William McKinley was a well-liked president, and, after his assassination in 1901, a well-loved dead president. It didn’t last, sadly, but at the time Americans were beside themselves with grief at losing yet another president. More than 90,000 people viewed McKinley’s body after services in Buffalo, New York, where he died; and hundreds of thousands saw his funeral train on its way to Washington. [1] (For those who couldn’t be there, Thomas Edison captured some of the funeral on film.)

McKinley’s home state of Ohio began plans for an elaborate tomb in Canton, while cities in other parts of the country wanted to do something to honor the guy. Chicago was one such city; it named a south side park in the late president’s honor, and a councilman called Daniel Crilly organized a group of prominent Chicagoans (including retail magnate Marshall Field and future vice president Charles Dawes) to raise funds for a McKinley statue.

They found plenty of financial support, and even got some raw material to use for the piece itself – a decade or so before, Chicago had played host to the Columbian Exposition, which had boosted Chicago’s stature but left it with a lot of extra Columbus statues. There was a 20 foot tall Columbus in Grant Park that was “universally disliked” and was allegedly attracting a certain type of “loiterers,” so the city figured, melt it down and use the bronze for a McKinley statue. Two birds, one stone. Charles J. Mulligan, the first student of sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, took on the task of immortalizing the president.

But what exactly was he supposed to memorialize? McKinley’s career wasn’t without success, but there were no grand moments in there like, say, Lincoln saving the Union or Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence. Sure, McKinley presided over a war with Spain, but the city wasn’t in the mood to celebrate more death. They wanted something more positive. After a period of what was surely some serious head-scratching, Mulligan had his concept: tariffs.

Tariffs? Ok, it’s not very sexy, but in their day, protective tariffs were seen as a friend of the American worker, making sure the value of his labor wouldn’t be undercut by a flood of imports. And McKinley became a national political figure by sponsoring a big tariff bill. The new McKinley Park was “a workingman’s park,” Mulligan reasoned, and “the statue, being placed in a workingman’s park, should set forth Mr. McKinley’s most conspicuous act on their behalf.” [2] So in the statue, McKinley holds a copy of a speech – or at least some talking points, anyway – about tariffs.

William McKinley statue, Chicago

At the time of dedication in 1905, Chicagoans made note of the beautiful landscape near which the McKinley statue stood. They must have been referring to what was in front of the statue – even today McKinley Park is a lovely and well-maintained spot, but what’s behind the statue is less so – it’s a grocery store, a chili restaurant and a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. That may not look like much, but on the other hand, all that food does have a tie to the president: as a young man, William McKinley enlisted in the Union Army and served as Commissary Sergeant for the Twenty-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In short, McKinley’s job was to keep the men fed, and this he did, once serving food and coffee to exhausted Union troops during the height of the battle of Antietam – the bloodiest battle of the entire war. The bullets were flying around him, superior officers were telling him to retreat, and still he pushed on, asking his men “would you like to super-size it?”

So if you think it’s weird seeing the President and the Colonel together, well, think again.

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1] Roe, Edward T. The life-work of William McKinley: the brilliant career of a typical American citizen, soldier, statesman. Laird and Lee, 1901, 191-192. Accessed via Google Books January 30, 2013.

[2] Reidy, James L. Chicago Sculpture. University of Illinois Press, 1981, 222. Accessed via Google Books, January 30, 2013.