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The Harrison Record
In the election of 1888, the Republicans won control of the presidency and both houses of the Congress for the first time in eight years.  That allowed the administration of President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) and Congressional Republicans to enact much of their agenda.  The Dependent and Disability Pensions Act (1890) expanded pension coverage to Union veterans whose disability was not traceable to Civil War military service and to dependent relatives of deceased veterans.  It had been vetoed by President Grover Cleveland, Harrison’s Democratic predecessor, but reintroduced as a gesture of gratitude to a group of the Republican Party’s strongest backers, Union veterans.  The law inflated pension payments from $88 million in 1889 to $159 million in 1893. 

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 gold as the foundation of the nation’s money, Congress enacted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890 in order to appease silver advocates and gain support for tariff legislation.  The law obligated the federal government to buy nearly all the nation’s silver produced every month in return for federal notes redeemable in gold or silver coin.  Most note holders chose to redeem in gold, drastically reducing the federal gold reserve.  The tradeoff for the Silver Purchase Act was the McKinley Tariff (1890), sponsored by Congressman William McKinley of Ohio (the party’s presidential nominee four years later).  The law raised tariff rates to an average 48%, the highest peacetime level in American history to that date.

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.”  Like the Silver Purchase Act, it bore the name of Senator John Sherman of Ohio.  Other laws passed by the 51st Congress (December 1889-March 1891) included more money for agricultural colleges, a system of federal appeals courts, a ban on interstate lotteries, and authority for the president to set aside forest preserves, which Harrison applied to 13 million acres of timberland.  Republicans failed, however, to enact federal protection of voting rights.  Criticism of the unusually activist 51st Congress—labeled the “Billion Dollar Congress” even though it did not actually spend that much—allowed Democrats to regain commanding control of the House of Representatives (231-88) in the 1890 election.

President Harrison appointed four justices to the Supreme Court:  David J. Brewer (1889-1910), Henry B. Brown (1891-1906), George Shiras (1892-1903), and Howell E. Jackson (1893-1895).  His administration continued the modernization and expansion of the U.S. Navy begun under its 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.

The Republican Nomination
Despite the legislative success of his administration, President Harrison was not enthusiastic about accepting the burden of a second term.  Nevertheless, he decided to seek renomination out of personal pride and partisan loyalty—to protect and advance Republican policies.  However, the party unity of 1888 had been seriously damaged under his watch.  Powerful bosses of Republican state political machines had helped Harrison win the nomination and election in 1888, but he provoked their anger by not rewarding them with sufficient federal patronage.  Another problem was a potential challenge from Secretary of State James Blaine, the party’s 1884 presidential nominee.  The two obstacles were related because the bosses viewed Blaine as the candidate they could use to unseat Harrison.  In 1891, state party bosses Thomas C. Platt of New York and Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania were joined by three members of the Republican National Committee, Chairman James Clarkson of Iowa, Henry Payne of Wisconsin, and Samuel Fessenden of Connecticut, in promoting Blaine’s candidacy.

Many Republicans revered Blaine as the true leader of the party.  Mrs. Blaine reportedly urged her husband to seek the nomination because Harrison had offended her by refusing to grant their son, Walker, a high-level administration post and their son-in-law, Colonel John Coppinger, a military promotion.  Blaine’s willingness, though, was uncertain.  He suffered from physical ailments, which caused lengthy absences from his official duties, and was dispirited by the death of Walker and a daughter, Alice, within a month of each other in early 1890.  On February 6, 1892, Blaine wrote Clarkson to insist that he did not want the Republican nomination.  By the spring, however, the secretary of state seemed to be signaling openness at least to the idea of a draft at the convention.

Blaine and Harrison had worked together civilly during the administrative term.  Tension arose between the two, though, when Blaine allowed rumors of his candidacy to swirl without either denying them firmly or leaving his post to run openly.  President Harrison finally resolved the matter by sending word via Secretary of War Stephen Elkins that Blaine should clearly and forcefully renounce a presidential bid or resign.  Blaine resigned on June 4, 1892, three days before the Republican National Convention began, and his supporters worked hastily to spark a boom.  The candidate, though, apathetically told a relative, “The truth is, I do not want the office [of president].”

Another potential threat to Harrison’s renomination was the possible candidacy of William McKinley, the former congressman who won the Ohio governorship in 1891.  He had received a scattering of votes at the 1888 convention and was a popular figure, particularly among younger Republicans.  However, Governor McKinley and his chief advisor, Mark Hanna, decided it was politically unwise to challenge the incumbent president in 1892.

Meanwhile, Louis T. Michener, the president’s friend and former attorney general of Harrison’s home state of Indiana, reprised his 1888 role by serving as Harrison’s campaign manager in 1892.  Michener ran an effective operation, contacting nearly all the delegates and alternates, distributing massive amounts of campaign literature, and soliciting donations from the president’s friends and cabinet members.  Harrison also took an active part by trying to repair the rift with Boss Platt, entertaining McKinley and other notable Republicans, and going on a speaking tour in May throughout western New York and Pennsylvania (where the Platt and Quay machines held sway).  Due to federal patronage, the president could count on a bloc of votes from the South as a starting base.  By the time of the convention on June 7, Harrison was virtually assured of renomination. 

At the convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, any mention of Blaine’s name prompted loud demonstrations of support, but it was the spirited reaction to McKinley’s address as convention chairman that most worried the Harrison forces.  Nevertheless, on June 10 only Harrison and Blaine’s names were placed in nomination.  The president won renomination handily on the first ballot with 535 votes, while Blaine tied for a distant second with McKinley (who had not been officially nominated) at 182 votes each.  Still, the 364 votes against Harrison registered significant dissatisfaction with the president within his own party, especially from the key electoral states of New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  For the second spot on the ticket, delegates replaced Vice President Levi P. Morton with journalist Whitelaw Reid, a close ally of Blaine’s.  Morton had angered some Republicans by allegedly impeding the party’s legislative agenda while presiding over the Senate.  His supporters, on the other hand, perceived that he was disinterested in a second term.

The Republican platform was relatively short.  It defended trade protectionism, assessed the Harrison administration’s reciprocity treaties to have been successful, and supported the current bimetal monetary system.  It condemned “inhuman outrages” perpetrated in the South “for political reasons” (i.e., against black Republicans), and demanded the passage of laws protecting voting rights.  In a “Miscellaneous” section, the platform endorsed worker safety legislation, sympathized with Irish home rule, condemned Russian persecution of Jews, and indirectly opposed state aid to parochial schools.  It judged the building of an American-controlled canal across Nicaragua (Panama was chosen later) to be “of the highest importance to the American people” in aiding national defense and commerce.

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