taken an exceptionally wise figure to resist them.
Nevertheless, he was at the helm during one of America’s least justifiable wars. When the war moved to the Pacific theatre, the United States inherited an anti-colonial struggle in the Philippines from Spain. Here, an ugly chapter in U.S. history needs to be aired out. To pacify the region, a number of tactics used included concentration camps designed to separate guerrillas from civilians, and even, at times, the wholesale massacre of entire villages when battalions could not distinguish friend from foe. Wikipedia lists the number of Philippine civilians who died directly or indirectly because of the conflict at between 200,000 and 1.5 million, a pretty wide swath, but the total number will never be known. The lack of a body count echoes our collective amnesia about the Philippines; this is a war that we just don’t remember or talk about. Small wonder we repeated many of the same mistakes in Southeast Asia sixty years later.
Still, how much of this is McKinley’s fault? Much of the really bad stuff happened in an ad hoc fashion, as a panicked response to a guerrilla attack, or at the direction of generals improvising their own orders. McKinley never meant for slaughter and chains, and any atrocities almost certainly took place without his knowing. Chances are, any G.O.P. president would have made the same decisions McKinley had made. Replace McKinley with, I don’t know, Matthew Quay or Levi Morton or something, and you still get a war. But is this not why we have presidents? Does not a truly great leader challenge groupthink, puncture bad arguments, and weigh the evidence carefully and conscientiously? Lots of sensible voices were opposed to imperialism in the Philippines, ranking from Grover Cleveland to Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain to Samuel Gompers to W.E.B. DuBois. Not everyone opposed it for the right reasons–some feared foreign competition to American labor, while others did not want to entertain the possibility of a majority non-white state entering the union one day, but still- there was a perfectly cogent antiwar faction in the country, and this included some in his own party. McKinley’s good heart, good manners and honest patriotism were not enough to steer clear of a war that was victorious in the short run, but marked a newer, bolder, and more aggressive chapter in American foreign policy.
As we have seen, McKinley was not, on a symbolic level, the last of the anonymous 19th century presidents. Rather, he was the first of the new, dynamic 20th century presidents, eager to use modern technology to enhance the power, prestige, and persuasion of the chief executive. In some respects, McKinley is an admirable man, and it is not difficult at all to see why the nation was so distraught when he was killed in 1901 by an anarchist. (This sad event was, unfortunately, the chief contribution that my grad school city, Buffalo, has made to American politics.) Nevertheless, when it mattered, McKinley made a bad, disastrous call, and forfeited any claim to wisdom in joining what was almost certainly an American war of aggression against weaker opponents. Alas, this trait, too, signified that McKinley was the first of the twentieth-century presidents. His acquiescence in the face of war and his indifference to reform makes him a substantively below average president.
*I never cited the book directly, but I need to give a special shoutout to Kristin Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.