American history, biographies, book reviews, Lewis Gould, presidential biographies, Presidents, William McKinley
“The Presidency of William McKinley” by Lewis Gould was published in 1980 and is a member of the American Presidency Series (sponsored by the University Press of Kansas). Gould is Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Texas and is the author of several books including “The Modern American Presidency” and “The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.”
Given the focus of the American Presidency Series, it is not surprising that Gould’s book is less a biography of McKinley than it is a critical dissection and analysis of his presidency. And although the opening chapter briefly introduces a young McKinley to the reader, it is far too quick a meeting even for speed-dating.
The author begins his analysis of McKinley’s presidency by tearing down the second term of his predecessor, Grover Cleveland. But despite this potentially inauspicious start, Gould demonstrates virtually no other bias throughout the book. His analysis of the McKinley presidency is almost as objective an analysis as I’ve ever seen. He just as quickly criticizes McKinley as praises him – and there is plenty of both in these pages.
The book’s primary thesis is presented quickly and clearly: that McKinley broadened and strengthened the presidency and that, as a consequence, McKinley (not Theodore Roosevelt) was the nation’s first modern president. This premise is well-supported although much of the book unfortunately lacks the level of clarity of its mission statement.
In general, Gould’s analysis proves all business and provides few frills or thrills. The average reader (anyone not residing in academia) will frequently find the book dense and anti-sceptic. It lacks the color and flavor of more descriptive narratives, and lacks the breadth of a more comprehensive birth-to-death biography.
It frequently jumps from one topic to another (often connected only by details) and can be hard to follow. So although it is well-researched and thoughtful, it often seems more a grab-bag of useful insights and observations than a multi-faceted but systematic line of reasoning.
Very little of McKinley’s personal or family life receives attention, and there are surprisingly few observations about even his closest friends and advisers. Important and influential figures like Mark Hanna, Teddy Roosevelt and even Ida Saxton McKinley (his wife) go almost unnoticed in this text.
But the author’s keen focus on the McKinley presidency does pay dividends. Gould repudiates the popular notion of McKinley as a weak and compliant president. And while giving credit to previous biographers who have also seen McKinley as a strong leader, Gould seems to break new ground and certainly provides a committed reader with much to ponder.
Overall, Lewis Gould’s “The Presidency of William McKinley” is as worthy as an analysis of McKinley’s presidency (which is its goal) as it is disappointing as a traditional biography. This book is clearly geared toward a narrow audience already familiar with the domestic politics and global affairs of McKinley’s era. For the right audience, this book will prove meritorious and rewarding, but it is far from ideal for someone seeking a traditional biography of McKinley.
Overall rating: 3¼ stars
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Darren Seacliffe said:
I see that you’re almost done with McKinley, Steve. Congratulations. I’m planning to buy a book on the McKinley Presidency. Of the 3 titles you’ve reviewed so far, can you please advise me which title I should get. My interest is more in the Presidency rather than the President itself. I prefer more detail. Analysis is secondary to me. The reasons are because I’ve heard the President was riding the wave of the climatic events which marked his presidency rather than making it. Thank you in advance. Please keep up the good work with your blog. You’ve inspired me to do my own private reading project.
Darren, of the 3 McKinley biographies I’ve read I’m torn between recommending Morgan’s “William McKinley and His America” and Gould’s “The Presidency of William McKinley.” The latter is more focused on what you’re after, but the former might have more total pages devoted to the topic. But if forced to choose I think I’d go with Gould…
Hey Steve. Can you give a sneak peek of the order in which you’ll read the TR books?
Sure – I’m planning to start with Morris’s 3-volume series (I simply can’t resist) and proceed through the rest from oldest to newest: Pringle, Blum, Harbaugh, McCullough, Miller, Brands, Dalton, Millard, Yarbrough and DKGoodwin.
Darren Seacliffe said:
Why did you leave the book In the Years of McKinley out? Steve, I thought you said that book had too much detail for you. Was it the structure or lack of analysis which turned you off? My initial choice was between Morgan and Leech. That was why I was pretty surprised you chose between Gould and Leech.
To me, the Leech and Morgan biographies are fairly similar in approach though I had a preference for Morgan’s as it was easier to digest. And where Leech’s was more focused on global events, Morgan’s was more focused on McKinley’s life. But both devoted meaningful time to his pre-presidency (which you are less interested in). And the Gould book is almost exclusively focused on that, so for me your choice comes down to Leech-or-Morgan vs. Gould. If you have plenty of time, I would go with Morgan; otherwise, Gould will give you a much more focused experience.
James P Elrod said:
In the biographical essay in his 2003 revised edition Morgan states ” ‘Gould’s McKinley’ is basic to understand McKinley and his times. The book covers nearly every aspect of his presidency. The research is impeccable…that relates to international bimetalismo, tariff reciprocity and the war of 1898. Gould’s judgements are sound and well supported. He sees McKinley as a master politician, dedicated to fostering national unity. Gould is adept at delineating how McKinley enhanced the presidency in his dealings with Congress, relations with the public and use of the media. He convincingly portrays McKinley as the first modern president, who made the office a position of national leadership and innovative policy making.”