Presidential Biographies: William McKinley #25

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with William McKinley, the twenty-fifth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century by Robert W. Merry.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

President McKinley: Architect of the American Century by Robert W. Merry

McKinley is often seen as the first truly modern President, taking full advantage of the powers of the Presidency and also taking advantage of opportunities to expand that power and use the office as a way to move a political ideal forward. Robert W. Merry’s biography certainly affirms that assessment, as throughout the biography Merry seeks to show that McKinley was a deeply influential President on our nation’s history.

McKinley began his life in Ohio, and in his school years he developed a sharp intellect a demeanor that sought to understood opponents’ reasoning, even while not taking offense at having strong disagreements. His family were strong abolitionists, and McKinley held his own strong views, even debating the topic with Democrats who worked at the tannery. Before the Civil War, he already expressed the opinion that Jefferson Davis and others were going towards treason with their secessionist words. He and his cousin enlisted after careful consideration and opted to weigh national interest over their own. He was a competent soldier, though he didn’t rocket through the ranks as some other Presidents had. He remained idealistic about the reasons for the war, and afterwards he became a successful lawyer. From there, he became ever more actively involved in politics. Personal tragedy struck with the death of his daughters, from which his wife’s health never fully recovered. He was a deeply loving husband who ever had time for Ida, his wife, even to the point of sometimes giving offense with his dedication to her.

Following the political advice he received from Rutherford B. Hayes who counseled him to focus on a specific issue rather than diving in to every controversy of the day (70), McKinley became focused on the question of tariffs and protectionism, heavily favoring both policies as ways to defend domestic industries and the economy. He would carry these torches throughout his political career. His policies of protectionism and favoring of the gold standard during his Presidency would lead to economic prosperity, even while he expanded trade ties with other countries in order to open markets more than they had been. Indeed, Merry makes a case that McKinley, despite being so well known for protectionist tariffs and policies, also helped spur ideals of free trade that would later lead to a more global economy.

McKinley rode his knowledge and endorsement of protectionism to being the Governor of Ohio and then to the Presidency. As President, McKinley took an interest in international relations that perhaps no previous President had done. In doing so, he essentially created an imperialist America. He helped annex Hawaii after various political machinations, ousting the rightful rulers in favor of white American interests. Part of this was due to his belief in manifest destiny. After war with Spain, he acquired Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the latter seemed largely against the wishes of the populace. In China, McKinley pushed an open trade policy whilst arguing imperial powers ought not to try to take territory from China. Ultimately, this led to him using U.S. troops in China when the Boxer Rebellion occurred in order to try to protect American interests. This use of soldiers opened the door for future Presidents to use troops without Senate approval, something that the Senate at the time opposed but ultimately did little to forestall. For foreign policy, McKinley’s policies followed what he thought was best for the United States. He was extremely active in promoting the interests of the U.S. while also expanding its influence through an imperial expansion across the globe.

McKinley was, as said before, a strong abolitionist, but when it came to Civil Rights, his record is uneven. He tended to favor attempts to reduce sectionalism instead of promoting defense of all citizens’ rights. His beliefs reflected prejudices of his time, and he failed to have the backbone that others, like Ulysses S. Grant, had for fighting for Civil Rights.

McKinley won a second term, but was assassinated soon after. When he died, he was beloved, though his reputation has somewhat tarnished in hindsight. There’s little question that he brought increased prosperity for the United States, but he did so at the cost of giving up the fight for Civil Rights and an increasingly imperialistic policy. There is no question McKinley changed the role of President, expanding the power and prestige of the office, ignoring Senate’s protests about overstepping the bounds of the Executive Branch, and getting deeply involved in foreign affairs. His legacy is mixed, though it would be impossible to ignore it in the history of the United States. McKinley is a complex figure with a complex legacy that could be debated at length.

William McKinley’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

William McKinley (25th President – Original Ranking #10)- William McKinley used the powers of the President in ways that few before him had imagined. Deeply involved in foreign policy, he wrestled the Caribbean from Spain, took over the Philippines, added Hawaii as a state, forced access to China open, increased ties with Britain, and developed concepts of international trade in ways that hadn’t been done before. Of course, almost all of these were a kind of Imperialist America that did, oftentimes, as much or more harm as good. Domestically, he solidified the gold standard. He failed to be a strong advocate for civil rights, working to thwart sectionalism more than working to guarantee the rights and protections all people deserve. His enduring legacy was cut short by assassination, but he helped usher in an era of economic prosperity and international influence for the United States from which many continue to benefit to this day.


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