William McKinley: The Best Career Move

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Major William McKinley

At the suggestion of General Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley decided to study law.

The Hard-Knocks Youth of William McKinley

Born in Niles, raised in the little village of Poland, Ohio, William McKinley, Jr. was the seventh of nine children. His father was a hard working iron monger, and the devout Methodist family struggled financially. Nevertheless, educating their children became uppermost in their minds. As such, after young Billy’s local schooling, the family scraped together enough money to send him to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Briefly. Midway through his first semester, he became seriously ill, and had to withdraw, hoping to return at a later date. That never happened.

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Young William McKinley

When he recovered, the Civil War had just begun in earnest, and young McKinley believed it his duty to enlist. He was eighteen. He served for four years, rising from private to brevet major, and aide to General Rutherford B. Hayes.

Despite McKinley’s strong Methodist upbringing, and his sincere aversion to the vices of camaraderie, i.e. drinking, smoking, swearing, gambling, card playing, dancing, theatre-going and chasing women, he was always perceived as manly and not priggish. The soldiers respected him, and liked him. (As a P.S., in his later years, he was known to have an occasional whiskey, play mild card games, and enjoy the theater and his cigars.)

General Hayes, old enough to be McKinley’s father, saw qualities in him that warranted encouragement, and suggested he might read law once he was discharged from the Army. The two men became good friends for life.

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Obviously McKinley recognized a good idea when he heard it, and returned to Poland to study law with Charles Glidden, a local attorney. Realizing that “reading law” might not be sufficient, he borrowed money to go to Albany Law School for a year. He was just as popular with his classmates as he was with his army buddies.

He returned to Poland, and passed the Ohio Bar. His older sister Anna, a school teacher in Canton, suggest that he move there. It was growing rapidly, offering opportunity for a young lawyer just starting out, and a lively social atmosphere. Glidden was encouraging, and suggested he contact a former Judge, George W. Belden, who was considering retirement and sought to partner with a younger attorney.

Canton, OH

McKinley visited his sister in Canton, the seat of Stark County, and liked what he saw. It was a good sized town, poised to grow even larger. Since it was much bigger than Poland, there would be opportunities. He was by nature, a joiner, and in Canton, there would be a wide range of organizations a young man of 23 would find of interest. There was an established Masonic lodge in Canton, and McKinley had already been inducted during the war, albeit in Winchester, VA. There were the usual civic-fraternal organizations: Elks, Moose, Oddfellows, Knights of Pythias. Then, of course, there was the Grand Army of the Republic, veterans all, who would welcome the young “Major.” And of course, his beloved Methodist Church. And the Republican club. All of these groups offered dozens of opportunities, both professionally, socially, and perhaps best of all, a place for a young man.

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Images of Canton after the Civil War

Thus armed with a respectable letter of introduction, William McKinley went to Judge Belden and offered his availability. At least a decade younger than what the aging jurist had sought, he asked McK. for information about himself.

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Civil war veterans were abundant in Canton.

The Challenge

Happy to oblige, McKinley offered his meager formal education (which to him was not at all meager), his very commendable military service, and his exemplary moral character and willingness to work hard and learn. He was also well acquainted with Congressman Rutherford B. Hayes, likely to become Ohio’s next Governor. That was all well and good, but it was singularly lacking in any legal experience. Perhaps there was something about the young man that appealed to Judge Belden, and he suggested that McKinley take a look at a pending (the next day) case to be tried. It was one of those headache cases that all attorneys have from time to time: complicated, confusing and certain to be lost.

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Young attorney McKinley

Overjoyed at the “opportunity”, the story goes that McKinley accepted the challenge, along with an armful of files, and went back to his rooms. He stayed up all night poring over the case files, familiarizing himself with every detail. The next day (so the story continues), McKinley tried the case in court, and to everyone’s surprise, including the Judge and perhaps himself, he won.

Judge Belden was impressed enough to form a partnership with the young attorney with such limited experience, but so much eagerness and promise.

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Word of McKinley’s diligence and effort leaving no stone unturned quickly made the rounds of Canton’s legal community.

And Later…

No doubt Judge Belden was a fine mentor for the young attorney, but the partnership did not last very long. Only a year later, the Judge died, leaving McKinley the sole practice. He continued alone for a short time, took on fellow-attorney, and eventually partnered with his brother Abner. But it was Canton itself that made him what he became.

The practice was successful. McKinley-the-joiner, became an active member of all the civic and fraternal organizations, which gained him acquaintances high, low and in-between. Just about everyone liked and admired him.

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The Major and his Missus.

His sister had been right. Canton was a fine town – and within a short time the McKinley parents and other family members moved there.

When WMcK met the woman he was to marry a few years later, he was already a known quantity. Her parents, one of the richest families in town, were delighted at the match, positioning “The Major” for even more legal – and nascent political success.


Leech, Margaret – In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Bros., 1959

Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964

Philips, Kevin – William McKinley – Times Books, 2003



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2 Responses to William McKinley: The Best Career Move

  1. Pingback: William McKinley: The Best Career Move | Presidential History Blog | Dave Loves History

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