President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, by Robert W. Merry (Simon & Schuster, 624 pp., $35)
Robert Merry, a journalist and historian, has written books on the vagaries of presidential reputations (Where They Stand, 2012) and on American imperialism (Sands of Empire, 2005). In his new book, these themes coalesce. He wants to revive William McKinley’s middling reputation by recognizing the 25th president as the shrewd, unheralded father of the military-commercial expansionism that underwrote America’s global rise. The result is a well-crafted and illuminating study in turn-of-the-last-century U.S. politics.
McKinley was born in 1843 above a grocery store in Niles, Ohio. As a teenager, he declared himself eager to fight Jefferson Davis’s incipient treason on southern soil, and soon had the chance, rising from a brave, capable private to major. After the war, he was a successful lawyer in Canton, Ohio, until he entered Congress, eventually becoming, by the end of his seven terms, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. In 1891, Ohio made him governor: In line with the Republican priorities of the day, he built up the state’s railroads and canals, just as, while in Congress, he had fortified the GOP’s rather fetid labyrinth of politicized tariffs. In 1896, he was elected president.