McKinley fought bravely as a Union infantryman in the Civil War and was awarded a battlefield commission by Union officer and fellow future President Rutherford B. Hayes. After the war, McKinley passed the bar and practiced law in Ohio. He served as a member of Congress from 1877 to 1890. His congressional career ended with his conception of the unpopular McKinley tariff, which set import tax rates at 50 percent, placing an undue burden on working-class Americans. Despite this setback, McKinley won back public support, becoming governor of Ohio in 1891 and running for the presidency in 1896. The next year, McKinley became America’s 25th president. He was joined in office by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt.
Early in his first term, McKinley faced down the declining yet truculent Spanish empire in a controversial war that gained territory for the United States. The Spanish-American War began on April 25, 1898, following an explosion on the American battleship USS Maine in Cuba the previous February that killed 266 American servicemen and ignited American accusations of sabotage on the part of Spain. Though the Spanish were never proven to be responsible for the explosion (and probably were not), American newspapers pounced on the episode to drum up support for U.S. intervention in Spain’s colonial affairs. Newspaper baron Randolph Hearst published exaggerated reports of Spain’s brutal repression of independence movements in its Caribbean and Pacific territories to win public support for the war. After only four months of fighting, the United States gained control of Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines. With the Spanish-American War, America embarked on an age of New Imperialism, during which the United States also annexed the kingdom of Hawaii.
McKinley also left his imprint on the American economy through his initiation of the trust-busting era. He urged Congress to appoint the U.S. Industrial Commission of 1899-1902 to investigate corruption and greed in railroad-pricing policy, industrial monopolies and the impact of immigration on labor markets. Though McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901, did not live to see the results of the commission’s work, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, zealously implemented the commission’s anti-trust recommendations during his term in the White House. McKinley’s commission ultimately contributed to the dismantling of the country’s largest trusts: the Standard Oil Company and J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Corporation.
Ironically, it was labor concerns that inspired McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz. A former steel worker, Czolgosz (prononced cholgaush) participated in labor strikes and demonstrations in the late 1800s and witnessed violent police repression and the subsequent firing of his fellow workers. Influenced by American anarchists, he adopted the philosophy that the only way to end oppression of the working class was the complete dismantling of the government. His political beliefs turned to fanaticism, which prompted fellow radicals to officially distance themselves from him; they even declared him a government spy.
The isolated Czolgosz idolized Gaetano Bresci, an anarchist who assassinated Italy’s King Umberto I on July 29,1900. The following year, on September 6, 1901, Czolgosz approached McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and shot the president twice at point-blank range. The mortally wounded president lingered for a week, finally succumbing to blood poisoning on September 14. Jurors pronounced Czolgosz guilty and sentenced him to death by electrocution on October 29, 1901. Unapologetic, his last words were I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people–the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. McKinley became the third U.S. president to be assassinated, after Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield.