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In the Shadow of William McKinley

After four years, the Karl Rove-George W. Bush political team can claim one narrow electoral victory in the presidential election of 2000, a series of domestic policy successes, victory in two major battles in the war on terror, and stunning gains for the Republicans in the 2002 midterm elections. Though it is too soon to assess whether or not Bush will realign American politics in the manner of William McKinley, the next test comes this November.

To Rove, President McKinley was the master politician who understood how immigration and industrialization had forever changed American politics and used that knowledge in the 1896 presidential election to build a coalition sturdy enough to last a generation. Such political success was no small achievement, and Rove drew three important lessons from McKinley. First, the president should be fervently, almost religiously devoted to an ethos of economic opportunity. Next, American foreign policy should always be in line with traditional American principles and the best interests of the nation. Finally, presidents should avoid divisive issues. Rove took those lessons to heart in 2000 and began his attempt to shape American politics.

By happy coincidence, a wave of literature rethinking William McKinley’s legacy has now appeared. Rove learned of McKinley’s political genius as a student of historian Lewis L. Gould at the University of Texas, and few history classes could claim such consequences. In Gould’s The Modern American Presidency, McKinley takes center stage as the man who created the modern presidency. The William McKinley of Gould’s opening chapter was a man of tremendous will and deft political sense who made the president the focus of national political life.

Gould explains that McKinley’s political achievements did not end with his presidential victory. In the 1898 midterm elections he made indirect appeals to the voters’ patriotism by reminding citizens that voting was an important part of preserving “gains made in the recent fighting.” His standard stump speech was a sermon on national unity and friendship. He used his popularity to build support for his decision to take the Philippines and extend the powers of his office beyond anything his predecessors had contemplated—including establishing in Cuba and the Philippines military governments that were financed by the executive branch, and therefore not subject to direct congressional oversight. He further extended American (and presidential) power by sending troops into China as part of an international expedition during the Boxer Rebellion without congressional permission or a declaration of war. To make these actions possible, presidential secretary George B. Cortelyou managed the increasingly complex executive branch, acting as a de facto chief of staff, while McKinley made extensive use of new technology, the telephone, to direct affairs. Over the course of ten chapters, Gould describes how the presidency changed during the twentieth century under McKinley’s successors; but McKinley built the foundation.

While in office, McKinley cultivated a good working relationship with the press. He did not regard them as hostile, and they did not treat him as such. After all, McKinley had arranged in 1897 to give journalists a second-floor working space within the White House. But artful dullness and misdirection were part of McKinley’s political style, and his presidential reputation would suffer for it. McKinley’s reputation also suffered for reasons he could not control. He was assassinated in the first year of the twentieth century, which gave him an unfortunate place in most history and political science textbooks. Further, most historians associate innovation in the executive branch with Democratic presidents. Even worse, McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt’s vivid personality allowed him easily to eclipse his predecessor.

For many years, the best book on McKinley was H. Wayne Morgan’s 1963 biography William McKinley and His America, but as Lewis Gould once wrote in a bibliographic note: “His conclusions about McKinley are more cautious than is the evidence of presidential strength that he offers.” Professor Morgan revised his now-classic text in time for Ohio’s 2003 bicentennial, and in pacing, prose, and argument the revised edition is superior to its predecessor. Morgan’s knowledge of the so-called Gilded Age had always been beyond reproach, and now the conclusion matches the evidence—and withal the book is a good read.

Morgan’s McKinley was a man well suited for both his time and his profession. He emerges as a man of great energy, charm, and kindness, with a desire for order and a genuine enjoyment of public life. More than simply unifying his party, McKinley created a new national Republican majority, restored confidence, and gave the nation a new sense of direction and destiny. He settled the most divisive issue of the day (the currency question) and created a firm policy on the next critical issue (trusts). His foreign policy was both cautious and popular, preparing Cuba and the Philippines for democracy and independence. In the 1963 edition, Morgan claimed that McKinley had failed to cross the threshold of “greatness,” because he was a captive of his traditionalist thinking. The new edition has no such disclaimer.

Kevin Phillips’s William McKinley, a volume in The American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is a gem of a book. Phillips has distilled the best McKinley scholarship into a book short enough to be essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the subject, while specialists will find his vigorous defense of McKinley refreshing. Phillips believes that McKinley’s mediocre standing among historians is the result of tired stereotypes that make fun of the rituals of life in small Midwestern towns—as if McKinley’s membership in the Masonic order, kindness towards his invalid wife, and Methodism were somehow worse training for the presidency than Woodrow Wilson’s life in the priggish academy.

Phillips claims that many historians have taken McKinley’s good qualities and twisted them into disadvantages. McKinley was not hostile to business interests, but he was not their slave either. He was agreeable, with a patient and sympathetic nature, but these are not bad qualities in a leader. He did have an ear for public opinion, but that is an indispensable asset in a republic. Perhaps more remarkable was McKinley’s ability to use uncertainty in order to build a consensus around his decisions. He avoided dramatic action and obvious self-promotion. Historians would normally assume that someone as politically successful as McKinley must have been relying on something more than good fortune and a good nature. But in historians’ eyes, he committed an unpardonable sin. Phillips argues that, unlike President Eisenhower, McKinley did not write down what he was thinking while in office nor live long enough to produce a memoir; therefore, historians hoping to revise McKinley’s reputation upward could not find McKinley’s “hidden hand.”

Phillips accepts all of Gould’s assertions about McKinley’s use of expert commissions, patronage, the press, and his faithful deputy Cortelyou to rebuild the power of the presidency. In addition, Phillips credits McKinley for promoting national unity, realigning American politics, encouraging the next generation of Republican leaders, creating the conditions for economic prosperity, and guiding the United States as it rose to become a world power (including nurturing a close friendship with Britain that held through two world wars). Certainly, these are no small achievements, but Phillips finds that he fell short of “Greatness” because his method of leadership was too indirect to be inspirational.

Phillips wonders if any conservative president could ever be considered truly “Great.” After all, Phillips argues, “Great” conservatives only become “Great” by un-conservative means. He offers the revolutionary Washington, the slave-freeing Lincoln, and the trust-busting, corruption-fighting Theodore Roosevelt as examples. Here Phillips is off the mark. One must remember that American conservatism is based on preserving some rather revolutionary ideals. Washington was a great president because of his conservative actions to save the liberties gained in the Revolution, by nurturing the new national government under the Constitution. Lincoln’s preservation of the United States was a conservative act. If one does not accept that slavery, monopoly power, and corruption are component parts of American conservatism, certainly fighting those things cannot be considered un-conservative. Phillips is probably on firmer ground with his frank assertion that McKinley suffered from his association with middle-class values and middle-class constituencies.

But if Phillips understands how an association with middle-class values can hurt presidential reputation, he shows no sign of sympathizing with George W. Bush, who currently has a special place in the hearts of middle-class Americans. Beyond Karl Rove’s attempt to put together a new, winning coalition, Phillips rejects any meaningful parallels between McKinley and Bush. According to Phillips, McKinley supported labor interests, put more of the tax burden on the rich, and hated lobbyists. Unlike Bush, McKinley resisted popular opinion when it called for war. Of course, McKinley did ultimately go to war, but Phillips accepts the dubious Bush-rushed-to-war thesis. And if we needed further proof, his few words on Bush in William McKinley confirm that Phillips is no fan of the president, and he is not alone.

Historian Eric Rauchway’s Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America was clearly shaped by the author’s understanding of the post-September 11 world. The subtext of Murdering McKinley is that Americans were somehow unreasonable in their reactions to Leon Czolgosz’s murderous anarchy. For Rauchway, McKinley’s role in American life was to “dam up” the “flood tide of revolution.” Most of the McKinley stereotypes rejected by Phillips are adopted by Rauchway to bolster his case—e.g., the kindly president was actually a tool of the business interests. But what really interests Rauchway is that the American people, groping for answers to explain the tragedy of McKinley’s assassination, turned to Theodore Roosevelt, who used the event to discredit radicalism. As you can see, McKinley does not have much of a role in Rauchway’s work, and the subtitle, The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, reveals the authors’ take on McKinley’s significance: McKinley’s most important act was his death.

Rauchway made his own comparison between McKinley and Bush in an opinion piece published on the eve of the 2002 midterm elections. He concluded that Karl Rove had succeeded in creating another Benjamin Harrison, not a new McKinley, because Bush was too hard-line and too committed to private enterprise to compare with the easygoing, moderate McKinley. Rauchway predicted electoral doom for Bush and the Republicans.

In their attempt to stretch a comparison across a century, scholars have shown yet again their difficulty in finding a definition of American conservatism that works for more than one election cycle. Rather than groping for intellectual categories to mimic or mirror the interest groups of liberalism , perhaps they should look for conservatism’s roots in the practical politics and history of the Republican Party. We may find a more useful definition of conservatism by looking for the common threads in the governing philosophies of Lincoln, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George W. Bush. American conservatism is a peculiar thing, but it is not unknowable. Any working description should include Eisenhower’s favorite Lincoln quotation that the proper role of government was to “do for a community whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”

Carefully studied, both the McKinley and the George W. Bush Administrations shatter the stereotypes of American conservatism. If Bush wins reelection in November, he will have taken his next step toward realizing Karl Rove’s dream of a new McKinley. As for McKinley himself, his reputation will continue to rise. I predict that he will be ranked as a “near great” president someday. At the very least, contemporary events have encouraged some good scholarship and focused attention on a presidency that deserves both.


This article was first published in the summer 2004 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.