History resurrects the memory of William McKinley when pondering what makes a president admirable…and yet extraordinarily average.
His pre-presidency, however, hardly seems mediocre. He spent his first fifty-four years, like his last four, in pursuit of excellence, overcoming obstacles and making his way in a rapidly changing world.
As a lawyer he took up the cause of the laboring class and they never forgot his support. As a young politician he championed tariff protection (again, on behalf of struggling workers) as his cause célèbre.
So it is ironic that as president, after a short burst of domestic focus, his attention was forced outward toward foreign affairs – and foreign conflicts. Though generally successful in these efforts, McKinley is far less often remembered as a great president than as a man of unquestioned integrity and principle.
Just months into his second term, when he believed he could finally turn his attention back to domestic welfare, he was assassinated in Buffalo, NY. William McKinley, whose presidency represents the pivot-point between the “old” and the “modern,” was gone. But his death paved the way for Theodore Roosevelt…who proved to be anything but average.
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* My first biography of McKinley was Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize winning “In the Days of McKinley.” Published in 1959, this is one of the McKinley “classics” but proves less a traditional biography than a life-and-times of McKinley’s era.
Leech’s writing style is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating; it is dense and dated…and yet often magical. More than a small dose of patience is required to assimilate her messages, but once uncovered they are extraordinarily illuminating. She can dissect characters – and history – with precision and yet seems to stop just shy of providing the last bit of insight that would fully explain McKinley and his place in history.
In the end, this is a must-read for serious scholars and for anyone committed to understanding McKinley and his era. But most readers will wonder whether there was a less arduous way of meeting McKinley. (Full review here)
* Next I read H. Wayne Morgan’s 1963 “William McKinley and His America.” Despite the book’s title, this is far more a biography of McKinley than a review of “His America” (in stark contrast to Leech’s biography). Where McKinley’s pre-presidency received less than 10% of Leech’s attention, it accounted for about half of Morgan’s book.
Unlike Leech’s flourish-filled pages, Morgan’s writing is simple and direct. There is never any mistaking what message he is trying convey, and his ability to clearly explain complicated issues is as admirable as it is uncommon. Although 75 pages shorter than Leech’s classic, Morgan’s could be another 75 pages lighter without losing its punch.
A biography combining the best of Leech’s writing with the clarity and balance of Morgan’s would be nothing short of spectacular. Until such a biography is published, Morgan biography is my preferred source of wisdom and insight into McKinley. (Full review here)
* My third biography of McKinley was “The Presidency of William McKinley” by Lewis Gould. Published in 1980, this member of the American Presidency Series is a sober, serious and methodical dissection of McKinley’s presidency.
Although this book begins by tearing down McKinley’s predecessor, there is very little other bias displayed. Instead, what follows is a careful and largely convincing series of arguments to support the thesis that McKinley adeptly used the power of the presidency to the benefit of the nation and deserves to be considered the first truly modern president.
But while meritorious as an analysis of McKinley’s presidency, this book is not well-suited as a traditional biography. There is almost no focus on his personal life, very little attention to even his closest advisers and virtually no introduction to the man who, the author suggests, deserves the title of “First Modern President.” (Full review here)
* My fourth and final biography of McKinley was Scott Miller’s 2011 “The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century.” Very much in the spirit of Candice Millard’s popular “Destiny of the Republic” (focused on James Garfield’s assassination), Miller has written a popular history focused more on events leading to McKinley’s death than on his full life.
Miller’s book does not attempt to fill the role of a traditional birth-to-death biography. Instead, it dramatically tells the tale of two Americas (one privileged and powerful, the other maltreated and disgruntled) that intersected, with fatal consequences for McKinley, in 1901.
This is less a history book than a dramatic thriller. It lacks the breadth required to critically examine McKinley’s role in shaping the aspects of society which his assassin despised. But this is a lively and engaging book which offers a unique window into American society at the dawn of the twentieth century. (Full review here)
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[Added March 2021]
* I recently read Robert Merry’s 2017 biography “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.” Similar in both length and organizational structure to H. Wayne Morgan’s half-century old biography, it is not clear what new insight Merry offers. His thesis – that McKinley was a more consequential president than remembered – is convincing, but hardly unconventional. His writing style is often dry and matter-of-fact and he spends very little time with McKinley’s assassin…or his most important colleagues (with just one exception). This biography’s primary benefit is its accessibility and easy availability. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of William McKinley: Morgan’s “William McKinley and His America”
Most Interesting Read: Scott Miller’s “The President and the Assassin”