Republican William McKinley of Ohio was elected President in 1896. The election took place during a deep economic depression and McKinley’s platform promised economic recovery by remaining on the gold standard (and not switching to free silver, as many politicians were arguing for) and to build American business through the use of protective tariffs. Upon his election, prosperity did return to the country.
The most important event of McKinley’s Presidency was the Spanish-American War. It began in 1898. Although fought between Spain and the United States, the war was fought over Cuba, which was under Spanish rule. Spanish treatment of the Cubans was harsh. They were heavily taxed and the colony was kept in line with brutal military force.
Newspaper reports in the United States exposed Spain’s mistreatment of the Cubans. Actually, at the time newspapers were is fierce competition with each other to sell papers. Because of this, stories were sensationalized–or exaggerated. So reports about the going-on in Cuba, based somewhat in fact, but exaggerated for effect, led to public outcry in America and demands that something be done to help the Cubans. American businesses had invested in Cuba. To protect these investments and potentially open Cuba up for even more U. S. involvement on the island caused even more interest in helping the Cubans gain independence from Spain.
Two events inflamed public opinion, helping cause the war. The first was the De Lôme letter, which was a private letter written by the Spanish ambassador to the United States. In that letter, De Lôme insulted McKinley. The letter was stolen and published in William Randolph Hearst’s The New York Journal, one of the newspapers famous for yellow journalism. Then, a week later, an American battleship called the USS Maine exploded in Havana. The Spanish were blamed and fueled public demands for action (although historians still debate the actual cause of the explosion today).
The war was over pretty quick. The most famous incident of the conflict was future president Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Hill, making him a national hero. Spain was expelled from Cuba. But Cuba wasn’t really free. The United States came to control Cuba in a way not dissimilar to the Spanish. In the treaty after the war, the United States also took control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam from Spain. So the Spanish-American War ended with the establishment of an American imperialist empire, with colonies in the Caribbean and in the Pacific.
Seen as an imperialistic President, it was also under McKinley that the United States annexed the Republic of Hawaii as a territory (statehood wouldn’t come until 1959). The Hawaiian Islands had been taken over by a rebellion led by the white plantation owners, who overthrew the Hawaiian queen. Even before securing control of the islands, the whites applied to the United States for annexation. President Grover Cleveland was opposed to Hawaii’s annexation. But when McKinley became President after him, he was persuaded to go forward with it and Hawaii became a territory of the United States.
As American interest in trade with Asia grew (especially after acquiring the territories from Spain), Hawaii became a strategic holding. Situated in the middle of the Pacific, control of Hawaii gave American ships a place to resupply and refuel. Hawaii was a coaling station—a place steamships could replenish their supply of coal to complete the trans-Pacific voyage. In 1899, the United States Navy built a base in Hawaii, to protect American interests in the Pacific (especially now that America had territorial possessions gained from Spain in the Spanish-America War). This base is located at Pearl Harbor.
McKinley was up for re-election in 1900. For that elections, he added war hero and New York Governor Teddy Roosevelt to the ticket as his Vice-President (his former running mate had died). Roosevelt was immensely popular with voters, but was a controversial choice to political insiders. In a way, they gave him the Vice-Presidential nomination in an effort to control him. The Republican ticket easily won the Presidency in the election.
Six months into his second term, McKinley traveled to Buffalo, NY to attend the Pan-American Exposition. The trip proved to be fateful and fatal. He was assassinated by an anarchist and Roosevelt was elevated to the Presidency, to the horror of many in the Republican party.