President McKinley and the temperance movement

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

The New York Times in its opinion column “Topics of the Times” on March 30, 1900, made the following observation. “In a recent issue, The Independent (a magazine of the Congregationalist Church) made the assertion that whether President McKinley drank wine is nobody’s business.”

President McKinley’s consumption of a glass of wine highlighted the strength of the temperance movement in the United States. The temperance movement began in the early part of the 19th century. The followers of the movement believed that God looked unfavorably upon the United States because many of its citizens drank alcohol. The only way to return to God’s good graces was to reduce or prohibit the consumption of alcohol.

Trumbull County, where William McKinley was born, was one of the early hotbeds of the temperance movements in Ohio. A temperance society was formed in the county in 1826.

McKinley was a devout Methodist throughout his life. The Methodist denomination was the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in the 19th century. The church demanded its members abstain from alcohol, which McKinley did during the early part of his life.

McKinley’s election as Stark County prosecutor in 1869 permitted him to use his church beliefs to prosecute individuals who sold alcohol to underage residents of Stark County. He was particularly proud of the conviction of men who sold alcohol to underage students at the Methodist-operated Mount Union College in Alliance.

The marriage of McKinley to Ida McKinley in 1871 solidified his standing with the temperance movement. Ida shrewdly encouraged McKinley to become active in the Canton area adherents. McKinley helped bring Carrie Stanton and Virginia Woodhull to Canton to speak on alcohol prohibition and women’s suffrage.

Ida sensed that the temperance movement would become an important political force in the United States in the later half of the 19th century Ohio became a center of activity, with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union being founded in Hillsboro in 1874. Ida encouraged McKinley to throw his support behind the WCTU.

However, McKinley’s view on temperance moderated over the years. He refused to say anything about the prohibition of alcohol when he was the Republican candidate for president in 1896. He felt that prohibition of alcohol was a divisive issue, and if he spoke on the issue during the campaign it would cost him votes.

The temperance movement was overjoyed with McKinley’s election in 1896. They felt that McKinley would soon propose the sale of alcohol be banned in the United States. The movement believed that as a first step to prohibition, Ida McKinley would soon ban the consumption of alcohol at both public and private White House events using “Lemonade” Lucy Hayes as a model, who prohibited alcohol from being served during the Hayes administration.

Their disappointment followed, as Ida permitted alcohol to be served at White House public events. Reports soon surfaced that both Ida and President McKinley consumed alcohol at the White House. Ida was known to enjoy a regular glass of claret or red wine. McKinley was said to enjoy a cigar and a whiskey at the end of the day. Andrew Carnegie sent barrels of Dewar’s whiskey to the White House for McKinley to enjoy.

The views of the temperance movement in regards to President McKinley as the 1900 election approached can be found in The National Advocate, a magazine of the temperance movement.

“Meanwhile accusations are renewed to the effect that the president serves wines and goes through drinking motions if he does not partake. This is all the comfort we can find in the discussion to date.”

Ironically, a president closely identified with the temperance movement has a cocktail named after him. The McKinley Cocktail was created after his 1896 election. During these trying times, may I suggest making a McKinley Cocktail for yourself?

The recipe:

2 oz. straight rye whiskey

1 oz. Italian red vermouth

1 tsp. cherry liqueur

1 dash absinthe (or substitute)

Garnish 1 lemon peel


1. Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice.

2. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass

3. Cut a thin slice of lemon peel, twist over the drink and discard.


Patrick Finan of Cortland is the retired former library director of the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.


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