Review of Margaret Leech’s biography of William McKinley

A wonderfully in-depth, somewhat sympathetic, and very well presented tome, Margaret Leech’s biography of William McKinley, In The Days of McKinley, presents a wide and deep sweep of late 19th Century America and the changes (and issues) that we would recognize 100 plus years and two centuries later. Using a variety of sources, including the diary of McKinley’s secretary, George Cortelyou, Leech tells the tale of our 24th President, who would die at the hands of an assassin near the beginning of his second term, from birth to his tragic death.

In doing so, she provides a detail perspective of a nation that is roused out of an isolationism and into a period of imperialism, brought about by the war with Spain and the resultant occupation of both Cuba and the Philippines, and the challenges of reconciling moral ideals of democracy with the possession of other nation-states. Of note is the tragic and frustrating tale of a military and military bureaucracy, quite frankly soft, that had to be roused into a modern fighting force and establishment. (Of note, McKinley, as she notes in her description of his second inauguration, would be the last of the Union veterans to serve as President.) She also, presents a cast of characters, Mrs Ida McKinley, his invalid, but strong-willed wife, Mark Hanna, an Ohio political boss, and other such as John Hay, who had served under Lincoln and was “a close friend of Garfield” and who watched as a third President he served, died.

At times in the middle part of the book, McKinley lurks in the background, as Leech brings to the foreground the people who would argue and lead and posture both at home and on foreign shores and shape McKinley’s policies and legacy. Yet his will and desire for his policies to be carried out would again surface as the time for action, on the battlefield, in the Congress, and across Washington and the nation came into play.

I very much enjoyed Leech’s work and considered to be one of the best Presidential bios I have so far read. It was published in 1959 by Harper.


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