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William McKinley, Republican Visionary

Walter Russell Mead

President Obama’s decision to change the official name of Alaska’s tallest mountain from McKinley to Denali has sparked a predictable outcry: Not only from Ohioans, who are protective of the sixth president to hail from the Buckeye State, but also from conservatives, who argue that the President is letting shallow identity politics get in the way of preserving America’s heritage, and who compare the decision to the administration’s (now revised) announcement that it would replace Alexander Hamilton with a woman on the $10 bill.

Now, William McKinley was no Alexander Hamilton, and a mountain in Alaska has no intrinsic connection with him, so we aren’t sounding the sirens here at TAI about the name change the way we did about the talk of taking Hamilton off the currency.

But before the controversy fades away, it’s worth noting that McKinley, who served from 1897 to 1901, was actually a reasonably significant president, likely to stand higher in the presidential rankings than most—and certainly much higher than many of his more recent successors. He was probably the most successful as well as the most important president in the generation between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and many of the shifts in Republican ideas that came to fruition under the Rough Rider were incubated during the McKinley era.

McKinley was a transitional figure; he was the last president to have held a command in the Civil War and the first to sense the importance of a progressive GOP agenda that could attract the industrial working class to the Republican Party. He brought a consistent economic vision to national politics: adherence to the gold standard plus a protective tariff would keep investment flowing, push wages up, and boost economic growth. It worked, and for the next generation the GOP would dominate American politics until the Great Depression signaled the end of the McKinley system.

The era of prosperity that McKinley inaugurated also provided the basis for a generation of Progressive reform that would reshape the country and lay the foundations for the stable industrial prosperity and mass consumption of the New Deal era.

You would have to be crazy to think McKinley’s policies would work today—the modern economy faces a wholly different set of challenges from the ones it faced at the dawn of the Progressive Era. But a generation of political consensus and economic prosperity is a more enduring monument than a name tag on a mountain. President Obama will be fortunate indeed if, one hundred years from now, historians place him in the same class of American presidents as William McKinley.

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