William McKinley and the Rhetorical Presidency


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I thank the Earhart Foundation for financial support and Daniel DiSalvo, Robert Eisinger, Elvin Lim, Gregg Lindskog, and Patrick Roberts for comments on an earlier draft.

Robert P. Saldin is an assistant professor at the University of Montana and the author of War, the American State, and Politics since 1898 as well as articles in the Journal of Politics and Political Research Quarterly, among others.


William McKinley's important role in the development of the rhetorical presidency has been underappreciated. Based on his speeches during a fall 1898 tour and contemporaneous newspaper reports, this article argues that McKinley discussed controversial policy issues, attempted to sway public opinion, and engaged in partisan campaigning. These findings offer new evidence that contradicts Jeffrey K. Tulis's claim that chief executives avoided such activity until Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—embracing Progressive ideology—transformed the presidency into a more visible and popular institution rooted in public speaking. McKinley's rhetorical behavior is not fatal to Tulis's thesis, but it does suggest that McKinley belongs in the “middle way” category.