William McKinley was the twenty-fifth president of the United States, serving from 1897 to 1901. He signed the Gold Standard Act in 1900, establishing a fixed monetary link to gold of $20.67 per ounce of gold. Early into his second term he was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz.
McKinley was born in 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where he cultivated an interest in debate and politics, but he left without finishing his degree due to health and financial troubles. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, McKinley enlisted in the Union army as part of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. There he met Rutherford B. Hayes, who later became the nineteenth president of the United States.
After the war, McKinley studied law, and in 1867 he established a practice in Canton, Ohio. In 1876, McKinley was elected to the House of Representatives, while his friend Hayes was elected president. A question over the backing of the dollar arose early in McKinley’s first term. Hayes and other Republicans supported a gold standard, by which the dollar would be equal to a fixed quantity of gold. They argued that gold was an internationally recognized standard and that gold-backed dollars fostered stable prices. This position was favored by creditors in the east because a stable currency would ensure that their loans were not repaid in inflated dollars. Farmers in the west and south wanted to increase the money supply using silver, which would raise the prices of their crops and ease the burdens of their debts.
The Ohio legislature supported the coinage of silver, and McKinley, who was largely ignorant of the currency question at the time, sided with his home state over his party. He voted for the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which required the US Treasury to buy a certain quantity of silver each month. McKinley later said his vote had been uninformed and made in haste, and for the rest of his political career he supported sound money backed by gold. For most of his time in Congress, however, he preferred to focus not on currency but on tariffs. He drafted the Tariff Act of 1890 (commonly called the McKinley Tariff). The following year, he was elected governor of Ohio, and in 1896 he became the Republican nominee for president.
McKinley would confront the gold and silver question again in the 1896 election. His Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, launched a vigorous speaking tour across twenty-six states, championing the coinage of silver. In contrast, McKinley stayed at his home in Canton, launching a “front porch” campaign where delegations from around the country came to hear him deliver speeches from the comfort of his own home. He supported a gold-backed dollar, arguing that silver-backed currency would be inflationary and would harm the working class. McKinley won the election by 271 to 176 electoral votes. As president, McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, officially placing the United States on a gold standard. He also continued to support new tariff measures and presided over a war with Spain. As part of the peace treaty at the end of the Spanish-American War, Spain renounced its claim to Cuba and gave the United States control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
McKinley won reelection in 1900, again running against Bryan. During a visit to Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, and died eight days later.
McKinley married Ida Saxton and had two children, both of whom died young.
Written by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. See disclaimer.