“William McKinley and His America” by H. Wayne Morgan was published in 1963. Morgan was a noted historian of the Gilded Age, an author and a history professor for nearly three decades at the University of Oklahoma. Morgan died in 2014 at the age of 79.
The underlying theme of Morgan’s biography is that McKinley was a strong but compassionate transitional figure, pivoting the presidency from the Gilded Age to the modern era of politics. And while admitting that McKinley was not a “great” president, Morgan seems to suggest he fell not far from that category.
Despite the book’s title it is far more a biography of McKinley than a history of his times (or “His America”). This stands in contrast to Margaret Leech’s earlier biography of McKinley which is at least as much the latter as the former. But historical context is never in short supply and the reader never loses sight of important events outside McKinley’s immediate sphere.
Though lengthy at 530 pages, this biography is well-paced, nicely balanced and surprisingly interesting. The various periods of McKinley’s life each receive reasonable coverage; his pre-presidency (including his childhood, legal and congressional careers and terms as governor of Ohio) accounts for about half the book. And although there is relatively little focus on McKinley’s family life, his children died in early childhood so, other than his conspicuous devotion to his frail wife, politics was his life.
While Morgan’s writing style lacks elegant flourishes it is direct, impactful and easy to understand. There are no hidden messages to decode or important themes uncover. He demonstrates an uncommon talent for explaining complex (or dull) issues in remarkably comprehensible language: his introductions to the Cuban conflict and the tariff issue were among the best I’ve seen.
The author also does a nice job analyzing McKinley’s personality, dissecting it into the various character traits which assisted in his political ascension and differentiated him from his contemporaries. Morgan’s portrayal of McKinley is neither overly sympathetic nor particularly harsh. But I was struck by his willingness to forgive McKinley for his failure to prepare the military for the conflict with Spain and for his miserable choice of Sherman as secretary of State.
Other notable features of this biography are an engaging discussion of McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign and an interesting review of McKinley’s cabinet selection process. And Morgan ends the book with a useful review of McKinley’s presidency and the attributes which lined his path to political success. But disappointingly there is less emphasis on McKinley’s legacy or place in history (even from the author’s dated vantage point) than I would have liked.
Morgan’s biography is also about 10-20% too long. There were relatively few occasions when the text became bogged down, but with careful pruning (perhaps 50-100 fewer pages) this biography could be even more compelling. Embedded footnotes and a bibliography would also enhance the book.
Overall, H. Wayne Morgan’s “William McKinley and His America” is a creditable biography of an arguably under-appreciated president. This book proves comprehensive, balanced, interesting and incredibly straightforward. Readers with an interest in William McKinley will almost certainly find this a rewarding and worthwhile journey.
Overall rating: 4 stars