Benjamin Harrison: Domestic Affairs

Benjamin Harrison: Domestic Affairs

Although Harrison never managed to put his stamp on the office and failed to win reelection, his administration functioned efficiently, faced tough issues decisively, and proved remarkably productive. At that time, the House of Representatives was controlled by Speaker Thomas Reed, who was considered more powerful in the Republican Party than the new President in fashioning a domestic legislative agenda. No rubber stamp, however, Harrison picked legislation that he could support and effectively lobbied congressmen to move bills of his liking. Several key pieces of legislation were landmark bills.

Legislating Foreign Trade

Most importantly, Ohio's William McKinley submitted, with Harrison's support, the highest protective tariff in the nation's history. Known as the McKinley Tariff of 1890, the legislation raised rates an average of 49.5 percent. This bill also handed enormous authority to the President in the area of foreign trade. These expanded powers allowed the President to conduct trade conventions, to negotiate reciprocity agreements (i.e., offering lower import rates on foreign products in return for lower rates on American March 16, 1889 exports) without congressional oversight, and to erect a federal bureaucracy empowered to administer the complicated details and functions of foreign trade.

Regulating Corporate Giants

At the end of the nineteenth century, the American public held great animosity toward arrogant corporate giants that had seemingly appeared overnight to monopolize the economy. These powerful entities, such as John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust, resulted from crafty business combinations that served to eliminate competition, set monopoly rates and prices, and dominate the market. In response to the public outcry against such business practices, there was virtually unanimous bipartisan support for antimonopoly legislation. The Harrison administration, in turn, supported the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Sponsored by Senator John Sherman of Ohio, the act was the first federal law to regulate giant corporations.

The bill proved too vague in language, too limited in staff and budget allocations for bringing suits, and too weak in damages assessed (fines of up to only $5,000 for conviction) to have much effect on reining in the nearly limitless power of giant industry at the turn of the century. Indeed, in 1895, the Supreme Court gutted the law by eliminating suits against manufacturers from its provisions. Despite its flaws, the legislation was nevertheless a first step of historic importance. Presidents after Harrison (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) strengthened and used the law with significant force, curbing the ability of giant corporations to set prices and restrain competition. Today, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 remains an operational law.

Trading Silver for Tariff Support

Besides the McKinley Tariff and the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Fifty-first Congress passed a third milestone piece of legislation, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. Sponsored again by Senator Sherman of Ohio, the act represented a concession to western silver interests in return for their support of the McKinley Tariff. It also appealed to Populist-type currency reformers. The "Silverites" wanted silver to be included in federal coinage because this would bring a higher price for their product and might trigger inflation in general, especially in farm prices. Higher farm prices would lure back depressed farmers who were poised to leave the party in favor of Populism. Most debtors also agreed, thinking that an increase in the money supply and the resulting price inflation would reduce the value of the dollars that they owed their creditors.

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act stipulated that on a monthly basis the U.S. Treasury would either purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver at market price or the entire output of the nation's mines. The silver would be bought with U.S. Treasury notes redeemable in either gold or silver. Almost immediately, holders of these silver certificates began turning them in for gold, nearly depleting the Treasury's supply. Also, the act spurred the production of silver, driving silver prices down rather than up, as the mine owners had originally hoped. President Cleveland would repeal the act three years later, an action denounced by Populists and Silverites as the "Crime of '93."

Three other administration-backed measures generated heated debate in the Fifty-first Congress. Two of the pieces of legislation focused on ensuring African Americans the right to vote, and the other was about the conservation of natural resources. Sponsored by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the so-called Force Bill attempted to establish federal supervision of congressional elections as a means of preventing the disfranchisement of southern blacks. Henry W. Blair, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, forwarded the Blair Education Bill, which advocated the use of federal aid for education in order to hamper southern whites from employing literacy tests to prevent blacks from registering to vote in party primaries. Finally, the Land Revision Act of 1891, which created the national forests, was also a focus for congressional debate. Although Harrison supported all three measures with vigorous presidential lobbying, only the Land Revision Act passed through Congress for his signature; Harrison authorized America's first forest reserve located in Yellowstone, Wyoming.