The Life of President William McKinley

William McKinley, called the "Idol of Ohio," served as the 25th president of the United States from 1897 to 1901. During his time in office, prosperity returned to the country after a traumatic depression and America emerged as a formidable world power. The McKinley administration became known as the first modern presidency. Over the years, as with many presidents, the perception of President McKinley has evolved and history now looks upon him more kindly. As a president and as a man, it is believed that during his lifetime he was free-thinking and brave enough to go against the grain and make decisions based on what he felt was right, not to please others.


Date of Birth: January 29, 1843

Place of Birth: Niles, Ohio

In the White House: 1897-1901

First Lady: Ida Saxton McKinley

Political Party: Republican

Religion: Methodist

Date of Death: September 14, 1901

Place of Death: Buffalo, New York

Place of Burial: Canton, Ohio

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Life Prior to Presidency

William McKinley's early childhood was spent in the small town of Niles, Ohio, where he was born. At age 16, he attended college for a short time but health issues cut his education short. He worked for a time as a postal clerk, then as a teacher before enlisting in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry when the Civil War started. He proved to be a brave soldier, fighting through the war until its end, he left service as a brevet major. After the war, he studied law. Though he didn't get his degree, he passed the bar exam in 1867. While practicing law in Canton, Ohio, he met his future wife Ida Saxton. They had two daughters, but both died very young. Ida became a semi-invalid and historians say he was devoted to her. In 1876, the future president was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he would serve seven terms. He was governor of Ohio from 1891 through 1895, after which he was nominated as the Republican candidate and was elected president in 1896.


One of President McKinley's first acts after he took office was to keep a campaign promise and ask Congress to enact a higher tariff and his proposal was quickly agreed to, with the passage of the Dingley Tariff Act, raising his approval ratings with organized labor. When it came to race relations, he did not make the progress that his Republican Party was hoping for. He denounced violence against black Americans in the South, but did little to address the problems surrounding growing anti-black sentiment.

The major non-domestic issue that the new president faced was conflict with Spain over its colony Cuba, especially the treatment of the Cuban people. Tensions rose and boiled over in early 1898. President McKinley dispatched, the Maine, a U.S. battleship, to Cuba, in case a war erupted between Spain and Cuba. In February 1898, 260 American servicemen were lost when the Maine exploded. Though there was no evidence that Spain was involved, the President sent a declaration of war to Congress. War was declared on April 25, 1898. The Spanish-American War ended less than three months later with a total United States victory in Cuba and the Philippines. The United States acquired as territories, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. This victory assured President McKinley a second term in 1900. During that year, Congress passed the Gold Standard Act which made gold the foundation of American currency, helping the president attain another one of his goals.


With the election won, a victory in the Spanish-American War and returning economic optimism after a depression in the U.S. called the Panic of 1893, it was time to celebrate with a cross-country tour of America in the summer of 1901. On his way back to Washington, DC, President McKinley made a stop at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. This is where Leon Czolgosz shot and assassinated him as he stood in a receiving line on the stage of the Music Building, on the 6th of September. He had surgery, lingered for eight days and died of infection on September 14, 1901. The citizens of Buffalo were able to view his body at City Hall before he was taken by train back to the nation's capital for two days and then to Canton, Ohio, for burial.  

Overall Impact on American Life

During McKinley's presidency, the United States proved its prowess as the war with Spain, a strong European power, was fought and won. As a result, America gained overseas territories and influence in Asia, and then the President tried to normalize trade with China when he issued his "Open Door Policy." Hawaii, which eventually became the 50th U.S. state, was annexed in 1900. During this period the United States established itself as a world power. Some historians believe that one thing President McKinley did for the nation was inadvertent when he made the decision to pick Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate for the 1900 election, and as a consequence, bequeathed the presidency and the welfare of the country to him. The modern methods William McKinley used in his political campaigns and the everyday workings of White House had a lasting impact on the presidency and on the way Americans view politics and campaigns. He used the telephone, publicity and handed out memorabilia like campaign buttons in his campaigns. The press was regularly asked to the White House for what would later become presidential press conferences and daily briefings.

William McKinley of Ohio was heroic Civil War soldier, teacher, lawyer, devoted husband, innovative (though not naturally charismatic) politician and 25th president of the United States. In the years since his assassination, historians have held differing views of McKinley's presidency. Sometimes he was considered weak and manipulated by others. Sometimes he was looked upon as little more than mediocre, especially when compared to his bold successor, Teddy Roosevelt. Now many students of history view him as a strong president who was not afraid of making unpopular decisions.