Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings
February 15, 2018
“President McKinley: Architect of the American Century”
Robert W. Merry
“Once again the president didn’t feel constrained by precedent or
what he considered outmoded political etiquette. He was in politics to win.”
Of all our presidents, few need rehabilitating more than William McKinley. For most Americans, he serves as a footnote, best remembered for his assassination, which gave rise to the well-remembered, energetic, mercurial and narcissistic Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley was a man of tradition, a supporter of tariffs and of glacial change, but he quit the status quo ante. He confronted the Trusts, which were hobbling competition, and he turned the U.S. into a global military and economic power house. The United States proved victorious during the four-month-long Spanish-American War. With victory came Pax Americana, replacing Pax Britannica. In defeat, Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico. McKinley annexed Hawaii and granted it self-rule. He created the “Open Door” policy with China and cemented our special relationship with England. He saw the value in, and pushed for, the Panama Canal, assuring U.S. dominance in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But, unlike Britain, Germany Spain and France, he was not an imperialist. He did not seek territory in Cuba or the Philippines; his desire was to nourish independent and democratic nations that would befriend the United States and abet its security and global trade.
Mr. Merry does a masterful job in clearing the rubble of history, so that we might see this man for who he was. William McKinley was the last of six presidents to have served in the Civil War. He was eighteen when the War began, which he joined as a private. Four years later, he was mustered out as a brevet major. His war memories tempered his attitudes toward foreign engagements: “…the memories of war are sweeter than service in the war.” Yet, he oversaw U.S. military action in Cuba and the Philippines. Mr. Merry tells of his family tragedy, and he takes us through his years in Ohio – as a Congressman and two-term governor – and his relationship with Mark Hanna. He quotes John Hay on McKinley’s character. Hay had been private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and served as McKinley’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Secretary of State: “It is a genuine Italian ecclesiastical face of the fifteenth century. And there are idiots who think Mark Hanna will run him!” Elihu Root, New York lawyer and McKinley’s Secretary of War, expressed similar sentiments: “He cared nothing about the credit, but McKinley always had his way.”
The late 19th Century was a time of industrial creativity and economic expansion, but it was also a time of political and labor unrest. McKinley was the first president to win re-election (in 1900) since Grant had been re-elected twenty-eight years earlier. He helped guide the country toward its global pre-eminence.
Mr. Merry not only provides a character study of Mr. McKinley, but also offers a window on the little-studied political aspects of the last few decades of the 19th Century. In the twenty-five years, between 1877 and 1901, six men served as President, two of whom were assassinated. Writing in The New York Times book review, Evan Thomas noted that the story of McKinley suggests “show-boating moralizers can be balanced by grounded and wiser souls” – grounded and wise, fitting epithets for our 25th President.