By virtual presidential decree, the tallest mountain on the continent will be renamed from Mt. McKinley to Denali, which means “high one” or “great one” in local tribal language. Apparently Alaska politicians long wanted federal recognition for the traditional name even though the mountain has been named after the former president for over a century, long before Alaska statehood or the arrival of most Alaskan population.
Denali reportedly played a role in ancient tribal creation mythology. Tribal persons number several thousand and only a fraction speak the language from which the word Denali emerged. Presumably few if any still fully adhere to the old religion. But there is an irresistable chic to indigenous culture against which a nearly forgotten rotund old white male Republican Protestant has little to no chance in today’s public conversation.
William McKinley has lost his mountain but he deserves to be remembered and honored. He came from a pious anti-slavery Methodist family and joined the Union army at age 18, serving all four years of the war, often in combat, and heroically, during which he cast his first presidential vote for Abraham Lincoln. He was on the field at Antietam, the bloodiest day in America’s history.
After the war he toiled as a self made man, becoming a lawyer, and distinguishing himself for defending striking coal miners pro bono. His rise through Ohio politics was constant and marked by steady integrity, as a popular congressman and governor. He won election as President by wide majorities, sweeping northern cities with his appeal to laborers and immigrants.
McKinley and his wife lost both their children when very young, after which Mrs. McKinley suffered from depression and seizures, to which her husband responded with decades of protective devotion.
In the White House McKinley presided over prosperity, a surging population and accelerating industrialization. Avoiding polarizing rhetoric, he was affable to all, unpretentious and unthreatened by ambitious rivals. He spoke for civil rights for black people for which there was little public support. A friend to Catholic bishops, he stood against religious bigotry, for which he was condemned. He was arguably the first president to support women’s voting rights. Appalled by overseas persecution of Jews, he was an early supporter of Zionism. As a Civil War veteran, the last one to win the presidency, he hated and resisted the push for war against Spain. But the war he eventually declared was fought quickly and victoriously, making America a great power.
McKinley was assassinated at the height of his popularity, urging mercy for his madman killer, dying amid prayers and hymns. His Christian faith was lifelong and constant, having given himself as a youth to Christ at a Methodist altar. Faithful to his wife, he was a regular church goer and Sunday school superintendent. Together they hosted hymn sings at the White House while avoiding public sanctimony. He rarely imbibed but was skeptical of his church’s push for Prohibition.
A Methodist leader hailed McKinley after his death as their church’s “most conspicuous layman” who had “commanded armies, declared wars, overthrown kingdoms, crushed tyrants, and lifted up the downtrodden.” When he was “stricken by foul murder,” he prayed for “his destroyer,” and whispered “God’s will, not ours, be done.”
McKinley with decency and understatement advocated a broad society where all could seek happiness, protected by law. He helped usher in the better parts of what would often be a bloodthirsty and horrible century. He’s overshadowed by his flamboyant successor, but there never would have been a President Teddy Roosevelt without McKinley.
Personally, I find the life of William McKinley more inspirational and more relevant to today’s world than the uncreative name from a dead religion and nearly dead language that now attaches to his mountain. But maybe McKinley doesn’t need an Alaska chunk of ice, however magnificent, to signify his accomplishments. What was said of architect Christopher Wren is even more true of the martyred President: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”