American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 14

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Taking a Case on the Jump—Talking against Time—The Lost Documents—A High Sense of Honor—Running for his First Office

No longer could McKinley be said to be unknown. His practice was extending in all directions, and the winning of several important cases gained him a reputation which was rapidly spreading beyond the confines of Canton and of Stark County.

"He will make his mark yet," said more than one shrewd old lawyer. But what a high and glorious mark few of them lived to witness.

He still kept up his studies, and all of his spare time was spent in reading. Rarely did he go on a railroad journey that he did not have a history or a law book with him.

He was generally slow to make up his mind, but once he had reached a conclusion nothing could change him. Yet that he could also act quickly when the occasion demanded it, the following anecdote will prove:—

One day he was just preparing to go to dinner, when a telegram was handed to him from a lawyer in Youngstown. The telegram read:—

"Cannot possibly get to Canton to-day. Have case there at two o'clock. Have it postponed if you can, or do your best."

McKinley read the telegram and then looked at his watch. It was just quarter past twelve. There was exactly an hour and three-quarters in which to learn what the case was about and get up his argument for a postponement. He did not then dream of going further with the case.

At five minutes of two he was in the court-room, and when the case was called he promptly moved an adjournment and stated his reasons.

"I object to an adjournment," said the opposing counsel, who thought he saw his way clear to getting a judgment. "This case has been adjourned twice already. We are all prepared to go ahead, and the defendant should be, likewise."

There was an earnest argument, and at last the judge said the case must go on, regardless of the absence of the lawyer in Youngstown.

"Very well, then, we'll go on," said McKinley, and pitched into the case with all the earnestness at his command. The other side had hoped to obtain a verdict in two or three hours, but McKinley argued at such a length, and asked the witnesses so many questions, that the judge had to adjourn the case to the next day. Then the young lawyer rushed off to the telegraph office and sent this message to the lawyer in Youngstown:—

"No adjournment allowed. Am keeping the witnesses at it. Will you be on hand to-morrow?"

Having sent this message, he went back to his office to study up the real details of the case. He waited, expecting an answer, but none came until the following morning.

"Cannot possibly come. Do your best. You have had a night to think it over."

The lawyer who sent that message knew McKinley thoroughly. The rising young advocate had had a night to think about it, and the case was now as clear to him as it probably was to the man he represented. Promptly on the minute he was on hand to continue the argument. In the corridor of the court-house he met the opposing counsel.

"Say, how long are you going to keep US at it to-day?" asked the lawyer.

"Not a minute longer than is necessary," was McKinley' s prompt answer.

Soon the judge arrived, and the case was continued. The opposing counsel expected McKinley to be as long-winded as before, and was taken by surprise when the young lawyer wound up some time before dinner. In that short time he had brought together all the various threads of the case, and he wound them into a conclusion which could not be disputed. Decision was reserved, and everybody left the court-room wondering:: what the outcome would be.

The next day the lawyer from Youngstown came to Canton and rushed into McKinley's office.

"I am glad you went ahead," he said. "I was afraid I was going to have a whole lot of trouble over that case."

"I did the best I could," answered the young lawyer. "I hadn't much time." Then he told of what had been accomplished. The other lawyer approved and praised him for the work. A few days later the judge rendered his decision, and it was in McKinley's favor. His fee was of good size, and his good work at such short notice added greatly to his laurels as a rising lawyer.

On one occasion the young advocate showed his sterling honesty in a way that brought to him the praise of one of his bitterest legal opponents.

It was a case of one large manufacturer against another, and the amount involved was several thousand dollars. The case was set for a Tuesday, and McKinley was all ready to go on, when he heard that the other side wanted a delay.

"We can't delay unless there is a good reason for it," said McKinley, and then learned that a clerk hired by the opposite counsel had lost several important documents.

That afternoon McKinley visited a law library close by to obtain a certain rare book. While looking over the shelves he found the very documents the other lawyer had lost, dropped in a dusty and dimly lit corner.

The temptation to keep these documents, or at least to read them, must have been strong. But without hesitation McKinley called an attendant to him.

"Here are some papers belonging to Mr. Blank," he said. "I found them in yonder dark corner. You had better have them delivered to him at once."

"I will, sir," answered the attendant. "Mr. Blank is in the next room."

The attendant went off, and in a few seconds the other lawyer came rushing up to McKinley.

"Where did you say you found these documents?" he demanded.

"Right over there," and McKinley pointed to the corner.

"Your clerk was over there a few days ago, Mr. Blank," said the attendant. "He had a large package of documents at the time."

"Oh!" Mr. Blank paused for a moment, then held out his hand to McKinley. "I am very much obliged to you," he said. "I owe you one for that."

"You are welcome, I am sure," was the quiet answer.

When the case came up, the opposing lawyer was afraid McKinley had read the documents, but soon the drift of affairs showed that the young lawyer had not done so, and his admiration of the honest young advocate increased. McKinley lost the case, and immediately put in a notice of appeal.

"He might have won if he had read those documents," said the other lawyer to a close friend. "Well, wait till the case is reopened," was the answer. The lawyer did wait, and on the appeal McKinley won. But even with this, the two after that were warm friends, for the other lawyer knew that, though McKinley might be sharp in his practice, he was thoroughly honest and above board.

In those days in the middle west, nearly every lawyer took a strong interest in politics. As we know, McKinley had cast his first vote for Abraham Lincoln. When election time came round, he was asked to speak for the Republican party, and he made many addresses in Canton, in Youngstown, in Poland, and elsewhere. The time spent in debating when a boy now stood him in good stead, and he became a fluent and convincing speech-maker. His arguments always went straight to the point, and although some people did not agree with him, they could not help but be impressed by his earnestness.

When the time came for electing a new prosecuting attorney of Stark County, the nomination on the Republican side almost went a-begging. This was because the county was considered strongly Democratic, and the Republicans felt that any man they put up would be almost certain of defeat.

"Let us put up Major McKinley," said somebody. "He's pretty popular all round."

"No, it isn't fair," said another. "He'd be like a ninepin that is set up merely to be bowled over."

"I don't know about that," returned the first speaker. "He has some good friends even among the Democrats. They know him to be a first-class lawyer and straight as a string."

But a number demurred, for they hated to see such a rising and ambitious lawyer "led to the slaughter," as they expressed it. At last it was decided to put the question to McKinley himself.

"Yes, I will take the nomination, but on one condition," said the young advocate. "You must all promise me your earnest and not your half-hearted support. Give me what help you can, and I'll take care of the rest."

"We'll do that willingly," said one of the committee. Accordingly, when the county convention was held, William McKinley's name came up for the office of prosecuting attorney, and he was placed on the ticket by almost unanimous consent.

Hearing of this, the Democrats also put a strong man in the field. At once the contest waxed warm, and many public meetings were held in various parts of the county. McKinley spoke here, there, and all around, and kept it up until the night before election. Then he went home to await results.

It was the first time he was up for public office. Would he win or lose?