William McKinley: Facts, Biography, Presidency & Assassination

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States. In this lesson, learn a bit about McKinley and his time in office, as well as his untimely assassination at the hands of a dubious anarchist.

An Ohio Upbringing

William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio. Serving in the 23rd Ohio Infantry on the Union side during the Civil War, he was inspired to join the Republican Party following his service. This was primarily due to the fact that he looked up to his wartime commander, Rutherford Hayes, who was not only a fellow Ohioan, but also a future president. A lawyer, McKinley would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1876-1890 and then governor of Ohio in 1890.

William and Ida McKinley
William and Ida McKinley

The panic of 1893 was a tough time for the American economy, very similar to the issues the nation faced in the early 2000s. One of the main problems was rising prices, causing many hard-working Americans to struggle to make ends meet. In 1895, after two years of an economy weak enough to upset people, change was needed. McKinley, then the Governor of Ohio, was nominated to run for President. He was elected in 1896 by a large margin: nearly 600,000 votes. Maybe not significant in today's terms, but in the 1890s, that was huge! He would go on to win a second term in 1900, but the second term would end in his assassination. More on that later.

Some Accomplishments of McKinley's Presidency

When McKinley took office, it was clear that the economy was the main problem needing to be fixed. If you can recall the tough times of the early 2000s, then you understand what he was faced with. As President, McKinley imposed several changes that enabled the nation to come out of this dark time and see its industrial might and economic power increase significantly. For example, he increased the tariffs, or taxes, on imports from other countries, which poured more money into the United States' economy. He also negotiated agreements with other nations, such as France, for economic cooperation.

Though he fixed the economy, McKinley was more known for his foreign policy. With an independence crisis in Cuba, he sent American troops to support overthrowing the Spanish, who controlled the Caribbean island nation. The U.S.S. Maine, an American battleship, exploded in Havana Harbor, killing many American sailors. The cause of the explosion is not fully known to this day. Leading theories suggest that either the Spanish were responsible, or the U.S. intentionally blew it up to shift public opinion into fighting with Cuba.

After the 100-day war with Spain that followed, a victorious U.S. gained freedom for Cuba and acquired various territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico. This expansion impressed the voters, and McKinley was re-elected in 1900 to a second term by an even larger margin than his first election. McKinley was becoming known for his decision-making with an iron fist, especially with regards to other nations.

U.S.S. Maine prior to her destruction
USS Maine


During McKinley's first term, many accused him of letting big business control him, since he brought the U.S. out of the recession so quickly. Many American workers were angry, because they felt he was siding with their bosses. Some of these workers turned to radical political ideologies, such as communism and anarchism, or the idea that no government should exist and basically everyone should adopt a free-for-all, do-what-you-want lifestyle.

McKinley felt he was doing a great job and was well liked; he had beaten Spain and gained freedom for Cuba. But he knew he was ignoring the growing anger that was nearing its boiling point on the home front. So, McKinley decided to attend the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in September, 1901 to show himself in public and ease some of these tensions.

The rest of the story reads like a best-selling crime thriller:

While shaking hands with those attending the fair like in a receiving line at a wedding, the smiling McKinley was approached by an unusual man. Dressed in rag-tag clothes, his hand covered in a handkerchief, as if hiding an injury from working long hours in some industrial plant, he had a secret. His name? Leon Czolgosz (shoal-gosh). His story? An anarchist who wanted to overthrow the government and get rid of McKinley.

Leon Czolgosz, taken the year before the assassination
Leon Czolgosz

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