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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Twenty-Third President • 1889-93
Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison was the great-grandson and namesake of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the grandson of President William Henry Harrison. Benjamin earned fame as lawyer, soldier, and politician. He won the Presidency from Cleveland only by electoral vote. In domestic affairs, Harrison tried to avoid conflicts with his party's positions, but his moderate stance on such issues as civil service reform, the tariff, labor unrest, and monetary policy alienated reformers as well as machine politicians. On the other hand, he pursued a vigorous foreign policy.

Harrison was born in 1833 at North Bend, Ohio, at the estate of his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, who became President 7 years later. Benjamin was the second son of 10 children from the second marriage of his father. The latter was a well-to-do farmer who resided near William Henry and who was to be a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1853-57). Private tutors, mainly, educated the scholarly youth.

In 1847 Harrison enrolled at Farmers' College in nearby Cincinnati. Three years later, he transferred to Miami University, at Oxford, Ohio, and in 1852 graduated with distinction. The next year, he married college acquaintance Caroline L. Scott. She later gave birth to a son and a daughter.

From 1852 until 1854 Harrison read law with a prestigious Cincinnati firm. After being admitted to the bar, in 1854 he moved to Indianapolis and established a practice. The next year, he was appointed as commissioner for the Federal district court of claims. By 1856 he was one of the city's leading attorneys.

Benjamin Harrison as a college student. (Library of Congress.)

Harrison's aversion to slavery guided him to the Republican Party. In 1858 he took over the secretaryship of its State central committee. From 1857 until 1861, he held the elective position of Indianapolis city attorney, and in 1860 won the office of reporter of decisions of the State supreme court (1861-62). Eventually, he compiled Indiana Reports, a multivolume collection of State court proceedings.

In 1862, the year after the Civil War began, Harrison helped raise a regiment of volunteer infantry, and quickly rose to the rank of colonel. His strict discipline made him an unpopular brigade commander. For 18 months, his unit guarded sections of the Louisville and Nashville and Nashville and Chattanooga Railroads in Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1864 he ably led his men during Sherman's Atlanta campaign.

Caroline Harrison
Caroline Harrison

After the city's capture, Harrison took leave and returned to Indiana at Gov. Oliver P. Morton's bidding to counter Copperhead, or antiwar, sentiment in the 1864 election. Harrison was also again elected as reporter of the State supreme court (1864-68). He nevertheless returned to service in 1865, was promoted to brevet brigadier general, and rejoined his brigade in the Carolinas after its march through Georgia.

After the war, Harrison resumed his law practice in Indianapolis and adopted Radical Republicanism. In the 1870's he fought against his party's adoption of greenback ideas. He also participated in philanthropic and religious activities. In 1872 he failed to win the nomination for Governor. Four years later, however, because of his excellent reputation, he replaced the party's nominee, who had left the campaign amid charges of corruption, but narrowly lost the race.

During the national railroad strike of 1877, Harrison was appointed to the Indianapolis strike settlement committee, and commanded the militia in the city. The next year, he chaired the Republican State convention. In 1880 he headed the delegation to the national convention, where he played a major role in nominating James A. Garfield. Refusing a Cabinet post, Harrison accepted a seat in the U.S. Senate (1881-87), but was not reelected because the Democrats controlled the Indiana legislature.

campaign poster
This poster helped push Harrison into the White House in 1888. (Copyrighted by the Waring Hat Manufacturing Co., Library of Congress.)

In 1888 Harrison obtained the Presidential nomination. Despite powerful business opposition to Democratic attempts to lower tariff rates, incumbent Cleveland received a plurality. But Harrison, utilizing a "front porch" campaign, carried the key States of New York and Indiana, and won the Presidency with a majority of the electoral votes.

Because of the frequent illness of Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Harrison personally shaped much foreign policy. In 1889 Blaine's long-awaited first Pan-American Conference met in Washington and formed an informational organization, later named the Pan-American Union. Faced with German intervention in Samoa, to which the British had acquiesced, Harrison arranged with the two nations for a three-power protectorate. He also obtained an agreement with Britain regarding sealing rights in the Bering Sea.

During Chile's civil war in 1891, a mob attacked some American sailors as a reprisal for detention of a rebel ship in the United States, and in 1892 Harrison demanded and received a Chilean apology and an indemnity. After an 1893 coup, led by former Americans and abetted by U.S. officials and troops, overthrew the Hawaiian Queen, Harrison backed an annexation treaty, late in his term, but new President Cleveland was to withdraw the treaty before Senate ratification.

In domestic affairs, Harrison followed party positions and largely deferred leadership to congressional spokesmen. He believed in civil service reform, but pressure for patronage proved strong. He awarded the Postmaster Generalship to a major campaign contributor, who made wholesale appointments of Republican postmasters. To the chagrin of reformers, Harrison briefly removed civil service guidelines, initiated by Cleveland, to replace Democratic officeholders. Yet, Harrison's extension of the number of classified jobs and appointment of the vocal Theodore Roosevelt to the Civil Service Commission angered many powerful party regulars.

Madison Square
Harrison's victory in the State in 1888 was hailed in Madison Square by the New York City Herald. (Engraving by Charles Graham, in Harper's Weekly, Nov. 18, 1888, Library of Congress.)

Many of the national controversies during the Harrison administration were linked to Republican championing of the protective tariff and disposition of the resultant large Treasury surpluses. In 1890 Harrison signed the McKinley Tariff, which raised duties an average of 48 percent. The President insisted, however, on adding reciprocity bargaining provisions for foreign nations that provided tariff reductions for U.S. exports.

Congress, while appropriating the first peacetime billion dollar budget, to the dismay of Harrison who favored reduction of taxes, expended the Treasury surplus in the following ways: liberalization of pensions for Union Civil War veterans, their widows orphans, and dependent parents; heavy expenditures for river and harbor improvements; inauguration of free rural mail delivery; and, partly because of foreign policy considerations, the strengthening of the Navy and the merchant marine, as well as the construction of seacoast fortifications.

Farmer and laborer grievances—expressed by such organizations as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, and the Farmers' Alliances—grew rampant during the Harrison administration. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which he signed, partially responded to their demands for regulation of monopolies and trusts. But it was not strenuously enforced during this period, and was even effectively used against labor organizations.


Harrison (Benjamin) Home

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which Harrison approved, attempted to placate the calls of inflationist debtor groups, like the Farmers' Alliances, for free and unlimited silver coinage. But the bill's compromise requirement for modest monthly Treasury purchases of silver proved to be only mildly inflationary. Although creating business and financial apprehension that the weakened gold standard would be abandoned, the bill also did not satisfy those who urged a bimetallic system to check deflation.

In 1889 Harrison opened the Oklahoma District to clamoring homesteaders. Heralding the modern conservation movement, the next year he approved legislation creating several national parks, and the following year set aside more than 13 million acres of public domain for national forest preserves. During his administration, a record number of six States were admitted to the Union. Largely because of the high McKinley Tariff, the Republicans lost control of Congress in 1890, which hurt Harrison's programs. Despite intraparty disputes, 2 years later he was renominated, but Cleveland defeated him and Populist Party candidate James B. Weaver.

Two weeks before the election, Harrison's wife died. After leaving office, he returned to his Indianapolis law practice. He continued to write and speak, including a lecture series at Stanford University in 1894. Several of his speeches were collected in Views of an Ex-President (1901), and some of his magazine articles in This Country of Ours (1897). He also remained active in his party. In 1896 he married widow Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, a niece of his first wife. This marriage produced one daughter. In 1898-99 Harrison traveled to Europe as chief counsel for Venezuela in its dispute with Great Britain over the boundary of British Guiana. Increasingly, he spoke out on the duties of the wealthy and the evils of imperialistic extremes. He died in 1901.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004