American history, biographies, book reviews, H Wayne Morgan, Lewis Gould, Margaret Leech, presidential biographies, Presidents, Pulitzer Prize, Scott Miller
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.
* * *
* 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)
– – – – – – – – – – –
[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)
– – – – – – – – – – –
Best Biography of William McKinley: Morgan’s “William McKinley and His America”
Most Interesting Read: Scott Miller’s “The President and the Assassin”
James P. Elrod said:
The McKinley biography by Kevin Phillips in the Times Books American Presidents series does a good job of trying to convince the reader that McKinley is right behind the first four or five presidents and deserves the credit for many of the contributions he made to the transition from the Gilded to the Modern Presidential Age. It is short, but dense and well worth the read.
James P. Elrod said:
Also, Morgan produced a revised edition in 2003 that is only 406 pages.
I personally didn’t care for Kevin Phillips’s book on McKinley. Way too many digressions (e.g. the growth of Ohio in the 19th century) for a relatively short book, and the way it jumped around in time was confusing. And whether or not Phillips is correct that historians underrate McKinley, I would have much preferred the more balanced approach taken by the professional historians who wrote for the Times books series (they seem to be about half-and-half between historians and other writers)
Also, Robert Merry, who wrote a solid bio of Polk, is releasing a new book on McKinley, “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.”
Paul Clinton said:
Just read Karl Rove’s “Triumph of William McKinley,” which speeds through the pre-presidential years and provides great political insight into the 1896 election and McKinley’s keen political instincts. Because Rove is such a successful strategist and policy wonk, he makes a convincing case that this was the first really modern election that still resonates today.
Just picked up a copy of the Merry bio, and looking forward to diving in.
I’m looking forward to Merry’s bio of McKinley, too, and your note just reminded me that I need to add it to my follow-up list!
Steve I was at half priced books today picking up some future reading. Got Brands’ FDR (2024) and JFK Unfinished LIfe (2025), They had Merry’s McKinley, so I whipped out the old cell phone and went to your page, found you didn’t review it yet, so I didn’t buy that one! Yet 🙂
You should buy it. It is a very good biography of McKinley.
James Salerno said:
I just finished Merry’s McKinley book last week and I think you will enjoy it. Merry portrays McKinley as a wise politician who is very subtle about getting his way. McKinley actually accomplished quite a bit during his presidency and I won’t spoil it, but Merry gets into the legacy aspect. This book really makes me want to pick up his “Where They Stand” book. I’m a bit of a sucker for reading about underappreciated presidents.
There’s also plenty of Ida stories to balance out the political stuff. In later chapters, they really go in-depth on the Philippines, China and Spain. McKinley often disappears for long stretches during these chapters, but there’s plenty of personal stuff elsewhere so it still functions as a bio.T.R. is portrayed as a bit of a jerk which probably won’t surprise anyone. This was a great look into an interesting time in American history.
P.S. – check discount stores for this. I got an overstock copy for $2.99 at an Ollie’s store.
Half Price Books is a godsend. Got hardbacks of Berg’s Wilson, McCullough’s Truman, trade paperbacks of JFK and Brands’ FDR for less than $40
J W McCrea said:
I appreciate the reviews. I am also reading all the
Presidential bios . Been a fun ride so far
Read 26 so far.
I am reading all the presidential biographies, as well. I start McKinley tomorrow. Your guide has been very helpful in choosing which books to read. Thank you very much.