Milestone Documents of American Leaders

William McKinley

Featured Documents

  • Message to Congress about Intervention in Cuba (1898)
  • “Benevolent Assimilation” Proclamation (1898)
  • Home Market Club Speech (1899)
  • Last Speech (1901)


William McKinley was born in Ohio in 1843. He fought in the Civil War and then was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served from 1876 to 1890. From 1892 to 1896 he was governor of Ohio. Nominated by the Republicans for the presidency in 1896, McKinley was elected and served from 1897 until he was assassinated in 1901. During his four and a half years in office, a dispute with Spain over the rebellion of Cuba against the Spanish led to war in 1898. That conflict, in turn, resulted in an American victory and the negotiation of a peace treaty in Paris. The outcome of the war led to America’s acquisition of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. McKinley was reelected to the presidency in 1900. He was shot by an anarchist sympathizer on September 6, 1901, and died on September 14, 1901.

McKinley was the first modern president. Although he had been elected largely on domestic issues in the campaign of 1896, he became a significant chief executive in the area of foreign policy. During his administration the United States fought the Spanish-American War over the fate of the island of Cuba. McKinley used his power as commander in chief to direct the war effort, govern the possessions that were added from the peace treaty with Spain, and prosecute a war in the Philippines. The administration also sought to penetrate the Far East for American trade through the policy of the Open Door with China, a concept developed in the mid-nineteenth century and stating that all nations, in principle, should have equal trading rights in China. These developments accelerated the process by which the United States became a world power.

McKinley’s importance also stemmed from his impact on the office of the presidency itself. In forging closer relationships with the press, traveling extensively to promote his programs, and working closely with Congress, McKinley set precedents that subsequent executives emulated during the twentieth century. By the start of his second term, there were complaints in some quarters that McKinley had accumulated too much power and was stretching the authority of the presidency in directions the framers of the Constitution had not anticipated. Such criticisms attest to the significant impact McKinley’s policies and his public articulation of the goals of his administration had in reshaping the way Americans saw their presidents.

In domestic affairs, McKinley’s presidency witnessed an economic rebound from the depression of the 1890s. The enactment of the Dingley Act (1897) and the Gold Standard Act (1900) were key elements in the Republican program of a protective tariff and a sound, reliable currency, respectively. As businesses consolidated during the years of returning prosperity, the issue of “the trusts” (monopolies) became an important one in American politics. McKinley was assassinated before he could fully engage the issue, but there were indications as his second term began that he intended to regulate the trusts along the lines that Theodore Roosevelt had followed in his first term as president. Even though he had been an advocate of a protective tariff early in his career, McKinley endorsed liberalizing of American trade and planned to make that a hallmark of his second term. His last speech, delivered in September of 1901 in Buffalo, New York, was a significant indication of the direction in which he, as president, wanted to take the country.

Time Line

January 29, 1843—William McKinley is born in Niles, Ohio.
June 11, 1861—McKinley is mustered into the Union Army.
1876—McKinley is elected to the House of Representatives.
1890—McKinley is defeated for another term in the House.
January 11, 1892—McKinley is inaugurated as governor of Ohio.
January 8, 1894—McKinley is inaugurated for a second term as governor.
November 3, 1896—McKinley is elected president of the United States.
April 11, 1898—McKinley asks Congress for authority to intervene in Cuba.
December 21, 1898—McKinley orders “benevolent assimilation” in the Philippines.
February 16, 1899—McKinley delivers a speech on imperialism to the Home Market
      Club in Boston.
November 6, 1900—McKinley is reelected as president. 
September 5, 1901—McKinley delivers a speech on trade in Buffalo, New York.
September 6, 1901—An anarchist sympathizer shoots McKinley at the Temple of
      Music in Buffalo.
September 14, 1901—McKinley dies in Buffalo.

Explanation and Analysis of Documents

McKinley was president of the United States during the period of overseas expansion that grew out of the war with Spain in 1898. A popular speaker as a campaigner, McKinley wrote presidential messages and delivered addresses that proved significant in persuading Americans to adopt this expanded world role at the end of the nineteenth century. At a time when radio did not yet exist, the president had to make his case through the prose that his constituents read in their newspapers or in pamphlet form. McKinley proved quite adept at framing arguments that would convince citizens of the wisdom of the course he was proposing. Four public documents demonstrate McKinley’s technique as a molder of opinion and the person who set priorities for the nation: his message to Congress asking for authority to intervene in Cuba, his proclamation of a policy of “benevolent assimilation” in the Philippines, his speech about imperialism to the Home Market Club in Boston, and his last speech, given in Buffalo, New York.

Message to Congress about Intervention in Cuba

By late March 1898 the United States was in a confrontation with Spain over the fate of the island of Cuba, the last Spanish possession in the Western Hemisphere. Diplomatic efforts to induce Spain to leave Cuba in a peaceful manner had failed. The United States believed that the continuing violence in Cuba threatened American commerce; required expenditures of money to enforce neutrality laws; and, according to the president, “caused irritation, annoyance, and disturbance among our citizens.” The Spanish would not relinquish what they called their “Ever Faithful” island without a military struggle. To break the impasse, McKinley submitted his message to Congress about Cuban intervention on April 11, 1898. In this written exposition of the situation the United States faced in Cuba, the president shaped the alternatives that the lawmakers would have to consider in debating intervention.

The first portion of McKinley’s message examines the background of events in Cuba before he took office in March 1897. He reviews the involvement of the United States in the affairs of the island and the periodic uprisings against Spanish rule that disturbed the peace in the Caribbean. These paragraphs reflect the ongoing concern of the United States about the presence of a European power and its colonial possession in the Western Hemisphere. Then the president states that there is little likelihood that either the Spanish or the Cuban rebels could achieve a military victory on the battlefield. His diplomacy, especially in March 1898, looked toward negotiations with Spain to bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. It was implicit in McKinley’s offer to the Spanish that the government in Madrid must recognize independence for Cuba and withdraw Spanish forces. As the president notes in his message, the Spanish response did not meet the American demands. Instead of negotiations, the Spanish reserved final judgment about the fate of Cuba to itself; the most it would concede was a suspension of hostilities. That would leave control of the situation to the Spanish military commander, who would determine how long the pause in the fighting would endure.

McKinley then decided that the United States must intervene to end the fighting. He made his decision on the grounds of humanity, the American duty to the citizens of Cuba, and the adverse effects of continued fighting on American trade. But his main reason for intervention was the demands the war made on the United States itself, resulting in what he calls in his message “a constant menace to our peace.” As an example, he cites the destruction of the battleship Maine, which had blown up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. The vessel had been sent there to show American interest in lessening the fighting on the island. For all these reasons, the president concludes that “the war in Cuba must stop.”

The reaction to the message itself was mixed in Congress, but lawmakers did grant the president the authority to intervene in Cuba. That decision, in turn, moved Spain to declare war on the United States, and hostilities between the two nations were under way by the end of April. The fighting went on in Cuba and the Philippines. Spain’s Asian possessions were attacked as part of a war plan to force Madrid to negotiate a peace settlement.

At the battle of Manila Bay, on May 1, 1898, the American squadron, commanded by Commodore George Dewey, defeated the Spanish vessels defending the islands. Soon McKinley sent troops to complete the occupation of the Philippines. Meanwhile, in Cuba the army gained possession of the strategic heights overlooking Santiago Harbor and forced the Spanish army to sue for an end to the fighting in mid-July. By mid-August an armistice between Spain and the United States brought the military phase of the conflict to an end.

The large question for the McKinley administration became the fate of the Philippines. During the peace negotiations that went on in Paris during the autumn of 1898, the American delegation received instructions from the president that the United States should insist on the acquisition of the Philippines as part of the final settlement of the war. The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, ceded the Philippines to the United States in exchange for a payment of $20 million. By that time the question of overseas expansion had become a hot political issue in the United States. Republicans generally favored holding the Philippines. Democrats in Congress and out were predominantly opposed to this strategy. With the peace treaty to be considered in the Senate in early 1899, the way in which the administration dealt with the Philippines had large consequences for the president and his party.

“Benevolent Assimilation” Proclamation

McKinley was determined to govern the Philippines under his power as commander in chief until Congress established a civil government for the islands. By late 1898 tensions rose between American forces on the ground and Filipinos who resented the presence of the United States in their country. The prospect of an armed conflict was very much on the minds of American policy makers at the time. When McKinley took steps to establish a framework for the military government in the Philippines, he thus spoke both to the residents of the islands and to the political controversy at home.

On December 21, 1898, McKinley issued an executive proclamation setting out how government should operate in the Philippines. His reference to “benevolent assimilation” gave the document its name in history. Notice that the president assumes that the peace treaty is in operation, even though Congress had not yet acted to approve it. From that premise, he then asserts that American sovereignty and military control should at once be extended throughout the archipelago. McKinley lays out the duties of the military commander to reassure the inhabitants of the islands that “all their private rights and relations” would be safeguarded. He also announces the friendly purpose of the United States and the goal of protecting “their personal and religious rights.” The president then argues for an approach that would return the Philippines to normal life as rapidly as possible. Those residents who were willing to accept the supremacy of the United States would be protected. Those who did not would be treated “with firmness if need be, but without severity, so far as possible.”

The key phrase in this document and the one that has established its historical significance for an understanding of McKinley as president relates to the use of the term benevolent assimilation. The racial and ethnic overtones of the phrase are immediate to the modern reader. During the late nineteenth century, Americans were convinced that their form of government was the best in the world. Asian, Latin American, and African peoples were, in the popular mind of the day, not as far advanced as were the Anglo-Saxon civilizations. It was the duty, some imperialists argued, to spread the blessings of civilization to areas where backwardness persisted. That there was ample bigotry and condescension in this point of view now seems clear. But for McKinley and the leaders of his generation, the honest and moral purposes of the United States were self-evident. He believed that he had a mission to provide “the blessings of good and stable government” to the people of the Philippines.

During the month and a half that followed, the Senate debated the Treaty of Paris. At the same time, in the Philippines, the tense military situation continued. In early February fighting broke out between the U.S. army and Filipino insurgents. The senators approved the treaty by one more vote than the two-thirds necessary, and the United States could now claim full legal possession of the Philippines as a result of the war with Spain. But the country was waging an imperial war to subjugate the Philippine people and make good on its claims of sovereignty over the islands. Meanwhile, full-scale debate raged in the United States about the merits of overseas expansion. The Democrats, led by William Jennings Bryan, challenged the assumptions of American foreign policy that acquiring possessions overseas was a good result of the recent war.

Home Market Club Speech

It was in this context that McKinley prepared to deliver a major address in Boston. He was to speak on February 16, 1899, at a dinner of the Home Market Club, a lobbying organization for the policy of tariff protection that was at the heart of Republican economic doctrine. The president was thus assured of a friendly audience that would be receptive to his message. He began working on his speech in early February even before the Treaty of Paris was approved and refined it as events dictated during the two weeks that followed. As he did with all his speeches, McKinley tried out lines and themes with his personal secretaries as they transcribed his words.

In his remarks, McKinley makes several central arguments. He notes at the outset that many Democrats had favored war with Spain in the spring of 1898 but now that the conflict had produced unexpected results “are the first to cry out against the far-reaching consequences of their own act.” The president traces the war and its outcome, the acquisition of the Philippines. He predicts that the American commanders in the islands “will have the support of the country in upholding our flag where it now floats, the symbol and assurance of liberty and justice.” McKinley goes on to say that the chief executive “cannot anticipate or avoid the consequences” of the war, “but he must meet them.”

The president then frames the issues that the nation confronted in the Philippines. He notes “universal agreement that the Philippines shall not be turned back to Spain.” Once that had been decided, he says, “there was but one alternative, and that was either Spain or the United States in the Philippines.” He rejects the idea of allowing the Filipinos to establish their own government, one that, in his mind, would have soon faced conditions of anarchy and the threat of foreign occupation. A protectorate also seemed out of the question, since it provided the responsibility of sovereignty without the power to enforce the demands of governing.

In approaching what to do in the newly acquired possession, McKinley asserts that the United State always considered “the welfare and happiness and the rights of the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands.” He does not believe that Americans should have asked the consent of the Filipinos in conducting war in the Philippines. The existence of armed resistance made such a strategy impractical. “It is not a good time for the liberator to submit important questions concerning liberty and government to the liberated while they are engaged in shooting down their rescuers.”

With the treaty ratified in Congress, McKinley states that the decision about the government of the Philippines now lay with the lawmakers. In February 1899 they would not reconvene again until the following December. During that period, McKinley would use the power of the executive branch as commander in chief to ensure a stable government in the islands. He scoffs at the idea that his policies implied imperialism. “No imperial designs lurk in the American mind. They are alien to American sentiment, thought, and purpose. Our priceless principles undergo no change under a tropical sun. They go with the flag.”

In his conclusion, he asks his audiences to look beyond the “blood-stained trenches around Manila” into the future, when prosperity would have returned to the Philippines. At that time, the president says, Filipino children and their descendants “shall for ages hence bless the American republic because it emancipated and redeemed their fatherland, and set them in the pathway of the world’s best civilization.”

The passage of time and changed assumptions regarding imperialism and ruling other peoples without their consent would render McKinley’s words archaic and out of step with modern attitudes. At the time, however, his speech to the Home Market Club proved to be a powerful statement of the purposes and goals of his administration. It did not silence his anti-imperialist critics, but it did announce priorities that a majority of Americans shared. While the people did not favor further expansion, neither did they wish in 1899–1900 to relinquish the gains of the war with Spain.

Last Speech

The last speech that McKinley ever delivered came on September 5, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. For that reason, it has become known as “McKinley’s Last Speech,” and copies of the address usually carry that title. Of course, McKinley did not know at that time that he would be shot the next day. His comments were part of a campaign he was launching as he began his second term. He had been reelected in November 1900 over William Jennings Bryan and believed that his policies had been endorsed as well. Although McKinley had been identified with the doctrine of the protective tariff since the start of his political career, he had come to think that it was time for the United States to liberalize its trade relations with other countries. His administration had negotiated reciprocal trade agreements with several countries, and the United States Senate was to take those up when Congress met for its regular session in December 1901.
The Republicans in the Senate did not share McKinley’s view of trade policy, and so the president intended to build public support for his new program through a series of speeches during the fall of 1901. After McKinley’s death, Theodore Roosevelt as his successor abandoned the trade treaties and pursued attacks on large corporations or “trusts” instead. McKinley’s speech at Buffalo thus represented not the start of a presidential campaign for his program but a punctuation point for McKinley’s life and presidency. Read in the context of what he hoped to accomplish during his second term, it is a document that says much about McKinley’s vision of the future for the United States. In his remarks, for example, he notes in the third paragraph that “isolation is no longer possible or desirable.” His comments in the third and fourth paragraphs describe a crude form of early-twentieth-century globalization and the changes that technology was making in people’s lives. For that reason, the president adds, “no nation can longer be indifferent to any other.” Having outlined these elements, McKinley then comes to the point of his address. “By sensible trade arrangements which will not interrupt our home production, we shall extend the outlets for our increasing surplus” of products.
The message of trade reciprocity then becomes clear: “We must not repose in fancied security that we can forever sell everything and buy little or nothing.” As a result, “reciprocity is the natural outgrowth of our wonderful industrial development under the domestic policy now firmly established.” McKinley argues that “reciprocity treaties are in harmony with the spirit of the times; measures of retaliation are not.” He then lists the policies that the nation should follow—promotion of the merchant marine, the building of a canal across Central America, and telegraph cable service to the Pacific. Praise came in the newspaper accounts the next day (September 6) for what McKinley had said. That same afternoon, McKinley was shot; he died eight days later. People remembered his speech for a time. As the dynamic personality of Theodore Roosevelt took over the presidency, the import of McKinley’s words receded, however, and his themes became indistinct and eventually disappeared.

Impact and Legacy

The impact of McKinley’s words in his own time and in the present could not offer a more striking contrast. When he was in office, he articulated the views of a majority of Americans with great effectiveness. The message about Cuba, the Home Market Club speech, and the Buffalo address represented a president framing alternatives and setting priorities in a decisive manner. He led public opinion in shaping how the war with Spain would be waged and how the occupation of the Philippines should be conducted and in providing a road map for broadening trade relations. McKinley strengthened the power of his office and used his authority as commander in chief to govern the overseas empire that had come out of the Spanish-American War.
McKinley’s ability to capture the mood of the people in his prose made his reputation dependent on how history viewed what he said and did as president. In the decades that have elapsed since McKinley died, the war with Spain and the imperial adventures that followed have come to be seen as mistaken examples of national overreaching in the world. Subjugating other countries and ruling people against their will are repudiated policies. The words that McKinley used to justify what the nation was doing now seem either insincere or hypocritical. When he says that “the war in Cuba must stop” or that “benevolent assimilation” must occur in the Philippines, he speaks in language that grates on the modern ear. The next step is to assume that McKinley must have known better and thus employed these phrases knowing that they concealed sinister motives. Many historians take that position toward McKinley as a national leader.
In analyzing McKinley’s language in these documents, it is important to recognize that McKinley and Americans of his generation believed in the purposes that the president espoused. Steeped in notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority and the innate benevolence of the United States, Americans responded when McKinley set forth the ideas of a national duty to uplift peoples who came from different cultures and backgrounds. These attitudes, though somewhat diminished in the modern-day United States, still exist. A study of McKinley’s language thus provides insights into how the United States became a world power and into the reasons that Americans gave in the late nineteenth century to explain why that key historical development took place.

Essential Quotations
“In the name of humanity, in the name of civilization, in behalf of endangered American interests which gives us the right and the duty to speak and to act, the war in Cuba must stop.” (Message to Congress about Intervention in Cuba)
“Finally it should be the earnest wish and paramount aim of the military administration to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of free peoples, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.” (“Benevolent Assimilation” Proclamation)
“The President can direct the movements of soldiers in the field and fleets upon the sea, but he cannot foresee the close of such movements or prescribe their limits.” (Home Market Club Speech)
“It is not a good time for the liberator to submit important questions concerning liberty and government to the liberated while they are engaged in shooting down their rescuers.” (Home Market Club Speech)
“No imperial designs lurk in the American mind. They are alien to American sentiment, thought, and purpose. Our priceless principles undergo no change under a tropical sun. They go with the flag.” (Home Market Club Speech)
“If we can benefit these remote peoples, who will object?” (Home Market Club Speech)

“Expositions are the timekeepers of progress.” (Last Speech)
“By sensible trade arrangements which will not interrupt our home production, we shall extend the outlets for our increasing surplus.” (Last Speech)
“We must not repose in fancied security that we can forever sell everything and buy little or nothing.” (McKinley’s Last Speech)
“The period of exclusiveness is past.” (Last Speech)
“Reciprocity treaties are in harmony with the spirit of the age; measures of retaliation are not.” (Last Speech)

Key Sources

The William McKinley Papers at the Library of Congress are available on microfilm at major research libraries. The George B. Cortelyou Papers at the Library of Congress contain documents on McKinley that were once part of the president’s papers. Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley, from March 1, 1897 to May 30, 1900 (1900), has most of the president’s major public speeches while he was in office. Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley, from His Election to Congress to the Present Time (1893), is a basic collection of McKinley’s speeches in Congress and from his first term as governor of Ohio. McKinley’s Speeches in September (1896) provides a record of what McKinley said as a presidential candidate in September 1896. Finally, George Raywood Devitt, A Supplement to a Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1902 (1903), prints McKinley’s official messages and speeches while he was president. The Web sites of the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum ( and the Miller Center of Public Affairs “American President: An Online Reference Resource” ( offer information on McKinley and his administration.

Further Reading


Armstrong, William H. Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000.
Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of William McKinley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1980.
———. The Spanish-American War and President McKinley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982.
Leech, Margaret. In the Days of McKinley. New York: Harper & Bros., 1959.

Morgan, H. Wayne. William McKinley and His America. Rev. ed. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2003.

Phillips, Kevin P. William McKinley. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.

—Analysis written by Lewis L. Gould, University of Texas at Austin

From Milestone Documents of American Leaders: Exploring the Primary Sources of Notable Americans. Dallas, TX: Schlager Group, 2009. No part of this essay may be reused in any form without prior written permission from Schlager Group.