William McKinley and His America

By H. Wayne Morgan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
The McKinley Tariff
Victory and Defeat

WASHINGTON was cold to the newly elected members of the Fifty-first Congress who straggled into the nation's capital in late November and early December 1889. But the warmth radiating from the friends and spirituous beverages of the various contenders for the House speakership took the chill off many evenings, as members were wined and dined, asked and begged for their support. For the first time since 1875, all three branches of the federal government were Republican. There was a slender majority in the House, and the speakership would be no empty honor. The right man, with prudence and wisdom, might use his gavel to build a ladder to greater things.

The Fifty-first Congress promised to be one of the most important in recent history. Battles would rage over the tariff, the silver question, trust regulation, and federal control of elections—not to mention pensions, patronage, and all the incidentals of politics.

McKinley was a candidate for the speakership, but he did not enter the sweepstakes lightly. He faced powerful opposition—Thomas B. Reed, Joseph G. Cannon, and others figured in the race—and he risked antagonism and friction. Yet the post was worth the fight. Next to the presidency itself, the speakership was the most important office in Washington. Not only was the speaker a ranking official, but he controlled legislation through committee appointments, had influence in the party, and wielded parliamentary power in the House.

McKinley's name was mentioned for the office after his reelection in 1888, but he did not commit himself. “Little can be known about the speakership until near the time when Congress meets,” he wrote Hayes. “If we should have an extra session (which I doubt) it would soon be settled. I am doing no soliciting. If I am successful the selection will come in an honorable and self respecting way.”1 But between the short session in March and the assembly of the new Congress in December 1889, he decided to make a determined race for the post. By early fall he departed for Washington to confer with supporters. “I think we will get to Washington early on account of the

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