We remember the assassinated Presidents. We remember Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, the martyr, a peaceful man who had the misfortune of leading our nation through its darkest and bloodiest hour. We remember Garfield, dying for a crazed man's obsession with spoils, becoming the cause for civil service reform fixing decades of prolonged corrupt practices. We remember Kennedy, the supposed promise of Camelot, but that can be mourned for another week, another review.
Who mourns for William McKinley?
Through no fault of his own, McKinley is one of the forgotten Presidents, lumped in with the meager One-Termers of the 19th Century who mattered little (or made things worse). The more dedicated historians will know him, will debate the effects of his administration, but history itself had passed the man by. Mostly because the man who followed him into office was the most active, most unstoppable, most reform-minded, most BADASS President we've ever had. But partly because McKinley died for no damn good reason.
The 19th Century was awash across Europe and the Western hemisphere with various political ideological movements, unleashed from the tumult of the French Revolution, the fall of various monarchies, and the merging of divided states into nations (Italy, Greece, Prussia/Germany). You had the democrats, the monarchists, the republicans, the communists, and the anarchists. Of these, the anarchists gave birth to a violent strain of protests: a minority among the anarchist movements who sought to overthrow/end organized governments by any means, usually the assassination of key political figures. Or worse, public figures with no political power but whose murders would attract attention.
The man who assassinated McKinley didn't do so because of any action McKinley took. The assassin wasn't protesting McKinley's China policy, or the violence of the Spanish-American War, or the spread of American imperialism. The assassin wanted to shoot somebody to prove his "heroic" deed of anarchism. All it really did was kill two men, the victim and the shooter. And the American government did not collapse: anarchism did not prosper. And I ain't naming the SOB because we really shouldn't name these assassins who were in for their egos. I've already written more about what this SOB did instead of writing what McKinley did, and what Character McKinley had as President.
McKinley served as President at a key change in the nation's history: from global backwater of the thirteen colonies to a major player on the international stage. Elected into office at a time of economic depression, he worked with Congress more often than not to pass legislation stabilizing the economy (it helped the gold standard cause at the time when gold was discovered in the Alaska Yukon, improving the U.S.'s holdings).
The biggest aspect of McKinley's administration was the Spanish-American War, ostensibly started over the nation's outrage - stirred up by the yellow journalism of the day (just think of Fox Not-News today, but with better writers) - over Spain's mistreatment of Cubans during that colony's then-ongoing uprising. While the Monroe Doctrine said the United States wouldn't directly interfere with any European nation's then-control of existing American hemisphere colonies, it was hard for the nation to ignore what was going on 90 miles off-shore. Claiming the U.S. had interests in Cuba to keep safe - mostly businesses and personal property - McKinley sent a representative naval ship - the Maine - as a symbol of U.S. concerns.
And then the Maine blew up.
Current technology makes the case that the explosion was internal, but at the time enough evidence pointed to a mine or external attack. Claiming the Spanish forces in Cuba had attacked a U.S. vessel, proponents for war had their casus belli, and thus war was beginning.
The war turned into one of the biggest curb stomp battles of the ages. Building on 20-plus years of upgrades to the U.S. Navy, McKinley benefited from two naval victories in Cuba and the Philippines over an outmatched outgunned Spanish force. The ground war in Cuba was messier but U.S. forces allied with Cuban uprisers managed to drive Spanish forces into a siege at Santiago.
How McKinley managed the war effort helps describe his character: while arming for war he kept diplomatic channels working; the scope of the war effort stayed focused on Spain even as the nascent German government was sending their fleet in to disrupt things; when it became clear that American forces in Cuba were dying not from the war but from illness - yellow fever - McKinley had the majority of men returned to the states for medical treatment rather than keep them there as a show of force (the naval victories had made the need for ground forces unnecessary).
In terms of the war results, McKinley's legacy is controversial at the least. While Cuban independence was assured, the U.S. still annexed Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain (on a side note, we also finished our takeover of Hawaii as well during his tenure). It certainly put the United States on the global stage: it also marked the true beginning of American imperialism, creating a debate between Isolationists and Interventionists for the next 100 years (all the way up to today). The handling of the Philippines itself - especially the start of another uprising that turned into a brutal suppression - was one of the biggest issues McKinley faced as he entered his second term of office, having handily won re-election due to an improved economy and victorious end to the war. His final speech in Buffalo focused on tariffs and treaties, using their international prestige to improve the American economy through global trade.
If you bought into the legends of McKinley being a puppet of the machine politicians like Hanna, you'd think McKinley was a Passive-Positive. He certainly leaned towards the temperament of being liked and socializing, and on some issues didn't so much lead the discussion but made his voice known. However, a more thorough review of McKinley's administration shows someone who was hands-on, active in foreign policy resolutions and debates, active with Congress in passing legislation, open-eyed about the Cuban crisis and resulting conflict, willing to dismiss his friends and allies from office if they proved unfit or unable to the tasks at hand (on a side note, McKinley was one of the few Presidents on good terms with his Vice Presidents, especially the one serving his first term, Garrett Hobart. Hobart was the one who helped manage the Cabinet and made sure the resignation of Secretary of War Algar went smoothly. If Hobart hadn't died in office, he could have been the Veep for the Second Term... and what a huge twist in American history that would have been...). These are the markings of an Active-Positive President: engaged, dealing, amicable to factions within (and without) his party but not beholden to one...
McKinley also set a legacy of party leadership for the early half of the 20th Century: every major player in the Republican Party well into the 1930s - including the guy who overshadows him - had ties to McKinley and was influenced in some degree by the tenor of his administration. The impact of a Presidency is how it affects the administrations that follow: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln... McKinley could have made this list.
Whether or not McKinley was a great President - he lucked out with the Yukon Gold Rush resolving the gold standard issue for another day, his empire building of taking the Philippines and Hawaii had serious repercussions for American foreign and domestic policy for most of the 20th Century, and had he lived his responses could have tainted his legacy - remains debatable, and won't be resolved here or any time soon. But he deserves better recognition in the history books: it's just, well, the next guy really takes all the attention...
Next Up: the Anti-Jackson. The Good Badass Our Nation Deserves.