Who was William McKinley and why were so many places named for him, including the highest mountain in North America?
Depending on whom you ask, their political persuasion and even their home state, McKinley was either one of the best or one of the worst U.S. presidents. He was the 25th president of the United States, serving from 1897 until a September day in 1901, when he was assassinated, apparently by someone who believed that McKinley was one of the worst presidents.
McKinley, who had served as the governor of Ohio before he was elected president, was in the news recently. That was when the 44th president, Barack Obama, officially stripped the name of the 25th president from the 20,310-foot mountain in Alaska. It had been named Mount McKinley in 1896, when McKinley was merely the Republican nominee for president, by a gold prospector who apparently approved of his candidacy. Although the name of the surrounding park had been changed by the 39th president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980, it was not until August 2015 that the mountain became, in the eyes of the federal government, Denali.
A lot of people from Ohio raised a stink over the renaming, as well as a lot of rather right-wing, nationalistic Americans. They are the folks who believe that McKinley was one of the best presidents because he expanded United States territory, paving the road for America’s role as the world’s most powerful nation.
For starters, he got Spain to give up its colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific as part of the treaty ending the 1898 Spanish-American War. Suddenly, the United States possessed Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Later, for good measure, the United States also claimed Wake Island – after annexing Hawaii.
The annexation of Hawaii, presided over by President McKinley in 1898, is still a sore spot for many Hawaiians. McKinley’s predecessor, Grover Cleveland, had refused to annex Hawaii, pointing out that it was against the desires of the Hawaiian people. But McKinley persevered. He failed to get a treaty of annexation, so he took a back-door route, achieving his aim through a joint resolution of Congress.
McKinley said that the U.S. possession of Hawaii was “manifest destiny” and was necessary for the nation’s trade ambitions in the Pacific Rim. He also feared that if the United States didn’t take Hawaii, Japan would.
This story leads us to another possible renaming of a McKinley landmark. On King Street in downtown Honolulu sits President William McKinley High School. Originally Fort English Day School at its founding in 1865, and renamed Honolulu High School in 1895, the school took McKinley’s name in 1907. It has been at its current location since 1923, along with the 8-ton bronze statue of McKinley that was dedicated in 1911. Ironically, the bronze hand of the McKinley statue is clutching a document with the words “Treaty of Annexation.” He never got the treaty; he took Hawaii anyway.
Perhaps spurred by President Obama’s action to rename the mountain in Alaska, Hawaiians have renewed their attempts to get the high school renamed to honor someone who is more agreeable to them or at least to restore the previous name of Honolulu High School. At MoveOn.org, a petition is slowly gathering enough signatures to put the question before the governor and the board of education.
On June 22, 2015, in The Hawaii Independent, Tyler Greenhill wrote in response to South Carolina’s removal of the Confederate Flag from its State Capitol, saying, “Should students of Native Hawaiian ancestry have to walk through entrances adorned with the name of an imperialist like William McKinley, the man who pushed for the United State to illegally annex Hawaii?”
Greenhill suggested, “Why not venerate the beautiful people who have made the most positive moral contributions to Hawaiian and local culture?”
I know that urges to rename landmarks to better reflect the current sensibilities sometimes get out of hand. In my own neighborhood some people want to rename the local high school, Wilson, because they say Woodrow Wilson was a racist. In Wilson’s day, true egalitarians were hard to come by, so I’m not persuaded that a name change is in order now.
But in the case of President William McKinley High School, I imagine that the name is a constant reminder to Hawaiians of a lawless time when powerful Americans wrested the rule of a monarchy from its queen and set in motion what was basically a land grab.
Students should be able to wear the name of their school with genuine pride. Seeing the name McKinley every school day must be like picking at a wound that never heals.