American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 3

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McKinley enters Allegheny College—A Close Student—Sickness and Return Home—Becomes A School Teacher—The Mutterings of Civil War.

William McKinley was blessed with the best of mothers, a kind, loving woman, who could still be firm when the occasion demanded it, and who did all she could to bring him up a sober, upright, God-fearing, Christian man. We have seen how he attended Sunday School regularly and how he was rarely absent from the McKinley pew in church. When between fifteen and sixteen years of age he joined the Methodist Church, and in this faith he remained to the day of his death. But, as becomes a great statesman, he was broad in his views, and in later life numbered among his friends people of all religious beliefs.

It was a great day for William McKinley when he graduated from the Union School of Poland. He had studied hard to acquit himself well, and if he was not at the head of the class he was very close to it, and he was one of the youngest of the boys and girls at that. It had been decided by his father and his mother, after a long conference, to send him to Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, and when the youth was examined for admission it was found he had done so well that he was placed in the junior class, thus cutting off a year and more of the regular course.

In those days Allegheny College, which now boasts of Hulings Hall, Wilcox Hall, and other fine structures, consisted of but two buildings worth mentioning—Bentley Hall and Ruter Hall. The first of these, a neat building of brick, located on a hill north of the town, was built in 1820, and the second, also of brick, was built in 1855. Close to the college were a series of rocks and a deep ravine, and not far away was the Cussewago and French Creek, where the students used to boat and bathe to their hearts' content. The college campus embraced sixteen acres, only a small portion of which was cleared.

To this institute of learning went William McKinley, accompanied by two boy companions. The young students were all earnest fellows, and each was determined to pass through college with the highest possible honors. This was especially true of McKinley; for he knew what sacrifices his parents and his sisters had made to place him there, and he felt that it was his sacred duty to make the most of his opportunity.

"I'm going to do my best, mother," he said. "I know what you expect of me, and I'll try not to disappoint you."

"I know you will do your best, William," she answered. "But remember, your health is not of the best, and you must take care of yourself, or you will break down."

"Oh, I am going to take more outdoor exercise after this, mother. That will make me strong again, I am sure."

So spoke the young student, and he kept his word, taking a long walk every morning before settling; down to his studies. This habit of an early morning walk remained with him even while in the White House, and he was frequently seen "taking his constitutional" long before many other officials were astir.

But "all work and no play" will not do for anybody, and the mental strain to which McKinley subjected himself soon began to tell upon him. His cheeks grew pale and thin, and he occasionally complained of violent headaches and pains in the chest. When he came home on a few days' vacation, both his mother and his sisters were greatly alarmed.

"He has been studying too hard," said Annie McKinley. "He needs a rest. If he doesn't get it, he will surely break down."

She knew William better than did any of the other brothers and sisters, and the mother agreed that she was right, and that, for the present at least, the young student must give up his studies. So, much against his will, William McKinley bade adieu to Allegheny College, where he had been for less than a year. When he left, he fully expected to return in a short while, but this was not to be.

A vacation of a few months around home did wonders for the youth, and at the end of that time he announced that he felt as well as ever. In the meantime, however, hard times had come upon the country, wages went down, and many were thrown out of employment entirely. The McKinley family suffered with the rest, and Mr. McKinley, with his large family, had often all he could do to make both ends meet, even though he still kept his position as the manager of the iron works.

"I think it is about time that I earned something," said William McKinley, one day. "Father, Annie, and the others are working, and I feel that I ought to work, too."

"But where will you get an opening?" asked Mrs. McKinley. "You know how hard times are."

"They tell me they want a teacher over at the Kerr district school. Perhaps I can get that position."

"They don't pay very much over there, do they?"

"They pay twenty-five dollars per month and board the teacher around, mother. It's not much, but it's better than nothing."

Having thus spoken, William McKinley at once set about obtaining the position he had mentioned. It is said his sister, the teacher, and Miss Blakelee helped him, and soon he was installed as the new teacher at the district school, which was about two and a half miles from his home in Poland.

At this time he was but little more than seventeen years of age, and he had pupils under him who were almost if not quite as old. Some of the pupils were rough country lads, who dearly loved to "cut up" and "git the new teacher in a snarl," and on more than one occasion the young schoolmaster had to lay down the law with all the force of his eloquence and the strength of his hands.

As before mentioned, the teacher was expected to "board around," but for the greater part of the time McKinley used to trudge from his home to the school in the morning:, and back again in the afternoon when school was dismissed. As a teacher he continued his studies, and on his long walks always had his books with him. Along the route to school were several comfortable nooks, and at these he would stop to rest and to read, filling his mind with that knowledge which in after life was of such great benefit to him.

In those days the fires of the great Civil War, which was to bring so much trouble to our glorious country, were already smouldering and had been smouldering for years. The great question was that of state sovereignty, or state rights, brought on over the question of which states should own slaves and which should not. Briefly explained, the people of the North held that no new states admitted to the Union should possess slaves, while the people of the South held that such new states had a right to do as they pleased concerning the slave question. Each side was fully convinced that it was in the right, and each was prepared to fight to the bitter end in the upholding of its principles.

As said before, William McKinley had been in the habit of listening to public speakers, and now he listened more attentively than ever, for he was anxious to learn all the details of the magnificent struggle which was so soon to unroll itself before the eyes of the world. But like thousands of others, he did not believe it possible that the South would secede from the Union and set up a Confederacy of its own. Washington had fought for this Union and so had hundreds of other famous men, and he could not bear to think of the states being divided and of their making war upon each other.

The crisis was reached on Tuesday, November 6, 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He was bitterly opposed by the South, and his election took from that section of our country the power it had before held in national affairs. As the telegraph flashed the news everywhere there was intense excitement, for all felt that the South must either submit to the contentions of the North or go into open rebellion.

Deeming herself fully justified in her course of action, South Carolina took the lead in seceding from the Union, on December 20, and called upon her sister states of the South to do likewise and aid in forming one great slave-holding Confederacy. Other states were not long in coming to the front, and early in the year 1861 the Southern Confederacy was formed, with Jefferson Davis as President and A. H. Stephens as Vice President. As soon as this deed was consummated, the Confederates took it upon themselves to seize all government property within reach.