The presidency of William McKinley began on March 4, 1897, when William McKinley was inaugurated and ended September 14, 1901, upon his assassination. A longtime Republican, McKinley is best known for conducting the successful Spanish–American War (1898), freeing Cuba from Spain; taking ownership of the Republic of Hawaii; and purchasing the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. It includes the 1897 Dingley Tariff which raised rates to protect manufacturers and factory workers from foreign competition, and the Gold Standard Act of 1900 that rejected free silver inflationary proposals. Rapid economic growth and a decline in labor conflict marked the presidency and he was easily reelected in a landslide.
The 25th United States president, McKinley took office following the 1896 presidential election, in which he defeated DemocratWilliam Jennings Bryan. In the campaign, McKinley advocated “sound money“, promised that high tariffs would restore prosperity, and denounced Bryan as a radical who promoted class warfare. He defeated Bryan again in the 1900 presidential election, in a campaign focused on imperialism in the Philippines, high tariffs, and free silver. McKinley’s presidency marked the beginning of an era in American political history, called the “Fourth Party System” or “Progressive Era,” which lasted from the mid–1890s to the early 1930s. On the national level, this period was generally dominated by the Republican Party.
In 1897–98, the most pressing issue was an insurrection in Cuba against repressive Spanish colonial rule which had been worsening for years. Americans sympathized with the rebels and demanded action to resolve the crisis. The administration tried to persuade Spain to liberalize its rule but when negotiations failed, both sides wanted war. American victory in the Spanish–American War was quick and decisive. During the war the United States took temporary possession of Cuba; it was promised independence but it remained under the control of the U.S. Army throughout McKinley’s presidency. The status of the Philippines was heavily debated, and became an issue in the 1900 election, with Democrats opposed to American ownership. McKinley decided it needed American protection and it remained under U.S. control until the 1940s. As a result of the war, the United States also took permanent possession of Guam and Puerto Rico. Under McKinley’s leadership, the United States also annexed the independent Republic of Hawaii in 1898. Unlike the other new possessions, citizens of Hawaii became American citizens and Hawaii became a territory with an appointed governor. McKinley’s foreign policy created an overseas empire and put the U.S. on the world’s list of major powers.
In 1897 the economy rapidly recovered from the severe depression, called the Panic of 1893. McKinley’s supporters in 1900 argued that the new high tariff and the commitment to the gold standard were responsible. Historians looking at his domestic and foreign policies typically rank McKinley as an “above average” president. Historian Lewis L. Gould argues that McKinley was “the first modern president”:
He was a political leader who confirmed the Republicans as the nation’s majority party; he was the architect of important departures in foreign policy; and he was a significant contributor to the evolution of the modern presidency. On these achievements rest his substantial claims as an important figure in history of the United States.
McKinley rose to prominence within the Republican Party as a congressman closely associated with protective tariffs. He earned national notoriety in the 1880s and 1890s for his nationwide campaigning, and in 1891 he won election as Governor of Ohio. In the lead-up to the 1896 election, McKinley and his manager, Cleveland businessman Mark Hanna, quietly built up support for a presidential bid. When rivals Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed and Senator William B. Allison sent agents outside their states to organize support for their candidacies, they found that McKinley agents had preceded them. By the time the 1896 Republican National Convention began in St. Louis in June, McKinley had an ample majority of delegates, and he won the nomination on the first ballot of the convention. Hanna selected Republican National Committee vice chairman Garret Hobart of New Jersey for vice president. Hobart, a wealthy lawyer, businessman, and former state legislator, was not widely known, but as Hanna biographer Herbert Croly pointed out, “if he did little to strengthen the ticket he did nothing to weaken it”.
In the final days before the convention, McKinley decided, after hearing from politicians and businessmen, that the platform should endorse the gold standard, though it should allow for bimetallism by international agreement. Adoption of the platform caused some western delegates, led by Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller, to walk out of the convention. However, Republicans were not nearly as divided on the issue as were Democrats, especially as McKinley promised future concessions to silver advocates. Democratic President Grover Cleveland firmly supported the gold standard, but an increasing number of rural Democrats, especially in corn belt and western states, called for a bimetallic “free silver” system. The silverites took control of the 1896 Democratic National Convention and chose William Jennings Bryan for president; he had electrified the delegates with his Cross of Gold speech which became famous for its closing phrase, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan’s financial radicalism shocked bankers, as many thought that his inflationary program would bankrupt the railroads and ruin the economy. Hanna cultivated the backing of these bankers, giving Republicans a massive financial advantage that allowed McKinley’s campaign to invest $3.5 million for speakers and distribute over 200 million pamphlets advocating the Republican position on the money and tariff questions.
The Republican Party printed and distributed 200 million pamphlets and sent hundreds of speakers out across the nation to deliver stump speeches on McKinley’s behalf. Bryan was portrayed as a radical, a demagogue, and a socialist, while McKinley was cast as the guarantor of full employment and industrial growth. By the end of September, the party had discontinued printing material on the silver issue, and were entirely concentrating on the tariff question. The battleground proved to be the Midwest—the South and most of the West were conceded to the Democrats—and Bryan spent much of his time in those crucial states.
On November 3, 1896, McKinley was victorious, winning the Electoral College vote 271 to 176, and receiving 7,102,246 popular votes to Bryan’s 6,502,925. McKinley won the entire Northeast and Midwest. Bryan had concentrated entirely on the silver issue, and had not failed to broaden his appeal to include urban workers. McKinley’s view of a stronger central government building American industry through protective tariffs and a dollar based on gold triumphed. McKinley’s coalition included most Northern cities, well-to-do farmers, industrial laborers, and most ethnic voters aside from Irish Americans. The 1896 presidential election is often seen as a realigning election, as with it the nation’s focus shifted from repairing the damage caused by the Civil War, to building for the future through social reform. It was also a realigning election in that it launched a long period of Republican control over Congress and the White House, the Fourth Party System, that would continue until 1932.