Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Impact and Legacy

Coffee-table history books depict Benjamin Harrison as a lightweight puppet of political party bosses. He is often viewed as little more than a "human iceberg" who sleepwalked through the presidency. We are told that while he could sway a crowd of 30,000 with powerful speeches, he could not talk for two minutes in a room of five people. Because of his lack of personal passion and the failure of anything truly eventful, such as a major war, during his administration, Harrison, along with every other President from the post-Reconstruction era to 1900, has been assigned to the rankings of mediocrity. He has been remembered as an average President, not among the best but certainly not among the worst.

Since the 1960s, however, historians have given Harrison higher marks. In foreign affairs, Harrison is now credited with having done more to move the nation along the path to world empire than any previous President, serving as a model for the young Theodore Roosevelt to admire and emulate. His commercial reciprocity treaties, support for the annexation of Hawaii, establishment of the first American protectorate in Samoa, and push for a trans-isthmus canal in Central America set the agenda for the next thirty years of American foreign policy.

Where he is found lacking by historians has less to do with his personality and style than with his blindness to a domestic reality that simply overwhelmed him, along with every other political leader of the times: His misguided support for the McKinley Tariff and Sherman Silver Purchase Act may have contributed greatly to the economic collapse of 1893—the greatest depression in American history up to that time. He seemed insensitive and unaware of the massive industrial changes that had overtaken America; of the poverty that Jacob Riis wrote about in his classic study How the Other Half Lives (published in 1890); of the depths of economic hardship affecting the nation's farmers as they fell down the economic ladder to tenancy; and of the industrial crisis that began to topple railroads, banks, and business corporations like dominoes within days of his retirement from office.

On the other hand, in those areas which mattered to him—the conservation of national resources, the linkage of world markets to national prosperity, and the civil rights of African Americans—few post-Reconstruction Presidents stood on firmer ground or tried to accomplish more. When compared with the Roosevelts, Wilson, and Truman—activist Presidents of the twentieth century, men who fought wars, managed empires, and confronted economic depressions—Harrison's ranking looks average. Few historians today, however, would judge him as mediocre or insignificant.