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History column: McKinley was first president to appoint Catholics

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

President Donald Trump visited with Pope Francis at the Vatican within the first five months off his presidency. This meeting between the leaders of the free world and Catholicism would have been unheard of or even unthinkable in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

By the time William McKinley became president of the United States of America, large numbers of Catholics from many European countries came to this country. Many of the GOP political leaders and citizens of the time were very concerned that Catholics would follow the Pope and change or dismantle our public institutions. Republicans of the late 1880s were known as the anti-Catholic party due to the strength of their protestant base. GOP leaders often referred to Democrats of the time period as the party of Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.

From my studies of McKinley, he went against his own party bosses of the time and actively reached out to Catholics during the 1896 campaign. The majority of Catholics voted against him as his opponent, William Jennings Bryan’s, economic plan was more in tune with the labor force Catholics made up at that time. Even with their voting record, McKinley became the first presidential administration to appoint Catholics to federal positions. McKinley stated, “Our administration is not of one party or sector, but of all the people.”

One-hundred-and-twenty years ago, on Aug. 15, 1899, McKinley traveled to Cliff Haven, New York, to be the first sitting president to visit with the Catholic Summer School program. At Father Lavelle’s urging, the president decided to speak to the students and teachers. “I had not intended to say a few words, but I cannot sit in silence in the presence of the demonstration of your good will and patriotism. Whatever the government of the United States has been able to accomplish since I last met with you in this chamber has been accomplished because the hearts of the people have been with it. Our patriotism is neither sectional nor sectarian.”

The president continued, “We may differ in our political or religious beliefs, but we are united for country. Loyalty to the national government is our creed. We follow, all of us, one flag. It symbolizes our purposes and our aspirations; it represents what we believe and what we mean to maintain; and wherever it floats, it is the flag of the free, the hope of the oppressed; and wherever it is assailed, at any sacrifice, it will be carried to a triumphant peace. Rebellion may delay, but it can never defeat its blessed mission of liberty and humanity.”

Upon McKinley’s death by assassination two years and one month after this speech, his successor Theodore Roosevelt would publicly denounce religious bigotry. He would continue what McKinley began by appointing Catholics to government positions. Though it took many years after McKinley and Roosevelt’s deaths, many Catholic voters increasingly found common ground with the GOP on issues such as abortion and family values, as well as fighting communism.

Mike Wilson is the Director of SCOPE Senior Services of Trumbull County and has traveled around the nation performing as William McKinley for more than 28 years.

columns@tribtoday.com