By Tom Anderson
In my previous two articles, I discussed the fact that although America has had ‘only’ four presidents assassinated in its history, two of those assassinations are much better-known today: the earliest and most recent, those of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963. It is time to shine the spotlight on the two in between; after covering James A. Garfield in 1881 last time, today we’ll be looking at yet another seeming manifestation of the ‘Curse of Tippecanoe’ against a President elected in a year ending in a zero. William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
However, this glib comparison doesn’t quite work if one considers the different times in their presidency that each president was assassinated. Garfield, as we looked at last time, was killed less than a year after taking office, and so alternate history speculation surrounding him will naturally tend to focus on how the rest of his years in the White House might have gone. Kennedy was shot well into his first term in office, after the world had already seen events such as the dramatic World War III near miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis; the ‘Camelot’ mythology surrounding the Kennedy White House is therefore a blend of fact and fiction. We can speculate about what a second term for Kennedy might have been like, of course, though his (secret) Addison’s Disease might cause complications. Then there is Abraham Lincoln, who was killed at an apotheotic moment—he had won re-election in a landslide, presided over victory in the American Civil War, and had more than three years left of his second term. We can certainly speculate how those years might have gone if the White House had not been occupied by the obstructive Andrew Johnson, yet from a cold-blooded point of view the assassination seems so integral as a tragic climax to Lincoln’s ‘story’ that it almost seems strange to think of his presidency without it. Harry Turtledove uses this to great effect in his TL-191 series (specifically the first book How Few Remain, set in 1881) in which a surviving Lincoln is a viewpoint character. The sense of allohistorical strangeness to the reader is not just that Lincoln is a reviled figure who lost re-election for losing the Civil War, nor that he is now expressing interest in Marxism, but also simply that Lincoln is around at all in the 1880s.
Of the four assassinated presidents, McKinley was killed the latest into his tenure, having served one full term and most of the first year of his second. It is interesting to consider that his profile today is relatively low despite having won two elections, and one might imagine that his time in office therefore saw few major events, but nothing could be further from the truth. It was under McKinley that America took its biggest strides from being an inward-looking to an outward-looking power, setting the scene for the 20th century as the ‘American Century’, and major geopolitical alignments would result. However, the circumstances of these events also seem at odds with McKinley’s own character, and it is perhaps this lack of fit with the ‘Great Man’ model of history that has resulted in McKinley himself being overlooked. Let us investigate.
William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio in 1843. His family was of Ulster Scots and English descent, the former hinted at by his name, but had lived in America for multiple generations. He was the last American to serve as President who had fought in the Civil War, rising from private to brevet major; during that conflict he met fellow Ohioan and future president Rutherford B. Hayes, who became a political mentor to him. McKinley’s first forays into politics would involve making a speech supporting Hayes’ campaign to be elected Governor of Ohio in 1867. McKinley married Ida Saxton, the daughter of Canton, Ohio’s most prominent banker, in 1871. Sadly, their two daughters died young and Ida became an invalid as a consequence, with McKinley remaining devoted to her for the rest of his life.
Like many American politicians past and present, McKinley’s was a lawyer. Two years after being called to the bar, he was elected prosecuting attorney of Stark County, Ohio, a surprise result for an office usually held by Democrats. He was defeated in turn by Democrat William A. Lynch two years later. The two would clash again in the court case that made McKinley’s name in 1876, involving a dispute between striking miners and strikebreakers from a widespread strike of 1873. McKinley took the miners’ case pro bono and succeeded in getting all but one of them acquitted, while Lynch and his partner were the opposing counsel on the mine owners’ behalf.
One of the mine owners was the prominent Republican Cleveland businessman Mark Alonzo Hanna, who was impressed with McKinley despite being on opposing sides, and became a key supporter of his future political ambitions. Interestingly, my American Grolier children’s encyclopaedia from the early 1990s, which includes detailed biographies of all the presidents, tactfully summarises this as ‘Earlier, [McKinley] had impressed [Hanna]...’ doubtless purely for space reasons and not at all out of a desire to avoid mentioning organised labour and strikes in American history.
McKinley’s actions had won him support from the blue-collar electorate, and the county convention delegates decided to nominate him as the Republican candidate for Ohio’s 17th congressional district in the same year, to which he was successfully elected. Once again, as I have previously noted, it is staggering just how disproportionately important Ohioan political figures were in the Gilded Age, along with New Yorkers. Partly this is because Ohio was a rising industrial state and one of the few large states genuinely in play in a presidential election. The Republicans dominated most of the North except in landslide conditions, while—after McKinley’s friend Hayes’ ‘corrupt bargain’ in the disputed 1876 election and the end of reconstruction—democracy virtually ended in the South for almost a century and those states were predestined as Democratic victories. The fact that the Ohioan Republicans tended to be close and back one another doubtless also helped.
The Republicans, under future President and fellow Ohioan(!) James A. Garfield, were in the minority in Congress, and Congressman McKinley was mostly stuck with minor committee assignments at first. During this time, he developed his own political positions, mostly concerned with the big economic questions of the day. McKinley was more lukewarm on the Gold Standard than many Republicans, such as his mentor Hayes and the Treasury Secretary (...and fellow Ohioan) James Sherman. He voted for the Bland-Allison Act, a moderate attempt to purchase silver to pursue bimetallism, which was strongly opposed by Hayes. However, McKinley was also a fervent supporter of economic protectionism, and made a number of speeches attacking free trade; he later described the latter as a system in which ‘the trader is the master and the producer the slave’. This is part of an ideological position that has been described (in hindsight) as ‘producerism’, in which those who possess the means of production are inherently held in higher regard than those who merely inherit wealth or obtain it from trading produce. McKinley’s adopted home town of Canton, Ohio had grown in industrial power thanks to the United States’ protective tariff system preventing effective competition from other industrial powers such as the British Empire.
When Garfield became President in 1880, McKinley rose to the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee, and became an increasingly prominent figure. His career benefited from a dispute at the Republican convention of 1888. McKinley’s important supporter Hanna had previously also backed Ohio Governor Joseph B. Foraker, but while all three of them initially backed Sherman for the presidency in 1888, they then divided when it became clear he could not win. Out of bitterness over the disagreement, Hanna abandoned Foraker in favour of backing McKinley alone in the future once it was clear Sherman had given up his own ambitions. (In Fight and Be Right by Ed Thomas, the situation is different and Foraker eventually becomes President; the Democrats being in power at a crucial time also means that the Republican-supporting Dakota Territory is admitted as one rather than two states in order to reduce the potential number of Republican senators).
The nomination in 1888 eventually went to Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, who defeated incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland. In 1890, Cleveland saw the unusual feat of presiding over a landslide House victory for his party in his first mid-term election. This took place for a number of reasons; the ‘Baring Crisis’ in London had caused an economic downturn; Republican state parties in Illinois and Wisconsin had passed nativist laws promoting English-only education, alienating the core German-descended voters of the Republican Party in the Midwest; the Republicans were also shifting towards Temperance and prohibition of alcohol, which was unpopular with many of their voters. Most significant, however, may have been the McKinley Tariff, in which McKinley himself had pushed through an unpopular high tariff that would benefit industry at the expense of consumers. The Democrats made the tariff central to their campaign and targeted McKinley himself through both gerrymandering and a strong campaign. Though the Republicans put up a fight, Democrat John G. Warwick narrowly defeated him, in part using a campaign that had fake peddlers selling overpriced goods to housewives and explaining the prices had risen because of the McKinley tariff. Nonetheless, the Republicans claimed a moral victory after winning a majority of the seats across Ohio, and McKinley’s popularity in the party was not dented.
In 1892, McKinley had risen to be Chairman of the Republican National Convention, and some wanted him rather than Harrison to take the nomination as a prominent national figure; Harrison’s administration was regarded as a failure, and Harrison himself was only running again to deny the nomination to James G. Blaine (from the State of Maine). In the event, Cleveland defeated Harrison, thus taking his place in history as the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms. The election was actually a three-way fight, with a small but significant third party in the form of the People’s Party (also called the Populists) and their candidate James B. Weaver. Weaver took most of his support from the new Great Plains states being admitted, who found Washington’s economic policy was to ignore their mining-based economies in favour of eastern industry. Both Cleveland and Harrison supported the Gold Standard rather than ‘free silver’ and paper money which the Plains states felt would benefit them, and so Weaver took a gap in the political market, winning an impressive five states and 22 electoral votes. The Populists would briefly also serve as an heroic but doomed attempt at an opposition force in some Southern states where democracy was not entirely eliminated but Republicans were still considered persona non grata.
1896 saw McKinley secure the Republican nomination with Hanna’s support, despite some attempts to stop him by means of ‘favourite son’ candidates to deny him a Convention majority. Hanna is thought to have selected the vice-president, the genial but little-known RNC vice-chairman Garret Hobart. Hobart was from New Jersey, another of the relatively few competitive swing states, and would go on to serve McKinley well as an advisor before his death from heart disease in 1899. For 1896 the Democrats nominated (for the first of three times) fiery orator William Jennings Bryan, who effectively welded together the Populist free silver cause with the existing Democratic grip on the Southern states with their rigged elections. Though Bryan would be unsuccessful in all three of his presidential bids, he played a key part in moving the party on, being the first candidate too young to have fought in the Civil War. In 1884, a supporter of James G. Blaine had infamously castigated the Democrats as the party of ‘Rum, Romanism and Rebellion’ (i.e. anti-prohibitionism and pro Catholic immigrants in the North, and Southern neo-Confederate revanchism). Bryan’s appeal to a new constituency made the party viable in the long term, though it would not win another presidential election until 1912. It is easy to imagine a scenario where the Populists or another force instead became the chief opposition to the dominant Republicans in the north long-term, if the Democrats had remained under the control of southern ‘Bourbon’ Democrats or northern Gold Standard backers like Cleveland.
Bryan had captured the public imagination with his ‘You shall not crucify this nation upon a cross of gold’ speech attacking the Gold Standard. McKinley, previously described as a ‘straddle bug’ on the issue and lukewarmly in favour of pursuing bimetallism internationally, ended up backing the Gold Standard reluctantly in 1896. Lacking Bryan’s command of rhetoric, McKinley could not hope to compete by out-speechifying him. He memorably described this as “I might just as well set up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan. I have to think when I speak!” Instead, McKinley adopted what was referred to as the ‘Front Porch Campaign’, a legend which continues to be referenced in American politics to this day (such as Joe Biden’s current campaign strategy thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic). While Bryan toured the country giving over 600 speeches, McKinley had delegations come to him in Canton, Ohio, which typically allowed accounts to be spun in his favour. Perhaps surprisingly from a modern perspective, this worked very well. A darker side to this was that McKinley also dramatically outspent Bryan, which is probably partly responsible for beginning the (incorrect) view of many modern American political strategists that a big battle-chest is always more important than boots-on-the-ground campaigning. At the time, McKinley was portrayed by opponents as being a mere puppet of ‘big money’ in the form of Hanna, but in the end he defeated Bryan by 271 electoral votes to 176.
Up to now, it should be clear that McKinley’s politics had been extremely inward-focused, except on where international trade impacted on the economy (and he had always favoured a protectionist position to emphasise internal trade). He was, therefore, one of the most unlikely Presidents to shepherd in the United States taking on a much larger role as a world power; yet this is what came to dominate his presidency.
Following the Napoleonic Wars, the fading power of Spain had lost almost all of her former overseas empire in Latin America and beyond, leaving her with only Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and a few minor Pacific islands such as Guam and some African outposts. Cuba had been in a repeated state of unrest virtually since the Napoleonic Wars, in particular the ‘Ten Years’ War’ revolt in 1868-1878 which ended with the abolition of slavery. Tensions continued to rise, with the Cuban activist José Martí active in raising support among Cuban exiles in the United States. American public opinion was broadly in favour of the Cuban rebels, in particular when stories of Spanish cruelty in putting down the insurgency of the 1890s leaked out. However, many Americans were also in favour of making Cuba part of the United States, a desire which went back to James Monroe in the 1820s. Martí was concerned that this might happen before a revolution could take place, and accelerated his schedule.
Though American papers and Congress began to press for war, McKinley was still highly reluctant to get involved. Two major events drove him towards war. Firstly, a letter from the Spanish Ambassador, Don Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, was intercepted and published in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, in which de Lôme’s view of McKinley as ‘a would-be politician...weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd’ was recorded. The Journal hyperbolically described this as the ‘Worst Insult to the United States in its History’ and Hearst began a ‘Go Home De Lôme’ campaign to have the ambassador dismissed. Better known, of course, is the still-mysterious explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbour, which led to McKinley finally going to war.
I have explored the naval details of the war in one of my ‘Naval Gazing’ articles, but suffice to say that the United States achieved total victory on all fronts, shocking the world with its new naval firepower. Geopolitics had shifted forever, and British attempts to prevent the US fortifying its new Panama Canal, for example, were successfully rejected. America took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, with McKinley also annexing Hawaii (which had been taken over by a rather dodgy and American business-dominated coup in 1893). A major question after the war was whether the US should attempt to hold on to all these new territories. McKinley felt that the US had had to interfere in Cuba ‘for humanity’s sake’ but, though it was a popular position with the electorate, had his doubts about holding on to the Philippines. The story goes that he ‘walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight’ before reluctantly deciding to make them an American colony. In 1900, Bryan would run again as his opponent on an anti-imperialist platform, but McKinley would be re-elected fairly easily. Ever since, scholars have debated whether the 1900 election represents an approving referendum by the American public on imperialism or other overseas interference; with McKinley clearly reluctant about the whole business and the economy being prosperous, it is not very clear-cut. Nonetheless, this election at the dawn of the 20th century does seem to have defined how America would change in that century.
As Hobart had passed away, McKinley needed a new vice-president for 1900. Theodore Roosevelt, the Governor of New York, had won public attention for resigning his post to fight in Cuba with his ‘Rough Riders’; New York Republican boss Thomas C. Platt was also keen to eject him from New York politics. Roosevelt was initially reluctant to become vice-president due to the office’s lack of power, but agreed. In the event, of course, McKinley would be shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz less than a year later and Roosevelt would be catapulted into power – and the rest is history.
It does seem strange that McKinley is so overlooked by popular history. Perhaps he is overshadowed by his more colourful successor Roosevelt; but perhaps it is also that his career does not fit easily into a ‘Great Men’ model of history. When we write alternate history, it is natural for us to say ‘I want country X to take different course Y rather than the one they did in our timeline, Z. Therefore, I will ensure that person A, who supports course Y, is president or prime minister rather than person B, who supports course Z’. Yet McKinley’s presidency shows the limitations of that approach. He was an economic protectionist, isolationist and peace advocate whose presidency saw the United States take the road towards the interventionist international military and economic dominance it would possess in the 20th century. His Civil Rights record was mixed and ambiguous, typically leading to him being forgotten in African American histories rather than either celebrated or castigated as most Republican figures of the era. He was the triumph of the Gold Standard over Bryan’s free silver, yet personally saw Gold Standard fundamentalism as unhelpful and pursued bimetallism internationally. Many believe The Wizard of Oz is a comic allegory for the late 1890s of American politics, yet McKinley himself is not directly alluded to—perhaps because allegories were only made explicit in a 1901 musical version, when McKinley had recently been shot and it would have been seen as bad taste. His assassination by Czolgosz was due to the latter deciding that any high-profile killing would advance the anarchist cause (having been radicalised after hearing a speech by Emma Goldman) and not in response to any specific policy or action McKinley was associated with.
Therefore, what-ifs involving McKinley can seem rather negative; what if he had not been shot and Roosevelt had not succeeded him, for instance. Yet, as we have seen so often in these Chains of Consequences articles, seemingly trivial incidents can have long-term impacts.
Francis A. Nixon, known as Frank, was a grocer and rancher from Ohio (of course) who became interested in politics as a teenager. One story goes that he became a fervent Republican because he encountered McKinley during the 1896 presidential election at the age of 18, and McKinley complimented Nixon on his horse before asking which way he was going to vote. Nixon replied ‘Republican, of course!’ He went on to do so in most presidential elections in his, frequently extolling a dislike of Democrats, although he broke his rule for Wilson in 1916 and FDR in 1936 (but not 1932). It was into this environment that his son Richard Nixon grew up, who went on to be a Republican President himself. Can Watergate, and the ending of the chapter of America’s undiluted global confidence, therefore ultimately be attributed to the same man who began it? Fanciful, perhaps.
Yet McKinley leaves traces more recent even than that. In 1896, a gold prospector in Alaska named a mountain ‘Mount McKinley’ in honour of the then-presidential candidate (and perhaps a publicity stunt). Of course, he did so without asking the native Koyukon people what they had called it for centuries (Denali). In 1975 the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the official name to Denali, but an attempt to do the same federally was blocked by Republican Congressman Ralph Regula (whose district included McKinley’s home town of Canton). The dispute dragged on for forty years, until in 2015 Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, passed the order changing the name federally. This led to outrage from many Ohio Republicans, including Governor John Kasich and House Speaker John Boehner. The dispute became an unlikely new culture-war front which dragged on in the background; in the 2016 presidential election, did it play a role from Ohio shifting from a swing state to solidly Republican? (Even with current polls showing Democrat Joe Biden massively in the lead across the nation for 2020, statewide polls show him only one or two percent ahead in Ohio, which voted for Obama by a 3% margin in a much closer national contest in 2012). Again, perhaps this is an incident talked up more than is warranted; but it is a reminder that footnotes of history can be as important as chapter headings.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth