American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 2

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Removal to Poland—Life as a Schoolboy—The Debating Society—His Opinion of a Law Case

As the McKinley family were numerous and the paternal purse by no means large, it soon became a question of what should be done with so many boys and girls. The older ones had outgrown the Niles school, and there was no other school in the neighborhood to which they could be sent.

"We will move to Poland," said Mr. McKinley. "There are more chances there, and I want to do the best I can by the children." And to Poland the family moved when William McKinley was nine years old. Poland was well known for its educational facilities, for it boasted of two good institutes of learning, one controlled by the Methodists and the other by the Presbyterians. Shortly after the McKinley's came to the place the Presbyterian school was burned down, and then both institutions were merged into one, known as the Union Seminary.

Poland is located eight miles south of Youngstown, and is given over to mining and agriculture. The great railroads have passed it by, and consequently it has made scant advances since the time when William McKinley trudged its dusty roads on his way to the Union Seminary. Here his elder sister Annie taught for some years, and here the young scholar made a firm friend of another teacher, a Miss Blakelee, who, after serving the school for many years, left her position to be married. Miss Blakelee was McKinley's favorite teacher, rind when, in 1883, he went to Poland Academy to address the graduating class there, he paid her a glowing tribute for all she had done toward making him the scholar that he was.

In those days there was always plenty of work for William McKinley to do at home. He sawed and split wood, brought water, and did his share of house chores just as other boys have done and are doing to-day. He never shirked, but would get through as quickly as possible, that he might get back to his book or to some favorite problem in mathematics, for he was a lover of the latter study. When there was nothing else to do, he would often listen to the men talking about politics, state rights, and kindred subjects, and on several occasions he travelled to Youngstown with his school chums to listen to some political speakers. These were the days in which the question of slavery was uppermost in all men's minds, and the politicians waxed exceedingly warm in their arguments of what should and what should not be done.

"I'd like to be a politician and spout out like that," said one of the schoolboys one day, after listening to a speech.

"I'll tell you what we can do," answered McKinley. "We can organize or join a debating society. Then we can choose a subject to debate on, take sides, and have lots of fun, and it will be instructive, too."

The subject was broached to the boys and girls the next day and took like wildfire. Some thirty of them formed the club, and they obtained a small room where they might hold their meetings and do their debating. It was decided to call the club the Everett Literary and Debating Society, in honor of Edward Everett, the distinguished secretary of state, senator, and at one time president of Harvard College. In those days Everett was at the height of his fame, and was known from one end of the land to the other for his power as a debater.

The boys and girls were very proud of their society, and it was a happy day for William McKinley when he became its president and sat in the chair on the platform with the gavel in his hand. One cannot help but wonder if he had any dreams in those days concerning the great and important places he was to occupy in the future.

Unfortunately there are no authentic records of the subjects which were debated by the society at this period, but they probably numbered a great variety. The slavery question was in everybody's mouth, and very likely it came in for a full share of the discussion. But it is a matter of record that William McKinley spoke often, giving the chair up to somebody else for that purpose, and that his manner so charmed those who listened to him that when it came time to vote for one side or the other of the debaters, he was generally found on the winning side.

At first the society room was but plainly furnished, with a small desk-like table, a few common chairs, and half a dozen benches. On the walls were a print of Washington and another of Jefferson, and between them a pair of crossed flags. The floor was bare.

"I think this society ought to have a carpet for the floor," said one of the girl members one day.

"Oh yes, let us have a carpet, by all means!" cried a number. "It would make the room look ever so much nicer."

When the question was put to the boys, some of them were doubtful. A carpet would cost a good deal of money, and besides, what would keep it from getting covered with mud on rainy meeting days? None of the roads around Poland were paved, and when it was wet, the shoes and boots of the members often became thickly covered with mud.

"We'll get a carpet," said the young president. "Let us all save up and contribute what we can, and when we've got it, we'll find some way to keep it clean."

So the society began to save up, and at last had enough money to purchase the carpet. A committee of the girls was appointed, and they went to a local store, where they selected a durable ingrain carpet having a groundwork of green, with red flowers and yellowish wreaths. When the carpet was tacked down, it looked so new and beautiful that hardly anybody dared to step upon it.

"The boys will spoil the carpet with their muddy hobnailed boots," said one of the girl members.

"I move we make slippers for the boys to wear while attending the meetings," said another girl.

This motion was seconded and carried, and all the girls set to work to knit or embroider slippers for the male members of the society. But alas! by the time the next meeting took place the slippers were far from ready, and it rained in torrents. The boys came as usual, but stood outside in their muddy boots and shoes, not daring to venture a step farther, for fear of spoiling that nice new carpet.

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And in his stocking-feet, William McKinley took the chair.

"Let's take off our boots and shoes!" cried one boy. "We can hold the meeting in our stocking feet just as well!" And in a twinkling off came the muddy foot coverings, which the boys placed wherever it was convenient. And thus, in his stocking feet, William McKinley took the chair, and the business of the debating society proceeded.

In his younger years William McKinley had loved not only to go fishing and bathing, but also to go horseback riding, and a story is told of how he once won a race between another boy and himself on horseback between Poland and Youngstown. But as he grew older this love of outdoor sports diminished, although he loved horses and driving as long as he lived. More and more of his time was devoted to reading and studying, until some of his chums got to calling him "The studious William." Whenever there was a case to be tried in court, and he could get there, he went, and sitting in a corner, would drink in every word uttered by the lawyers and the judge.

"Well, what did you think of the case. William?" asked one of the lawyers of him, one day, after court was over.

"I thought it went the wrong way," was the quick answer.

"The wrong way? Why?"

"The defendant didn't bring out his evidence strong enough. He had a good case, it seemed to me. The goods he bought were not as good as they were represented to be, and it wasn't fair to make him pay the full price for them."

At this the lawyer smiled. "I think you are right, William," he said, "and I shouldn't be surprised to see the case appealed."

The case was appealed, and when tried in a higher court the verdict was for the defendant, just as William McKinley said it ought to be. This shows well how judicial was his turn of mind even when a youth.