William McKinley

Title: William McKinley

Date: April 17, 1923

Location: Cambridge MA

Context: Coolidge lauds the accomplishments of William McKinley at the Convention of Spanish War Veterans


A new century and a new generation has come since the stirring scenes which you are gathered to commemorate. The nineteenth century seemed to end for America with the Spanish War, and those new ideals and that broader outlook under which we now live began to form. The men of the former generation were just passing off the stage, the generation of those who preserved our country by their sacrifices, and developed it by their effort and their wisdom. It was the day of those who rededicated America to a larger and, at last, complete freedom, and in that spirit began the development of her great resources which have created wealth, enlarged population, and made America the greatest and most powerful nation of the earth.

The greatest accomplishments of mankind are not accidents. Almost without exception they represent the leadership of one man. We may not say he was indispensable. Knowing what is in man, we can but realize that there is many a “Caesar guiltless of his country’s blood,” and many a “mute, inglorious Milton,” for it is the Caesar and Milton in men which respond to the inspiration of leadership. This does not diminish, but increases the glory of our heroes. It does not weaken, but strengthens the admiration which is their due.

The formative period of our country was presided over by Washington. Other generals might win victories while he was suffering defeat; other statesmen might propose measures while he remained in seclusion, but through it all, he was the background of the Revolution. Massachusetts, no less than Virginia, looked to him. Pennsylvania, no less than New York, followed him. “‘Whatever victories were won, were won because of him. Whatever measures were adopted for the purpose of accomplishing the Revolution could not have been adopted without him. As he was the genius of the Revolution, so Hamilton was the genius of the formation of the Federal Government. He perceived its necessity. He harmonized contending elements into the proposal of the Constitution. By his illuminating arguments he secured its ratification. By his statesmanship he made it, financially and politically, an established government. The judicial side of our national institutions was the conception of John Marshall. He raised the Supreme Court of the United States into the greatest tribunal of the world and by the breadth of his decisions guaranteed the legal integrity of the nation. It was Thomas Jefferson who brought to bear upon national questions the force of public opinion, and through his skill retained for our institutions the principle of popular government. When there was need of argument and example to defend the principle of the integrity of the Union, there came the eloquence of Webster; the action of Jackson. When argument turned to arms, when at last there came the great conflict for nationality and a larger freedom, men turned to the leadership of Lincoln the great statesman and Grant the great captain.

This work completed, the men of the intervening period came into action and eminence. One of the most interesting of these was your Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, William McKinley. In character he was gentle, generous, true, seeking the welfare of his fellow men by eloquent counsel, by sound measures promoting prosperity, reuniting and strengthening the national sentiments, raising his country from provincialism to a world-power. He represented the policy and later supplied the leadership for those principles which are characteristic of this period. America has always preferred to take her great men from the soil. Rarely has she bestowed her choice on those nourished where city pavements separate them from the mother of us all. McKinley was born amid formative industry. His earliest boyhood was thrown among men struggling in response to the instinct to produce, to create. They were men and women of imagination and character. He belonged to the race of pioneers. A lusty, hardy stock, who leave well-trodden paths for the outposts of the frontier; to whom there is born, not only those who lead the advance of civilization, over the face of the earth, but who lead in the advance of ideas, for they are pioneers likewise of the spirit and the soul. To strength of body they add strength of mind. They have vision. Seeing the end, they “press on toward the mark of the high calling.” It was among such a people that William McKinley was born. Around him was a religious home. He grew up conscientiously attentive to the lessons of his Bible class, amid domestic surroundings where sobriety reigned, where there was industry, thrift, and integrity, where, if opportunity for education came, it came as a result of sacrifice.

When the call of Lincoln came for volunteers, William McKinley, a youth of eighteen, was one of the first to volunteer, starting his military service on June 11, 1861. He was not too young, however, soon to be given responsibilities and to command confidence. When Sheridan made his way through the Union army after his ride from Winchester, McKinley was by his side, where he saw that which has happened but rarely in military history–an army in retreat turn and win a victory. When he finished his service in July, 1865, he had the rank of major, which he bore through life, though he was more familiarly known, by those with whom he had served, by the endearing title of Comrade McKinley.

Returning to civil life, he was soon admitted to the bar, where he won fame as a prosecuting attorney and as an advocate in the trial of jury cases. Prominence was a part of his being. It came to him. He did not seek it. He could not avoid it. In 1876 he was chosen a Representative in Congress. He determined to make himself a master and authority in some subject of legislation. He had a desire for service, he believed in his country, he believed in his countrymen. He believed in the development of the resources of the land and the resources of mankind. Who shall say what directed him, in choosing to become a master of the theory and practice of the protective tariff? Whatever called to him from his surroundings at home, from his knowledge of the needs of his country, or from out of the infinite, attentively he listened, he heard, and he obeyed. The soldier of Lincoln was in him still.

The country was recovering from the losses of the war. It was retiring the national debt and turning an invincible energy to the conquest of our vast domain. McKinley knew the needs of formative industry–he had been brought up with it. He knew not only from study and observation, but from family tradition, why peoples had crossed the sea, what conditions they had left behind, what aspirations they cherished here. His desire was to protect them from the hard existence of the Old World and give them the opportunity of an undreamed-of development and prosperity in the New World. His advocacy of this cause brought him to the Ways and Means Committee when Garfield left it for the presidency. From that time until he laid down the burdens of life he was known as the chief advocate of a tariff for protection.

These were times when the spirit of party ran high. Being the shining mark, he never failed to draw the fire of the opposition. Within his own party he held his place without opposition until 1890, when he became chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means and the leader of his party on the floor of the House. It was at this time that he presented, and the Congress enacted into law, that tariff measure which bore the title of the McKinley Bill. In the great reaction which came in the middle of the term of President Harrison, though his district had been gerrymandered so as to be Democratic by three thousand, he came within three hundred votes of election.

He did not falter in defending his cause, he did not lose faith in the soundness of his principles; he said the country would return to them, and he saw it return under his own banner.

Divested of office, he was not divested of rank or leadership. What his opponents had thought to be his undoing turned out to be his promotion. That destiny, for which his discretion and diligence had prepared him, touched him and led him on. He was chosen governor of Ohio. That election was national in its effect. Two years later he was again returned by eighty thousand over his nearest competitor.

In the meantime, the country had its experience with an attempted tariff-reform policy. Grover Cleveland was a brave, conscientious, public servant. He liked candor and faith in the performance of public business. Chosen, as he believed, to secure tariff reform, he wished to see that policy carried out fairly and honestly. The bill which the Congress of his party sent to him he characterized as tainted with party perfidy and party dishonor. It became a law without his signature. In the wreck of business produced by the prospect of this law and the disorganization of the currency, there ensued the panic of 1893. President Cleveland will ever live as a man who maintained the authority of the law against the violence of disorder, and the integrity of the United States Treasury against the opposition of his associates. In maintaining these he broke his party. The business of the country demanded relief. The economic intelligence of the country demanded a sound currency.

It was at this time that the business interests of America took a decided stand in relation to public affairs under the leadership of Marcus A. Hanna. He organized the campaign which nominated McKinley at the first ballot, on a platform which declared for protection and the gold standard. After a great campaign of education, McKinley was chosen President. He at once revised the tariff and strengthened the law establishing the gold standard. Prosperity immediately returned. There was not only a domestic market but immense exports. The foreign trade increased more under the first term of McKinley than it had ever increased in any other four years.

This man who had set out to study the tariff that he might better the condition of his fellow men had seen that hope not only accomplished but, because he had been faithful to that trust, had the increased satisfaction of firmly re-establishing the finances of his country. Through being faithful over a few things, he had seen his countrymen make him ruler over many things.

War had no attraction for this President. He had seen four years of it. “Peace,” he said, “is the national desire and the goal of every American aspiration. The best sentiment of the civilized world is moving toward the settlement of differences between nations without resorting to the horrors of war. Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war. We love peace better than war, and our swords never should be drawn except in a righteous cause, and then never until every effort at peace and arbitration shall be exhausted.” Holding these views, it was the tragedy of his administration that conditions forced on his country a war with Spain. He resisted it to the end, and finally submitted to it with tears. When it was over, he insisted on giving freedom to the Antilles and to the Philippines. He was charged with embarking upon a course of imperialism. Perhaps his own character was the best answer to this charge, but guiding the people by going with them he moved on. He wanted ever to build, not to destroy. The instinct of his people to produce, to create, followed him yet. “The prophets of evil were not the builders of the Republic,” he said, “nor in its crises since, have they saved or served it.” His domain was extended. A ruler over many things, he became a ruler over more things.

On him and on his statesmanship the people again set their mark of approval. He was returned in triumph at the national election. Under responsibilities he had grown and broadened. His vision now beheld his country first, but it reached beyond our own shores. He sought in trade and commerce a world relationship. His last public utterance, made at Buffalo, advocated reciprocal trade relations, which he knew had no basis without protection. At the same time he urged an Isthmian canal to unite our own coasts with the Latin-American Republics. The next day he was struck down. He died as he had lived, on his lips a prayer.

There is no better interpretation of the character of a great man than the plain narrative of his life. There is no adequate portrayal of his personality. He must be seen. There is no satisfactory description of his eloquence. He must be heard. All our attempts to reveal William McKinley to his fellow men seem poor and mean beside the man himself. With all our efforts we do but reflect ourselves. His genius, his greatness elude us.

We can describe the period during which he lived and wrought. He represented that youth of the country, stalwart in their patriotism, sincere in their devotion, followers of the truth, which made up the armies of Lincoln. He cherished the best aspirations of ambition, he sought the awards of professional life through intense application, guided by a high sense of honor. With gentleness, with courtesy ever he led the nation on.

The driving force of American progress has been her industries. They have created the wealth that has wrought our national development. They have attracted immigration. They have builded great cities. They have spanned the continent with railroads. Without them, the great force of agriculture would be now where it was in the eighteenth century.

As we look back, we can see the unfolding of the plan for the making of America. We can see the struggle of its early settlers; their deep, religious convictions; their aspirations for liberty; the long years of preparation through military experience, through the education of the public mind by pamphlet and speech, for the bringing in of the Revolution. At last independence was established. The Constitution was adopted and defended until, under Lincoln, the land stood all free. All this was the making of a form of government, the adoption of principles, the settling of policies. The groundwork had been laid for a great material advance.

When all these things were done, the time was ripe for the great economic and industrial development of our country. It was this situation, this opportunity, that called forth William McKinley. Taking up again the work of Hamilton and Clay, because commercial problems necessarily had been laid aside for the solution of the more fundamental problems of freedom, McKinley re-established their principles, and under his leadership the government readopted their policies.

It was his policy, the application of his principle of a protective tariff, which furnished the initial opportunity for the laying down of the great industries of America and the development of her entire resources. These benefits have been reciprocal. They have been felt at the forge and the spindle, on the farm and in the marts of trade. It was under the stimulation of this policy that American production came to lead the world. No one will deny that to secure all this America has had to pay the price. It has tended to diminish the shipping industry. There have been abuses. It has increased the cost of certain lines of commodities, but McKinley long ago pointed out that cheap goods meant cheap men. What country is there on earth that, to secure our results, would not have been willing to pay the price many times over? The benefits which have come cannot be counted. Whole peoples have been raised from degradation to affluence. The material foundation has been laid on which has rested the spiritual progress of the American people.

There was nothing of the materialist in William McKinley. In his being he had no selfishness. Riches did not tempt him. Military conquest was his abhorrence. If power came to him, it was not of his seeking, he used it not for himself, but for his country. He did not desire to give selfish advantages to those who might immediately benefit from the policy of protection. He was looking to the general welfare. He sought to enlarge and strengthen an empire for the glory of its sovereign, the people. He thus defines his “special interest”: “I am for America, because America is for the common people.” He never undertook to substitute a part for the whole. He looked beyond outward appearances. He saw into the very soul of things. ” I believe in the common brotherhood of men,” he declared. “I believe that labor gets on best when capital gets on best, and that capital gets on best when labor is paid the most. Every attempt to array class against class, ‘the classes against the masses,’ section against section, labor against capital, ‘the poor against the rich,’ or interest against interest in the United States, is in the highest degree reprehensible. The most un-American of all appeals is the one which seeks to array labor against capital, employer against employed.” These were his counsels. They are not born of the flesh, but of the spirit. He was the “advance agent of prosperity,” that he might be the prophet of the intellectual and moral forces of mankind. He turned the hand of man to production, that he might lift up his soul. He turned the thought of man to creation, that he might reveal his own divine image.

Following his administration came the period of the regulation and control of the great economic forces which he had created. That work is being done. The problem now is to move forward in one harmonious whole along the paths that he has pointed out. America has not neglected to follow his precepts. When liberty has been assailed, she has continued to defend it. With his vision, she has looked beyond her own shores. Even now, she is mindful, as he was mindful, in his last message to his countrymen, of the impelling duty of the establishment of peace through justice and mutual prosperity through trade, among all the peoples of the earth. The nations will ever have need of a McKinley, who shall re-establish them as he re-established America. They need some one who can inspire them with his confidence in a sound currency, who can encourage them to promote their welfare through peace and industry, who can continue his great work of liberation.
It is in harmony with these principles that America is to-day using its influence in the world. It holds the leadership in sound finances, enlarged industry, peace and concord, the promotion of a better understanding, not by force but by conference, and that justice tempered with mercy which has characterized the great liberal movements of mankind. All of this is in accord with the spirit of your great captain. The foundation of peace, prosperity, and of broad human liberty on which he wrought with such a mighty hand is continually being strengthened. That work ever goes on as he carried it on, in plain and homely things; in a universal industry and honesty, which built the character of William McKinley; in the acceptance of an abiding faith in the right and the truth.

Although there was never greater heroism displayed, and the forces by land and sea were never led with greater precision and success, looked at as a whole, the work of the Spanish War was not so much a feat of arms as the beginning of a new American spirit. In so far as it placed our country in the position of a world-power, it was the beginning of a new world spirit. It was the beginning of a new recognition of the right of people to be free, reaching from the near Atlantic to the farther shore of the Pacific. It was a new awakening throughout the earth. It brought out in America the determination to secure a broader distribution of the rewards of that great industrial prosperity which had grown up in the day of McKinley. It was the end of a true reconstruction period and the beginning of a liberal movement the end of which is not yet. The sentiment which it fostered has been of inestimable value to mankind, giving a new warrant to hope, a new sanctification to faith, and new bonds to human brotherhood. In this spirit the world is working out a new salvation.


Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester who prepared this document for digital publication.

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