William McKinley, Jr., was born in the village of Niles, Ohio, on 29 January 1843, the seventh of nine children. His father, the manager of a charcoal furnace, worked diligently to house, feed, clothe, and educate his growing family. Placing a higher value on education than on creature comforts, the McKinleys moved to Poland on the other side of Youngstown, where young William was enrolled in the Poland Academy. A good student, though not a brilliant one, he succeeded by dint of hard work and exceptional retention. Reserved and reticent in private conversation, he excelled in public speaking and took an active part in the debating societies that were an important extracurricular activity of the time. In 1860 he matriculated at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, but he did not remain there long. He ran short of money, and illness at the end of his first term prevented completion of his classes. Home again, he went to work clerking in the post office and teaching school, hoping that he could earn enough to return to college.
Five years were to pass before McKinley resumed his studies, for the Civil War lengthened the interruption of his formal education. After the fall of Fort Sumter, he enlisted in the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Regiment, under the command of Major Rutherford B. Hayes. He remained in the army four years, serving with distinction and winning periodic promotions until finally he was mustered out as a brevet major in July 1865. The war broadened McKinley's experience and strengthened his sense of responsibility, but it drastically modified neither his personal character nor his commitment to the fundamental principles he had learned at home and in school. Like Abraham Lincoln, who became his model, he fought to preserve the Union and to end involuntary servitude. In later years he remained sensitive to human need, and as president he did much to overcome lingering sectional antipathies.
The youthful war hero returned to civilian activities calmly, almost stoically, asking no searching questions about the meaning of life but bearing himself with a grace and dignity that belied his years. He was not without ambition. Indeed, his military accomplishments reinforced his assumption that he could exercise a positive influence in whatever career he chose. The important question for McKinley, then, was what profession he should enter, not whether he would become successful in practicing it. Disdaining the humdrum daily activities of the marketplace, he chose to study law. After reading in the office of Charles Glidden, a well-known Ohio lawyer, he spent a term at Albany (New York) Law School. He was admitted to the bar in March 1867, and he opened an office in Canton, Ohio, later that year.