American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 12

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Back to Ordinary Life—McKinley becomes a Law Student—At Albany Law School—Admission to the Bar—The Young Lawyer's First Case

It is not easy for any one to turn from four years of strife on the battlefield to the humdrum pursuits of ordinary life. Many a veteran has found it almost impossible to do so. The desire to be "up and doing," to listen once again to the rattle of musketry and make another charge amid shot and shell, is a strong one.

But William McKinley was equal to the occasion, and having decided to study law, he buckled down to it without delay, for he was a firm believer in the maxim: "Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day."

Canton, the county seat of Stark County, was at that time a town of about five thousand inhabitants. It is located about forty miles west of Poland. Having a rich farming and mining community to draw from, it was, even at that date, a place of considerable importance.

Judge Charles E. Glidden, of Mahoning County, who had an office at Youngstown, practised both there and at Canton, and was fairly well known to McKinley, who, as a boy, had often heard the judge argue a case in court. Without delay the young soldier applied to the judge for an opportunity to study law.

"So you are going to give up the army," said the judge. "Why, I heard that you were expecting a commission as captain of the Regulars."

"I think I can get a commission in the regular army if I want it," answered McKinley. "But I have come to the conclusion that I have had enough of army life."

"Don't you know the woods are full of lawyers?"

"Good ones?" queried the youthful major.

"Well, no, not good ones," replied the judge, who was a pleasant man with whom to deal. "Good ones are rather scarce."

"Then, perhaps, if I become a good lawyer, I'll stand a chance of earning my bread and butter, judge."

At this there was a laugh, which broke the ice, and a long talk followed, the upshot of which was that McKinley became a law student in Judge Glidden's office at Youngstown, and went to studying Blackstone with all the vigor of which he was capable.

In more ways than one this method of settling down to solid work was heroic. His real friends admired him, but there were others who had pretended to think much of him, who now passed him by without notice.

"Oh, he doesn't amount to as much as I thought," said one. "He's only a poor law student, and the chances are he won't earn his salt."

"Guess he'd better drop his title of major," said another. "If he don't, folks will be laughing at him."

So the talk ran on, but William McKinley paid no attention. He was at his task early and late and made rapid progress. The story is told that once Judge Glidden came into the office at midnight and found him sitting at a desk piled high with books and his head bound up in a wet towel.

"Don't you ever expect to go home and go to bed, young man?" questioned the lawyer.

"Yes, sir, after I have mastered this insurance case."

"Do you expect to master it before morning?"

"I'm going to try," was the quiet answer.

The judge looked at the papers and books in front of his student, and his brow began to knit. Gradually he became as absorbed as was McKinley. Together they read on for fully half an hour. Then the judge placed his finger on a certain passage in the written pages.

"What do you think of that?" he questioned severely.

"I can't make it out. It doesn't seem right," said McKinley.

"And it is not right," thundered the judge. "That decision will never stand." And taking up the papers he tore them in two. Two years after, the decision was reversed by a higher court.

In those days, the good times so soon to follow were not yet at hand, and the McKinley family had its own struggles to make both ends meet, although they were not as poor as many around them. But as William McKinley saw how hard his parents and his brothers and sisters worked, and realized that he was bringing no money home, his conscience smote him.

"Perhaps I had better give up law and go to work," he said to his sister Annie.

"No, no, Will, I won't hear of it," she replied. "Now you have started, you must finish."

"But if I want to pass, I've got to go to the law school, and that will take a good deal of money."

"I know it."

"I haven't a dollar. What I got out of the army I gave to mother."

"Yes, and she has some of it saved still, and I have some, too, that I have saved from my salary," answered his sister, who was still teaching school. "You shall use every cent of that, if it is needed."

"But it doesn't seem right," insisted the young law student.

"It is right, Will. And I know that some day you'll be able to repay the money with interest," added the teacher.

Again there was a long family conference, and mother and sister stood firm that William should finish his education and become a lawyer.

"All right then, I'll pitch in and go to the Albany Law School without delay," answered the young student, and to Albany he went, there to study harder than ever. Of his time at this school one of the pupils of that day has said:—

"He was a quiet fellow and you couldn't get much out of him. It was a plain case of dig, dig, dig all the time, as if he hadn't any time for anything else. While he was there, we held a class gathering and had a debate. I think it was on the future of the negro, or something like that. Anyway, I remember McKinley spoke, standing up in front of us, with one hand in his pocket, as he has often stood since. At first he seemed to be a little nervous, especially as some of the students poked fun at him, but gradually he became so much in earnest that all the fun-making stopped, and we got interested in spite of ourselves. When he finished, the handclapping was tremendous. This made him red in the face, and he took a seat in a corner, and didn't have another word to say all that evening."

His course at the Albany Law School over, McKinley took his way to Warren, Ohio, there to be admitted to the bar. This is a trying ordeal to all would-be lawyers, but he passed without trouble, and received his sheepskin, as it is termed, with a great number of classmates. Then he went home.

"Did you pass, William? " asked Mrs. McKinley.

"I did, mother," he answered.

"And now you are an out-and-out lawyer?"

"Yes—but I haven't any clients yet. I've got to wait for folks to get into trouble before they can help me earn a living."

"Well, folks will get into trouble quick enough, don't you fear," answered the mother. "But, William, I want you to promise me one thing. Don't ever take a law case that isn't clean."

"I'll promise that."

"And don't ever take a case unless you are sure your client is in the right," went on Nancy McKinley.

"I'll promise that, too," he returned. And William McKinley kept those promises. In after life he was often tempted to take hold of what are known as "shady" cases, and was offered big retainers for so doing, but he invariably declined. If he did not conscientiously believe that his would-be customer was in the right, he refused to serve him. Would that all other young lawyers might follow his example.

He was now a full-fledged lawyer, with practically the whole state of Ohio before him. Where to settle down he hardly knew. Poland seemed to offer no inducement, and Youngstown was already full of lawyers. One of his sisters was teaching school at Canton, and to this town he journeyed.

"I think I can do as well here as anywhere," he said to her. "And it will be nice if we are together."

His means being small, he could not fit up an elaborate office, and so hired a small room in the rear of a building on one of the main streets, a building since torn down to make room for the new Stark County court-house. He purchased a desk, chair, table, and a bookcase for his law volumes, and then had his sign painted and hung out close to the door.

At first there was little to do, and it looked as if the young lawyer would starve before he could earn enough with which to support himself. But he kept a stout heart and a smiling face, and this won him the friendship of several other lawyers, who began to throw odds and ends of work in his way—copying law papers, making researches, and the like. These jobs were often tedious and the pay was small, but McKinley did not complain, but performed every task promptly and to the best of his ability.

At length his pluck won the admiration of Judge Belden, then a well-known lawyer of Stark County. The judge had his offices in the same building with McKinley, and he determined one day to throw a case into the young lawyer's hands and see how he made out with it. Walking into the little back room, he found McKinley finishing up some copying.

"McKinley, shall you be busy to-day?" he asked.

"No, judge, I am just finishing up the last of the work on hand," was the answer.

"Then I have a case coming off to-morrow that I wish you would take hold of for me. I am not feeling well, and besides, I must leave town. Will you do it?"

"What is the case?"

"It's a replevin case of appeal. Here are the papers. You can look them over. I know you'll do your best."

The young lawyer took the papers and glanced over them hurriedly, while the judge stood by. It did not take McKinley long to see that the matter was a difficult one to argue, and that success was by no means certain.

"Judge Belden, I—I am not prepared for this," he stammered.

"I know you are not—but you will be when the case comes off to-morrow. No, don't say you can't do it, for I know you can. Here are a few more documents relating to the case." And dumping the papers on the desk on top of those McKinley had just examined, the judge left the office.

For one minute the young lawyer felt like calling the judge back and telling him that he could not go ahead—that he was sure he should make a mess of it. Then he shut his teeth hard.

"I'll do my best," he murmured. "And I'll win it if it can be done."