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At the 1896 Republican convention, in time of depression, the wealthy Cleveland businessman Marcus Alonzo Hanna ensured the nomination of his friend William McKinley as the “the advance agent of prosperity.” The Democrats, advocating the “free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold” — which would have mildly inflated the currency-nominated William Jennings Bryan.

While Hanna amassed large contributions from eastern Republicans frightened by Bryan’s views on silver, McKinley met delegations on his front porch in Canton, Ohio. He won a decisive victory over the Democratic candidate.

Born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio, McKinley briefly attended Allegheny College, and was teaching in a country school when the Civil War broke out. Enlisting as a private in the Union Army, he rose through the ranks to brevet major, serving on Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes' staff. After the war, he studied law, opened an office in Canton, Ohio, and married Ida Saxton, daughter of a local banker. The couple had two daughters, Katherine and Ida, but neither reached adulthood.

At age 34, McKinley began his first of seven terms in the House of Representatives. His attractive personality, exemplary character, and quick intelligence enabled him to rise rapidly. He was appointed to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Robert M. La Follette Sr., who served with him, recalled that he generally “represented the newer view,” and “on the great new questions . . . was generally on the side of the public and against private interests.” During his 14 years in the House, he became the leading Republican tariff expert, lending his name to the legislation enacted in 1890. The next year he was elected governor of Ohio, serving two terms.

When McKinley became president, the Panic of 1893 had almost run its course and with it the extreme agitation over silver. Deferring action on the money question, he called Congress into special session to enact the highest tariff in history.

In the business friendly atmosphere of the McKinley administration, industries and companies developed at an unprecedented pace. Newspapers caricatured McKinley as a little boy led around by “Nursie” Hanna, the representative of the trusts. However, McKinley was not controlled by Hanna; he condemned the trusts as “dangerous conspiracies against the public good.”

Foreign policy came to dominate McKinley's first term in office. Spain's repressive rule over Cuba resulted in rebellion, followed by a brutal campaign to cease hostilities on the island. American businesses and individuals lobbied for the United States to intervene, as they not only had investments in Cuba but also visions for something more. McKinley later sent the USS Maine to protect American interests; on February 15, 1898, there was an explosion aboard the ship that killed 266 crew members. With no other diplomatic recourse, McKinley asked Congress to declare war, which it did on April 25, 1898. In about 100 days' time, the United States defeated Spain.

The Paris Peace Treaty was signed on December 10, 1898. The United States received Guam and Puerto Rico, paid $20 million for the Philippine Islands, and promised to support an independent Cuba while occupying it for the time being. Earlier that year, Congress had also voted to support the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawai'i. All of these measures were supported by McKinley, now considered the architect of the modern American empire. While these actions enhanced American clout on the international stage and offered new opportunities for trade and economic development, not all populations were grateful for the American efforts. In the Philippines, nationalist leader Emilio Aguinaldo revolted against the Americans for three years, arguing that they were colonizers just like the Spanish. The conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 5,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, who died from fighting, famine, or disease.

In 1900, McKinley again campaigned against Bryan. While Bryan inveighed against imperialism, McKinley quietly stood for “the full dinner pail.” His second term, which had begun auspiciously, came to a tragic end in September 1901. He was standing in a receiving line at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition when an anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot him twice. He died eight days later on September 14, 1901.