Meet the overlooked president whose name being taken off a mountain is causing everyone to freak out

William Mckinley
William McKinley in his presidential portrait Public domain

Republicans are angry that President Barack Obama moved to change the name of Mount McKinley to Denali, the name given to it by native Alaskan tribes.

But the Alaska Board on Geographic Names recognised the mountain’s name as Denali 40 years ago. And McKinley, who served as Ohio’s governor before he became president, never actually went to or even saw the mountain himself.

Even those responsible for keeping McKinley’s historical footprint alive are wondering where the controversy is.

“McKinley’s legacy is not attached to the name of the mountain,” Kimberly Kenney, the curator of the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, told Business Insider. “It’s much bigger than that. While we were very honored, and it was a source of honour to have his name on the mountain, we’re also happy for the Native Alaskans, because they have been wanting this change for a long, long time.”

For all the talk about his name, the 25th president did leave an important economic and foreign-policy legacy. He was a Republican, but the issues of his time were very different from the ones of today. Here’s a primer on McKinley, his presidency, and his untimely death.


McKinley was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 36, in 1879. He remained in the House until 1891, when he lost his seat in part because of an elaborate gerrymandering scheme by Democrats. His “McKinley Tariff” legislation also found virulent opposition (more on that below).

Undeterred, McKinley ran for governor of Ohio and won. He was governor for one term before he successfully ran for president in 1896, becoming the last Civil War veteran to be elected to the position. He beat William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and he was re-elected in 1900, beating Bryan again.

Throughout his career, McKinley’s public service was known for his tariff-based economic policy that aimed to protect the US economy and workers from foreign competition. By the end of his Congressional career, he was the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful House bodies.

Denali (L), formerly known as Mount McKinley, can be seen from Air Force One as U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Anchorage, Alaska August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Thomson Reuters
Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, can be seen from Air Force One as U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Anchorage


McKinley’s presidential electoral platform, like his congressional platform, largely relied on tariffs that he said would protect US industry.

“He was in favour of a protective tariff, meaning he didn’t want domestic goods to have competition from foreign imports,” Kenney said. “He focused on the American economy protecting America.”

The main tariff enacted during his presidency came from Dingley Act, which constituted the highest and longest-lasting tariff in US history. The tariff increased prices for woolens, linens, silks, china and sugar.

His focus on tariff policy helped McKinley’s standing among workers and was credited with helping end an economic depression that began in 1893. The policy also gave him the biggest margin of victory for the popular election in 25 years in 1896.

Spanish-American War

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Aside from tariff legislation, McKinley as president is best known for his leadership during the Spanish-American war, the first overseas conflict that engaged the US and ushered in a new era of US foreign policy.

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine was sunk off the coast of Cuba after a massive explosion. It set off a chain of events that led Congress to declare war on Spain, which controlled Cuba at the time. The “100 day war” dovetailed with the Cuban War of Independence, and ended on August 12, 1898.

Spain granted Cuba the independence it wanted and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. They have been US territories since then. And partly based on strategic concerns from the war, McKinley moved to annex Hawaii that year, too.

Claiming victory in a war against Spain, a major world power at the time, gave the US a new international role in the world. It would set the tone for US foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries, Kenney said.

“A lot of people forget that the Spanish-American War was the first time we fought a war on foreign soil,” Kenney said. “It was a shift from an isolationist perspective to getting involved in a global conflict. … All of that goes back to President McKinley, for better or for worse.”


Tied to McKinley’s legacy is his assassination at the hands of a steel worker. He was assassinated six months into the second term of his presidency, in 1901, by anarchist steel worker Leon Czolgosz.

Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the abdomen before a speech in Buffalo, New York. McKinley was rushed to the hospital but died days later, on September 14, of gangrene from the blood loss that accompanied the shooting. He was 58 years old.

McKinley’s death ushered in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt — who, as McKinley’s vice president, succeeded him and took the oath of office in Buffalo. Czolgosz was sentenced to death and executed by electric chair on October 29.

Roosevelt’s larger-than-life personality overshadowed McKinley, but McKinley’s death profoundly affected the country. Kenney said that historians “sort of skip over McKinley,” partially because of Roosevelt’s career, and compared his assassination to those of former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.

“His assassination was felt in the same way that Lincoln’s was, that Kennedy’s was,” Kenney said. “The moment of his assassination was very painful for the country. He had friends on both sides of the aisle. He was very well-liked by everyone, whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him.”

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