In This Review

William McKinley
William McKinley
By Kevin Phillips
Times Books, 2003, 208 pp

Nobody knows the history of American politics like Phillips, and William McKinley, his contribution to the Times Books series of short lives of American presidents, is Phillips at his best. Phillips believes that McKinley has been given short shrift by historians, and he makes a good case. A meticulous and thoughtful analysis of McKinley's rise to power through post-Civil War Ohio politics combines with a close reading of McKinley's presidency to give him much of the credit for the progressive revolution in the Republican Party. The real merit of this book, however, lies in its portrait of policymaking and politics in late-nineteenth-century America. Phillips seems to know the ethnic makeup, voting record, and economic concerns of every precinct in Ohio and every state in the Union. An unmatched ability to link retail politics with great public issues and broad economic trends gives Phillips extraordinary insight into the making of the American past. Thanks to universal manhood (and, already in some states, universal adult) suffrage and the decentralized nature of the political system, nineteenth-century American politics was a complex and sensitive barometer of changing public sentiment about the economy and the United States' place in the world. Phillips is one of a handful of scholars who can treat both the American past and the American present with authority; this book will strengthen his already formidable reputation even more than it will help McKinley's.