President McKinley: Architect of the American Century
by Robert W. Merry.
Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Hardcover, 624 pages, $35.

This biography’s bold subtitle announces Robert W. Merry’s revisionist project. In the popular imagination, McKinley is a nondescript, passive president without well-defined principles or programs, drawn into war with Spain and the Philippines, and the beneficiary of events beyond his control—an office holder, in other words, who benefitted from the aggressive actions of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and others who understood much better the demands of an America entering the world stage, requiring a large navy and policies that promoted and ensured America’s presence as an international power. In his Epilogue, Merry notes that historians also have been reluctant to credit McKinley as a proactive president, ranking him below even the mediocre Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. In most surveys, McKinley does not make it into the top fifteen presidents. But as Merry also points out, beginning in the 1950s, this low opinion of McKinley has been challenged by several historians, and though Merry does not say so, his biography marks the culmination of the revisionists’ efforts to solve the McKinley mystery, as he deems it: how this apparently unassuming man, in his first term, presided over victory in Cuba, the annexation of Hawaii, and the acquisition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, catapulting America into competition with imperial Britain, Germany, and Japan.

In retrospect, America’s own imperialism, the domination of certain markets and strategic military sites, without colonies, seems to result from the growth of American capital after the war, the formation of trusts, and the desire to open up markets abroad that had little to do with William McKinley’s efforts. He just happened to sit where certain decisions had to be made. He seemed indecisive until forced to declare war because of political pressures from his fellow Americans resisting Spain’s colonial thuggery in Cuba and the Philippines. Similarly, he appears to have simply acceded to the vociferous calls to annex Hawaii.

McKinley could even seem to be an anti-imperialist. He told Carl Schurz, a leader of the opposition to an expansionist America, “I’m no jingo.” But Merry contends that Schurz misunderstood McKinley, who preferred to pursue a firm, but gradual imperialistic policy without the bombast of the Hearst newspapers and the bluster of Theodore Roosevelt. The underestimated, mild-mannered McKinley was not a weak president, Merry argues, but a careful, designing one who preferred whenever possible to seem reasonable and without an ego, as if whatever decision his administrationmade resulted from the logic of events. In other words, McKinley did not need to take credit for his achievements so long as he obtained his political goals.

A case in point is American involvement in China. Unlike his European competitors, each of whom wanted a chunk of the China trade and effectively sought to dismember the country into sectors of influence, McKinley employed John Hay, the astute Secretary of State, to promulgate an “open door” policy, preserving Chinese sovereignty but also opening up ports to American trade. McKinley was not always so effective in allowing his Cabinet and others to accomplish his objectives, but in the world of politics he succeeded often enough, triumphing twice over the popular William Jennings Bryan.

McKinley’s first run against Bryan gives Merry an opportunity to reveal the president’s political genius. Republicans worried that Bryan would take the country by storm, as he had overwhelmed the Democratic Convention in 1896 with his “cross of gold” speech. Bryan believed the people would benefit from a shift from the gold standard to silver, placing more money in circulation. McKinley thought more money in circulation would just devalue the dollar and actually make it harder on the working man, eroding his earnings. But how to make Americans believe that McKinley was not just a tool of the trusts who opposed an increased coinage of silver simply to benefit big business? McKinley was no orator. He felt he could not compete with Bryan’s whistle-stop tours of the country, even though that is exactly what many Republicans wanted him to do. No, McKinley adamantly said. He would come out a poor second if he ran after the electorate, looking like he was in a race against Bryan that could not be won. McKinley decided to stay home, as presidential candidates usually did before the advent of Bryan. Quite aside from his political arguments, McKinley had a personal reason for refusing to leave his front porch. His wife, never in good health, could not, in his view, withstand a campaign that obligated him to be away from home for long periods. And she could not cope with accompanying him on a frenetic schedule. McKinley then put his immobility to work, announcing that he would receive his fellow Americans on his front porch—if they wished to visit him. This brilliant strategy worked, providing McKinley with the time to take the measure of his visitors, thousands of them, and to make them feel he had invited them into his home.

McKinley, the man and the politician, is a very attractive figure in Merry’s empathetic biography. Of course, McKinley had his failures, trusting the military in the Philippines and Cuba that sometimes made war worse than it had to be. And he too easily accepted the notion that Americans would always be received as liberators rather than occupiers—a mistake repeated by other presidents, of course. But his steady, if unexciting progress, got results over and over again, Merry shows. In short, McKinley did not simply profit from the risks others took.

Merry develops a vocabulary to explain McKinley’s style and outlook. At strategic points in the narrative the biographer employs such phrases as “methodical,” “a master of incrementalism,” an “instinct for incremental decision making,” “calibrated incrementalism,” “incremental leadership style,” and “studied incrementalism.” These phrases solidify a persuasive portrayal of a man and his policies. By temperament, McKinley seemed bland. But he used an almost-insipid manner to mask his motivations. “I’m no jingo,” said enough, but not too much. McKinley always gave himself room to maneuver while making his interlocutors believe they shared the same point of view. This is the behavior of a master politician. Sometimes phrasemaking like “calibrated incrementalism” makes McKinley seem too scientific, as if he always knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going. This seems doubtful. If McKinley left room for maneuver, his methodsometimes led to results he could not anticipate or control. Certainly the dreadful war in the Philippines does not seem to have much to do with “calibrated incrementalism.”

And then there is McKinley’s assassination. A generous, kindly man, he had difficulty believing anyone would want to kill him, even though two presidents had been assassinated in the previous three decades. The triumph of his electoral politics—he had just won a resounding victory for a second term—did not protect him. Perhaps even a warier man would have met the same fate, but McKinley’s very success seems to have left him open for this final blow. Merry makes no such connection between McKinley’s politics and his death, but the image of his assassin getting close enough to press a gun against the president’s chest does make one wonder.  

Carl Rollyson is the author of American Biography and is at work on the forthcoming This Alarming Paradox: The Life of William Faulkner and The Last Days of Sylvia Plath.