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William McKinley: The President Who Freed Cuba

The American people demanded a war to free Cuba from Spanish rule – and McKinley won it for them.

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William McKinley (1843-1901) was the 25th president of the United States and the third to be assassinated. He is accredited with being a well-respected and congenial leader who valued the public opinion over private interests. His terms saw the United States in a victory over Spain, freeing Cuba, and leading the nation out of the depression.
During the Civil War, McKinley fought for the Union Army, earning the rank of brevet major of volunteers. He opened his own law office in Canton, Ohio, and then married the daughter of a local banker, Ida Saxton. Unfortunately, Ida became an invalid after suffering the deaths of her mother and two daughters right after each other, but the future president’s devotion to her won him praise from the public which would also help him in his political career.
In 1869, McKinley ventured into his political career as a Republican and in 1876 he was elected to the House of Representatives. While acting in Congress, he served on the very powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where he earned the reputation as an elected official who fought for protection of the economy using high tariffs on imported merchandise. Robert M. La Follette, Sr., a fellow committee member, said McKinley “represented the newer view” and “on the great new questions … was generally on the side of the public and against private interests.”
McKinley’s popularity took a hit in 1890 when a tariff bill in his name passed and voters became upset with the rising consumer prices. He left Congress to run for governor of Ohio and served two terms in that position.
The “Panic of 1893” saw the United States in a depression, but also brought McKinley and the Republicans back into power. Wealthy businessman Marcus Alonzo Hanna used his influence to promote McKinley as “the advance agent of prosperity.” The Democrats, on the other hand, nominated William Jennings Bryan, supporting his goal of “free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold,” which would have inflated the currency.
Hanna promoted his candidate through financial support while McKinley followed former President Benjamin Harrison’s “front-porch” campaign and met delegations from the convenience of his home porch.
McKinley beat Bryan in the 1896 presidential election, winning the popular vote by a margin of about 600,000 (the largest win in 25 years) and gaining more electoral votes. By the time he took office, the depression was mostly over, and the new president concentrated on tariffs, of which he enacted the highest in history – the Dingley Tariff Act.
McKinley’s presidency was more about foreign affairs than the economy. Cuba was in turmoil and in the midst of a revolution. Newspapers depicted a horrible, bloody situation there that included concentration camps. Meanwhile, Spanish troops were trying to quell the rebellion and the American people started demanding a war to free Cuba. In February 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana’s harbor and McKinley asked Congress for the power to become involved in the conflict. On April 25, the U.S. formally declared war. The Spanish-American War only lasted for 100 days before American forces defeated Spain near Santiago harbor in Cuba. In December 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed, officially ending the war and granting Guam, Philippines, and Puerto Rico to the U.S.
In 1900, McKinley ran for re-election, again facing Bryan, and again beating him for the office, this time by an even larger victory than before. The second-term president began a tour of the western states and then attended and gave a speech on September 5 at the Pan-American Exposition. While standing in the receiving line, Leon Czolgosz, an unemployed Detroit mill worker, walked up to him wearing a bandage on his hand and proceeded to shoot the president twice in the chest at point-blank range. He claimed the president was an “enemy of the people.” At first, the prognosis was good for McKinley, but then he developed gangrene and died five days later. The assassin was executed for his crimes in October 1901.

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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