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President McKinley: Architect of the American Century Hardcover – November 7, 2017
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“As this splendid revisionist narrative makes plain, [McKinley’s] legacy includes three rules to guide his successors: Transformative leadership wears many faces. The presidency is no job for a political amateur. Character counts, sometimes even more than charisma.” (The Wall Street Journal)
“In his measured, insightful biography, Robert W. Merry seeks to set the record straight. . . . Merry is methodical and deliberate . . . Clear and thoroughgoing, Merry’s book is a deft character study of a president. It is also a brief for the slow-and-steady school of leadership, a subtle reminder that show boating moralizers can be balanced by grounded and wise souls.” (The New York Times Book Review)
“Magisterial” (Christian Science Monitor)
“One of the country’s most under-appreciated and unknown presidents finally gets his due in this lively, deeply researched and richly informed biography of the 25th occupant of the nation’s highest office, William McKinley. Merry has written a gem of a book that will gratify any political junkie or fan of presidential history.” (Karl Rove, author of The Triumph of McKinley)
“Merry reexamines McKinley and his legacy and puts a fresh twist on the old tale, one in which McKinley belongs far more to the modern American presidency than is generally known. . . . Merry offers a window on the past that also holds a reflection on the present. In it, readers will receive a valuable education on where America has been and, possibly, where it is going.” (National Review)
“A superb study of this neglected American statesman . . . Merry unites impressive archival research with astute judgments to offer a riveting portrait of McKinley. He covers a vast amount of territory, focusing on the link between McKinley’s rise and the formation of the modern Republican party.” (The National Interest)
“A fresh biography of the short-lived presidency of William McKinley (1843-1901), "an unlikely figure to be presiding over the transformation of America.". . . Merry makes a persuasive case that he was not just an amiable Ohio governor, protégé of Cleveland businessman Mark Hanna, but a canny, ambitious statesman.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“Merry’s clear and nimble writing keeps the story moving along to McKinley’s White House years and the Spanish-American War. . . . Merry convincingly portrays McKinley as a crucial actor in American imperialism.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Describing McKinley’s methodical climb up the political ladder, Merry depicts a capable, even-tempered personality who won election after election without making political enemies. . . . Critics or admirers of McKinley’s presidency will agree it was a momentous one and that Merry’s is a fair-minded profile of its central actor.” (Library Journal)
"Critics or admirers of McKinley’s presidency will agree it was a momentous one and that Merry’s is a fair-minded profile of its central actor." (Booklist)
About the Author
Robert Merry is the editor of The National Interest. He has been a Washington correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and the executive editor of the Congressional Quarterly. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, The American Spectator, and The National Interest. He has appeared on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Newsmakers, and many other programs. The author of McKinley, he lives in McLean, Virginia.
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I am very familiar with the early American Presidents, through Andrew Jackson, and the Presidents of the 20th century, however with the exception of the Civil War era, the 19th century Presidents tend to run together for me, and I know very little about them. Prior to reading this book, the only thing I knew about William McKinley was that he was assassinated in office and succeeded by his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.
From reading this biography, it would seem that most historians view him as a very mediocre President, and that while many positive events transpiring during the course of his presidency, he gets little credit for them. As with many biographers, the author engages in a bit of hagiography, arguing that McKinley is underappreciated and misunderstood. Certainly, during McKinley’s term, the economy prospered, bi-metalism was resolved in favor of a gold standard, the United States attained Great Power status through victory over the Spanish and acquisition of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, in addition to playing a leading role in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion resolution.
The question of course, is whether McKinley earned credit for these accomplishments, or whether he was simply along for the ride. Certainly, many historians view him as a bland, indecisive puppet of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, and it is doubtful that McKinley would have ever risen to even the level of Ohio Governor without Hanna’s significant political acumen. The author argues, however, that McKinley’s supposed “indecision” was instead a form of incrementalism and a very successful management style. Critics allege that he was dragged involuntarily to success while the author argues instead that he guided events to their ultimate resolution. Perhaps most unfortunate for McKinley was his succession by Theodore Roosevelt, who was everything that McKinley was not; bold, decisive, energetic and wildly popular.
In any event, McKinley’s term served as a true turning point in American history. Whereas before, America was a largely insular, economically inconsistent, factionalized country, by the time of his death in 1901, The United States was a major force on the world stage, a colonial power with a thriving economy and a strong sense of national destiny. How much of this inures to the credit of William McKinley is open to debate.
The 4 years of McKinley's presidency, beginning in 1897, were chock-full of dramatic events. There was a war with Spain with news coverage by "yellow" journalists; jolting economic change with labor strikes and the invention of new monopolistic devices called the "Trusts"; the beginning of an imperial policy of acquisition, requiring an enlarged imperial Navy and a standing Army. There was no lack of drama. But for the most part, the McKinley presidency is treated as the story of an unremarkable man in a forgettable time. Why is this?
The post-Civil War era was not a good time to be President. If you don't believe me, ask your friends to name the Presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Most people believe that the presidents were men of middling talent who were washed about by the great tycoons and robber barons who were reshaping America as they wished until Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives brought them to task. In the “Gilded Age” the tycoons were the drivers who propelled America into the 20th century. The online firstname.lastname@example.org provides the common opinion:
What role did the government play in this trend? Basically, it was pro-business. Congress, the Presidents, and the Courts looked favorably on this new growth. But leadership was generally lacking on the political level. Corruption spread like a plague through the city, state, and national governments. Greedy legislators and "forgettable" Presidents dominated the political scene.
Contemporary historians have begun to take a fresh look at this group of Presidents. Jean E Smith, Ronald C. White, and Ron Chernow have looked at the traditional portrait of Ulysses Grant as the stone-hearted but successful Civil War general who was also a drunkard and failure at everything else he did, including a presidency. The revised portrait of Grant by these three recent biographers is of a thoughtful and philosophical leader who fought for the civil rights goals of Abraham Lincoln, and was the most popular man of his day, esteemed by Mark Twain. Candice Millard portrays James Garfield as a war hero, legislative leader, and extremely intelligent man who discovered an independent proof of the Pythagorean theorem - hardly a forgettable guy. Scott S Greenberger takes Chester Arthur, a creature of the corrupt New York political boss Roscoe Conkling, and relates the story of a 19th-century Beckett whose new master was the idea of a better United States as he fought for civil service reform.
Into this collection add Robert Merry and his book on William McKinley. This is Merry’s fifth book. His last was a well-received biography of President James K. Polk, so he has traveled to the nineteenth century before. The William McKinley he describes is intelligent and determined, though not imaginative or colorful. While not as colorful as the ingenious and flamboyant Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley comes out very well.
McKinley’s most touching characteristic was his devotion to his wife, Ida. She was the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Canton Ohio, and as young woman was the belle of the town, attractive, intelligent and energetic. Unfortunately, beginning with the tragic death of her only child Ida suffered from ailments that were both debilitating and mysterious. McKinley was always attentive, probably to a fault, but his devotion to Ida was admirable. He was always responsible in discharging his responsibilities to his office, but he always found time for Ida. When he was assassinated his primary concern after being shot was to make certain that the news was given to Ida as gently as possible.
McKinley was also a canny strategist. Whether it was dealing with the corrupt national bosses (and they were corrupt), scurrilous conduct from the yellow journalists of the day, the wily politicians in Ohio who sought to diminish his stature and prestige as President, or experienced foreign diplomat, Merry points out that McKinley always managed to outfox his opponents and emerge on top.
And he was his own boss. McKinley’s contemporary critics, and historians thereafter, have suggested that McKinley was the tool of the wealthy, of party bosses, and of shrewd manipulators like Mark Hanna. Merry shows that none of this is true. Mark Hanna himself publicly stated that anyone who thought that McKinley would be run by anyone else did not know the man. He had a very successful presidency:
McKinley's first 4 years had been among the most momentous presidential terms in a generation. He settled the currency issue, which for years had driven a nasty wedge through the nation. He mustered a consensus behind his tariff philosophy even as he sought to unite the country behind refinements in that philosophy. He kicked Spain out of the Caribbean and rendered that strategic body of water an American Lake. He initiated the "triumphant march of imperialism," as William Osborne had called it, through the stunning military victory over Spain. He pushed America far out into the Pacific and into Asia by acquiring Hawaii and the Philippines and establishing the Chinese open-door policy. He fashioned a concept of non-colonial imperialism that would guide his nation for a century or more. He developed a powerful special diplomatic relationship with Great Britain. He fostered a weighty expansion in American overseas trade. And he gave the country a level of economic growth and prosperity unseen since the early 1890s.
Not a bad set of accomplishments. And Merry also points out that McKinley was the first President to be reelected for second term since 1872.
Despite these accomplishments and his character, one must concede that history's winner was Teddy Roosevelt. Again from ushistory.org:
Soon it was clear that a new type of President was in town. The Presidency had been dormant since Lincoln's time. Congress seemed to be running the government, and big business seemed to be running Congress. The country was thirsting for leadership and Roosevelt became a political and popular hero. Merchandise was sold in his likeness, paintings and lithographs created in his honor, and even a film was produced portraying him as a fairy-tale hero. The White House was finally back in business.
It is intriguing to contemplate what would've occurred had McKinley not been assassinated and succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt. We know what did occur which was a roiling and combustible eight years in which a strong and creative President confronted business and foreign powers to elevate the United States through progressive politics.
McKinley certainly would have behaved in a less confrontational and more incremental manner. During the second presidential campaign the coal miners were threatening to strike, and McKinley used his prestige and influence to resolve the conflict, primarily by getting the business owners to give them more than they probably wanted to. Teddy Roosevelt did not have the same relationship with the business people. According to Merry, McKinley knew that he would have to confront the Trusts, but it seems certain that the solutions he would have pursued would have been accomplished as quietly as possible.
One benefit of a good biography is that in it encourages pondering and speculation. Merry argues that McKinley was the architect of the 20th century, and not a passive sustainer of the status quo. Was Theodore Roosevelt more of a successor and less of a transformational leader? I invite you to read the book and decide for yourself.