1900–McKinley’s Inaugural–Adam Chomski
Inaugural addresses do not normally come to mind when discussing campaign rhetoric. After all, the campaign is finished and a clear winner has been chosen. In the case of William McKinley, however, his inaugural address serves as the final piece of his 1900 campaign rhetoric, wrapping up the words and promises he made over the campaign into one succinct speech and convincing his listeners why he is the right choice for president. It was effectively his last “front porch” speech of the campaign, the polar opposite of opposing Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s “stumping tour” campaigning.
On March 4, 1901, William McKinley stood before the nation to deliver his inaugural address, assuming presidential responsibilities for another four years and finalizing his defeat of Bryan, again. However, unlike the inaugural address preceding his first term four years prior, this time McKinley chooses to remind the American public of his accomplishments during his first term and explain what the country must do to solidify them. McKinley also uses his inaugural address to clarify the necessity of the country’s involvement in the many international conflicts marking his presidency and highlight the importance of a unified nation in fighting these battles.
The first lines of McKinley’s address allude to the economic troubles facing the nation before he became president. At the time of McKinley’s installment in 1897, America was facing a record deficit and serious economic instability. He immediately set out to correct this by signing the Dingley Tariff act, which raised tariffs from 41% to 46% and allowed McKinley to negotiate reciprocal trade treaties. Three years later, McKinley sought to further reduce the country’s economic anxieties by making the Gold Standard Act of 1900 law. This act assigned gold a dollar value and tentatively placated the nation’s fears about the dollar’s strength. In the process, the gold standard’s enactment effectively ended popular support for the policy of free silver, an issue long championed by William Jennings Bryan along his campaigns. The effects of these two actions allowed McKinley to boast in his address about his returning the country to economic prosperity, declaring the US to “have a surplus instead of a deficit”, discuss how “the Congress just closed has reduced taxation in the sum of $41,000,000,” and crow about the fact “every avenue of production is crowded with activity, labor is well employed, and American products find good markets at home and abroad”. Still, McKinley cautions the nation about maintaining its prosperity, insisting “its permanence can only be assured by sound business methods and strict economy in national administration and legislation.”
McKinley then segues into a portion of the address where he praises Americans for their unification and pleads for them to continue joining together to guarantee continued progress. This portion of the address in particular is recited in a “tough style,” and McKinley drives home how important it is for Americans to appreciate past difficulties and move forward with the same vigor as if they still existed. The president claims, “strong hearts and helpful hands are needed, and, fortunately, we have them in every part of our beloved country. We are reunited. Sectionalism has disappeared. Division on public questions can no longer be traced by the war maps of 1861. These old differences less and less disturb the judgment. Existing problems demand the thought and quicken the conscience of the country, and the responsibility for their presence, as well as for their righteous settlement, rests upon us all–no more upon me than upon you”. Of particular note is McKinley’s allusion to “the war maps of 1861.” McKinley was the last president to be elected to have served in the Civil War, thus making him the last president to lead an America he once saw truly divided. McKinley’s civil war service lends credibility to his words and infers the importance of unification to a secure country. Moreover, McKinley’s reference to the civil war is strategically placed: it connects him with civil war veterans like the ones he courted along the campaign, and it foreshadows the rest of the address’s focus on the wars the country has fought and is fighting abroad at the time.
McKinley transitions to the remainder of the address by discussing military action in the context of America’s obligation to bring freedom and democracy to oppressed peoples around the world and ensure its continuation once US forces exit. The beginning of this portion of the address is marked by McKinley’s insistence that America “make good” on its guarantees of Cuban independence following the end of the Spanish-American war. But first, some context: during McKinley’s first term, the nation went to war with Spain over its occupation of Cuba, where an uprising by Spanish loyalists in January of 1898 caused concern for America’s safety. Following the bombing and sinking of the USS Maine in Havana in February, America and Spain declared war on one another, which lasted until Spain’s surrender in July and the official end of the war on August 12, 1898. McKinley vigorously reminded voters of American victory in Cuba along the campaign trail, making discussion of the issue prime material for his address. In it, McKinley asserts that “the peace which we are pledged to leave to the Cuban people must carry with it the guaranties of permanence. We became sponsors for the pacification of the island, and we remain accountable to the Cubans, no less than to our own country and people, for the reconstruction of Cuba as a free commonwealth on abiding foundations of right, justice, liberty, and assured order. Our enfranchisement of the people will not be completed until free Cuba shall ‘be a reality, not a name; a perfect entity, not a hasty experiment bearing within itself the elements of failure.’” McKinley’s style during this portion of the address is as serious as the subject matter, and his use of parallelism at the end of the quote fittingly summarizes his message. McKinley’s words embody the American spirit of democracy and encapsulate the accountability and progress he would like to see during his second term of office, the same progress he promised throughout his campaign.
McKinley’s calls for American accountability continue with his subsequent review of the nation’s involvement in the Philippines, which he finishes the address with. Ending after his death in 1902, McKinley was overseeing an undeclared war against Filipino nationalists at the time of his address and throughout his campaign. McKinley insists “the settled purpose, long ago proclaimed, to afford the inhabitants of the islands self-government as fast as they were ready for it will be pursued with earnestness and fidelity”. Possibly in response to those questioning the war along the campaign trail and accusing McKinley of imperialism, he explains, “we are not waging war against the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands. A portion of them are making war against the United States. By far the greater part of the inhabitants recognize American sovereignty and welcome it as a guaranty of order and of security for life, property, liberty, freedom of conscience, and the pursuit of happiness”. McKinley insinuates that American involvement in the Philippines is one of necessity – if not for national security, for the sake of Filipino freedom. McKinley closes his address with his hope that the war “end without further bloodshed.” Six months later, McKinley’s presidency would end in it following his assassination by Leon Czolgosz.
“1900: McKinley v. Bryan” http://elections.harpweek.com/1900/Overview-1900-1.htm
“Inaugural Address, March 4, 1901.” http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25828#axzz1PIyRV8Nh
William McKinley. American President: An Online Reference Resource. http://millercenter.org/academic/americanpresident/mckinley/essays/biography/print