Study Guide

William McKinley in Imperialism

By William Jennings Bryan

William McKinley

Every time Bryan thought he was going for a slam-dunk, McKinley was always there to smack the ball away before it could actually get in to the basket. Yeah; these guys weren't the best of buds.

McKinley's Cross of Gold

Before McKinley and Bryan went all out during the election of 1896, they started butting heads over the whole Free Silver Debate. As a member of the House of Representatives for the State of Ohio, McKinley was tasked in 1890 to try and figure out a policy that kept both gold and silver healthy parts of the economy.

His solution? The McKinley Tariff…ta da! Clever name, huh?

McKinley got Congress to pass a massive tariff. And we mean massive—it put duties on imports up around fifty percent. That's a lot. The point was to encourage American manufacturing and help to lower interests for loans and such.

Ultimately, the plan totally backfired. The country's gold supply was almost completely depleted due to some simple mistakes. And an economic depression hit the country really hard.

And this was where Bryan came in and thought he was going to save the day all Superman-style. He even wrote his "Cross of Gold" speech to try and delegitimize McKinley and his tariff. Unfortunately for Bryan, he didn't save the day. McKinley won the election and gold became the standard.

"No More a Backbone Than a Chocolate Éclair"

This may have been somewhat of a blessing in disguise, though, 'cause McKinley found himself in an awkward situation once he because POTUS. Spain's empire was falling apart. Both Cuba and the Philippines decided to start revolutions against the empire and started hinting to the U.S. that they could use some help.

McKinley didn't really want to. But there were some Americans just itching for a fight. They kept harassing him to just start a little fight against Spain in Cuba. Just a teensy-weensy battle. That's all.

And then—ka-blam—the USS Maine exploded in the Havana Harbor. The pro-war folks were just relentless after that. Everyone got in on the action. They started calling McKinley a bunch of names for not jumping right into war. He was accused of being a coward, a girly leader, and not having the manly fortitude to move forward with war.

Never mind the fact that he was a veteran of the Civil War—they still went after him.

The media was the worst during this time, getting rich off the excitement and encouraging even more intense name-calling. Insults were flying left and right, but the absolute best was when Theodore Roosevelt accused McKinley of having "no more a backbone than a chocolate eclair". And that was the last straw for McKinley.

War was on from that point forward.

The U.S. went to war with Spain in 1898, justifying it by saying that the Cuban and Filipino people needed protection and help fighting against the much bigger and bulker bully that was the Spanish Empire.

But Spain went down relatively quickly. That left the U.S. with the question: what do we do with Cuba, the Philippines, and the other islands now that they're ours?

Now What Do We Do…

The Cubans negotiated a conditional form of independence, while Puerto Rico elected to remain somewhat officially attached to the U.S. for the time being (as a Commonwealth). But the Philippines? They wanted the U.S. out.

Like now.

Bryan wanted out too. His "Imperialism" speech was supposed to represent those in America that believed in Filipino independence. But McKinley was still stuck with the imperialism-loving voters that got him into office the first time around.

So, McKinley ended up being pro-empire. Because of this, he won the election of 1900 too.

But the story doesn't end happily for McKinley, either. Partly because of McKinley's imperial policies, partly because of his support of capitalism, and largely because the guy involved was just angry, McKinley was assassinated by a disgruntled anarchist name Leon Czolgosz in 1901.

Sadly, he could no longer be a permanent thorn in Bryan's side. Somebody else would have to fulfill that role.

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