“If I were giving a young man advice,” said Wilbur Wright, “as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” That advice certainly applied to his older contemporary, a fellow Ohioan and the twenty-fifth President of the United States, William McKinley. It is worth recalling that more than a century ago McKinley filled young people with enthusiasm.
To take one example, during the presidential race of 1896, at a time when the voting age was twenty-one, College Republican clubs existed and were gung-ho for McKinley. At Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, membership in the College Republicans overlapped with that of another club, the Belles Lettres Society. In June, 1897, the general membership of Belles Lettres voted to elect the new President an honorary member. They duly wrote McKinley informing him of their decision.
To their surprise, they received a reply, a letter they published in their weekly student newspaper, The Dickinsonian. On official stationary and dated 18 June, 1897, a typed message above the President’s signature said, “It gives me pleasure to acknowledge the receipt of your kind letter notifying me of my election to an honorary membership of the general Belles Lettres Society of Dickinson College. I fully appreciate the compliment conveyed by the action taken by your Society.”
When his secretary showed McKinley the letter from his admirers at Dickinson, McKinley knew a thing or two about small colleges in small towns in Pennsylvania, and he knew about student literary societies. Before taking ill and having to withdraw, McKinley had for a term attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He had graduated from a high school in eastern Ohio, where he founded the Everett Literary and Debating Society, named in honor of Edward Everett, then a prominent politician and public speaker. Today Everett is best remembered for having delivered a voluminous oration at Gettysburg right before Abraham Lincoln made a few remarks. To furnish the new club’s meeting room, young McKinley raised money for a fine carpet and shelves of books of history and literature.
Like Wilbur Wright after him, McKinley grew up in a devout Methodist family that valued reading. McKinley’s family also took up a controversial cause of the 1850s, abolition of slavery. It was an ideal that made McKinley decide not to return to college but to enlist in the Army. In his late teens and early twenties he saw combat in the American Civil War, rising to the rank of major. Throughout his life it was his preferred title; with characteristic self-deprecation, he would say, “I earned that, but I’m not so sure about the rest.”
Back home from the war, McKinley studied law and entered Republican politics in Ohio. A feature of all his political campaigns was unexpected support from Catholic voters, most of them Democrats. It was support he reciprocated. As governor of Ohio he risked a lot of votes by refusing demands from a group of evangelical Protestants to fire two state prison guards simply because they were Catholics. At his second inauguration as President, McKinley broke with precedent and had James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore give the benediction.
Slowly William McKinley, shrewd and brave, has been getting the appreciation he deserves. For nearly half a century the standard biography of McKinley was Margaret Leech’s In the Days of McKinley. In December, 1959, excerpts were in American Heritage magazine, and in 1960 it won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1986 the Easton Press reprinted it in a handsome gilt-edged, leather-bound edition.
More recent years have seen popular biographies of McKinley, by Kevin Phillips (2003) and Robert W. Merry (2017), and a study of McKinley’s first presidential campaign, by Karl Rove (2015). They necessarily drew upon Leech’s work, as well as upon scholarly books and articles by Lewis L. Gould on McKinley and the Spanish-American War.
That brief war defined McKinley’s presidency, and victory over Spain was a great factor in McKinley’s re-election. He had been reluctant to send young men to war, open instead to having Pope Leo XIII serve as mediator in the dispute with Spain. For his prudence, McKinley earned the derision of Theodore Roosevelt, who is said to have blurted out that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” After the war Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, and in 1900 McKinley was big enough to overlook previous criticism and accept Roosevelt as his running mate.
On 5 September, 1901, some six months after his second inauguration, McKinley was in Buffalo, New York, to speak at the Pan-American Exposition. The next day, while receiving visitors at the event, he was shot twice in the abdomen at close range by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who was a follower of a notorious socialist, Emma Goldman.
As soon as those two pistol shots rang out, men around McKinley tackled Czolgosz. McKinley, bleeding and staggering backwards, had the presence of mind and excellence of character to say, “Don’t let them hurt him.” It is a scene that ought to be better known.
A week later, McKinley died, and Roosevelt became President. McKinley’s assassination marked the third time in thirty-six years that Republican Presidents had been shot and killed by leftists. National shock and mourning followed, and seemingly overnight commemorative items appeared, including sheet music for a hymn whose title was among McKinley’s last words, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
Within a couple of months of McKinley’s funeral, Edward Stratemeyer published a biography of the late President. Meant for a particular demographic, it was called American Boys’ Life of William McKinley. To his narrative Stratemeyer appended McKinley’s final address, containing the noble exhortation, “Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war.”
From the 1890s until his death in 1930, Stratemeyer was a prolific publisher. Based in Newark, New Jersey, he employed a stable of writers and editors to produce several series of edifying novels for young people, primarily for boys. Stratemeyer’s mission was to use wholesome adventure stories to pass on the sterling qualities found in men like William McKinley. For boys, the most enduring of Stratemeyer’s fictional creations, chronicled by various authors under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon, were Joe and Frank, the Hardy Boys.