Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843, in the small town of Niles, Ohio. He lived there until age ten, when he moved with his family to nearby Poland, Ohio. His loving family provided William Jr., the seventh of eight children, with a fun-filled childhood that was also carefully guided by his parents. Like most young boys, he spent his childhood fishing, hunting, ice skating, horseback riding, and swimming. His father owned a small iron foundry and instilled in young William a strong work ethic and a respectful attitude. Nancy Allison McKinley, his devoutly religious mother, taught him the value of prayer, courtesy, and honesty in all dealings.

Education and Military Service

Education was important to William, and he studied hard at a school run by the Methodist seminary in his hometown of Poland, Ohio. Upon graduation, he entered Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1860. He attended Allegheny for only one term, however, because of illness and financial difficulties.

When the Civil War started, William joined the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. During the war, the young private proved himself a valiant soldier on the battlefield, especially at the bloody battle of Antietam. As a commissioned officer, Second Lieutenant McKinley served on the staff of Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, future President of the United States. His relationship with Hayes, whom he considered his mentor, remained constant throughout his life. He ended his four-year stint in the Army as a brevet major, gaining a title that would stay with him throughout his political career.

Law and Political Career

When the Civil War ended, McKinley returned to Ohio to begin his career in law and politics. He studied law at Albany Law School and, after passing the bar exam in 1867, began his legal practice in Canton, Ohio. At a Canton picnic in 1869—the year he entered politics—McKinley met and began courting his future wife, Ida Saxton, marrying her two years later. He was twenty-seven and she was twenty-three at the time.

Although practicing law was his profession, being involved with the Republican organization secured his future. His first election in 1869 was for county prosecutor. He ran successfully for Congress in 1876 and served until 1891, with the exception of one brief period when he lost in the election of 1882. As a congressman, McKinley became chair of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1889. In that powerful position, he drafted and steered to passage the McKinley Tariff of 1890. Because this strongly protectionist measure increased consumer prices considerably, angry voters rejected McKinley and many other Republicans in the 1890 election. Stunned by his defeat, McKinley returned home to Ohio and ran for governor in 1891, a race which he won, but only by a narrow margin.

As governor, McKinley worked to control—and, he hoped, to lessen—the discord between management and labor. He developed a system of arbitration designed to settle labor disagreements and convinced Ohio Republicans, many of whom refused to acknowledge the rights of labor, to support his arbitration program. McKinley, while sympathetic to workers, proved unwilling to acquiesce to all of their demands, calling out the National Guard in 1894 to curtail strike-related violence by the members of the United Mine Workers. In the face of the economic woes of the mid-1890s, McKinley showed himself to be a skilled and able politician. He even gained widespread public sympathy when his own financial fortunes suffered during the economic depression of 1893—he had co-signed the loans of a friend who subsequently went bankrupt. Winning favor with the voters, he was returned to the governor's office in 1894. With congressional and gubernatorial experience under his belt, as well as widespread popularity in the Republican Party, McKinley was in position to make a run for the White House in 1896.