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William McKinley


Is it not strange and sad that, within forty years, three of our Presidents have been killed by assassins? No other nation has met with such misfortunes. And it is sadder still when we think that these three were among the gentlest and kindest of them all. They were men who felt only good-will for everybody, yet, strange to say, these were the men whom the miserable murderers chose for their fatal bullets. You have read the story of two of them, Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield. The third was William McKinley, of whose life I ant now about to speak.

Everybody begins as a boy, and so we must begin with McKinley in his boyhood days, He was one of the kind of boys we like to read about. The stories of his life as a fisher, a skater, a blackberry picker, a playmate, and of the boy who had his boyish battles to fight and win, are such as to make every boy's and man's heart warm with memories of similar experiences. Niles, Ohio, was McKinley's birthplace. He was born there on the 29th of January, 1843. The house in which he was born has recently been cut in two, and the section which includes the room of his birth has been moved a mile away, to a pretty spot known to the people of Niles as Riverside Park.

It was a poor little two-story frame house, but was far better than the log-huts in which some of our Presidents were born. McKinley's parents were not rich, but they had enough to live on, and he had plenty of time for play and for schoollife. He was a good student and a good boy. His pious mother read her Bible to him till he knew much of it by heart, and he joined the Methodist Church when he was fifteen years old. He was a member of this Church all the rest of his life.

One would think he was born to be a fine public speaker by the way he argued and debated and spoke pieces in his school-boy clays. He was always ready. At Poland, where he lived when he got older, there was a literary society and debating club, and of it he was, for some time, president. The story is told that the boys and girls saved up their spending money until they had enough to buy a carpet for the meeting room of the club. They purchased at a neighboring carpet store what they thought a very handsome one. Its groundwork was green, and it was ornamented with great golden wreaths. The society decided that no boots should ever soil that sacred carpet, and the girl members volunteered to knit slippers for all the members to wear. Unfortunately, the slippers were not ready for the first meeting, and so all the members who attended, and the visitors, too, were required to put off their shoes from their feet and listen to the debate shod only in stockings. The debaters did the same, and young McKinley presided over the meeting in his stocking feet.

McKinley got a good education. He went to the common school at Niles, to the academy at Poland, and to Alleghany College at Meadville, in Pennsylvania. Here he soon got sick and had to go home; and now he became a school-teacher himself, for his father had lost much of his money, and the boy had to help the family along.

All this was before the great civil war began. When Fort Sumter was fired on, and the people everywhere were getting ready to fight, young McKinley was just past his eighteenth year. He was a short, slender, pale-faced boy, but he was full of fight, and away he marched to the war with the first company of Poland volunteers. His regiment was the 23d Ohio Volunteers, whose major was Rutherford B. Hayes. You will remember his name among our list of Presidents. So this regiment had one coming President among its officers and one in its ranks. That was something to be proud of, if it had been known, for no other regiment ever had such good fortune. 

For fourteen months our young recruit carried a musket in the ranks. He was a good soldier, obeyed all orders, and was always pleasant to his comrades. And he had plenty of soldiering among the West Virginia mountains, where he now soaked with rain, now half-starved from lack of food, and worn out with marching, fighting and going through all sorts of rough work. The Ohio boys were kept chasing the raiders through the rough hills, and they had a hard enough time.

Let us get on with the boy soldier's story. He had been made a sergeant for his good work in West Virginia. He was made a lieutenant for his good work at the terrible battle of Antietam. This is how it came about.

McKinley was commissary sergeant of his regiment. That is, he had charge of the food supplies. He did not have to fight; but was two miles back from the fighting line. Most boys would have thought that a good place to stay, but the boy sergeant did not think so. He thought only of the poor fellows in the ranks, fighting all day under the burning sun. How parched and hungry they must be! What would they not give for a cup of hot coffee. As soon as he thought of this, he got hold of some of the stragglers in the rear and set them to making coffee. 

There were plenty of them, as there are in all battles. Then he filled two wagons with steaming cans of hot coffee and with food, and drove off with his mule teams for the line of battle. One of the wagons broke down, but the other kept on. He was ordered back, but nothing could stop him, and on to the lines he went at full speed.

One of the officers says: "It was nearly dark when we heard tremendous cheering from the left of our regiment. As we had been having heavy fighting right up to this time, our division commander, General Seyammon, sent me to find out the cause, which I very soon found to be cheers for McKinley and his hot coffee. You can readily imagine the rousing welcome he received from both officers and men. When you consider the fact of his leaving his post of security and driving into the middle of a bloody battle with a team of mules, it needs no words of mine to show the character and determination of McKinley, a boy of, at this time, not twenty years of age."

When the Governor of Ohio heard the story of McKinley and his hot coffee for the fighting boys, he made him a lieutenant. Don't you think he well deserved it?

There are other stories of McKinley's gallant conduct. One of them comes from the time of the fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, in July, 1864. Here the confederate General Early attacked General Crook and his men with so strong a force that Crook was driven back. General Hastings tells us how the young lieutenant in the face of death at the command of General Hayes, his commander, rode into the thick of the battle through a rain of shot and bursting shells, and brought out the regiment safely. This deed made a captain of the brave lieutenant.

The fighting was over. The country was at peace. Everybody was getting back to work again. What would the young major do ? He had his living to make. He had tried teaching and fighting, and now he thought he would like to be a lawyer, as he was so good a talker. So he entered a law office and began to study as hard as he had fought. In two years he was ready to practice, and hung out his sign in Canton, Ohio. This place was his home for the rest of his life, and here was he buried when he died.

Here is the story of how he got his first case. One day, as he sat waiting for clients and thinking they would never come, Judge Glidden, who had been his law instructor, came into his office and said: "McKinley, here are the papers in a case of mine. It comes up tomorrow. I have got to go out of town, and I want you to take charge of it for me." McKinley declared that he could not do justice to the case at so short a notice. " I never tried a single case yet, Judge," said he.

"Well, begin on this one, then," was the Judge's reply. And it was finally settled that McKinley should do so. He sat up all night working on the case, tried it the next day, and won it. A few days later Judge Glidden entered his office and handed him 25. McKinley did not wish to take it.

"It is too much for one day's work," he said.

"Don't let that worry you," replied Glidden, good-naturedly. " I charged $100 for this case, and I can well afford a quarter of it to you."

He became a good public speaker and was in great demand. His first office was as district attorney of his county. In due time the rising lawyer got married and settled down as a family man. His wife was Miss Ida Saxton, a beautiful and intelligent girl, the daughter of a rich banker of Canton. McKinley loved her dearly, and never did two people pass happier lives together, for it was a case of true love all through. Mrs. McKinley was an invalid nearly all her life, and he was always kind and devoted to her.

Major McKinley was elected to Congress in 1876, nine years after he began to practice law. General Hayes, who had been the first major of his old regiment, was now President. He and McKinley were as warm friends now as when they had been in the army together.

McKinley was fourteen years in Congress, and in every one of those years he made his mark in some way or other. In 1890 he was defeated in the election for Congress, but he was too well known and too much liked to stay defeated long. If the country did not want him the State did, and the next year he was elected Governor of Ohio by a good majority. In 1893 he was re-elected by over 8o,000 votes. The soldier-boy was coming on well, wasn't he?

He made a good Governor, but he met with a sad misfortune through his kindness of heart. For he put his name on the notes of an old friend, and when this man soon after failed in business McKinley found that he had been sadly cheated. He had signed for only $15,000, but his seeming friend had made him liable for nearly $100,000.

This was like the story of Jefferson in his old days. Every cent he owned would have gone if some friends had not raised the money to pay his debt, as Jefferson's friends did for him. McKinley said he would not take any money, but he could not help himself. All the notes were paid as they came due and he never knew who paid them, so he could not return the money. In that way his kind friends got the better of him.

And now came the time when the people of the whole country wanted McKinley. Ohio was not big enough to hold a man like him any longer. In 1896 a new President was to be chosen, and McKinley was the people's favorite and was elected by a very large number of votes.

It was not a quiet chair to which President McKinley came. If you recall the lives of some of the other Presidents, you will find that they had no great troubles to meet. But McKinley had to face war and insurrection and all the difficult questions these brought on, and that was a good deal for a man who had grown to love peace and quiet.

The map of your country will show you in the ocean just south of Florida, the long, narrow island of Cuba. It is so close to us that it really should have belonged to the United States, but Spain had owned it ever since it was discovered by Columbus, more than four hundred years before.

Spain had no right to own any island, for she did not know how to treat the people. The Cubans were treated so badly that they began to fight for liberty. Then the Spaniards treated them worse than ever, causing thousands of them to starve to death. That was more than Americans could stand. McKinley asked Spain to stop her cruelty. When she would not, the people of the United States so sympathized with the poor Cubans that armies and fleets were sent to fight the Spaniards in Cuba. President McKinley did not want war. He did all he could to keep it off. But when he found that Spain would not listen to reason there was nothing left to do but to teach the Spaniards a lesson.

Only a few great battles were fought. Admiral Dewey won a great naval victory in the Philippines and then there were battles in Cuba. You know how the war ended. Cuba was taken from Spain and made a free nation. Porto Rico, in the West Indies, and the Philippine Islands, in the Pacific Ocean, were given over to this country. Then there came another war in the Philippines, an outbreak of the people, which lasted much longer than the war in Cuba. There was also a great rebellion in China, and the United States Minister at Peking, the capital of China, was in great danger from the rebels, and troops had to be sent to rescue him.

All this made plenty of work for the President. He did not please everybody with what he did, but no one can do that. He dealt ably and wisely with all the questions that came up, and in 1900, when there was another Presidential election, he was more popular than ever. He was chosen by the whole Republican Convention, and was elected with the great majority of 137 electoral votes.

It was a time of splendid prosperity during President McKinley's first term. Business was booming, commerce was active, thousands were growing rich, millions were living well and were happy and contented. That was one good reason for wanting him again. But the country was not to keep him long, for a dreadful event was close at hand, as I have now to tell.

The second inauguration of President McKinley took place on March 4, 1901. All looked promising. The war in the Philippines was nearly at an end, the country was growing greater and grander, business was better than ever, nobody dreamed of a great coming tragedy. The President and his wife took a long journey that spring through the South and West, from Washington to San Francisco. The people of all the towns and cities turned out in multitudes to see and hear him. It was plain that he was a great public favorite. One would have thought he had not an enemy in the land.

In September he went to Buffalo, in New York State, to see the great Fair that was being held there, in which the best and most beautiful things in America were being shown. 
Here, too, the people greeted him like a beloved friend. On the 6th, that he might meet them the more closely, a reception was held in the Temple of Music, where they would have an opportunity to shake hands with their President.

Perhaps some of my readers may have been in Buffalo that day, visiting the Fair. Some of them may have been in the Temple of Music and have seen the long line of people taking the President's hand and looking into his kindly, smiling face. Some of them may even have heard the fatal sound when a desperate villain fired a pistol at the President, and have seen the good man turn pale and fall back. "Let no one hurt him," he gasped, as the guards rushed furiously at the murderer.

After that there was a week of terrible anxiety in the country. Two bullets had struck the President, but for a time the doctors thought he would get well, and the people were full of hope. Then he suddenly began to sink, and on Friday, just one week from the time he was shot, death was very near. His wife was brought in and wept bitterly as she begged the doctors to save him.

"Good bye, all; good bye," whispered the dying man. "It is God's way. His will be done."

These were his last words. A few hours afterward he was dead.

So passed away this great and noble-hearted man, the third of our martyred Presidents and one of the kindest and gentlest of them all. He was buried with all the ceremony and all the demonstrations of respect and affection the country could give. At the time his body was lowered into the grave, for five minutes the whole people came to rest, all business ceased, and a solemn silence overspread the land from sea to sea. Then the stir began again, and once more the world roared on. It never stops long for the greatest of men.


Source:  "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House" by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.

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