As It Were: McKinley memorial still stands outside Statehouse
When walking along High Street in downtown Columbus near the Statehouse, it is hard to miss the rather imposing statue of William McKinley flanked by symbolic statues of a workman with a boy and matron with a young girl.
The statue of McKinley is on a rather high pedestal and tableau inscribed with quotations from some of his speeches.
Having seen all this, it still might not be quite clear: Who exactly was this man, and how did this statue come to be in Capitol Square?
Both of these questions have interesting answers.
To this day, McKinley is not one of the best known of America’s residents.
But serving at a time of significant and rapid change, he should be better known. He was a voice of stability in a time when calmness was a virtue.
Born in 1843 in Niles, McKinley was the seventh of nine children in a family of moderate means. His father was an iron worker and operated foundries in a number of places in northern Ohio.
Receiving a basic education in local schools and some work in a couple of colleges, McKinley had a drive to succeed. He came of age just in time to serve in the American Civil War.
His unit in the Union Army was the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and his commander was a resolute soldier named Rutherford B. Hayes. The young man and Hayes came out of the war as friends for life.
McKinley was a commissary worker and brought hot food and drinks to the men at the front lines of his regiment. He rose through the ranks and ended the war as a brevet major.
Returning from the war in 1865, McKinley decided to become an attorney and dabble a bit in politics, as well.
A lifelong Republican, McKinley ended up in the small town of Canton, where be was elected as prosecuting attorney.
He also met and married Ida Saxton, a young lady with both wealth and beauty. It was a marriage of love and tragedy. The McKinleys had two daughters, and both of them died in infancy. Afflicted with epilepsy and other ailments, Ida Saxton McKinley became quite frail and in need of care. William McKinley provided that care for the rest of his life.
McKinley developed a successful law practice and gained some recognition when he successfully defended for free some striking workers in a widely reported labor dispute. On the other side of this dispute among other people was a Cleveland streetcar entrepreneur named Mark Hanna. Hanna became a power in the Republican Party and a friend of McKinley.
McKinley would go on to a successful career as a congressman from 1877 to 1884. District boundary changes by his Democratic Party opponents from time to time led to his occasional defeat, but McKinley was politically resilient and consistently able to return to office.
By 1892, he was one of the more prominent people in his party and successfully served in Columbus as governor of Ohio from 1892 to 1896.
In 1896, he ran for president. McKinley was 53. His opponent was young, energetic William Jennings Bryan, the “Boy Orator of the Platte.” Bryan formed a coalition of Democrats and populists and ran on a platform advocating a loosened money supply. He traveled the country making hundreds of speeches and shaking thousands of hands.
Opposing him, McKinley ran a highly successful “front-porch campaign” that drew thousands of people to his home, where he also shook a lot of hands. Just as importantly, his campaign strategist was Hanna, who raised enormous sums of money to launch one of the first great expensive campaigns of the modern era.
McKinley won the election, and many historians see that victory beginning a political realignment that would end a political stalemate and lead to Republican dominance for many years.
McKinley’s first term saw American participation in the Spanish-American War and the beginnings of an American presence as a world power.
Defeating Bryan a second time in 1900, McKinley was shot and killed by an assassin in September 1901 at an exposition in Buffalo, New York.
Soon after his death, a committee in Columbus began to raise money for a monument to the late president. The sum of $50,000 was raised. Some of the money was provided by grants but most of it was raised in donations of nickels, dimes and quarters by children across the state.
The noted American sculptor Hermon Atkins McNeil was chosen to create the memorial.
Working from photographs, drawings and a model wearing McKinley’s clothes, McNeil, with help from his sculptor wife, Carol, created the memorial.
It was dedicated in 1906 before a crowd of 50,000 people by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.
When he was governor, McKinley and his wife lived in the Neil House hotel across from the Statehouse. Each day as he walked to work, McKinley would turn and wave to his wife – in the place where his statue is today.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.