Presidential Years: 1889-1893
Vice President: Levi Morton
The book: Benjamin Harrison (The American Presidents #23) by Charles W. Calhoun 224 pages
Date finished: Dec. 21, 2017
The grandson of William Henry Harrison wasn’t about to meet the same fate as his grandfather. Though it was raining, he was properly dressed and headed inside quickly.
Harrison fought Grover Cleveland for the presidency twice, and technically lost both times. In 1888, he lost the popular vote, but won in the electoral college. In 1892, he lost both.
He is generally seen as a “caretaker president,” existing to keep the office warm between Cleveland’s two terms. But he actually shaped the modern presidency, working seamlessly with Congress and supporting legislation he believed in, even if it wasn’t popular.
He was basically destined for the role. His great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison V, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first governor of Virginia. Despite some poverty, the younger Benjamin Harrison was well-educated. In a school essay that could be revisited today, he wrote:
“A good criterion for judging the true state of society was how it treated women, for women are appreciated in proportion as society is advanced. In America, a woman is considered a superior being, and in the eyes of many as an angel.”
An interesting take for the 1840s. He graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and began studying law in Cincinnati with Bellamy Storer, a “Henry Clay-Whig”, former Congressman and religious man on par with Harrison. It was here that he began to move toward politics. In 1857 he won his first election, as city attorney for Indianapolis. He had moved to Indy shortly after marrying his wife, Carrie — determined to make a name for himself and claiming he didn’t want to benefit from the Harrison name, though he moved to his grandfather’s home state. He was elected Supreme Court reporter in 1860, but soon left his post to serve as a colonel in the Union Army. He did so on request of the governor, who was dismayed at the lack of volunteers from Indiana and enlisted Harrison to help. While fighting, he returned to Indiana in 64 to run for election to the same position, which Democrats had convinced the state to declare vacant while Harrison was in the army. Harrison won and return to the fighting just as Sherman was sacking Atlanta.
Harrison seemed to support Lincoln, as he “condemned the Democrats’ notion of state soverignty as a ‘deadly poison’ and “defying the widespread negrophobia in the state, Harrison fervently supported the Emancipation Proclamation and extolled the courageous service of blacks in suppressing the rebellion.”
Indeed, education and voting rights was something he fought for as a politician. He didn’t always succeed, but he was in favor of limited civil rights at a time when it was not popular to be.
As he rose up the ranks of the Republican party in Indiana, he almost was nominated for governor in 1872; was nominated in 1876, but lost the election by 1.1% and became head of the party in Indiana in 1880. He was appointed by Rutherford B. Hayes to the Mississippi River Commission and helped turn the tide for James Garfield at the 1880 national convention.
It was also in 1880 that he won election to the Senate. In his term, he defended protectionism, advocated for generous pensions for Union vets and supported federal aid for education, particularly in the rural South. He also opposed the Chinese exclusion bill in 1882, although more on Constitutional grounds than on any moral opposition.
As the 1884 election neared, James Blaine emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Though Harrison got some votes, Blaine emerged victorious. But given his reputation as a pay-for-play politician and the general hatred of him by the public, he lost another election. So the Republicans were having none of it in 1888 and chose Harrison. As it was still the custom for the nominees to pretend they weren’t interested, Harrison wrote a letter of acceptance and conducted a “front porch campaign,” where people came to him to listen to speeches.
The tactic worked as he won the electoral vote by attacking Cleveland’s record of patronage and campaigning on the gold standard (the silver-backers wanted to make silver the monetary standard).
He nominated his old rival Blaine for secretary of state, and Blaine served decently, though he spent most of his time on vacation in Bar Harbor, Me. Despite desiring to focus on the tariff, gold standard and veterans’ benefits, international affairs intruded. Harrison ended up devoting a lot of time to Central and South America and implicitly approved the overthrow of Hawaii’s queen — something Cleveland reversed basically the second he got back into office. Two international incidents almost derailed the US standing abroad — in Chile, some American sailors were attacked by Chilean sailors; and in Louisiana, Italian mobsters were acquitted of killing the New Orleans police chief so a mob took justice into its own hands, killing the Italians and Americans. In Chile, the US demanded apologizes and reparations and eventually got it. The scene was reversed in Italy, but after much diplomacy, tensions subsided. He also faced domestic strife with the Battle of Wounded Knee, which was caused by mismanagement and lies from the Indian Affairs director stationed in South Dakota.
On the domestic front, the 51st Congress, which covered Harrison’s first two years, was the most productive in history to that point. It passed 531 laws, including the McKinley Tariff Act, the Dependent Pension Act, the Sherman Antitrust Act and the International Copyright Act. It was criticized as the “Billion Dollar Congress” for its spending — which caused the public to turn on the productive president, leading to Cleveland’s return in 1892.
Harrison’s wife, Caroline, died two weeks before the election, casting a pall over the campaigns. Upon losing the election, Harrison returned to Indiana still relatively young (57) and began practicing law. He continued the special relationship he had had with his wife’s niece, Mary Dimmick. As a senator and president, when “Mame” was in town, they would take long walks together. Harrison’s children didn’t like it because they thought he paid more attention to her than them. They had reason to be suspicious. After leaving the presidency, he spent more and more time with her and they married in 1896, with none of his children attending.
Harrison became the lead counsel for Venezuela in its border dispute with England and served at the First Hague Peace Convention in 1899. He died in 1901. His wife survived him by nearly 50 years.
States Admitted to the Union:
- North Dakota (39) 1889
- South Dakota (40) 1889
- Montana (41) 1889
- Washington (42) 1889
- Idaho (43) 1890
- Wyoming (44) 1890