10 Major Accomplishments of William McKinley

William McKinley Jr. (1843 – 1901) was an American soldier, lawyer and politician who served as the 25th President of the United States from March 4, 1897 till his assassination on September 14, 1901. Before becoming president, McKinley served in the American Civil War where he rose to the rank of Major; was a successful lawyer; served as a Representative from Ohio in the United States Congress; and finally as the 39th Governor of Ohio from 1892 to 1896. As President, his domestic policy achievements include introduction of the Dingley Tariff to protect domestic industry; and establishing the gold standard in the United States. In foreign affairs, McKinley led U.S. to victory in the Spanish-American War; carried out the annexation of Hawaii; and pursued an open-door policy with China improving relations between the two nations. Here are the 10 major accomplishments of William McKinley including his contribution in the American Civil War; his law career; and his domestic and foreign policy as President.


The American Civil War began in 1861 and the same year, William McKinley volunteered to enlist in the Union Army by joining the newly formed Poland Guards in June. After a month of training, he fought in Western Virginia first seeing action at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry in September. He continued to fight in Virginia at different locations and was promoted to the rank of commissary sergeant in April 1862. McKinley’s regiment also participated in the Battle of Antietam as part of the Army of the Potomac. The Battle of Antietam was one of the bloodiest battles in the war, and McKinley found himself in the line of fire while delivering supplies to the troops. Ultimately, the Army of the Potomac proved victorious. Just before Lee and the Confederate Army finally surrendered to the Union Army, McKinley received his final promotion and received a brevet commission as major. Although the generals who supervised him encouraged him to enroll for the peacetime army, he decided against it and instead chose to pursue a law career.

Battle of Antietam depiction
A depiction of the morning clash in the Battle of Antietam


After the end of the war in 1865, McKinley began his apprenticeship as a lawyer by studying in the office of an attorney in Poland, Ohio. The next year, he started attending the Albany Law School in New York. However, he dropped out in less than a year and returned home, where he was admitted to the bar in Warren, Ohio. He then moved to the town of Canton where he soon started a law partnership with an experienced lawyer and former judge, George W. Belden. Their partnership soon became quite successful and he was able to use the profits to buy a block of buildings on Main Street in Canton, which allowed him to have a source of passive income for many years, giving him the freedom to pursue his political ambitions. As a lawyer, McKinley was involved in a high profile case defending a group of coal miners who were arrested for rioting. Highlighting the corrupt practices of mine owners, he was successful in getting all but one of the miners acquitted. In 1869, McKinley was elected to the office of prosecuting attorney of Stark County, a position he held for two years.

William McKinley in 1865
William McKinley in 1865


In 1877, at the young age of 34, McKinley was elected to the United State Congress. He served as the Representative from Ohio from March 4, 1877 to May 27, 1884; and again from March 4, 1885 to March 3, 1891. Also, from March 4, 1889 to March 4, 1891, McKinley served as a chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax-writing committee of U.S. Congress. McKinley became the Republican party’s expert on protective tariff, designed to encourage domestic production at the cost of imports. He was a strong advocate of raising tariffs on imports as a means of bringing prosperity in the country. As McKinley became a leading figure in national politics, he was elected as Governor of Ohio in 1891 winning the election by over 20,000 votes. He served as 39th Governor of Ohio from January 11, 1892 to January 13, 1896. During his tenure as governor, the tax system was improved; a railroad safety law was sanctioned; a state board of arbitration was established; and a coal miners’ strike was dealt with.

William McKinley in 1896
William McKinley in 1896


In 1893, a severe economic depression spread across the United States, and it gave the Republicans a chance to gain political advantage over the Democrats. In 1896, McKinley won the Republican presidential nomination. This was due to three main reasons. First, McKinley had exemplary performance both as a Congressman and as Governor of Ohio. Second, he had always been a supporter of protective tariffs, and protectionism in general, and this made his candidature particularly attractive during the depression. Finally, his chief supporter, Ohio industrialist Marcus Alonzo Hanna, was a skilled campaign manager and was able to exert significant influence. In the 1896 United States presidential election, McKinley pulled off the largest presidential victory in 25 years by defeating Democrat William Jennings Bryan by over 600,000. He also won one-third more electoral votes than his opponent; 271 to 176. William McKinley served as the 25th President of the United States from March 4, 1897 to September 14, 1901. He won the re-election in 1900 against the same opponent but his second term was cut short due to his assassination on September 14, 1901.

1896 US Presidential Election Map
1896 United States Presidential Election map


At the time McKinley was President, Cuba was being ruled by Spain; and the war between Spanish forces and Cuban revolutionaries had resulted in a stalemate. Many people were dying and suffering as a result of this situation and McKinley decided to intervene in the war. On April 20, 1898, the United States Congress passed three resolutions declaring war for the liberation and independence of Cuba. The war between the United States and Spain lasted for just over 100 days from April 21, 1898 to August 13, 1898. American naval power proved decisive as it destroyed the Spanish fleet stationed outside Cuba’s Santiago harbor. The American victory resulted in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which gave the U.S. temporary control of Cuba and Spain ceded ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine islands. McKinley was unsure about what to do with the Spanish possessions other than Cuba. He ultimately decided to annex Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. In many ways, this was the beginning of American intervention in global issues.

Signing of the Treaty of Paris
Signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities in the Spanish-American War


The new Republic of Hawaii, which was dominated by business interests, had overthrown its queen in 1893 when she refused to be limited to a role as a figurehead. In the Battle of Manila during the Spanish-American war, the United States realized the need for Pacific bases and the idea of annexing Hawaii become attractive. McKinley was always a supporter of annexation, and when he came to power, he lobbied strongly for Congress to take action. He was of the opinion that if they didn’t annex Hawaii, there was a strong chance that there would be a counter-revolution by the royalists, or worse, a takeover by Japan. McKinley managed to get a joint resolution of both houses of Congress and the Newlands Resolution was signed into law on July 4, 1898, as a result of which Hawaii was annexed by the United States on July 7, 1898. Though opposed by the indigenous population, the annexation would have economic benefits for the U.S.


McKinley was a strong believer in leveraging trade opportunities in Asia and he believed that free trade with China was the way ahead. As he feared that European nations would close Chinese ports to U.S. commerce, McKinley authorized Secretary of State John Hay to issue an “Open Door” note on China. It expressed American desire that all countries could trade freely with China without violating its territorial integrity. It also declared U.S. support for a non-colonized and independent China. The Open Door Policy of America towards China is regarded as one of the most important policy statements ever issued by the U.S. State Department. When the Boxer Rebellion in China resulted in several American missionaries and other foreigners getting besieged, McKinley collaborated with other Western countries and sent 5000 troops to Peking in June 1900. The Westerners were rescued within a month. After the rebellion was over, the United States reaffirmed its Open Door policy, the broad principles of which shaped US-China relations for several decades thereafter.

John Hay
United States Secretary of State John Hay – Who was responsible for negotiating the Open Door Policy


One of the reasons due to which McKinley came to power was because he was a promoter of protectionism. Even during his stint in Congress, he had built a reputation as a supporter of high tariffs and protector of domestic businesses and factory workers. During his presidency, the Ways and Means Committee Chairman Nelson Dingley introduced the Dingley Act, which aimed to encourage the expansion of domestic industry and employment of American workers. This act proposed high tariffs on the import of goods. McKinley was a strong supporter of this act and signed it into law on July 24, 1897. Rates were increased on wool, sugar and luxury goods. Remaining in effect for twelve years, the Dingley Tariff was the longest-living tariff in American history. Averaging about 52% in its first year of operation and 47% over its existence, it was also the highest tariff in U.S. history.

Nelson Dingley
Congressman Nelson Dingley – Who introduced the Dingley Act


On March 14, 1900, President McKinley signed law the Gold Standard Act, whereby gold was established as the only standard for redeeming paper money. This effectively stopped bimetallism which had allowed silver in exchange for gold. The act fixed the value of one dollar at 25 8/10 grains of gold of 90% purity which was equivalent to 23.22 grains of pure gold. This helped to end the confusion around bimetallism and brought back a semblance of stability. In many ways, it was the only option left after McKinley’s efforts to make a silver agreement with France and Britain failed.

William McKinley Presidential Portrait
The official Presidential portrait of William McKinley


After the Spanish-American war, McKinley realized that the United States needed to construct a canal across Central America. This would allow them to maintain a two-ocean navy, which had become especially important as American business and military interests became increasingly involved in Asia. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, that had been signed between Britain and the U.S. in 1850, prohibited either country from establishing exclusive control over a canal in Central America. McKinley sought to renegotiate this treaty and build a canal that would connect the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. The British agreed that the US could control a future canal there but only if it was open to all shipping and not fortified. The Senate opposed this condition and demanded that the United States should be allowed to fortify the canal. Eventually, the US prevailed. Unfortunately, McKinley got assassinated on September 14, 1901 before the new treaty, the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty, was approved on November 18, 1901. Nevertheless, he was instrumental in negotiating this new treaty.

1 thought on “10 Major Accomplishments of William McKinley”

  1. Considering His many accomplishments, Mr. McKinley should have more notoriety in History. He is not as highly mentioned as Lincoln or Washington of course. However, I feel He should be the Fourth Face on Mt. Rushmore in My State of South Dakota ahead of His successor Theodore Roosevelt.
    Additionally, considering the accomplishments of the Man, I would like to see His Presidential Library – in Niles, Ohio – more adequately maintained. The outside, in particular, needed cleaned and maintained.


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