William McKinley, Ohioan
It is generally believed by strangers that the most interesting and significant part of Ohio's history lies in the part the state has played in national politics—as a "barometer" state and as the home of political leaders. Ohio has produced many men of political importance, and has sent seven native sons to the presidency—Grant, Garfield, Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley, Taft and Harding. However, Ohio's industrial life overshadows its politics. . . . Ohio's major importance—and major interest—lies in a large and varied industrialism.
--The Ohio Guide (WPA)
William McKinley was born in Ohio in 1843, mostly educated there, fought the Civil War in a Buckeye regiment, represented an Ohio district in Congress, and sat in the governor's chair in Columbus. He loved the state. His God, loved even more, was the benign God of an Ohio Methodist Sunday School. His career is only understandable as the career of a proud and well-connected middle- class Ohioan. Factory whistles were his Mozart wind concertos, tar iff schedules his Plato's Republic, and Civil War recollections his Herodotus.
Nineteenth-century Ohio, however, was not just a place but a phenomenon. No retrospective on America's twenty-fifth president can begin without a comprehension of the state's spectacular emergence as a center of U.S. political and economic gravity during the fifty-eight years between McKinley's birth and death. Like Virginia earlier, Ohio became a "Mother of Presidents." It was also the first crucible of the Old Northwest. In the year McKinley was born, four other future GOP presidents called Ohio home—Ulysses Grant, just out of West Point, Rutherford Hayes, a year past his Kenyon
College graduation, the twelve-year-old James Garfield, working to support his widowed mother, and Benjamin Harrison, a schoolboy in North Bend.
None, obviously, had any youthful inkling of the Ohio regime to come, of how from 1868 to 1900, no Republican would be elected president who was not born in the Buckeye State. Those of other origins tried in vain: New Yorkers, Hoosiers, state of Maine men, anyone. Even the three leading Northern generals in the Civil War were Ohio-born: Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan. Ohio itself was the sole Northern state central enough to be a bridge from the war's eastern theater of operations in next-door Virginia to its western theater spanning the Ohio-Mississippi river system. The late nineteenth century was Ohio's great period, the Buckeye hour in history.
This unique molding and mentoring helped to sculpt McKinley's political rise and influence. The state's economic vigor and innovation, besides underpinning its national importance, also gave McKinley his principal career theme: first, the blessings of a protective tariff system, and then the reforms it would need to meet the twentieth century. Lacking the patina that other Ohio GOP presidents got at Williams College (Garfield), Yale (Taft), or Harvard Law School (Hayes), little about McKinley did not reflect his middle class, midcountry origins.
DRUMS TO DYNAMOS ALONG THE OHIO
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ohio was the doorstep of the New West, the open, rich land closest to Virginia and the original Northern states. Steamboats were common on the Ohio River by the 1820s. By 1830 and 1840, the center of national population was speeding westward across Virginia. In 1850 it hovered near Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the south bank of the Ohio River. Then, like Eliza, the fugitive slave in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, it leaped across the river, coming to rest in 1860 about fifteen miles from Chillicothe.
Ohio had gone from territory to state in 1803, just as Thomas Jefferson was arranging the Louisiana Purchase. The early settlers, disproportionately from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, concentrated near the river that had taken most of them west. Cincinnati, its "Queen City," became the state's major urban and commercial center, although its streets were often clogged by noisy, dirty hogs on their way to the slaughterhouses.
Then in the 1830s, courtesy of New York's Erie Canal, a new population movement began to fill up the northern and central parts of the state with Yankees, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and German, British, and Irish immigrants. At mid-century, Cincinnati still had a huge edge over Yankee Cleveland on Lake Erie—a population of some 115,000 versus just 17,000. But growth in northern Ohio was accelerating like one of the new Philadelphia-built locomotives on the Mad River and Lake Erie Railway.
Ohio was a new type of state, a composition board of converging migrations from all three major U.S. eighteenth-century coastal regions—New England, the Middle Atlantic (mostly Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers), and the South (principally Virginians, Carolinians, and migrants from Tennessee and Kentucky). Ohio's northeast, the former Western Reserve of Connecticut, had welcomed a small first wave of Yankee settlers in the 1780s and 1790s at the same time as larger numbers of Appalachian Scots-Irish crossed the Pennsylvania and Virginia borders.
As settlement swelled, Ohio's population jumped from 230,000 in 1810—Shawnee and Wyandot war parties still prowled the state's northwest—to some 900,000 in 1830. A further flood more than doubled the population to nearly 2 million in 1850. Ohio became to the canal, steamboat, and Conestoga wagon era what California would be to the automobile and airplane in the decades after World War II: not just a beacon but a national symbol of westward migration.
"The immigration to the North Central section," concluded historian Frederick Jackson Turner, "had a special significance. In the Atlantic states, from the colonial days, the rule of the older stock was well-established, and institutions, manners and customs—the cultural life of the sections—had been largely fixed by tradition. But in the New West, society was plastic and democratic. All elements were suddenly coming in, together, to form the section. It would be a mistake to think that social classes and distinctions were obliterated, but in general, no such stratification existed as was to be found, especially, in New England."'
Buckeye agriculture complemented Jacksonian democracy, being small-holder based and a far cry from plantations of the Cot ton South or the quasi-feudal land holdings of New York's Hudson Valley. Farmers were lured by the fifty to sixty bushels an acre corn yields of the fertile Muskingum, Scioto, and Miami valleys, two or three times what they could grow on hillside or tidewater plots back east. By the 1840s, two extensive state-built waterways connected Ohio farmlands to Lake Erie and the Erie Canal, opening up the Eastern U.S. and European corn and wheat markets. Higher crop prices followed.
Additional help came from the reaper and other new farm machinery. In 1840, Ohio was the leading wheat-producing state ranked by yield. This slipped to second in 1850 and fourth in 1860 as the grain belt moved west. In corn, however, Ohio had been fourth in 1840, but rose to first place in 1850. Corn was marketed largely on the hoof—cattle and hogs fed on it, then were slaughtered, packed, and sent east or abroad.
Not surprisingly, Ohio led the nation in livestock in 1850. Meat-packing Cincinnati had already won the nickname "Porkopolis," and Ohio's sheep-raising eastern counties likewise made it the number one wool-raising state. A century later, one would err taking Ohio as the heart of the Farm Belt, but not in the years of McKinley's boyhood.
Biblical land of Goshen as the state might seem, abundant crops did not always lead to prosperity. That had been proved in the late 1830s and 1840s when banks failed and low meat and grain prices barely exceeded production costs. Prosperity returned in the 1 850s, but by the late sixties and early seventies, Washington's acquiescence in a post—Civil War contraction of the currency was provoking crop and livestock districts alike.
As president, McKinley would fondly reminisce about how as a barefoot nine-year-old, he took his family's cows to and from pasture. Yet from the start, his part of Ohio was also industrial. At the time of McKinley's birth, the Niles Tribune-Chronicle later recalled, the town had included "3 churches, 3 stores, 1 blast furnace, rolling mill, nail factory forge and about 300 inhabitants."3 Even in 1820, only Pennsylvania and New York surpassed Ohio in the value of
manufactured goods, and this kind of interspersed small-scale industry characterized the Ohio countryside until the Civil War.
McKinley's grandfather James, and his father, William, were iron makers by trade. In the early nineteenth century, they came to Ohio from Pennsylvania, where Scots-Irish iron masters, aroused by prohibitions in the British Iron Act of 1750 against colonials making pig iron into ironware and machinery, had been a mainstay of the American Revolution. In 1804, Daniel Heaton built Ohio's first smelting furnace on Yellow Creek, near the present site of Youngstown. This was the forerunner of the Mahoning Valley steel industry, at its twentieth-century peak second only to that of nearby Pittsburgh.
Iron quickly became Ohio's leading manufacturing industry, with the 1850 census ranking state pig-iron output second only to Pennsylvania's. Coal and iron production both concentrated in the eastern counties where the McKinleys always had a small furnace or two.
Turnpikes, canals, and railroads crisscrossed the area where McKinley grew up. By the 1850s, the railroad concentrations of northeastern Ohio rivaled those centered on Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.4 At the Civil War's outbreak, Ohio led the nation in railroad mileage, and when Buckeye soldiers got leave, all they had to do was reach the Baltimore & Ohio line in the east or the Louisville & Cincinnati in the west. Home would be only hours away.
Like Ohio's centrality in late-nineteenth-century politics, its significance to U.S. manufacturing is hard to exaggerate. Between young Will McKinley's birth and his election to the presidency in 1896, the state's industrial innovation was the stuff of record books—literally.
Cleveland had John D. Rockefeller at work in the Ohio oilfields and refinery district, as well as Charles Brush, whose invention of the arc light illuminated America's cities. Young Thomas A. Edison spent some of his boyhood puttering in the town of Milan. Charles Martin Hall, based in Oberlin, in 1886 discovered the electrolytic process for making aluminum. Toledo to the northwest claimed Edward Libbey and Michael Owens, whose inventions and local company, Libby-Owens-Ford, revolutionized the glass and bottle business.
Copyright © 2003 Kevin Phillips