William McKinley was the last President elected to a term of office in the 19th century and when reelected became the first President of the 20th century.
Attitudes about a nation’s leaders from the past do change with time. Often disregarded as a mediocre leader, William McKinley is now considered in a more favorable light, not merely as a footnote as an American President assassinated while in office.
KcKinley was born in the small town of Niles, Ohio, the seventh child of William and Nancy McKinley. The McKinleys were average citizens. His father William, Sr. owned a small iron foundry and his mother was regarded as being a devout woman who wanted to see her children follow in the ways of honesty and integrity.
He attended local schools in Poland, Ohio where the family had relocated in 1853. In 1860 he enrolled in Allegheny College in Pennsylvania where, due to illness and financial problems, he was forced to withdraw.
Civil War Career
He joined the Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a private and proved himself in battle. At the war’s end he mustered out a brevet major. More importantly for his career he served under Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes who would later become President and remained a lifelong friend and mentor to the younger McKinley.
McKinley’s career in Law and Politics
Following the Civil War, he studied law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in in 1867. He became involved in Republican politic and was elected to his first office as a prosecuting attorney. He ran successfully for a Congressional seat and was re-elected to Congress through where he would serve until 1891 losing on the one time in the elections of 1882 before losing in 1890 which ended his Congressional career.
The Congressional seniority system, his abilities, and the majority status of the Republican Party saw him rise to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
He was responsible for introducing protectionist tariff legislation, the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 which caused him to lose the 1890 election.
In 1891 he ran for Governor for Ohio and was elected by a small margin. As governor of an industrialized he sought to bring about a more harmonious relationship between business and labor. He was responsible for instituting an arbitration problems in labor disputes. In 1894 he was reelected governor.
He was a popular member of his political party, which fact, coupled with his legislative and executive experience, made him seem to be poised for a run to become president.
Campaign and Election of 1896
The country was experiencing a depression which was largely attributed President Grover Cleveland. At the Republican National Convention in St. Louis, McKinley touted a return to prosperity and easily nominated McKinley on the first ballot.
The Democrats nominated the newspaperman William Jennings Bryan, whose “Cross of Gold” speech did not impress Eastern voters.
In the general election McKinley won by more than 600,000, winning every state north of Virginia and east of Missouri including the far west and the increasingly important states of California and Oregon
His first term was marked by the Spanish-American War, advancing both patriotism and America’s imperialist expansion.
Campaign and Election of 1900
The United States had won a quick and decisive victory against Spain in the Spanish-American War capturing the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The previously sputtering American economy was much stronger after years of recession.
The Democrats again nominated William Jennings Bryan, and “free silver” was still a platform issue for him. The general election almost mirrored the results of 1896 with the exception was that McKinley had won additional states in the Midwest.
McKinley’s Short Lived Second Term
Just into his first six months of his second term, McKinley was shot while touring the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He was succeeded by one of the most colorful leaders to ever serve, Theodore Roosevelt.