[Abridged] Presidential Histories

25.) William McKinley 1897-1901

January 03, 2022 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
25.) William McKinley 1897-1901
Show Notes Transcript

Once upon a time, the United States stuck to its shores and big business largely stayed out of politics.

Then came William McKinley.

William McKinley took the United States international in a big way, carrying the American flag to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and China; he revolutionized political campaigning by leveraging the power of big business against a progressive populist threat and building a national campaign that was a quantum leap forward in political organization; and he crafted a international Chinese policy that is a big part of the reason we still have a China on the map, and not some carved up mess of former European colonies like we have in the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas.

Follow along as McKinley serves in the Civil War, enters politics, becomes a champion of big business, rewrites the political playbook in a successful campaign for the presidency, and dives head-first into the modern era of American overseas imperialism, only for his life to be cut short by an assassin driven by the one looming problem McKinley had not solved - the rampant economic inequality of the Gilded Age.

1. The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century – Scott Miller
2. T.R. the last Romantic – H.R. Brands
3. Grover Cleveland – Henry F. Graff
4. Benjamin Harrison – Charles W. Calhoun
5. William Howard Taft – Jeffrey Rosen 

Support the show

25.) William McKinley 1897-1901


Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 25, William McKinley, Wobbly Willie


The United States currently owns 14 territories inhabited by more than 3.2 million people. People who don’t get to vote for president, or legislators to represent them in D.C. We don’t think of ourselves this way, but we are an imperial power.

How did that happen?

The United States was founded by a bunch of anti-colonial revolutionaries who were tired of being someone’s else’s imperial territory. No taxation without representation was kind of our jam. So when and how did we decide, well, maybe some imperialism is ok.

The answer is William McKinley.

But the irony is… this wasn’t by McKinley’s design. He wasn’t someone who campaigned on the idea of creating a global empire. One of the first things he said upon reaching office was “No jingo nonsense.” But events beyond his control would lead him to call for war with Spain. And once he got the ball rolling, shoot, empire making would prove a hard habit to stop.

Today we dive all into the life and times of William McKinley, the man who presided over the dawn of the American century.




William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843, to a large family in the small town of Niles, Ohio. And when McKinley first left home for college in 1859, it looked like he might be a case of “failure to launch.” He dropped out of school after one year due to depression and some kind of nervous condition, and then started teaching at the local county school back home and, shoot, that was very nearly the life and times of William McKinley. But then some crazy news started reaching Ohio from down south. It was 1861. Southern states had started seceding, armies had started mustering, and before you knew it, the Civil War had broken out.

18-year old William McKinley wasted little time signing up for the Union blue. He is, by the way, the last Civil War veteran to be elected president – a club that included almost every president after Lincoln. 

McKinley served bravely during the war. His most famous story of heroism came during the battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest of the war, when, with his men under fire from confederate soldiers, and rations running low, he personally, heroically, on his own initiative, went to supply cache, loaded a mule wagon with supplies, charged it back to his men across the shifting battlefield as bullets flew about him, reached his famished comrades, and served the men hot coffee. I’m not kidding, there is a McKinley coffee break monument at the battlefield of Antietam, and another one randomly at Wilmington, Delaware. The second one is just so amazing that I have to describe it in detail. It shows a union private carrying a bucket in one hand, presumedly full of coffee, and a cup in the other hand, presumedly also full of coffee, and he’s offering the cup of coffee to what looks like a wounded soldier with dead, dying, and fighting soldiers all around him.

It is surely the best presidential monument of all time. But if you’re aware of any other great ones, hit me up on Twitter at APHpodcast.

But McKinley didn’t just catch the eye of history when he made that coffee run. He also caught the eye of future U.S. president Rutherford B Hayes. Hayes was so impressed with this coffee delivery that he must have thought “That man has internship material!” as he put McKinley on his staff and later mentored him in Washington D.C.

Because, oh yeah, McKinley is definitely going to Washington D.C.

But first, he’s going to get married! In 1871, McKinley married Ida Saxton, and their story is actually one of the saddest I’ve encountered yet. Ida gave birth to two daughters, but neither survived childhood. Both daughters and Ida’s mother all died in a two-year span, and this series of tragedies seems to have psychologically broken Ida. Whereas Ida had once been bright and charming – she was college educated and had worked at her father’s bank - she now suffered from a debilitating depression, epilepsy, and frequent seizures. It sounds like there were long stretches when she was practically invalid. And McKinley took really good care of her. He insisted she be sat next to him at events, so he could take care of her if a seizure struck, and he’d frequently check on her during the day. It’s all rally sad and really sweet and my heart just breaks for poor Ida.

McKinley’s marriage to Ida isn’t the only thing that happened after the end of the Civil War. He also used the connections and reputation he’d made on the battlefield to enter law and politics back home. His political rise began soon after. In 1876, he was elected to Congress, where he developed a reputation for congeniality. His biggest accomplishment in Congress was one we talked about before – the McKinley Tariffs. This was the huge slew of tariffs the Republican party passed in 1890 during Benjamin Harrison’s presidency that increased the average duty from 38 to 50 percent, making American manufacturing more profitable, while raising prices on just about everything for everyone else. This had two quick results for McKinley. It made him some rich friends, and it got him kicked out of office. 

Let’s start with the getting kicked out of office bit. You may remember from the past couple episodes that the Democrats trounced the Republicans in 1890 after the economy turned south for a variety of reasons including Tariff-fueled price spikes. Well, this pretty well turned the nation against the tariffs – tariffs that bore McKinley’s name – and that wasn’t very good for McKinley. And it didn’t help that McKinley’s democratic opponent in the 1890 congressional race came up with a clever way to make sure local voters made the connection. The democratic candidate had young boys go door-to-door pretending to sell goods. When they got residents good and interested in what they were selling, they’d reveal the prices were double what they should have been. When the outraged prospective buyers said, “Hey, what kinda fool do you take me for?” the boys would say “Aw shucks mister, prices are up because of the McKinley tariffs. I’d love to sell it for less, but you’ll have to take it up with McKinley.”

Which they did, when they voted McKinley out of congress in 1890.

But there was a benefit to authoring those tariffs!

When McKinley found himself $100,000 in debt due to a friend’s duplicity in 1893, a political friend of McKinley named Mark Hanna – whose going to show up a lot in this episode – was able to pass the hat among the era’s great robber barons to raise the money to pay off McKinley’s debts. McKinley got $10,000 from an Illinois steel company, $2,000 from Carnegie Steel, $5,000 from George Pullman, who you may remember from the great Pullman Strike, $5,000 from the meatpacking industry, and so forth.

And when I say McKinley was $100,000 in debt, I mean 100,000 1893 dollars – or nearly 2.5 million 2021 dollars. This is a huge bailout.

Or maybe… a huge investment.

In 1892, McKinley was elected governor of Ohio – the same position his mentor Hayes had held just before he was elected to the presidency.


That’s right. After four years in the governor’s office, McKinley ran run for president in 1896!

And the 1896 presidential election is one of the big things to know about William McKinley, because 1896 is when presidential politics became big business in a big way.

Ok, so first off, what’s the lay of the land here. In 1896, the United States, economically, was not working for the vast majority of the population. We’ve been talking about this for a while now, and it keeps getting worse. All those rich guys I mentioned a moment ago – Andrew Carnegie, George Pullman, Mark Hanna – they hadn’t gotten rich by paying fair wages, wasting money on worker safety, or showing other signs of human decency to their employees. Americans died at twice the rate Britons in work-related accidents – the nation was uniquely uncaring toward its workforce, and this neglect had led to the great railroad strike of 1877, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, and the Pullman strike of 1894 – all massive moments we’ve covered in previous episodes. In 1892, the discontent with the political status quo grew so bad that large swaths of the american electorate gave up on the Democratic and Republican parties and voted for the farmer-led Progressive Peoples’ party instead. The country was fracturing.

And then came a man who seemed uniquely made for the moment – William Jennings Bryan.

A 36-year-old former Nebraska congressman, Bryan was young, charismatic, energetic, and he ran on a platform of attacking big business, attacking big banks, and bringing equality to the land. 

In 1896, the Democratic party nominated him by acclimation, the once independent Progressive Peoples Party snapped into step behind him, and the richest 1% were scared as hell by this runaway train of discontent that was speeding right toward them.

And the only man who seemed to believe it could be stopped was Mark Hanna.

So let’s talk a moment about Mark Hanna. Mark Hanna’s nickname was “Dollar Mark,” and it’s a very appropriate nickname. Hanna is the man who, remember, organized the robber baron bailout of McKinley when he found himself in debt in 1893. The reason Hanna had been able to do that is he, himself, was a millionaire who personally knew all the other millionaires. He was also someone who had been in the smoke-filled rooms of Republican politics for nearly 20 years. 

And, most importantly, he’d been nurturing William McKinley to run for the White House since, oh, about the time McKinley passed that huge tariff bill, which, you know, made a ton of money for Dollar Mark and his robber baron friends.  

Hanna used his years of experience on the national political stage to quietly get the GOP’s power brokers behind McKinley before any rivals had even thought about organizing. When everyone showed up for the GOP national convention, McKinley already had the cat in the bag and was nominated on the first ballot – thanks to Hanna. 

But if winning the party nomination was a breeze, the general election was looking to be a hell of a storm, because that William Jennings Bryan runaway train was bearing down on the GOP FAST.

But again, Dollar Mark had a plan.

Up to this moment in U.S. history, American corporations hadn’t been big players in presidential politics. Some big businessmen liked Republicans, some big businessmen liked Democrats, and corporate boards usually had a mix of both, so the corporations didn’t get super involved. But this election was different. That William Jennings Brian guy wanted to take them all down, and he had a plan to do it – unlimited silver coinage, which would basically help all the farmers and poor americans pay off their debts to the banks by causing hyperinflation. 

Today we know that hyperinflation is a bad thing. Prices rise quicker than wages and everyone gets pretty uniformly destroyed. The most famous example of this is the Weimar Republican in Germany, which printed unlimited paper money in the 1920’s to help pay its world war 1 debts and, next thing you knew, there were pictures of people pushing wheelbarrows of worthless currency to the market to buy a loaf of bread and the world collapsed into the Great Depression.

But Weimar Germany hadn’t happened yet in 1896. Nobody was really sure what hyperinflation would do, but they had a theory. And, according to their theory, it would destroy the rich and help the poor.

Let me explain - So, say you have $1,000 dollars on hand but you owe the bank $2,000. That doesn’t look good, right? But if you trigger some hyperinflation by printing unlimited money, you might have 100,000 dollars in a few months. Everything will cost 100 times more, so it won’t feel like you’re 100 times richer, except … except that 2,000 dollar loan you owe the bank is still a 2,000 dollar loan. And what was once impossible to pay is now a trifle, which is good news for you, and terrible news for the bank. Because now all the loans the bank had out are worth roughly one percent what they used to be worth. The banks would lose all their value and be destroyed. And that’s bad news for rich people. Because rich people depend on massive bank loans to grow their businesses and live beyond their already extravagant means. If the banks went down, the industrialists would go down with them.

Everyone knew this. All Mark Hanna had to do was remind them.

It all started when Mark Hanna convinced a big-name Democrat who had made a fortune building the great northern railway to Seattle to flip his support to the Republicans and write a big fat check with McKinley’s name on it. When the robber barons saw a well-known democrat flip sides, they all started jumping back on the McKinley bandwagon, resulting in a seismic shift in american politics. For the first time ever, practically all the wealthiest men in America were unified in their support of the Republican, and their opposition to William Jennings Bryan. With corporate boards suddenly unified in their support for McKinley, money started flowing in a way it never had before. Hanna identified how much money each industry could afford to contribute to the campaign and then told them how much money they’d stand to lose if Bryan were elected – the messaging worked. Standard Oil contributed $250,000. So did JP Morgan. Railroad barons donated $174,000. Chicago Meat Packers gave $400,000. The GOP is estimated to have raised $3.5 million in 1896, double what it raised in the previous election four years earlier, and seven-times as much as the Democrats raised in 1896 - $425,000.

That Republican cash fueled the first mass-mailing campaign in U.S. history. While the charismatic William Jennings Bryan barnstormed across the nation, traveling 18,000 miles and delivering some 600 speeches to roughly 5 million americans – sometimes delivering 36 speeches a day – William McKinley didn’t go anywhere. He stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, and gave 300 speeches to 750,000 americans from the comfort of his own front porch. And for the millions of Americans who didn’t make it to Canton, booklets, pamphlets, posters, and articles were distributed by mail to every community in the country. 250,000 pieces of literature were printed – 18 pieces per voter. The Review of Reviews reported the GOP printed 50% more material in this one election than it had in its entire 30-year history. Five million houses were identified for extra attention, and 1,400 surrogates traveled the country giving speeches on McKinley’s behalf. While Mark Hanna raised the dough, McKinley’s 31-year-old campaign coordinator Charles Dawes decided where it should go. Dawes, by the way, would later serve as Calvin Coolidge’s vice president in the 1920’s. 

In case the literature wasn’t enough, Hanna wasn’t above putting the screws to the American worker to force them into line. Hanna had the robber barons place orders that were conditional to be cancelled if Bryan won. Workers received notes in their pay envelopes saying they’d be let go if Bryan won. Insurance companies sent agents to farmers in the Midwest and told them they’d be offered 5-year, low-interest loans, but the offers would be pulled if Bryan Won. In Chicago, a local Bryan campaign leader showed up at HQ sobbing that his employer had threatened to fire him if he didn’t quit the campaign.

Bryan started telling supporters to just support him in secret if doing so publicly would cost them their jobs.

As a result of all this pressure, and all that money, a campaign that had once looked like a shoe-in for Bryan turned into a butt-kicking. The power of labor and populism was nothing against the power of corporate America. 

When the final votes were tallied, William McKinley had soundly defeated William Jennings Bryan, 7.1 to 6.5 million popular votes, and 271 to 176 electoral college votes.

It was time for corporate America to see exactly what it had bought.



And so, on March 4, 1897, 54-year-old William McKinley, the former civil war veteran, congressman, ohio senator, and hero of corporate America was sworn in as the 25th president of the United States in Washington D.C. But what did the world, and the country, look like when McKinley became president? Let’s look around.

Domestically, there were some really interesting things happening in the American economy that were about to give it a huge international appetite. 

We’ve talked a lot about the whipsaw of growth and recessions that was the Gilded Age economy, we’ve talked about how the richest americans were making out like bandits, while laborers were growing disgruntled working dangerous jobs for low pay.

What we haven’t talked about is that, while all that was happening, U.S. manufacturing was becoming the envy of the world. You know how we keep talking about tariffs on this podcast, including earlier this episode? Well, they worked. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, for most of the 19th century, foreign goods had a 20-60% tariff on them – compared to an average 5% tariff today - And those huge tariffs protected fledgling American industries, who couldn’t produce stuff as cheaply as the more established British manufacturers overseas. If the tariffs hadn’t existed, Americans would have bought all those cheap british goods instead of the more expensive american goods, and american industry would have been strangled in the crib. But because those tariffs did exist, import prices were artificially higher, and good Americans bought American goods, and American industry grew, just everyone in the country was paying the bill. 

By the time McKinley entered the White House, those once-fledgling American industries were now producing more stuff, more cheaply, than even the mighty U.K.. But there was a slight downside to this.

Have you ever heard of supply meets demand? The idea that if demand is greater than supply, prices will go up. But if supply is greater than demand, prices will drop? Well, back in the 1890’s, American manufacturers and farmers were pushing it to the limit to produce as much as they could – way more than there was a domestic demand for. This was causing prices to drop, because nobody wanted to be the guy or gal who cut production if nobody else was going to do it, too, because then you were just going to get gobbled up. So instead of American businesses saying “you know, maybe we can reduce these 16 hour work days so we don’t produce as much and people can enjoy their lives.” They said “you know, we would be a lot more profitable if we could start selling this stuff overseas.”

And so, American businessmen started pressuring the government to look for ways to open foreign markets to american goods.

And, spoiler alert, no foreign market looked as attractive to American businessmen as China. A single nation that was then home to roughly 23% percent of the world’s population.

Get into China, the businessmen thought, and we’ll never run out of people to sell to.

Which takes us to the international situation. The McKinley administration is going to fight a war with spain, annex Hawaii, and send an army to China – and always with an eye on the economic bottom line. These moves weren’t driven by big business, but they didn’t happen in a vacuum, either.

Let’s start with the Spanish-American War, which starts with Spanish Cuba.

The United States had long coveted Cuba. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams had written about what a great state it would make. James K Polk and James Buchanan had tried to buy it. But Spain had clung to it, first as one of its favorite New World colonies, and then as one of its last New World colonies, as Spain’s once-vast American empire collapsed. But that didn’t mean Spain ran the place well. Cuba was the largest sugar exporter in the world, and sugar is a hellacious tough crop to farm. Cuba’s economy ran on expendable labor, emphasis on expendable. Numerous revolts had launched and failed in the 19th century, and in 1895, one more got underway. When Spain responded with a brutal crackdown that featured concentration camps – literally concentrating the whole civilian population in camps so anyone outside those camps could be shot – the situation quickly turned into a humanitarian nightmare. Up in the U.S., Cuban nationalists launched a masterful PR campaign that soon won the overwhelming support of the American people who wanted to get into cuba and kick out the Spanish – the only person who wasn’t onboard was the one that mattered most, William McKinley.

Remember, McKinley had seen war. He’d been there at Antietam. He didn’t want any part of war with Spain, and so he negotiated instead. He sent a diplomat to spain with demands that Spain let up in Cuba, or else, and the Spaniards said yes! War averted! Chalk one up for diplomacy!

But thennnn.

Well, when the Spanish elites in Cuba learned they were supposed to let up on the rebels, they kinda flipped out and started to riot. They didn’t want any Americanos telling them how to run their island. McKinley responded by sending a warship to observe what was happening from the Havana harbor. The ship he dispatched was the USS Maine.

On January 25, 1898, the Maine arrived at Havana. It dropped anchor, waited, and watched. And all was calm.

And then, on February 15, 1898, at 9:40 pm, the Maine exploded. 268 American sailors were dead in Havana harbor.

Holy smokes.

Had the Spanish just blown up an American warship in Havana harbor? Nobody knew for sure, but American newspapers didn’t wait to find out. Two days after the explosion, and without a shred of evidence to go on, national newspapers declared Spain had sunk the ship with a mine or torpedo. 

But again, McKinley refused to be rushed into war with spain. He was so resistant to war, the American press started calling him Wobbly Willie. But he wanted an investigation. He ordered an investigation. And then, on March 24, 37 days after the ship had exploded, the Navy delivered its report. Conclusion? An external mine likely caused the explosion that sank the Maine.

At this point, McKinley was still looking for an out, but he started preparing for war. He asked Congress for military funds and they approved $50-million in a matter of days – which was a total shock to Spain, which could never hope to raise that kind of money in so short a time. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt went on a spending spree, outbidding the Spanish for ships they had commissioned and even acquiring and retrofitting private yachts. A month earlier, McKinley feared the U.S. could never compete with Spain’s larger navy. Now, the U.S. had bought or leased 100 vessels in weeks. This was suddenly looking like a fairer fight.

With this navy and war budget on hand as one hell of a stick, McKinley tried one last time to avoid war. He sent Spain an ultimatum – let the U.S. mediate peace between spain and an independent cuba, or it would be war. The ultimatum’s deadline came and went unanswered, and, on April 25, 1898, McKinley called for Congress to declare war.

The first shots of a war that was basically being fought over Cuba… were fired half a world away in the Philippines. The Philippines were held by Spain, and as McKinley realized war with spain was in the cards, he started to ask himself, why stop at cuba? The big allure of the Philippines is they were next to China. 

If you captured the Philippines, you’d have naval bases and coaling stations in place to support and protect your ability to sell stuff to China. So, on May 1, 1898, An american admiral attacked the Spanish fleet at Manila and, thanks to a lot of training, and a lot of luck, the Americans tore through the Spanish fleet, sinking the entire Spanish pacific navy without losing a single ship. In one moment, the balance of power had shifted in the pacific, and it had shifted America’s way.

But America’s war with spain didn’t end there. On June 20, an American captain in the pacific opened a sealed envelope containing secret orders that directed him to the Spanish island of Guam, which is located halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines – because if you want to get to the Philippines so you can get to china, it helps to control a coaling station in Guam. Detecting a pattern yet? When the american ship arrived in Guam, it fired 13 shells at the Spanish fort overlooking the harbor, and missed every shot, but the Spanish didn’t fire back. Before the americans could reload and fire another volley, a small Spanish boat started rowing toward the american ship. The Spaniards were let aboard where the Spanish commander opened with an apology – he was sorry he was unable to respond to the american cannons’ salute, for he had to artillery to answer with. The american captain quickly realized the source of the confusion and delivered the bad news to the Spaniard, quote “make no mistake, gentlemen. I fired no salute. We came here on a hostile errand. Our country is at war with yours. … you understand, gentlemen, that you are my prisoners?” 

Yup. Guam only received mail every two months and the latest boat was late. The Spaniards on Guam had never even realized they were at war. They surrendered the island the next day.

With Guam and the Philippines in the bag, attention turned to Cuba. I’m going to talk more about the Cuban campaign in my next episode, where it will figure prominently, but, in short, the american navy trapped the Spanish navy at the Cuban port of Santiago. Once the Spanish Navy was trapped, the Americans were able to land an army uncontested on June 22. The army, which included former assistant-naval secretary-turned Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt, captured the hills overlooking Santiago’s port on July 1.

When the hills were captured, the trapped Spanish navy realized it was in a real pickle. If it stayed in the port, american artillery from the hills could easily destroy it. If it left the port, the american navy waited. It decided to take its chances on the open sea and made full steam for spain, but the American fleet was newer and faster. The U.S. ships easily caught up with the Spaniards and sunk the fleeing ships one by one, destroying a second Spanish armada again without losing a single american ship.

On July 25, 1898, three weeks after the conquest of Cuba, the Americans completed their mop-up of major Spanish colonial possessions by landing in Puerto Rico, which surrendered with hardly a fight at all.

On August 12, 1898, Spain agreed to an armistice to stop the fighting. Later that year, an official end of the war was negotiated in Paris. Cuba would be free, but Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines would belong to the Americans now.

The Spanish-American war might look like that daydream of a quick smash and grab war - in four months, we defeated Spain, liberated Cuba, and acquired Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. But the fighting didn’t really end with the Treaty of Paris in 1898. The filipinos had no interest in being some new empires colonial possession. They’d revolted against the Spanish before, and they revolted against the Americans now, again, right away. The United States spent the next three years fighting a brutal guerrilla war in the Philippines, a war that required more troops, and killed more americans, than the Spanish-american war that preceded it. 4,000 american soldiers, 20,000 thousand filipino guerillas, and 200,000 filipino civilians would die in a struggle marred by atrocities. 

Which reminds me of something McKinley told a friend as the war was breaking out, quote, “I am not anxious about the result of the war. There can be one result and it will not be long delayed. What I have in mind is what will come after war - the problems we do not see now but that are sure to come in some way. And they will not be easy problems. Other nations have had that experience, and we shall not escape it.”

Oh yeah, and one more thing on the sinking of the Maine. In 1976, 78 years after the ship went down, a new report using modern technology would conclude the explosion that sank the Maine had actually come from inside the ship and was triggered when the ship’s munitions accidentally caught fire. That final report, that an accident had sunk the main, obviously came far too late to do McKinley or the Spanish any good, but it’s a great historic reminder that sometimes it’s just really hard to be certain about things and you should almost always leave a little room for doubt.

So that’s the Spanish American war – and the start of the Philippine-american war. But that’s not all that happened in 1898. 1898 is also the year the United States annexed Hawaii – right in the middle of the Spanish-american war – concluding a story that I’ve unfortunately been neglecting for some time.

The United States originally had pretty good relations with the Hawaiian islands. American businessmen built lucrative sugar plantations there, and the Hawaiian King allowed the U.S. to establish a repair and coaling station at Pearl Harbor in 1887. But then, well, things started to turn south pretty soon after that.

It started later that year – 1887 – when the American planters forced the Hawaiian King to adopt a new constitution at gunpoint. The constitution became known as the “bayonet constitution” and it basically shifted power from the monarchy to a white-dominated legislature.

Then, a few years after that, the McKinley Tariff of 1890 hit and the Island of Hawaii pretty much immediately plunged into an economic depression. Why? Well, before the McKinley tariff passed, the U.S. had a high sugar tariff on everywhere except Hawaii. So the American sugar growers there basically had a monopoly on American sugar. But while the McKinley tariff rose duties on most goods, it actually eliminated all tariffs on sugar. In an instant, Hawaiian sugar was swept out of the american marketplace by cheaper sugar from the Caribbean. This depression led to severe agitation between the Hawaiian King and the american planters.

Then when that king died, a new queen rose who wanted to throw out the bayonet constitution, which the American minister on the island saw as a threat to american interests, so he deployed two companies of marines in support of a coup by the american planters that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy entirely and officially put the americans planters in charge.

But Hawaii still wasn’t part of America yet.

This coup went down in the final months of Benjamin Harrison’s presidency. By the time an official request for annexation reached the mainland, Grover Cleveland was president. And when he learned the coup had been launched with the support of american marines, he refused to annex the islands. So the american planters created a republic instead and put an American planter named Sanford Dole in charge – and if that name sounds familiar, that’s because Dole is related to the Dole Fruit corporation that still exists today.

Dole continued to campaign for american annexation and, after the United States captured the Phillippines from Spain in May 1898, annexing the Hawaiian islands to use them as a coaling station between Guam, the Philippines, China and the west coast suddenly made a lot of sense. And so, two months after the Phillipines were conquered, Hawaiian annexation was overwhelmingly approved, 42-21 in the senate and 209-9 in the house.

Which takes us the last foreign intervention of McKinley’s presidency – China. That’s right. The united States sent an army to China.


Ok. The backstory for this one starts earlier in the 19th century when the British started selling Opium in China basically to make a buck. When China tried to shut down this opium trade with force, the British met force with force and defeated China in a fight known to history as the first opium war. As spoils of war, the british demanded China open five Chinese ports to international trade and grant United Kingdom control of the island of hong Kong.

And, well, once the world saw Britain pushing china around, then everyone wanted a slice of the pie. France, Germany, Japan, even the United States during John Tyler’s presidency either negotiated or by force obtained enclaves in ports and towns all over China. Some nations even acquired larger tracks of land called “concessions” that were colonies in all but name. I’m having trouble getting an exact count, but I believe there were dozens of these concessions and treaty ports by the year 1900. 

But this all caused a lot of friction in China. As the western powers expanded into China, they brought Christianity with them, which forced converts to give up local festivals and ancestor worship – something that was sacrilegious to the Chinese who didn’t convert. As a combination of foreign exploitation and natural disasters ravaged china, the peasants began to think it was all the westerners’ fault. A secret society called the “Righteous and Harmonious Fist” – killer name – began to organize a rebellion. The group practiced martial arts rituals that they believed made them invulnerable in battle. Westerners who saw the rituals thought they looked like boxing, so the rebels became known as the Boxers to the west.

In 1900, the boxers began attacking and seizing western concessions – future President Herbert Hoover, who was in china with a mining company, became trapped in one of these besieged towns. As word reached western capitals of the rebellion, a multi-national army was organized. But William McKinley had a concern. He was afraid Europe would use this rebellion as a pretense to carve up China the same way it had carved Africa, the middle East, and the Americas. And he didn’t want China carved up. He wanted one big china with open borders so american industrialists could sell to everyone in china, not just whoever ended up in America’s slice of China.

Eight nations sent roughly 50,000 troops to march on China’s capital of Peking to put the rebellion down, including something like several thousand american soldiers. As you might imagine, this was a weird army that wasn’t entirely cohesive. You had Japanese, Russian, British, French, American, German, Italian, and Austro-Hungarian soldiers all more-or-less marching in the same direction, but not entirely trusting each other. And with good reason. When the armies reached the outskirts of Peking, they went to sleep that night on the understanding that they’d all enter the city at the same time the next day. But when they woke the next morning, they realized the Russians had snuck out of their camps early to try and seize the capital on their own. Everyone else rushed in and, on August 14, 1900, captured Peking to officially end the revolt. 

As a peace treaty was drawn up after the war, American involvement helped McKinley make sure America had a place at the table – nobody was carving up China. Instead, there would be an “open door” policy, where all nations were allowed to sell whatever they wanted wherever they wanted in China.

And there is an interesting irony here. Today, China is the United States’ one rival super power. But there might not be a unified china today if not for McKinley’s actions 120 years ago. Think of it. Western powers carved up the middle east, and the middle east today is a mess of countries that don’t make sense and who are always fighting each other instead of unifying to project power onto the world. It’s a similar story in Africa and the Americas. We look at the strife in those regions and say “damn, look at all this violence because of the way dumb Europeans carved up the map.” But, shoot, what if we’re at war with china down the road? Will we wish China had been carved up the way the middle east was? I’m not saying yes, but I am saying it’s an interesting counter argument to play around with.

Anyway. That wraps up the international adventures of William McKinley. There was the Spanish-American war (followed by the forgotten Philippine-American war), the Annexation of Hawaii, and the Boxer rebellion. And I can’t help but notice that almost all of this was at least in some little way tied to the idea of opening up and increasing access to China for American trade. But, man, China was, is, and always has been a mirage in the desert that American industry pursues at its own peril. Trade in China never did pay of the way Americans hoped. All anybody ever sees is its vast size and vast population. Back then, nobody looked close enough to realize the average Chinese citizen earned 5 cents a day and good roads didn’t exist to ship american goods to them on. The average Chinese peasant wasn’t buying jack from America. 80 years later, American business leaders would again bend over backwards to get access to that Chinese market, signing all sorts of crazy deals like making their manufacturing plants in china, so china could learn their trade secrets. But China never buys american-made goods. It’s a trap. And we’re seeing today that those deals we signed in the 80’s to access Chinese trade only served to accelerate China’s rise as an international rival and, ironically, accelerated the ability for Chinese companies to out-compete American manufacturers. The greed of american industrialists seeded the struggles of american blue collar manufacturing workers today

In 1900, William McKinley again faced William Jennings Bryan in the general election. His first vice president died just before the race started, so McKinley found a new VP to run at his side, someone with a lot of energy to be a good attack dog on the trail – former assistant navy secretary turned rough rider turned New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt. William Jennings Bryan again ran on a populist message that took aim at the power of corporate America, claiming if the businesses weren’t broken up soon, they might never be – they were becoming too big to fail. But Bryan’s message never really caught on this time. The economy was booming, and McKinley was getting all the credit. McKinley was easily reelected 292-155 in 1900.

But. Well. The economy may have been booming, but McKinley never did get around to doing anything for those downtrodden workers I keep talking about. None of the western powers were. And those folks at the bottom, some of them were getting desperate. Some of them were calling for Anarchy. Anarchists had assassinated the president of France in 1894, the prime minister of Spain in 1897, and the King of Italy in 1900.

And on September 6, 1901, an anarchist shot and killed the president of the United States.

William McKinley was shaking hands at the Pan-American exposition in Buffalo New York – basically a Worlds Fair – when an assassin in the line of well-wishers pulled out a pistol and shot McKinley twice before being subdued by the crowd. One bullet deflected off a button and did little harm, but the other passed through McKinley’s stomach. The president underwent surgery at the fair’s hospital in an operating room that lacked modern equipment and was so dimly lit that mirrors and windows had to be used to provide light. After the surgery, it initially appeared the president would recover, but gangrene had already set in. McKinley’s blood became poisoned. After a week of progress, the president suddenly took a turn for the worst and rapidly deteriorated. He died on September 14, 1901, at the age of 58.

And somewhere in upstate New York, descending from the peak of the state’s highest mountain, vice President Theodore Roosevelt was summoned to be sworn in as the next president of the United States.

And as for McKinley’s wife, Ida, man. She’d already suffered so much tragedy, and here’s another – her husband taken from her by an assassin’s bullet. She was so distraught, she couldn’t bring herself to attend McKinley’s funeral. Ida spent the rest of her life being cared for by her sister and making almost daily trips to the grave of her deceased husband. She died fewer than six years after McKinley, on May 26, 1907, at the age of 56. 

Ok, so, that was quite a ride, wasn’t it? But, if you want to remember just three things about McKinley, I’d suggest

-       Bringing big business into presidential politics in a big way during the election of 1896

-       He presided over the Spanish-American War, which liberated Cuba and brought us Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and set the stage for the bloody Philippine-American War.

-       And he helped put down the Boxer rebellion and establish the Open Door policy in China, which is kinda sorta why China is a world power today and not carved up into regional powers like the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

So how did the world, and the country change, during McKinley’s presidency?

Domestically, one of the most famous American Marches, Stars and Stripes forever, by John Philips Sousa was first performed just outside Philadelphia on May 14, 1897. It really feels like the start of a new era in patriotic american music.

On May 20, 1899, the first speeding ticket in american history was handed out in New York City to Jacob German, who was traveling a whopping 12 miles per hour in an 8-miles-per-hour zone. Woah! But get this – the car German was driving was an electric car.

Ready for a crazy stat? in the year 1900, there were 4,192 cars on American roads. 1,681 were steam powered, 1,575 were electric, and 936 had internal combustion engines. There was a moment in American history when electric cars were more prevalent than gas-powered ones.

Internationally, Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897 – If you haven’t read this book, it’s way more modern than I was expecting when I read it back in high school. One of the characters is a Texas Cowboy, for goodness sake. It’s a fun story, you might enjoy it.

The German company Bayer patented Aspirin in a powder form on March 6, 1899. Aspirin derives from a chemical found in the bark of willow trees, by the way. Pretty cool.

And over in Great Britain, Queen Victoria – who had ruled the British empire since Martin Van Buren’s was president in 1837 – died on January 22, 1901, at the ripe age of 81. Her death signaled the end of Britain’s power powerful era, and the start of an American century.

Ok, so, what can we learn from William McKinley? I’m going to say, be open to unexpected opportunities. Nobody had ever run a multi-million dollar campaign until McKinley had the opportunity to, and he said ok. McKinley tried all he could to avoid war with Spain, but when public pressure hit a crescendo and he realized he could liberate cuba and expand America’s commercial empire into the east at the same time, he rolled the dice. And when turmoil in china threatened to carve the empire in pieces, McKinley dispatched american troops to put down the boxer rebellion and then make sure American interests were served at the peace table. None of these are things McKinley set out to do, but when opportunities rose, he acted decisively to maximize them. And that was the secret to his success.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and leave a 5-star review on your podcast-listening platform of choice.

You can also follow the show on Facebook, at abridged presidential histories, or on Twitter, at APHpodcast. 

If you’d like to support the show, you can look it up on Patreon, or go directly to www.patreon.com/abridgedpresidentialhistories. It helps me buy books and pay to host the show.

The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, by Scott Miller

In our next episode, we’ll talk to Oregon State history professor Christopher Nichols about the partnership between William McKinley and Mark Hanna, what they saw in each other, the election of 1896, and how it changed American politics forever. 

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.