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This series is named in honor of Dr. Robert E. Dunker, president emeritus of Western Iowa Tech Community College and founder of The Institute for Lifelong Learning.


William McKinley is not considered a great president, but his time in office arrived at a moment when America stood at a crossroads. McKinley’s choices during his first term in office kicked open the door to a completely different American future. How did he arrive at those decisions? What role did his brand of leadership play in those choices? We’ll also see how his decisions continue to affect our country today.


The key moment of McKinley’s presidency is the Spanish American War, fought in 1898. Prompted by reports of atrocities on Cuba and the growing American interest in world markets, McKinley gave his approval to go to war. But the action had followed months of fence-sitting, and what today we could call “mixed signals” from

the White House. Finally provoked by forces beyond his con- trol, McKinley issued an ultimatum to Spain demanding an end to the cruel concentration camps, other indignities on Cuba, and to begin negotiations for Cuba to become an independent nation. Spain agreed to all terms except independence. On April 20, 1898, McKinley called on Congress to declare war on Spain. Almost over- night the United States acquired a global empire by defeating the Spanish and taking possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The United States Navy’s destruction of the Spanish fleet between the Philippines and the Caribbean proved the newly built American fleet of ships were certainly a new factor for European and Asian powers to consider in the coming century.

We will also look at how the “splendid little war” (in the words of John Hay, Secretary of State) unfolded, and how America responded to the subsequent choices of having global holdings and what to do with them.

The importance of this story lies in how McKinley, initially uninter- ested in this fight, came to decide it was in America’s interests. What role did the public play in this decision? Was the public aware of the deeper issues of Empire vs. Republic? Why would each of the major islands have a different path forward, and why would each develop so differently? What did these choices mean for America.

The results changed the American landscape forever. 

Location: Cargill Auditorium, Entrance 14, Lot 4
Fee: No charge / Max: 200
Lifelong Learning membership not required 



William McKinley is rarely considered a trend-setter, but his era was one of change. He was the last president elected that also served in the American Civil War. Unlike previous presidents, he had never been a general and had entered the war as an enlisted man. He was decorated for bravery at the Battle of Antietam, but it was for braving fire to rush to the rear to bring up a wagonload of food, not ammo. He was rewarded with a promotion by his commanding officer, Rutherford B. Hayes, another Ohioan and future president whose interest in McKinley figures prominently in McKinley’s later career.

After the war, McKinley served in the House of Representatives as a pro-business republican. He genuinely cared about the needs of workers and farmers as well as business owners. His solution was sponsorship of the highest protective tariffs ever seen. He later failed at re-election for a third term, partially because of the pain those business-protecting tariffs caused wage earners and farmers.

Businessman Mark Hanna saw something in McKinley. He prompt- ly positioned him to become Governor of Ohio, where McKinley easily won two terms. Hanna then successfully promoted McKinley as president in the 1896 election “and sold him like toothpaste” in the words of fellow republican Theodore Roosevelt, garnering huge dollar donations from businesses for the campaign fund.

By raising funds to market the president, it was the beginning of modern elections. But it was McKinley’s charismatic and charm- ing opponent, William Jennings Bryan, who seemed to be breaking tradition by actively campaigning for the presidency and traveling around the country to give blockbuster speeches to overflow audi- ences. But Bryan frequently was forced to scramble for funds and write checks from his own pocket to make it to the next speech.

Bryan won more states, but McKinley buried him in the Electoral College. More importantly, McKinley was the first president to achieve a popular majority since Ulysses S. Grant.

While president, McKinley continued to promote business needs. During his first term, he also realized the needs of many Americans suffering due to the high tariffs and the economic conditions it caused. After a successful rematch with Bryan, McKinley traveled to the people to lay out his vision of America. In his last speech, the man recognized around the world as the principal proponent

of protectionism for the past decade, called instead for “commer- cial reciprocity among nations.” This was at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, with 50,000 people cheering the president. But the next day, a different man would change the course of American history.

How did McKinley’s choices affect Americans during his term and since? What aspects of McKinley’s presidency survived him? What differences did his leadership style make in his choices? Join historian Russ Gifford for a look at an era of American history we all know, but with the focus on a president we have likely forgotten. 

Location: Cargill Auditorium, Entrance 14, Lot 4
Fee: No charge / Max: 200
Lifelong Learning membership not required 


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