William McKinley was serving in the Union Army during the Civil War when he noticed a doctor handing out money to some Confederate prisoners taken following the Battle of Winchester. Curious, he asked the doctor why he was distributing money to the enemy troops and was informed that it was a loan, to fellow Freemasons, who would one day pay it back if and when they could. It was at that point that McKinley decided to become a Freemason.
McKinley entered Freemasonry in Winchester, Virginia just as the Civil War was ending and attributed the mixed nature of the Lodge – mixed in the sense that the members were from both North and South – as a contributing factor to the healing which began as the war drew to an end. McKinley was raised a Master Mason at the Hiram Lodge #21 in Winchester.
McKinley remained active in Freemasonry for the rest of his eventful life, which included a long career in the House of Representatives, a term as Governor of Ohio, and election to the Presidency in 1896. His presidency was and remains somewhat controversial for his economic policies and for his territorial acquisitions resulting from the Spanish-American War.
As President, McKinley oversaw the acquisition by the United States of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, all seized from Spain. During his Presidency the United States also annexed the Hawaiian Islands, until then an independent Republic, and designated it as a United States territory.
McKinley was highly regarded for his personal integrity, and his campaign for the Presidency was conducted from his home rather than by political barnstorming. He defeated the highly popular William Jennings Bryan for the Presidency by promising fiscal responsibility and prosperity while the country was in the midst of a recession. In 1900 he ran for re-election and won, again over Bryan, but he too was assassinated just a few months into his second term. His Vice-President and fellow Freemason Theodore Roosevelt followed him into the Presidency.