Why Isn't William McKinley a More Famous President?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
President William McKinley
This detail of the T. Dart Walker illustration "Assassination of President McKinley" portrays the moment American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president at the Pan American Exposition on Sep. 6, 1901. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

When you think of important U.S. Presidents, names such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy come to mind. But chances are that you'll have to think awhile before you come up with the name of William McKinley, who occupied the White House from March 4, 1897 to Sept. 14, 1901.

McKinley has receded so much in the national consciousness, in fact, that he owns the dubious distinction of being the only president to have his name taken off a mountain. In 2015, President Barack Obama renamed what had officially been known as Mount McKinley since 1917, reverting the name of the highest mountain peak in North America to Denali, the name used for centuries by native Alaskans. McKinley's face last appeared on a U.S. postage stamp back in 1938, and he so far has yet to appear as one of the Racing Presidents at Washington Nationals games.


But historians hold him in somewhat higher regard. In C-Span's 2021 Fourth Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership poll, scholars ranked McKinley as the 14th-best U.S. president — up two spots from his 16th place in 2017, the last time the survey was conducted. It also secures him in the second quartile of the 44 commanders in chief that were considered.

"I think President McKinley's ranking has risen a bit over the last 10 years or so as more study is done about his presidency," Christopher Kenney, director of education for the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton, Ohio, said via email when we originally talked to him in 2018. "As historians are looking into issues of today, some of the concerns we're facing [are] issues that were first faced during the presidency of William McKinley."


Get to Know the 25th President

In some ways, it's puzzling that McKinley isn't better known today. He was, after all, a man with a compelling personal story. A Civil War veteran who risked his life to get hot food and coffee to other soldiers in the battle of Antietam, he eventually became the last Civil War vet to serve in the White House. He represented Ohio for 14 years in Congress, and also served two terms as that state's governor.

He was elected president in a landmark 1896 campaign in which he seldom traveled, instead giving speeches from the front porch of a rented home in Canton, Ohio, to crowds of supporters whom the GOP brought in by train. That campaign was the first big-money contest in the history of U.S. politics; Ohio political kingmaker Mark Hanna raised millions from corporations, a practice that eventually became illegal.


McKinley ran as a pro-business candidate, and once in office, he worked to strengthen the U.S. economy, which at the time was struggling to escape a downturn. McKinley called Congress into a special session to enact tariffs on imports, as a way to raise government revenue and encourage the expansion of industry and creation of jobs for American workers, according to historian Lewis L. Gould. He later signed into law a bill that established gold-backed U.S. currency.

But McKinley's domestic policies were overshadowed by international affairs. In 1898, McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War, which marked the first emergence of the U.S. as a global power. "With this war we became a world power for the first time," Kenney said. "We now had territories, Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico."

President William McKinley
President William McKinley (far left) is seen here with his cabinet some time between 1897 and 1901.
Library of Congress

McKinley was reelected in 1900, but his second term was cut short by a shocking tragedy. While visiting the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, McKinley was shot by anarchist assassin Leon Czolgolz, and his death eight days later made him one of just four U.S. Presidents — Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and John F. Kennedy are the others — who were murdered in office.


He Was Overshadowed by Theodore Roosevelt

So why isn't McKinley more recognizable to Americans today? One reason, perhaps, is that the man who succeeded him in office, his vice president Theodore Roosevelt, was a colorful, larger-than-life figure.

"I think that the personality of Roosevelt really overshadowed McKinley," Kenney said. "McKinley was only six months into his second term when he was assassinated, so there is always the 'what if?' question. Not to mention this period in history is not covered much in school, other than a passing mention of the Spanish-American War and T. R. and the Rough Riders."


There are signs, though, of a resurgence in McKinley's reputation. Early in 2018, for example, the National Constitution Center published an article titled William McKinley: Does he deserve more respect from historians?

McKinley also seems increasingly relevant, when you consider that his United States grappled with problems such as trade imbalances and strategies to create industrial employment.

"As you begin to study the McKinley Presidency you can start to understand some of the issues of today," Kenney said.

william mckinley, theodore roosevelt, seated outdoors
This undated photograph shows William McKinley (left), seated with his charismatic vice president Theodore Roosevelt, who became president upon McKinley's death.
Bettmann/Getty Images