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William McKinley (American Presidents Series)

William McKinley (American Presidents Series)

3.2 4
by Kevin Phillips, Arthur M. Schlesinger (Editor)

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A bestselling historian and political commentator reconsiders McKinley's overshadowed legacy

By any serious measurement, bestselling historian Kevin Phillips argues, William McKinley was a major American president. It was during his administration that the United States made its diplomatic and military debut as a world power. McKinley was one of eight


A bestselling historian and political commentator reconsiders McKinley's overshadowed legacy

By any serious measurement, bestselling historian Kevin Phillips argues, William McKinley was a major American president. It was during his administration that the United States made its diplomatic and military debut as a world power. McKinley was one of eight presidents who, either in the White House or on the battlefield, stood as principals in successful wars, and he was among the six or seven to take office in what became recognized as a major realignment of the U.S. party system.

Phillips, author of Wealth and Democracy and The Cousins' War, has long been fascinated with McKinley in the context of how the GOP began each of its cycles of power. He argues that McKinley's lackluster ratings have been sustained not by unjust biographers but by years of criticism about his personality, indirect methodologies, middle-class demeanor, and tactical inability to inspire the American public. In this powerful and persuasive biography, Phillips musters convincing evidence that McKinley's desire to heal, renew prosperity, and reunite the country qualify him for promotion into the ranks of the best chief executives.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An instructive, graceful look at a neglected presidency.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
The New York Times
Focusing on the last election of the 19th century, Kevin Phillips offers a vigorous reassessment of the neglected 25th president, William McKinley. Rather than a narrative of McKinley's life, this is a study of his strategies and successes, a subtle and relevant political parable.—Allen D. Boyer
Publishers Weekly
Every president probably deserves his apologist. Here, William McKinley, president from 1897 until his assassination in 1901, gets his. Phillips (Wealth and Democracy), a skilled political writer who foresaw the "the emerging Republican majority" of 1968, was an inspired choice of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., editor of the American Presidents series, to write about this chief executive who, Phillips says, also represented a new Republican alignment. The author makes about as good a case as possible for what he terms a "near great," "hinge" president whose administration prefigured so much in modern politics and policy. McKinley emerges as a strong Ohio governor and decisive president whose stern mien hid a thoughtful, even gentle, side. A Civil War veteran and Lincoln Republican, he presided over the emergence of the U.S. as a world power in the Spanish-American War, and his election in 1896 ushered in roughly 40 years of Republican political dominance. Still, it's a bit far-fetched to present McKinley as a "tribune of the people," who should get credit for many of the more progressive policies pursued by his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. What's more, the strained, clotted words that occasionally interrupt otherwise lively prose suggest too hasty writing and editing. Unlike authors of other volumes in this series, Phillips wastes space telling us what other historians have written about McKinley and arguing with many of them. But one can't fail to come away from this book with deeper knowledge of a critical moment in American governance and a warmer appreciation for a man who Phillips insists has gotten a bum rap. This little work of rehabilitation should help set McKinley's reputation right. (Sept. 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Nobody knows the history of American politics like Phillips, and William McKinley, his contribution to the Times Books series of short lives of American presidents, is Phillips at his best. Phillips believes that McKinley has been given short shrift by historians, and he makes a good case. A meticulous and thoughtful analysis of McKinley's rise to power through post-Civil War Ohio politics combines with a close reading of McKinley's presidency to give him much of the credit for the progressive revolution in the Republican Party. The real merit of this book, however, lies in its portrait of policymaking and politics in late-nineteenth-century America. Phillips seems to know the ethnic makeup, voting record, and economic concerns of every precinct in Ohio and every state in the Union. An unmatched ability to link retail politics with great public issues and broad economic trends gives Phillips extraordinary insight into the making of the American past. Thanks to universal manhood (and, already in some states, universal adult) suffrage and the decentralized nature of the political system, nineteenth-century American politics was a complex and sensitive barometer of changing public sentiment about the economy and the United States' place in the world. Phillips is one of a handful of scholars who can treat both the American past and the American present with authority; this book will strengthen his already formidable reputation even more than it will help McKinley's.
Library Journal
Poor William McKinley gets little respect as America's 25th president (1897-1901). A puppet of Wall Street and campaign manager of Mark Hanna during the Gilded Age, he is merely ranked as one of the top average presidents. Here, political analyst Phillips (Emerging Republican Majority) attempts to save the martyred commander in chief from blinded ingrates. Based on accounts by revisionist historians, his critique is less a biography than a lawyer's brief to upgrade McKinley's reputation. In his heart, Phillips is convinced that McKinley would have been a great president if his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had not stolen the show after the assassination. Phillips pleads for a near-great ranking. Doubtless, McKinley was a genuinely nice guy and a highly popular figure, yet his "hidden hand" executive approach was undercut by the bolder vision of the multitalented Teddy. Nonetheless, this is a lively and readable defense of McKinley that will enjoy popular appeal. Recommended for public libraries and presidential collections.-William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An engaging life of the stoical Buckeye politician, whom Phillips (Wealth and Democracy, 2002, etc.) reckons to be "an upright and effective president of the solid second rank." Faint praise, perhaps. But considering other second-rank presidents from the middle class (Nixon, Reagan, Clinton), and even considering some of the first tier, William McKinley looks better and better as the years roll on. As Phillips--an eminent political historian and biographer, and one of the best in the business--points out, McKinley was a "hinge president," whose first term ushered in the 20th century, who "presided over the fruition of the Northern or Yankee version of U.S. expansionism, a commercial manifest destiny tied to increasing American exports." Which sounds rather like the current rush to globalism, and, as Phillips observes, latter GOP operative Karl Rove has lately taken to pointing to McKinley’s "realignment" of the Republican Party toward progressivism and free trade as a model for his modern counterparts--while, as Phillips also adds, carefully ignoring the fact that McKinley believed in laying tax burdens squarely on the rich, embraced organized labor, used American military force (against Spain, in his time) only reluctantly, and rejected "the national party influence and patronage demands of the Eastern state GOP machine leaders." Phillips, who clearly and understandably admires McKinley, charts his rise from a staff officer during the Civil War (during which his habits of careful study and preparation served his senior officers well) to local-level politician to well-liked national figure--and finally to martyr, McKinley having been assassinated in 1901 by what his official biographydeems "a deranged anarchist." In all his roles, Phillips observes, McKinley labored earnestly to achieve consensus, arriving at a moderate platform that his vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, carried on, and so effectively that Phillips views the two presidencies as a single continuum. An instructive, graceful look at a neglected presidency.

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
American Presidents Series
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 8.49(h) x 0.78(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

William McKinley

By Kevin Phillips

Times Books

Copyright © 2003 Kevin Phillips
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-805-06953-4

Chapter One

William McKinley, Ohioan

It is generally believed by strangers that the most interesting and significant part of Ohio's history lies in the part the state has played in national politics-as a "barometer" state and as the home of political leaders. Ohio has produced many men of political importance, and has sent seven native sons to the presidency-Grant, Garfield, Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley, Taft and Harding. However, Ohio's industrial life overshadows its politics.... Ohio's major importance-and major interest-lies in a large and varied industrialism.-The Ohio Guide (WPA)

William McKinley was born in Ohio in 1843, mostly educated there, fought the Civil War in a Buckeye regiment, represented an Ohio district in Congress, and sat in the governor's chair in Columbus. He loved the state. His God, loved even more, was the benign God of an Ohio Methodist Sunday School. His career is only understandable as the career of a proud and well-connected middle-class Ohioan. Factory whistles were his Mozart wind concertos, tariff schedules his Plato's Republic, and Civil War recollections his Herodotus.

Nineteenth-century Ohio, however, was not just a place but a phenomenon. No retrospective on America's twenty-fifth president can begin without a comprehensionof the state's spectacular emergence as a center of U.S. political and economic gravity during the fifty-eight years between McKinley's birth and death. Like Virginia earlier, Ohio became a "Mother of Presidents." It was also the first crucible of the Old Northwest. In the year McKinley was born, four other future GOP presidents called Ohio home-Ulysses Grant, just out of West Point, Rutherford Hayes, a year past his Kenyon College graduation, the twelve-year-old James Garfield, working to support his widowed mother, and Benjamin Harrison, a schoolboy in North Bend.

None, obviously, had any youthful inkling of the Ohio regime to come, of how from 1868 to 1900, no Republican would be elected president who was not born in the Buckeye State. Those of other origins tried in vain: New Yorkers, Hoosiers, state of Maine men, anyone. Even the three leading Northern generals in the Civil War were Ohio-born: Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan. Ohio itself was the sole Northern state central enough to be a bridge from the war's eastern theater of operations in next-door Virginia to its western theater spanning the Ohio-Mississippi river system. The late nineteenth century was Ohio's great period, the Buckeye hour in history.

This unique molding and mentoring helped to sculpt McKinley's political rise and influence. The state's economic vigor and innovation, besides underpinning its national importance, also gave McKinley his principal career theme: first, the blessings of a protective tariff system, and then the reforms it would need to meet the twentieth century. Lacking the patina that other Ohio GOP presidents got at Williams College (Garfield), Yale (Taft), or Harvard Law School (Hayes), little about McKinley did not reflect his middle class, midcountry origins.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ohio was the doorstep of the New West, the open, rich land closest to Virginia and the original Northern states. Steamboats were common on the Ohio River by the 1820s. By 1830 and 1840, the center of national population was speeding westward across Virginia. In 1850 it hovered near Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the south bank of the Ohio River. Then, like Eliza, the fugitive slave in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, it leaped across the river, coming to rest in 1860 about fifteen miles from Chillicothe.

Ohio had gone from territory to state in 1803, just as Thomas Jefferson was arranging the Louisiana Purchase. The early settlers, disproportionately from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, concentrated near the river that had taken most of them west. Cincinnati, its "Queen City," became the state's major urban and commercial center, although its streets were often clogged by noisy, dirty hogs on their way to the slaughterhouses.

Then in the 1830s, courtesy of New York's Erie Canal, a new population movement began to fill up the northern and central parts of the state with Yankees, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and German, British, and Irish immigrants. At mid-century, Cincinnati still had a huge edge over Yankee Cleveland on Lake Erie-a population of some 115,000 versus just 17,000. But growth in northern Ohio was accelerating like one of the new Philadelphia-built locomotives on the Mad River and Lake Erie Railway.

Ohio was a new type of state, a composition board of converging migrations from all three major U.S. eighteenth-century coastal regions-New England, the Middle Atlantic (mostly Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers), and the South (principally Virginians, Carolinians, and migrants from Tennessee and Kentucky). Ohio's northeast, the former Western Reserve of Connecticut, had welcomed a small first wave of Yankee settlers in the 1780s and 1790s at the same time as larger numbers of Appalachian Scots-Irish crossed the Pennsylvania and Virginia borders.

As settlement swelled, Ohio's population jumped from 230,000 in 1810-Shawnee and Wyandot war parties still prowled the state's northwest-to some 900,000 in 1830. A further flood more than doubled the population to nearly 2 million in 1850. Ohio became to the canal, steamboat, and Conestoga wagon era what California would be to the automobile and airplane in the decades after World War II: not just a beacon but a national symbol of westward migration.

"The immigration to the North Central section," concluded historian Frederick Jackson Turner, "had a special significance. In the Atlantic states, from the colonial days, the rule of the older stock was well-established, and institutions, manners and customs-the cultural life of the sections-had been largely fixed by tradition. But in the New West, society was plastic and democratic. All elements were suddenly coming in, together, to form the section. It would be a mistake to think that social classes and distinctions were obliterated, but in general, no such stratification existed as was to be found, especially, in New England."'

Buckeye agriculture complemented Jacksonian democracy, being small-holder based and a far cry from plantations of the Cot ton South or the quasi-feudal land holdings of New York's Hudson Valley. Farmers were lured by the fifty to sixty bushels an acre corn yields of the fertile Muskingum, Scioto, and Miami valleys, two or three times what they could grow on hillside or tidewater plots back east. By the 1840s, two extensive state-built waterways connected Ohio farmlands to Lake Erie and the Erie Canal, opening up the Eastern U.S. and European corn and wheat markets. Higher crop prices followed.

Additional help came from the reaper and other new farm machinery. In 1840, Ohio was the leading wheat-producing state ranked by yield. This slipped to second in 1850 and fourth in 1860 as the grain belt moved west. In corn, however, Ohio had been fourth in 1840, but rose to first place in 1850. Corn was marketed largely on the hoof-cattle and hogs fed on it, then were slaughtered, packed, and sent east or abroad.

Not surprisingly, Ohio led the nation in livestock in 1850. Meat-packing Cincinnati had already won the nickname "Porkopolis," and Ohio's sheep-raising eastern counties likewise made it the number one wool-raising state. A century later, one would err taking Ohio as the heart of the Farm Belt, but not in the years of McKinley's boyhood.

Biblical land of Goshen as the state might seem, abundant crops did not always lead to prosperity. That had been proved in the late 1830s and 1840s when banks failed and low meat and grain prices barely exceeded production costs. Prosperity returned in the 1 850s, but by the late sixties and early seventies, Washington's acquiescence in a post-Civil War contraction of the currency was provoking crop and livestock districts alike.

As president, McKinley would fondly reminisce about how as a barefoot nine-year-old, he took his family's cows to and from pasture. Yet from the start, his part of Ohio was also industrial. At the time of McKinley's birth, the Niles Tribune-Chronicle later recalled, the town had included "3 churches, 3 stores, 1 blast furnace, rolling mill, nail factory forge and about 300 inhabitants." Even in 1820, only Pennsylvania and New York surpassed Ohio in the value of manufactured goods, and this kind of interspersed small-scale industry characterized the Ohio countryside until the Civil War.

McKinley's grandfather James, and his father, William, were iron makers by trade. In the early nineteenth century, they came to Ohio from Pennsylvania, where Scots-Irish iron masters, aroused by prohibitions in the British Iron Act of 1750 against colonials making pig iron into ironware and machinery, had been a mainstay of the American Revolution. In 1804, Daniel Heaton built Ohio's first smelting furnace on Yellow Creek, near the present site of Youngstown. This was the forerunner of the Mahoning Valley steel industry, at its twentieth-century peak second only to that of nearby Pittsburgh.

Iron quickly became Ohio's leading manufacturing industry, with the 1850 census ranking state pig-iron output second only to Pennsylvania's. Coal and iron production both concentrated in the eastern counties where the McKinleys always had a small furnace or two.

Turnpikes, canals, and railroads crisscrossed the area where McKinley grew up. By the 1850s, the railroad concentrations of northeastern Ohio rivaled those centered on Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. At the Civil War's outbreak, Ohio led the nation in railroad mileage, and when Buckeye soldiers got leave, all they had to do was reach the Baltimore & Ohio line in the east or the Louisville & Cincinnati in the west. Home would be only hours away.

Like Ohio's centrality in late-nineteenth-century politics, its significance to U.S. manufacturing is hard to exaggerate. Between young Will McKinley's birth and his election to the presidency in 1896, the state's industrial innovation was the stuff of record books-literally.

Cleveland had John D. Rockefeller at work in the Ohio oilfields and refinery district, as well as Charles Brush, whose invention of the arc light illuminated America's cities. Young Thomas A. Edison spent some of his boyhood puttering in the town of Milan. Charles Martin Hall, based in Oberlin, in 1886 discovered the electrolytic process for making aluminum. Toledo to the northwest claimed Edward Libbey and Michael Owens, whose inventions and local company, Libby-Owens-Ford, revolutionized the glass and bottle business.


Excerpted from William McKinley by Kevin Phillips Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kevin Phillips, author of Wealth and Democracy, The Cousins' War, and Arrogant Capital , is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post and is a commentator for CBS and National Public Radio. He also edits his own newsletter, American Political Report. He lives in Connecticut.

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William McKinley (American Presidents Series) 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author goes on and on about subjects that McKinley may have influenced and to many what if he had lived through his second term. He didn't let me know anything about his widow. Nothing about his assassin. About 1/3 of the book was boring.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The distinguished historian's account of William McKinley is yet another highly recommended short biography in this series of Presidential lives. No doubt the relatively unknown McKinley's life needs reevaluation but Phillips' account borders much more toward hagiography than revisionism. Although extremely biased this book is worthwhile reading of a most important American.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author is excellent and really provides excellent insight into McKinley's political development and ability as a president. I thought the personal side of the man was light. The observations and profiling of Teddy Rosevelts presidency, as a result of Mckinley was really excellent
Anonymous More than 1 year ago