Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd president of the United States (1889-1893) and a Republican senator from Indiana (1881-1887). He was born in North Bend, Ohio, the son of Elizabeth Irwin Harrison and John Scott Harrison, who were prosperous farmers. The Harrison family had a long lineage of political prominence beginning with Thomas Harrison, who gained notoriety when he fought with Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War (1640s). He signed the death warrant of King Charles I, but was himself executed with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Thomas Harrison’s American descendant, Benjamin Harrison (1726-1791), signed the Declaration of Independence and served as a three-term governor of Virginia and member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. William Henry Harrison, grandfather of the later president, was a military hero of the War of 1812 and served briefly as U.S. president (1841) before dying in office. His son, and Benjamin Harrison’s father, John, was elected to Congress as a Whig in 1852 and reelected as a Republican in 1854.
Benjamin Harrison entered Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) as a junior in 1850 and graduated with high honors two years later. He had become a member of the Presbyterian Church in 1851 and considered entering the ministry, but after graduating took up the study of law at the Cincinnati firm of Storer and Gwyne. In 1853, he married Caroline Scott; the couple later had two children who lived to adulthood. The next year, Harrison and his wife moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was admitted to the state bar and practiced law. The following year, he established a law partnership with William Wallace, the son of a former Indiana governor and brother of Lew Wallace, later famous as a Union general and the author of Ben Hur. In 1857, Harrison won election as the city attorney for Indianapolis, the next year became secretary of the central committee of the Indiana Republican Party, and in 1860 was elected reporter of the State Supreme Court. By that time, he had already established himself as an effective campaign speaker for the Republican Party.
In July 1862, Harrison helped raise and train the 70th Indiana Regiment for the Union Army, and was quickly promoted to colonel. Stationed in Kentucky and Tennessee during 1863, the regiment joined the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman as Union troops moved toward Atlanta in 1864. Harrison’s performance at the battles of Resaca, Golgotha, and New Hope Church (all in Georgia) earned him command of the First Brigade. At Peach Tree Creek, two miles north of Atlanta, Harrison led his men in turning back a Confederate attack, a feat that won praise from his commander, General Joseph Hooker, and promotion in February 1865 to the rank of brigadier general. After the surrender of Atlanta in September 1864, Harrison took his first leave of absence to return home. While he had been away at war, the Democratic legislature had declared his office of reporter for the State Supreme Court vacant and appointed a Democratic replacement. The Republicans renominated Harrison and his vigorous 30-day campaign ended with victory. He then returned to the field, fighting at Nashville before reassuming command of the First Brigade as it marched with Sherman through the Carolinas.
After the Civil War, Harrison returned to his law practice, but chose not to run in 1868 for reelection as court reporter. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him defense counsel for army personnel sued by Lambdin Milligan. The lawsuit was filed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1866 that the military trial in Indiana of Milligan, a civilian charged with conspiring to aid the Confederacy, had been unconstitutional. Harrison argued that the army tribunal members had acted in good faith. The jury ruled for Milligan, but awarded him only $5 in damages, rather than the $100,000 he requested. Harrison participated in other high profile cases, including successfully defending a government worker from charges of complicity in the Whiskey Ring scandal of the Grant administration.
Ambitious for higher office, Harrison unsuccessfully sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1872. Two years later, the party turned to him when its gubernatorial candidate withdrew under charges of misconduct. Harrison accepted out of a civic duty and ran an energetic race in a losing effort. With the death of Senator Oliver P. Morton in 1877, Harrison became chairman of the Republican State Committee, which also allowed him more contact with Republican leaders outside the state. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him to a two-year term on the Mississippi River Commission, and the next year, Harrison headed the Indiana delegation to the Republican National Convention, where he supported James G. Blaine for the presidency until shifting the state’s votes to James Garfield on the 35th ballot. Harrison campaigned throughout the country for the Republican national ticket. In early 1881, a grateful President Garfield was considering him for a cabinet position when Harrison was elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate.
In the Senate, Harrison solidified his reputation as a powerful public speaker, but left little impact on legislation. He supported protective tariffs, veterans’ pensions, federal regulation of railroads, and black civil rights; opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) on diplomatic grounds; and criticized aspects of civil service reform, though ultimately voting in favor of the Pendleton Act (1883). He left the Senate in March 1887 after losing reelection by one vote in the Democratically controlled state legislature. Despite his ability to debate issues and arouse partisan crowds, Harrison was nicknamed “the human iceberg” and reportedly had few if any friends in the Senate.
In 1884, during his Senate term, a division in the Indiana delegation between the forces of Harrison and those of U.S. Treasury Secretary Walter Q. Gresham, meant that neither man had much chance for the Republican presidential nomination, which went to James Blaine. After his narrow loss to Grover Cleveland in the general election, Blaine became the frontrunner for the 1888 nomination until he took his name out of contention. Meanwhile, Harrison marshaled his troops to block Gresham from controlling the Indiana delegation; and presented himself as an attractive alternative to Blaine. Harrison placed fourth on the first roll call vote at the Republican National Convention, but the switch of New York into his column gave him momentum leading to victory on the eighth ballot. For the vice presidential nomination, the delegates selected Levi Morton, a wealthy New York banker and former congressman and diplomat.
The main issue of the campaign was the tariff, with the Republican Party standing for high rates (to protect American industry) and the Democratic Party for reform (only to raise revenue). President Grover Cleveland, the Democratic nominee, followed tradition by not campaigning, but Harrison emulated Garfield’s 1880 tactic by conducting a “front porch” campaign in which he delivered 94 speeches to supporters who had been transported to his home in Indianapolis. Although Harrison narrowly lost the popular vote by less than 93,000 (49%-48%), he was elected president with an Electoral College victory of 233 to 168, which included the vital swing states of New York and Indiana.
Because Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first two years of the Harrison administration (1889-1891), they were able to pass desired legislation. With Union veterans a major voting bloc for the party, Congress extended pension benefits to veterans’ dependents and those veterans disabled by nonmilitary causes, thus swelling payments from $88 million in 1889 to $159 million in 1893. The Republican Congress enacted the first federal regulation of large business corporations, the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), making it illegal for businesses to combine “in restraint of trade or commerce.” Congress also passed a tariff law in 1890, sponsored by Congressman William McKinley of Ohio, which raised rates to an an average 48%, the highest peacetime level in American history to that date.
In 1889-1890, Congress recognized the statehood of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming, whose new senators were “silver” Republicans. Although the president and most Republicans backed the gold standard, in order to appease silver advocates and gain support for the McKinley Tariff, Congress enacted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890). It obligated the federal government to buy 4.5 million ounces of silver per month, almost the nation’s entire silver production, in return for federal notes redeemable in gold or silver coin. Most holders chose to redeem in gold, drastically reducing the federal reserve.
Critics labeled Republican lawmakers the “Billion-Dollar Congress” (they did not actually spend that much) and Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the 1890 election. Near the end of his term, President Harrison designated 13 million acres of timberland under federal protection. He also expanded the number of federal offices covered by civil service rules, conveniently securing the jobs of many Republican patronage appointees in the process.
With Harrison’s encouragement, Navy Secretary Benjamin Tracy continued the modernization and expansion of the U.S. Navy begun under his predecessors. Harrison and his secretary of state, James G. Blaine, worked toward greater cooperation with Latin America through the first Pan American Conference, negotiated reciprocal trade agreements with several nations, reached a settlement with Great Britain over seal hunting, established Samoa as the first American overseas protectorate, and resolved diplomatic crises with Italy (over three Italians lynched in New Orleans) and Chile (over two American sailors killed on shore leave). In early 1893, the administration attempted to annex Hawaii, but the incoming Cleveland administration (1893-1897) rejected the policy.
Powerful bosses of Republican state political machines had helped Harrison win the nomination and election in 1888, but he provoked their ire by not rewarding them with sufficient federal power and patronage. The president also clashed with Blaine, who resigned as secretary of state in 1892 and mounted a challenge to Harrison’s renomination. The president secured the party’s standard on the first ballot, but the 182 votes for Blaine and the same for Congressman McKinley indicated widespread dissatisfaction with the incumbent. Democrats again nominated Cleveland, and both men ran a low-key campaign due partly to the ill health of Mrs. Harrison, who died of tuberculosis on October 25. In November, Cleveland picked up the swing states, winning victories in both the popular vote (46%-43%) and the Electoral College, 277-145.
In retirement, Harrison resumed his law practice in Indianapolis, which included appearing before the Supreme Court and representing Venezuela in a border dispute with British Guiana. In 1896, he married Mary Lord Dimmick, his late wife’s niece and caretaker. The couple had one child, Elizabeth, who later married Blaine’s grandnephew, earned a law degree, and published a financial newsletter for women investors. In 1897, Harrison published a book explaining the workings of the federal government, This Country of Ours, and his widow posthumously published his lectures delivered at Stanford University, Views of an Ex-President (1901). Benjamin Harrison died in Indianapolis on March 13, 1901. He was the last Civil War general to serve as president.
Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (http://bioguide.congress.gov/biosearch/biosearch.asp); William DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents; Encyclopedia Americana (http://gi.grolier.com/presidents/ea/bios/23phar.html); Encyclopedia Britannica (search.Britannica.com/eb/article?eu=40173); Harper’s Weekly; “Harrison, Benjamin (1833-1901),” Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 97 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation; and, Robert F. Wesser, “Election of 1888,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.