American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 1

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Birth and Birthplace of William McKinley—Ancestry—Early Training—Honesty and Truthfulness—First Days at School

"William was always a good boy. I could always depend upon him. He never gave me a cross word, and I don't believe he ever told me a lie."

Such are the well-remembered words of Mrs. Nancy McKinley, and they were the keynote of success in the life of the son who afterward became the President of our country. He was considerate to the last degree of his mother, his wife, his friends, and the welfare of his nation, and winning the high place that he did for himself, his life is well worth studying by every patriotic American youth.

William McKinley, the twenty-fifth President of the United States, was born in Niles, Trumbull County, Ohio, January 29, 1843. He was the seventh child in the family, and after him came two others, a boy and a girl. His parents were far from well-to-do, and had no influential friends; so it was apparent from the start that if the lad wished to make anything of himself it must be accomplished through his own determination and courage.

Determination and courage he had in plenty, for it was his by birth, coming to him through an ancestry which can be traced back with much interest to the days of MacBeth and MacDuff in the highlands of Scotland. Genealogists tell us that the McKinley or McKinlay family originated in the western part of Scotland, where they joined the Covenanter party and fought bravely against the persecution of the Stuart kings. They emigrated to the north of Ireland during the time of Charles II., helping to colonize the then desolate fields of Ulster. From Ulster they came to
American Boys' Life of McKinley p025.jpg

Birthplace of William McKinley, Niles, Ohio.

America as part of that large body of Scotch-Irish colonists who did so much toward making this country what it is to-day.

James McKinley, the great-great-grandfather of the future President, came to America in a sailing vessel which, we are told, was not so large as the famous Mayflower of Puritan fame. Shortly after landing he took his way to Pennsylvania, and settled in York County, then little more than a wilderness, inhabited by Indians, and overrun with deer, buffalo, and other wild animals. Here, on May 16, 1755, his son David was born,—a rugged, fearless youth, who, when the colonists declared themselves free and independent, hastened to join the army under Washington, fighting with that same courage which distinguished his great-grandson during the Civil War.

Shortly after the end of the Revolution, David McKinley moved westward, first to Westmoreland and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania, and then to Columbiana County, Ohio. His son James moved from the homestead to New Lisbon in 1809, taking with him his two-year-old son William. James McKinley was engaged in the manufacture of iron, being what was commonly called a furnace man. As the son grew up, he too went into the iron business, becoming the manager of a furnace at New Wilmington, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, a position he maintained for upward of twenty years. This furnace was miles from the home of William McKinley, Sr.; but furnace work was not easy to be had in those days, and rather than give up his position, the father of the future President used to drive home every Saturday to see his family, and drive back to work early Monday morning.

In 1829, William McKinley, Sr., married Nancy Campbell Allison, a descendant of English-Dutch stock that came to America with William Penn. Her grandfather was active during the Revolution, and was known as a maker of bullets and cannon. He was a founder by trade, sturdy, stern, and uncompromising—one of the men who said we must establish our freedom no matter what the cost.

The home in which William McKinley, the future President, first saw the light of day, was a plain, wooden, two-storied affair, having a pitched roof front and back. Downstairs, there was a little parlor, with a porch, where, years afterward, the struggling young lawyer delivered more than one political address. This house was standing up to 1895, although a part of the lower floor had been turned into a store. When the march of improvement demanded that the house be cut in two and part of it be removed, the man who had been born there was running for the Presidency, and some of the timbers of the building were manufactured into canes to be used by the campaign clubs marching in his honor!

In those days the town of Niles was little more than a struggling village, with a score of houses, one or two stores, a blacksmith shop, and a tavern or road hotel. The house stood close to the road, and next to it was a field with some trees, where William McKinley's brothers and sisters were wont to play. The town is nine miles northwest of the city of Youngstown, on the line of several railroads, and is given up chiefly to the iron industry.

The day upon which William McKinley was born was probably not unlike hundreds of other wintry days—cold, blustery, perhaps snowy, making the pedestrians gather their clothing tighter around them and hurry home faster than usual, giving no thought to the fact that in that unpretentious frame cottage a babe had been born whose name was to go down in history alongside that of the immortal Washington and Lincoln, a babe that was to become an earnest, far-seeing man, a soldier bent upon the task of saving this glorious Union to itself, a statesman, a governor, and at last a President who should guide this Nation through a war against oppression, giving to one set of people their liberty, and to another the opportunities of an enlightened civilization.

William McKinley came into a family of strong religious convictions, and the prayers learned at his mother's knee were never forgotten. The family were Methodists, attending church regularly, also the weekly prayer meetings, and the children seldom missed in their Bible Class or Sunday School work. In fact, so strong was the church tendency of the family that William was in his early youth intended for the ministry.

"William is a good boy," said Mrs. Nancy McKinley. "Some day he may become a bishop. He's already clever at talking." But it was not to be. Instead of entering the theological seminary the youth became a lawyer. But in his mother's eyes he was always the same; for when he was inaugurated President for the first time, and she, straight as of old, but carrying the weight of many years, sat and saw, with honest pride, her son take the oath of office, and saw him receiving the congratulations of thousands, she said as of old: "William was always a good boy. I could always depend upon him. He never gave me a cross word, and I don't believe he ever told me a lie. I'm glad that he is President, for his sake, even though I did used to think he'd make a fine minister." What strong, glorious words for every youth in this broad land to remember: "I could always depend upon him. He never gave me a cross word, and I don't believe he ever told me a lie." Would that every mother could say as much of her own son.

And yet, lest some of my young readers may be inclined to think that William McKinley, the boy, was too goody-goody to suit them, let me add that such was far from being the case. He came from hard-working and fighting stock, and lived in a community where disputes were often settled with the fists. As a small boy, those who still remember him say he was a sturdy little fellow, not very tall, but broad of shoulder, and one who did not hesitate to take his own part if imposed upon. There is no recollection of his having sought a quarrel, but a number of stories are told of his having been in them and come off the victor. But in the majority of cases William tried to act the peacemaker, just as he often acted the peacemaker in later life.

In his boyhood days William McKinley loved to fish, and the story is told that he was very patient and would wait for hours for a bite, sitting on the old wooden bridge which spanned a nearby stream. Once he sat there until dark, and when he got home his mother wanted to know where he had been.

"I was fishing, mother," he replied.

"Fishing?" said Mrs. McKinley. "Where is your fish?"

"I didn't catch any to-day. But I located a big fellow and I'll get him tomorrow."

At this his mother smiled. But he was as good as his word, and brought home the fish for supper.

In those days skates were scarce and cost more money than the average family cared to pay out for half a dozen boys and girls. William had to learn to skate on a pair of skates which another boy owned. This man tells that he used to lend Will the skates in return for being "towed around," and adds:—

"William was a good skater. He couldn't do much at fancy figures, but he could beat lots of the boys when it came to a straight out race. He'd swing along like a steam engine, often with a stick in both hands and a tippet flying from around his neck and under his arms."

William McKinley learned his letters at home, from his big brothers and sisters, but when six years of age he was taken to the village school at Niles, a small, primitive-looking building, with rough desks and hard wooden benches,—a building which has since become the office of a granite company. Here he was instructed in the three R's,—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. He was naturally of a studious nature, and it is told that seven times out of ten he was at the head of his class. Thus he learned to read at an early age, and before he was fifteen he had read nearly all the books which came within his reach.