McKinley’s Cabinet appointments smallest in history
Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series of columns marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.
President-Elect William McKinley, between his election Nov. 3, 1896, and his inauguration March 4, 1897, had thousands of government positions to fill.
Yet, McKinley had the smallest number of presidential appointments in U.S. history to make because of the Pendleton Act of 1883. Prior to the Pendleton Act, all incoming presidents had the opportunity to fire all of the government employees of the previous administration and replace the fired employees with ones of the present administration’s choosing. The Pendleton Act outlawed the “spoils” system and replaced the “spoils” with a merit-based civil service system for about two-thirds of the government positions.
In addition to his Cabinet, there were numerous openings in various departments and commissions. The president-elect had to satisfy the interest of all of the different groups and individuals that had worked for his election, as well as consider appointing people from all sections of the country who shared his political beliefs and goals.
The Cabinet positions were the most important. McKinley planned to use his cabinet as a deliberative body, and he sought trusted advisors whom he could turn in his decisions. McKinley’s cabinet was made up of a combination of individuals with needed expertise, friends and those who met political needs.
Sen. John Sherman of Ohio was McKinley’s choice for Secretary of State. At age 73, many in Washington felt Sherman no longer possessed the strength and intellectual vigor for the position. Relations with Spain were deteriorating over Cuba, and many wondered why Sherman was selected. It was a political move — McKinley chose Sherman so his vacated Senate seat could be filled by Marcus Hanna, McKinley’s campaign manager. He had offered Hanna the Cabinet position of Postmaster General, but Hanna declined, because he wanted to be a U.S. senator. Sherman’s appointment opened up the Senate seat, and Ohio Gov. Asa Bushnell quickly appointed Hanna to the Senate.
The most important Cabinet position for McKinley to fill was Treasury Secretary. McKinley had two beliefs about fiscal policy: 1) the United States needed strong tariffs to protect U.S. companies from foreign competition; and 2) U.S. currency needed to be on the gold standard, where only gold could be exchanged for dollars in the United States.
Lyman J. Gage, a Chicago banker and a Democrat, was selected to implement McKinley’s fiscal policies.
Russell A. Alger, a former governor and senator from Michigan, was selected to head the War Department, responsible for maintenance and operation of the U.S. Army.
John D. Long, former congressman and governor from Massachusetts, was appointed to head the Navy Department. Long was a friend of McKinley. His responsibilities were for the maintenance and operation of the Navy.
McKinley had planned to permit Long to select his own Undersecretary of the Navy. However, the New York state Republican party put such pressure on McKinley to place Theodore Roosevelt as Undersecretary of the Navy that McKinley did appoint Roosevelt.
Judge Joseph McKenna of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California was named Attorney General. He was the first Roman Catholic ever to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet.
Cornelius Bliss, a Massachusetts businessman, was selected as Secretary of the Interior. Secretary of the Interior was responsible for the national parks, relations with Native Americans, the Bureau of Education, Bureau of Labor, Interstate Commerce Commission, U.S. territories and public lands.
James Wilson, a former Iowa congressman, was selected as Secretary of Agriculture. Wilson was the Dean of the School of Agriculture at Iowa State University at the time of his appointment.
James A. Gary of Maryland was named Postmaster General.
The Senate unanimously approved the entire Cabinet March 5, 1897.
There was one local appointment made by the president. McKinley selected his cousin William McKinley Osborne to be Consul General to London on March 18, 1897. Osborne was born in Girard and served as Youngstown’s mayor from 1874 to 1875. Osborne then moved to Boston, where he practiced law. He was the secretary of the Republican National Committee at the time of his appointment.
With the selection and the approval of the Cabinet, McKinley was now ready to govern.
Bronze busts of many of these cabinet members can be found throughout the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial in Niles.
Patrick Finan of Cortland is the retired former library director of the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.