William McKinley is a favorite of us here at Angry History. Unfortunately, being an obscure president makes you just as apt to get misquoted as the popular ones, simply because few people who know the truth about what you thought, said or wrote. This made-up quote turned up a lot during the Iraq War, due in part to the opportunity to use McKinley’s supposed messianic complex as a parallel to contemporary events. It even appears in Sarah Vowell’s otherwise fantastic “Assassination Vacation.”
There are many reasons to doubt this quote, starting with the man who reported it: General James F. Rusling. The word “Christianize,” which McKinley never used in any of his writings or speeches – and, in fact, was not a widely used verb at the time — also casts doubt. Furthermore, there’s McKinley’s reticence on all issues, and desire to seek consensus, not confrontation. The idea that he had to tell Dewey to attack or he might have had nowhere to go appears nowhere else, and in fact it was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt who devised the strategy and aimed Dewey straight at Manila.
Upon entering the White House, McKinley declared, “You may be sure there will be no jingo nonsense under my administration.” There’s nothing in his writings or speeches that suggest he suddenly decided to being a holy war of expansion. As a young man, he did say, “a soldier for my country, but also a soldier of Jesus,” but as Kevin Phillips writes in The American Presidents Series, “As the war lengthened and McKinley rose in rank, he gave up his 1861 habit of referring to himself as a soldier of Jesus, as well as of the North.” Nor would seeing the abolitionist cause as a Christian cause and the will of God were common at the time.
Aaron Morton, who ministered to McKinley, said the Major “was not what you would call a ‘shouting Methodist, but rather one who was careful with is words,” and that “The loving kindness of God was McKinley’s religion, and the source of his inner serenity. … He made many friends among Canton’s large Roman Catholic population of German and Irish extraction. In a day of sharp sectarianism, McKinley was devoid of bigotry…”
While President McKinley was a man of great faith, there’s no record of him claiming that God ever told him to do anything. There’s also the not insignificant problem with the term “Christianize.” The Filipinos been under the rule of Catholic Spain for hundreds of years. Even in Vowell’s book she points out “the Philippines were already largely Christianized, thanks to the Spanish missionaries who arrived in 1565 to convert the Filipinos to Catholicism.” Although McKinley admittedly didn’t know much about the archipelago, he could hardly have failed to figure that out. The issue of Spain as a Catholic nation featured prominently in the build up to war.
Rusling’s description of a president on his knees, begging for divide guidance is also suspicious. Rusling had used nearly an identical description of another martyred president around the same time McKinley supposedly described the incident to him.
Lewis Gould writes in “The Presidency of William McKinley,” that the quote has “at best a modest value as a description of [McKinley's] thoughts a year before they were made.” He says “their famed religious context [is] very questionable.” The “on my knees” statement is, again, very much like — “striking” is the word Richard F. Hamilton uses in “President McKinley, War and Empire” — a report Gen. Rusling published about Abraham Lincoln in 1899.
After McKinley was assassinated, there were many comparisons between the two presidents, and reusing a little apocryphal story might’ve been just too tempting to resist. While Rusling claims five other people heard the president, as far as I can find we only have Rusling’s word that “there will be no disagreement among” them about the quote. Furthermore, if Rusling wasn’t recycling his own words, he might have been plagiarizing someone else. Hamilton writes the statement “follows closely the arguments for retention presented by Spencer Bordon in a letter dated 27 July 1898…”
The full, questionable quote rambles on for some time, and one wonders just how Rusling could remember so many details three years after the fact, not to mention why he kept the scoop to himself for so long. Here’s the full recollection in Rusling’s “Interview with President William McKinley” for The Christian Advocate on January 22, 1903. Again, he didn’t report the November 1899 conversation until a year after McKinley had died at the hands of an assassin and could no longer confirm or deny the sentiment.
Hold a moment longer! Not quite yet, gentlemen! Before you go I would like to say just a word about the Philippine business. I have been criticized a good deal about the Philippines, but don’t deserve it. The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them. When the Spanish War broke out Dewey was at Hongkong (sic), and I ordered him to go to Manila and to capture or destroy the Spanish fleet, and he had to; because, if defeated, he had no place to refit on that side of the globe, and if the Dons were victorious they would likely cross the Pacific and ravage our Oregon and California coasts. And so he had to destroy the Spanish fleet, and did it! But that was as far as I thought then.
When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands perhaps also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came:
(1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable;
(2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable;
(3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and
(4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. 
And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!–President William McKinley.
Having read extensively about McKinley, and talked to scholars at his birthplace in Niles and library in Canton, Ohio, we find it hard to believe that McKinley started gushing about his thought process in such fire-and-brimstone terms. McKinley was a listener, not a yapper — and he had a knack for listening, and letting people leave believing he agreed with them, or had at least given them a fair hearing. But he’d always do what he thought best in the end.