President Obama’s decision to rename Mount McKinley in Alaska by its Native American name Denali has caused a predictable flap. Ohio politicians, always concerned to safeguard William McKinley’s standing, have been especially outraged that the highest peak in North America, so long named after a president from their state, now will go by the name that most Alaskans use when they refer to the mountain. Ohio claims many presidents, but few of distinction. What is less often acknowledged is that the name Mount McKinley first was attached to the mountain in 1896 when a prospector and a Republican named William Dickey emerged from the wilderness to learn that the Republican National Convention had just nominated William McKinley for president on a platform that endorsed the gold standard for the nation’s currency. Following McKinley’s selection, the Democrats selected William Jennings Bryan as their candidate, pledged to inflate the currency by the free coinage of silver into money. What people at the time called “the Battle of the Standards” was on and McKinley and the GOP won. The name for the mountain stuck.
Mount McKinley was not officially designated while its namesake was president. Nor was it so labeled by the government, after McKinley was shot and later died in September 1901, as a memorial to the martyred chief executive. Sixteen years later, when Woodrow Wilson was president, the Mount McKinley National Park was established. By then McKinley’s historical reputation was in eclipse after the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. From contemporary news accounts in 1917, the name Mount McKinley was taken as a given, and Native American sensibilities were not considered in that racist era. Memorializing the fallen president was not a consideration. The major element in creating the national park in 1917 was to protect endangered native wildlife at the behest of hunting advocates in the conservationist Boone and Crockett Club, not to honor McKinley.
This minor episode comes at a time when McKinley’s historical reputation, long in the shadows, is showing overdue signs of a revival. Karl Rove, a former student, will publish an account of the 1896 election this fall. Thirty-five years ago I dubbed McKinley the “first Modern president.” I contended that in his use of presidential commissions, relations with the press, exercise of the war power, and relations with Congress, McKinley did everything for which later chief executives have received credit and usually did it better. As his secretary of war, Elihu Root, put it: “He was a man of great power because he was absolutely indifferent to credit. His great desire was ‘to get it done.’ He cared nothing about the credit, but McKinley always had his way.”
Compared with the more flamboyant Roosevelt, McKinley seemed cautious, understated, and a little dull. He never pounded his chest or proclaimed his own greatness. His personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, gave regular briefings to the press and saw to the needs of the reporters who covered the president. McKinley gave no public interviews and could not be quoted directly. He was a master of the timely leak about his intentions.
By the time his second term began in 1901 there were complaints that too much power had accrued to the White House. One reporter said: “the power originally vested in the executive alone has increased to an extent of which the framers of the Constitution had no prophetic vision.” McKinley was shot and died in September 1901, a celebrity president took over, and the innovative administration faded into history. That would not have surprised the modest, unassuming McKinley. As he told Cortelyou in 1899, “That’s all a man can hope for during his lifetime–to set an example-and when he is dead, to be an inspiration to history.” National shame over the war with Spain in 1898 and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection eroded McKinley’s historical importance among presidents.
Mount McKinley was never a memorial to a slain president. The name had partisan roots before McKinley ever gained the White House. Subsequent use of the title was detached from the substance of McKinley’s career. Ohio politicians should be content with the revived reputation of their native son. He is more than getting his due from the historical profession as his rise in esteem attests. While we can never know what McKinley himself would have thought about Mount McKinley reverting to Denali, a likely assumption is that he would view the change with the same balanced perspective that he brought to the art of presidential leadership.
-Written by Lewis L. Gould, Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at Monmouth College and author of “The Presidency of William McKinley” and “The Spanish-American War and President McKinley.” Mr. Gould has recently been interviewed by The Washington Post.