Benjamin Harrison: Life in Brief
Benjamin Harrison was born in 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, to a prominent family that had a legacy of political activism. After all, he was the grandson of the nation's ninth President, William Henry Harrison. Raised on a farm adjacent to his grandfather's vast estate, Harrison believed he was destined for greatness.
He was tutored at home and read widely on his own, and he would always be more comfortable in the company of books than with other people. Over time, he developed an effective public speaking style, and he was popular among Civil War veterans because of his service as a Union general. Privately, however, Harrison was a frigid character, so stiff and aloof that he was sometimes referred to as "the human iceberg."
Political and Military Activism
Harrison graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, near the top of his class and studied law with a prominent firm in Cincinnati. In 1853, one year before he began his own law practice, Harrison married a young woman he had met while still in his teens, Caroline Lavinia Scott. They moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1854. She was outgoing where he was reserved, and she loved celebrations and holidays. Eventually, she would put up the first Christmas tree ever in the White House. As a young lawyer, Harrison quickly became involved in the affairs of the new Republican Party, supporting its first presidential candidate, General John C. Fremont in 1856 and working for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In 1862, he joined the Seventieth Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general.
Following the war, Harrison returned to political life. He won the Indiana Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1876 but lost the election. He became an influential party power broker, throwing support behind the successful presidential campaigns of Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield, and in 1880, he was named to the United States Senate by the Indiana state legislature—senators were not elected by popular vote until 1913. In the Senate, he championed pensions for Civil War veterans, high protective tariffs, a modernized navy, and conservation of western lands—all issues that he would uphold as President. He also broke with his party to oppose an act designed to close America to Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed without his support.
In 1887, the Indiana state legislature had come under Democratic control, and it declined to return Harrison to the Senate. A year later, declaring himself a "rejuvenated Republican," he announced his candidacy for the party's presidential nomination. He proved to be everyone's second choice in a field of seven serious candidates. He was nominated on the eighth ballot, and New York banker Levi P. Morton was named as his running mate. The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated the incumbent President Grover Cleveland and Ohio Senator Allen G. Thurman.
It was a relatively polite campaign, with both candidates limiting their appearances and focusing primarily on the tariff and Southern problems rooted in Reconstruction. When the votes were tallied, Cleveland had received the larger number of popular votes, but Harrison had carried the Electoral College, thus giving Harrison the victory in the 1888 election.
Tough and Decisive Actions
Even though all his life he believed that he had been born to do great things, historians have traditionally not ranked Harrison as one of our most distinguished chief executives. Some historians contend that his economic policies may have contributed to the economic depression that struck America after he left office. In particular, Harrison was a protectionist who favored high tariffs. This was exemplified by his nurturing of the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which imposed high import duties to protect American corporations but had the effect of increasing prices—a stand that would cost him heavily among the voters. Harrison lobbied successfully for the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which required that silver be used in federal coinage, a concession to the western silver interests. However, this plan was badly conceived and nearly depleted the U.S. Treasury of its gold reserves.
On the other hand, Harrison advocated the conservation of forest reserves, and he embarked on an adventurous foreign policy that included U.S. expansion in the Pacific and the building of a canal across Central America. He also supported the landmark Sherman Antitrust Act, the first bill ever to attempt to limit the power of America's giant corporations. In the area of civil rights for African Americans, Harrison endorsed two bills designed to prevent southern states from denying African Americans the vote, and he appointed the great and eloquent former slave Frederick Douglass as minister to Haiti. Recent assessments of Harrison's accomplishments give him more credit for his vision and convictions.
On the international front, Harrison was the most active President since Abraham Lincoln. He convened the first Pan-American Conference in 1889. He negotiated an American protectorate over the Samoan Islands, attempted to annex Hawaii, and continued the work of modernizing and expanding the United States Navy into a world-class fleet. He moved quickly and decisively where American interests were threatened, taking the nation to the brink of war with Chile over an assault on American sailors and standing firm against Britain and Canada to protect the overharvesting of fur seals in the Bering Sea. Perhaps most importantly, he saw trade as an essential part of the nation's foreign policy and negotiated a number of important reciprocal trade agreements that set the pattern for American trade policy in the twentieth century.
When Harrison lost his bid for reelection in 1892 to Grover Cleveland, he had himself partly to blame. He had frozen out many of those who should have been most active in his support, and his own party was lukewarm toward him. Additionally, midway through this second election, near the end of Harrison's term, his wife, Caroline, died of tuberculosis. Her illness and eventual death greatly distracted him, which accounts in part for the magnitude of his defeat. In 1892, the voters handed Cleveland the most decisive presidential victory in twenty years. Harrison told his family he felt as though he had been freed from prison.
In 1896, Benjamin Harrison married his deceased wife's niece, Mary Lord Dimmick, a widow nearly thirty years his junior. He remained active in public life until his death from pneumonia on March 13, 1901. His activism and willingness to wave a big stick in international affairs inspired Theodore Roosevelt, and years later, the American writer Henry Adams called Harrison the best President since Lincoln. Whether he deserved that high praise or not, there is little doubt that his presidency deserves the reconsideration many historians are giving it.