U.S. president Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), though possibly the dullest personality ever to inhabit the White House, was nevertheless a competent enough president during one of the most eventful administrations of the late 19th century.
Benjamin Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio, on Aug. 20, 1833. The Harrison had been among the most illustrious families of colonial Virginia, and Benjamin was the namesake of a Revolutionary soldier and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, who had transported the family to Ohio, was elected president as "Old Tippecanoe" in 1840.
Harrison graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1852. He Married Caroline Scott of Oxford the following year. He read law for 2 years in Cincinnati, then moved to Indianapolis, Ind., where he established a prosperous practice.
Harrison became a Republican immediately. He was known as a good political orator, although today his speeches seem to combine only triteness and pedantry with 19th-century bombast. His political career advanced slowly but steadily until the Civil War: he was city attorney of Indianapolis in 1857, secretary of the Republican State Central Committee in 1858, and reporter of the Indiana supreme Court in 1860. The last position proved profitable, as Harrison drew large royalties for many years from his compilation of Indiana laws.
Unlike many political contemporaries, Harrison sat out the first campaign of the Civil War. In 1862, however, he organized the Union's 70th Indiana Infantry and was commissioned as its colonel. A typical volunteer officer, he knew nothing of war making and was fortunate in being assigned to guard the newly captured Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
Harrison was not popular with his troops; apparently he was something of a martinet, and the personal coldness of which many contemporaries would later complain was already manifest. The dullness of guard duty also may have affected the unhappy command, but that was relieved in 1864, when Harrison and his men joined Gen. William T. Sherman. Harrison stayed at the front only briefly, as he was quickly requested to return to Indiana in order to head off a Democratic political threat in the fall elections. He rejoined Sherman, but only after Sherman's famous, devastating march through Georgia was complete; Harrison was brevetted as brigadier general, more for political than military services.
After the war Harrison built his legal practice into one of the most successful in Indiana. Still, he never neglected Republican politics. He supported the victorious radical faction of the party and during the 1870s became a spokesman for the equally dominant fiscal conservatives. He was unsuccessful as candidate for governor of Indiana in 1876 but continued to serve the party. In 1877 he again donned military uniform briefly to command troops during the national railroad strike. He was a solidly conservative Republican.
Harrison's career improved sharply in 1880. He was elected to the U.S. Senate and played an important role in winning the Republican presidential nomination for James A. Garfield. Harrison was himself a "dark horse" candidate for the nomination in 1884, but, realizing that it was the charismatic James G. Blaine's year, he refused to allow his name before the convention. It was this combination of stern party regularity and fortuitous personal decisions— rather than any particular brilliance—that accounted for Harrison's rise.
Harrison's years in the Senate were undistinguished. He played on Civil War emotionalism and appealed to anti-British sentiment but made no significant contributions to the great issues of the day. Rather, he turned his considerable legal talents to constructing interminable constitutional briefs for petty and partisan purposes. But his services paid off when he was nominated to run for president in 1888.
In the presidential campaign Harrison lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College. More than any previous Republican president, he committed his party to certain high financial and "big business" interests when, through his postmaster general, he systematized the solicitation of party funds. His administration sat during the "Billion Dollar Congress" elected in 1890, the first Congress ever to expend more than $1 billion. That famous Congress also passed a high tariff law containing reciprocity provisions (which Harrison largely wrote) that facilitated American economic expansion abroad, the landmark Sherman Antitrust Act, and the ill-fated Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Harrison's term also saw the Republican party finally abandon its commitment to defend the civil rights of Southern African Americans when Congress failed to pass a law designed to protect them.
Harrison kept in touch with his Congress on the various questions although, in the fashion of the time, he took a minimal part in the public debates. The accomplishments of the "Billion Dollar Congress, " however, bear his mark: the carelessly drawn acts, intended as much to obfuscate as clarify, showed the lack of interest or inability to comprehend long-term effects which characterized Harrison's career.
Harrison was ultimately no more popular with his own party than with the Democrats. Short and portly with a stony, uncomely countenance, he seemed incapable of a warm personal relationship, let alone of the glad-handing conviviality which late-19th-century American politics frequently required. Still, he was the incumbent in 1892 and secured his party's renomination—only to lose the election to Grover Cleveland.
Actually, Harrison was to be just as happy about his defeat. Cleveland's second term was a disaster, marked by agricultural and industrial unrest with which Harrison could hardly have better coped. And Harrison was personally more suited for private life. His first wife had died in the White House, leaving him with two children. He married Mary Dimmick, by whom he had another child. He returned to his legal practice in Indiana, represented Venezuela in a celebrated boundary dispute with Great Britain, and wrote several books, including Views of an Ex-President (1901) and This Country of Ours (1897), a popular textbook for several years. He died of pneumonia on March 13, 1901.
Harry J. Sievers, Benjamin Harrison (3 vols., 1952-1968; vol. 1, 2d ed. 1960), is scarcely inspiring but includes an exhaustively detailed source book. John A. Garraty, The New Commonwealth: 1877-1890 (1968), provides an antidote to Sievers's uncritical admiration. The presidential election of 1888 is covered in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (1969), is the best recent survey of late-19th-century politics.