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This Day in History: William McKinley, one of our lesser-known Presidents

On this day in 1843, William McKinley is born. He is one of those Presidents that you don’t hear too much about, perhaps in part because his time in office was cut short by a deranged gunman.

As a young man, McKinley fought for the Union during the Civil War. He served under future President Rutherford B. Hayes, then a Colonel in the Army. The two would develop a lifelong friendship that was beneficial to McKinley’s political career.  Indeed, McKinley ran for his first congressional seat during the same year that Hayes ran for President (1876).

1896 campaign poster

As a congressman, McKinley pushed through a protectionist tariff that proved to be unpopular. The voters ousted him from office shortly afterwards, but then they elected him Governor of Ohio! His popularity as Governor helped to rehabilitate his image in time for the 1896 presidential election.

As it would turn out, the man who had once been ousted from the House was easily elected President.

During his first term, McKinley led the country into the Spanish-American War—its first war with a European nation since the War of 1812. The 3.5-month war ended with U.S. acquisition of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The country was also doing better economically. Thus, McKinley’s 1900 presidential campaign was focused on the idea of a “full dinner pail” (the country’s prosperity) and the respect that America was acquiring respect abroad. 

McKinley was easily re-elected in 1900, but 6 months into his term, tragedy hit.

The McKinleys were then attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The President had been invited to give a speech. He’d accepted the invitation and was eager to attend, although Mrs. McKinley was worried. She had a bad feeling about the event and didn’t really want him to go.

The President went anyway.

On September 6, he was attending a public reception, shaking hands with those who were coming through. It was a hot day, and many people were holding handkerchiefs to wipe sweat from their brow. Thus, no one thought anything of it when a man approached McKinley with a handkerchief over his right hand. That man turned out to be an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. The handkerchief hid his revolver.

“Suddenly I saw a hand shoved toward the President,” an eyewitness later reported, “two of them in fact—as if the person wished to grasp the President’s hand in both his own. In the palm of one hand, the right one, was a handkerchief. Then there were two shots in rapid succession, the interval being so short as to be scarcely measurable.”

Czolgosz got off two bullets before the President’s aides wrestled him to the ground.

After he was shot, McKinley reportedly told his personal secretary, “My wife, be careful, [George] Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful.” McKinley had always been very attentive to his wife, who was still suffering from the deaths of her two young daughters (their only children) and her mother. Ida McKinley had also developed epilepsy after their marriage.

At first, it seemed that the President might recover. But, by September 13, an infection had set in, and his health took a severe turn for the worse.

On September 14, McKinley passed away and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took over the presidency. At 42, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to serve as President.

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