American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 17


McKinley in Congress—His Kindness to a Political Opponent—The Farmer and his Creek—A Defeat almost Equal to a Victory

As a congressman William McKinley represented the state of Ohio at Washington for nearly fourteen years. This is a long period of time, and to review all the work done would be very much like reviewing all the doings of our nation for that period.

That he served so long and continuously was a constant surprise to both his friends and his enemies. Only once was he defeated when he ran for the office, and that was because the lines of his district had been changed, so that the voting was overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic party. Yet, even then, he came close to winning and gave his opponent a good deal of a fright in consequence.

The young congressman's attention was early drawn to the tariff, as it is called, that is, the duty on imported goods, whereby money is received which helps to run the government and which also helps protect such industries as need protection from outside competition which might sooner or later destroy them.

While McKinley was in Congress, Hayes, his old military commander and warm personal friend, was President. The chief magistrate of our nation was watching the career of the young Congressman with interest and one day he said to McKinley:—

"To achieve success and fame you must pursue a special line. You must not make a speech on every motion offered or bill introduced. You must confine yourself to one particular thing. Become a specialist. Take up some branch of legislation and make that your study. Why not take up the subject of tariff? Being a subject that will not be settled for years to come, it offers a great field for study and a chance for ultimate fame."

"I thank you for the advice and I shall endeavor to follow it," was McKinley's reply, and follow it he did. Many thought he was willing to look at only one side of the tariff debate; but this is not so, as is proved by the following true story:—

One day, when McKinley was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and was stopping at a leading hotel in Washington, a manufacturer came to him.

"Mr. McKinley," he said, "I have been to my member of the House, who is a Democrate like myself, and also to some other Democrats, to try to get a hearing before your committee and I have failed all around. Now I have come to you, and although I have no claim on you, I want to ask the privilege of presenting my case."

"Sit down, sir, and let me hear your case," answered McKinley, and motioned the caller to a chair. The two talked over the proposed tariff on certain manufactured articles until after midnight, and McKinley brought out all his facts and figures and compared them with those the manufacturer had to present.

"Your claim is just," said McKinley, at last. "I am glad that you brought it to my notice. We should have made a mistake by leaving the schedule as drafted. I will do what I can to have it changed."

And he went to work the next day, much to the satisfaction of the manufacturer, who afterward declared that McKinley was by no means as one-sided a man as he had formerly imagined.

The young congressman's first speech was on the tariff and on protection, and it may be as well to add here that his last speeches in the hall of Congress were on the same subjects. He was a firm believer in protection to American industries, and he had no patience with anything which smacked of free trade, although he was at times willing to grant his opponents more ground than were some of his colleagues.

How eloquent McKinley could become at times is well illustrated by an anecdote told by one of the famous judges of that time. A bill was pending, and several speakers were to talk on either side before the measure was put to a vote. McKinley was put on the list as next to the last speaker on his side. When it came time for the young congressman to address his fellow-members, everybody seemed tired out and unwilling to listen to more. But as McKinley went on, one after another turned to listen attentively, until he had the whole body following every word he said. When he concluded, there was a burst of applause, in the midst of which the member to speak after McKinley rushed up.

"Major McKinley," he cried, with genuine earnestness, "I am to speak last, but you, sir, have closed the debate."

It was during the year 1890 that he gave to the Nation the tariff measure which is known to history as the McKinley Bill He was then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee,—a committee which must see by what ways and what means the government is to support itself and continue to pay off its indebtedness. Speaking afterward of this work, he said:—

"I was chairman of the committee, and I performed my duties as best I could. Some of the strongest men in Congress were on that committee, and the eight of us heard everybody, considered everything, and made up the best tariff law we knew how to frame."

This bill was bitterly assailed, and arguments arose hot and fast on both sides, some contending that it was the best of measures, and others contending that it was the worst. It was altered several times, and then changed again by the Senate, before it became a law. What the result of this law might have been had it stood for a long time, it is impossible to surmise. It lasted two years, and was then superseded by the Wilson-Gorman measure, commonly called the Wilson Bill.

We have seen how McKinley, when a lawyer, could treat his opponent with every consideration. While he was in Congress he showed a depth of feeling that stirred even his bitterest enemies.

There was a debate in progress over a measure known as the Mills Bill, and among the speakers was Samuel J. Randall, who had been Speaker of the House when McKinley first entered Congress. Randall had prepared an elaborate address, but he was now old and feeble, and he was not yet through when the Speaker announced that his time to talk was up.

"Go on! Go on!" cried several.

"I object!" came the cry from another representative.

"His time is up," said another. "Let him stop talking."

At this clamor the old congressman grew white. Never before had he been treated so, and these men had formerly been his friends. He raised his trembling hands on high, and as he did so, McKinley stepped forward and caught the eye of the Speaker of the House.

"Mr. Speaker," he said, in a loud, measured tone, which all heard distinctly, "I yield to the gentleman from Pennsylvania, out of my time, all that he may need to finish his speech."

It was a noble, generous offering to a former foe, and it brought a tremendous round of applause. Randall finished his speech in a few minutes, so that McKinley really lost but little of the time which was coming to him. Afterward when Randall expressed his thanks to his young colleague, his eyes were filled with tears.

"You are on the right track," he said brokenly. "You'll never lose anything by being generous, even to such an old and worn-out member as myself."

While McKinley was a congressman there was a page in the House who was a very bad boy. He was bright and clever, but he was also impertinent, and continually plotting mischief, and carrying it out, too. He set himself up as a leader among the pages and soon had a number of other boys following him.

"This won't do," said one of the congressmen, who had had some trick played on him. "We must get rid of that boy or he will demoralize all the rest."

"That is true," said another, and after a consultation, those in authority agreed to send the lad away.

The boy had been warned to reform or he would be dismissed, yet when the actual dismissal came he was stunned. He went home, but he did not dare tell his parents of what had occurred.

McKinley had always liked the lad in spite of his sauciness, and soon he sent for the boy to come to him. The lad came, hanging his head in shame.

"You were dismissed, and you know you deserve it," said McKinley, " but I am inclined to give you another chance. If I speak for you, what will you do?"

"Oh, sir, I'll do my best!" cried the boy, eagerly. "I won't be tricky any more—I'll promise you. Just give me another chance."

McKinley talked to the lad for the best part of an hour, and then promised to see what could be done. At first nobody else wanted the boy back, but McKinley won them over to giving the lad a chance. When he did come back, McKinley kept his eye on him and continued to encourage him and give him good advice. In the end the boy became not only a good page, but also a good moral youth. He joined the church, started in to educate himself, and when McKinley became President the lad he had saved from a downward path became a minister of the gospel.

Of course as a congressman, McKinley came in contact with all sorts of people. Among those who called upon him was an old farmer who owned a farm near a little creek.

"I want to have a bill put through to have that creek dug out," said the farmer. "It's filling up more and more every year, and bime-by there won't be any creek left."

"Why don't you try a hand at digging it out yourself?" questioned McKinley, with a smile.

"Digging it out myself? Not much! That's the government's work. The government cleans out rivers and harbors, don't it?"

"It does, in the interest of navigation. Do you navigate anything on your creek?"

"Well, we run a flatboat there during haying time."

"How many craft pass up and down the creek annually?" questioned the congressman, as he reached for a pad and a pencil as if to put down the figures.


"How many flatboats are used throughout the year?"

"Oh! Well, I use mine, and my son Jim he used to use hisn, but he left it out on the medder last winter, and this spring the bottom dropped out, and he ain't had gumption enough to put a new bottom in yet."

"Well, I don't believe we can do anything to the creek until your son gets a new bottom in the boat," was McKinley's calm answer. "The government has gone pretty far to help private individuals, but up to date I don't believe we have cleaned out any waterway that hadn't at least two boats running annually." And with this he dismissed the old farmer with a bow. The old man went off, not knowing if the congressman was in earnest or poking fun at him; but as he never came back, it is fair to presume that his son Jim's boat still lacks the new bottom.

Strange as it may seem, the election which retired McKinley from Congress for about two years made him stronger and more popular than ever. Just before the election the district which he represented was greatly altered, so that it now contained many more Democrats than before.

"You cannot possibly win now," said his friends. "You will be snowed under by at least two thousand majority. You might as well give it up."

"No, sir, that is not my style," answered McKinley. "I am in this to stick, and shall do my best. I would rather do my best and be defeated than do nothing."

Never was a political fight more hot or more bitter. The McKinley Bill was attacked upon every side, and his opponents tried to prove that the congressman had done his best to ruin the country and make the cost of living high.

"Elect him again, and you'll all go to the poor-house," said some who were very ignorant.

"But he hasn't done so bad for us," said others.

So the talk ran on, and so it is very apt to run on in all campaigns. Each party wishes to win, and each is apt to make matters look as black as possible for the opposition.

Undaunted by all that was said and done against him, McKinley went on his way, delivering his addresses and promising that he would do the best he could if again elected. The uphill work was very telling, and some of his intimate friends were afraid he would break down under the enormous strain of the campaign. But he smiled over this when they spoke to him of it.

"Don't worry," he said. "I can stand a good deal more than this, if it becomes necessary to do so."

At last came the day of the election. His opponents were very active. They felt certain they would beat him, and they wished if possible to "snow him under so he would never be heard of again," as some one said.

Then came the counting of votes, which was a most trying time.

"You are beaten," said some of McKinley's friends. "It is too bad, but we cannot alter the fact. Your opponent is elected."

"How many thousand majority has he?"

"No thousand at all. You are beaten by only 303 votes."

"If that is so, then I don't think I have a right to complain," was the quiet answer McKinley made. "The returns show that even though a Republican I have received the support of over two thousand Democrats. I am proud to have made so many friends."

It was something to be proud of, and even those who had been opposed to him had to admit the fact. This was his only defeat while running for Congress. When next he stood for election to public office, his majority was something as surprising as it was gratifying.