2010 WHITE HOUSE CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT HISTORICAL ESSAY
WILLIAM McKINLEY 1843–1901
Born in Niles, Ohio, on January 29, 1843, McKinley briefly attended Allegheny College, and was teaching in a country school when the Civil War broke out. His mother, Nancy Allison McKinley, a devout Methodist, was a guiding influence in his life. It was against her wishes that he joined the Union Army. As a commissary sergeant during the Battle of Antietam, he risked his life to bring food and supplies to the front lines, and he served with distinction through some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. He was mustered out at the end of the war as a brevet major of volunteers. McKinley then studied law, opening an office in Canton, Ohio. In 1871, he married Ida Saxton, the daughter of a prominent Canton banker.
In 1876, McKinley won a seat in Congress. His intelligence, attractive personality, and exemplary character made him a dependable party regular. During his fourteen years in the House of Representatives, he was appointed to the powerful Ways and Means Committee, became a leading defender of American industry and a Republican tariff expert, and gave his name to the McKinley Tariff enacted in 1890. After losing a bid for a seventh term in Congress, he was elected to two terms as the governor of Ohio, serving from 1891 to 1896.
THE MCKINLEY PRESIDENCY 1897–1901
When McKinley’s name was put forth as a presidential candidate in the mid-1890s, he began what became known as his “front porch campaign” inviting voters to visit him at home. Three quarters of a million people made the pilgrimage to Canton to hear McKinley speak. With the support of big business and unprecedented advertising, McKinley’s skilled campaign won him the election by a landslide.
As soon as he became president, McKinley called Congress into special session to enact the highest tariff in the nation's history. In this pro-American business atmosphere, industrial combinations developed at an unprecedented pace. Newspapers caricatured McKinley as a little boy led around by a nursemaid, his campaign manager Mark Hanna, the representative of the trusts. However, Hanna, appointed as a senator from Ohio in 1897, did not dominate McKinley, who condemned the trusts as “dangerous conspiracies against the public good.”
McKinley’s White House office was crowded into the east end of the second floor of the house. He was served by sixteen to twenty staff members, who worked beneath electric lights on desks and closely positioned tables. The president spent most of his working day in the Cabinet Room (today’s Treaty Room) seated at the end of the long cabinet table, before an ink blotter, inkstand, and system of call bells. It was considered undignified for a president to speak over the telephone, except in special cases, so his calls were taken by others. Papers upon papers came to him and were dispatched to the appropriate departments by secretaries. He concentrated fully upon special meetings with senators and congressmen, and never spoke directly to the press, although he was the first president who really understood the needs of the White House press corps.
The tariff and all other domestic issues during McKinley’s first term became dwarfed by the Cuban revolt against Spain, which began in the early 1890s. By the end of 1897, the violence in Cuba had created a loss for American interests of more than sixteen million dollars. American newspapers would eventually end the stalemate between Spanish forces and revolutionaries in Cuba by agitating for U.S. intervention. New mass circulation papers owned by rival press barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst fought a circulation war centered on the Cuban revolt. Headlines screamed that a quarter of the Cuban population was dead and the rest suffering acutely. Public indignation brought pressure upon McKinley for intervention. He labored long and hard over whether to go to war, for months creating a sort of daily “cliff-hanger” before finally making his decision. Disaster struck on February 15, 1898, when the battleship U.S.S. Maine, on a courtesy call in Havana Harbor, exploded and sank killing 260 men. To this day no one knows the cause of the explosion. McKinley’s attempts to find a diplomatic solution ended with Spain’s refusal to negotiate. Congress declared war on April 25, 1898. In the 100-day Spanish-American war, the United States destroyed the Spanish fleet outside Santiago harbor in Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, and occupied Puerto Rico. The United States later annexed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico.
In 1900, Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan advocated a free silver monetary policy and spoke out against imperialism; McKinley supported the gold standard, quietly stood for “the full dinner pail,” and was reelected. His second term, flush with a victory and an era of prosperity, came to a tragic end on September 6, 1901. While President McKinley stood in a receiving line at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, he was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, a deranged anarchist. He died eight days later, the third U.S. president to be assassinated.
CENTENNIAL DAY 1900
On December 12, 1900, the City of Washington celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary as the seat of the federal government and the home of the president. The centennial of the first occupancy of the White House by President John Adams was observed with a great reception at the White House, a parade to the Capitol, and observances by both houses of Congress. A centerpiece of the White House reception was a large plaster model of a plan developed in 1900 by Army engineer Colonel Theodore Bingham, superintendent of public buildings and grounds, to expand the White House. The model revealed plans to replace the crowded working spaces with new offices, public and entertaining spaces, and press rooms by constructing massive, flanking two-story cylindrical wings with domes and lanterns patterned after those at the Library of Congress. Bingham set up his model in the East Room and, after the president viewed the display and greeted the guests, rose to present a history of the White House that evolved into a sales pitch for the expansion. Roundly criticized by the architectural profession, the project stalled and after President McKinley’s assassination awaited a new chief executive’s decision.
LIFE IN THE MCKINLEY WHITE HOUSE
According to William H. Crook, a member of the White House staff since the days of Lincoln, two traits defined McKinley as a president and a husband: his “unswerving devotion to his country, and unceasing devotion to his wife.” McKinley was the last Civil War veteran to serve as president. Fatherly and conservative, he endorsed American values, family, and honor. McKinley usually relaxed by smoking cigars in private, playing cards with his wife, and answering letters with his secretary George B. Cortelyou. On Sundays the McKinleys invited friends to the White House to sing hymns accompanied by a pianist in the Blue Room. His portraits, often posed with the first lady, reflect a proud man and a doting husband.
Celebrating her fiftieth birthday just three months after moving into the White House, First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley was not old, even though contemporaries described her as gaunt and aged beyond her years. Her sad demeanor was thought to be a reflection of a broken heart caused by the deaths of two young daughters, compounded by her own struggles with epilepsy and depression. Considered by the White House staff to be an invalid, the first lady often kept to her rooms—the large second floor bedchamber and adjoining dressing room on the northwest. Here she would occasionally receive callers and occupied her time knitting slippers and other woolens for ladies and children, all of which were given to friends or auctioned for charitable causes.
CHRISTMAS AND THE WINTER SOCIAL SCENE
Christmas celebrations at the White House during the McKinley years were quiet gatherings that usually centered around a turkey dinner with the president’s brother, Abner, and his wife Anna, and on occasion with favorite nieces, Grace McKinley and Sarah Duncan. There was little merry-making because of the absence of young children and Mrs. McKinley’s poor health. The McKinleys, admired and popular with the American people, received a stream of parcels, gift baskets, and flowers every Christmas. Once the gifts were unloaded from the wagons rolling up to the North Door of the White House, the president’s secretary, George Courtelyou, had them unwrapped. Useful gifts were distributed to the staff. Gifts of liquor or of great intrinsic value were returned immediately and perishables were dumped. The White House staff always received personal gifts from the first lady and plump turkeys were distributed to the married men. On Christmas day the president’s schedule usually allowed him more time with his wife and they would enjoy a carriage drive through the city parks where they could be alone together out in the crisp winter air.
Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley, New York: Harper, 1959.
Morgan, H. Wayne, William McKinley and His America, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004.
Phillips, Kevin and Scheslinger, Arthur M., Jr., William McKinley: The American Presidents Series: The 25th President, 1897-1901, New York: Times Books, 2003.
Seale, William, The President’s House: A History, Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2008.
Seale, William, The White House: The History of an American Idea, Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2001.
William McKinley Birthplace, 36 South Main Street, Niles, Ohio 44446.
McKinley National Memorial and Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive, NW; Canton, Ohio 44708
McKinley Memorial Library, 40 North Main Street, Niles, OH 44446