Twenty-third President of the United States
Benjamin Harrison was the first major modernizing president to emerge from the political battles of the late nineteenth century. Despite serving only one term, Harrison set precedents for the expansion of presidential activism, foreign relations, and the molding of public opinion for political purposes. While in power, Harrison pursued an agenda based upon a set of core principles that guided his actions as a lifelong Republican: a commitment to economic expansion, defense of national sovereignty, and the fight for equal political rights for all American citizens, regardless of color. A stern, sober, and religious man by temperament, he was also a powerful orator and natural rhetorician who was able to win major legislative battles during his tenure in office. Despite these gifts, however, he was also sometimes stymied by political infighting within his own party and the recalcitrance of a tightly partisan Congress. His accomplishments laid the groundwork for later Republican presidents, including William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833, in North Bend, Ohio. His family had an impressive pedigree, with Harrisons prominent in political life going back to the early eighteenth century. Benjamin's grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was elected president when Benjamin was only a child, and his elder's political legacy would follow Benjamin for his entire life. He devoted his early life to his studies, graduating at the age of 19 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, to begin a law practice in 1854.
Despite Harrison's initial reticence to embark on a political career, his legal successes soon caught the eye of prominent Republican politicians in Indiana. The Republican Party was in its infancy in the mid-1850s, but the most prominent early Republican leaders had already established a commitment to economic expansion and an opposition to slavery that appealed to many former members of the Whig Party—the opposition party to the Jacksonian Democrats in the 1830s and 1840s. The younger Harrison's grandfather had been one of the most prominent Whig politicians of his era; Benjamin Harrison, accordingly, was a Republican. Harrison was elected Indianapolis city attorney in 1857, and, on the eve of the Civil War, he was elected reporter for the Indiana supreme court. Aside from winning and holding these progressively larger and more important public offices, Harrison was also a prominent member of his local Presbyterian church, with the moral dimension of political issues never far from his thoughts.
Although he initially avoided military service, in 1862 he was recruited to raise a volunteer regiment from Indiana for service in the Union Army. With Harrison as colonel, this regiment, the 70th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers, went on to achieve a distinguished record of service. Harrison was an able field commander and had attained the rank of brevet brigadier general by the end of the war. His vigorous service was in part attributable to his opposition to slavery and the slave system. Both his wartime experience as a soldier and his feelings of obligation toward freed slaves would be influential in Harrison's political career.
Following the war, Harrison returned to his law practice but was soon tapped by the Republican Party in Indiana for higher office. In 1872, he offered himself for the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana and was considered a front-runner for the nomination. He declined the opportunity to garner patronage from the party elites, such as former governor and U.S. senator Oliver P. Morton—this stand cost him the nomination. Nevertheless, Harrison continued to keep a high profile in the mid-1870s as an impressive articulator of Republican beliefs on such issues as the reconstruction of the South and the growing debate over monetary standards. Harrison was again tapped by Republican leadership as a replacement nominee in the highly contested gubernatorial election of 1876, which he narrowly lost. Nevertheless, the Republican nominee for president, Rutherford B. Hayes, chose Harrison for a speaking tour during the presidential campaign, giving him regional exposure.
Any opportunity for Harrison to rise on the ladder of the Indiana Republican Party had been blocked since 1872 by Morton. The death of the party leader in 1877 created an opening for Harrison to claim the mantle of leadership. He solidified his top position in 1878 when he took charge of the Republican congressional campaigns for the off-year elections, speaking on important issues, including the labor unrest engendered nationally by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. During the Hayes administration, Harrison served on the Mississippi River Commission, which surveyed the river prior to making improvements to levees to control flooding.
By 1880, Harrison was the recognized head of the Indiana Republicans, leading the Indiana delegation to the nominating convention in Chicago in 1880. Harrison played an important role in moving the delegates to nominate James A. Garfield. During Garfield's campaign, Harrison stumped for the Republican ticket exhaustively. For his work on the campaign, Garfield offered Harrison a Cabinet position, an offer that the ambitious Hoosier declined because of his intention to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Harrison was victorious and was elected senator from the state of Indiana in 1880.
Harrison served in the Senate for six years. During his time as a legislator, he worked hard to pursue the Republican agenda that he was so successful in articulating in his many stump speeches. While he was never one of the major power brokers in Congress, he was successful in a few specific areas. In particular, Harrison was an articulate and outspoken advocate for a strong protective tariff to shield U.S. industries from foreign competition, pension reform to benefit Union veterans, and federal aid to education, particularly in the South.
Although the protective tariff was creating budget surpluses that many considered threatening to private enterprise, Harrison was adamantly opposed to the reduction of duties on most items. In part, his position on tariffs complemented his stance on increasing federal aid to education and increasing pensions for veterans as both of these programs would necessitate an increase in federal spending. Harrison's view of government was firmly in line with the Republican orthodoxy of the mid-1880s in that he believed in and promoted an active and, at times, activist government. This was evident in his support for the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroads in 1886 and also in his bold attempts to attach civil rights provisions onto bills to provide education funds to Southern states. Unfortunately for Harrison and his fellow Republicans, many of their attempts to expand federal power were blocked by Democrats in Congress and, after 1884, vetoed by Democratic president Grover Cleveland.
Harrison had to fight to keep his preeminent position as leader of Indiana Republicans during his term in the Senate. Ironically, a series of political defeats and setbacks cleared the way for his eventual presidential nomination in 1888. At the 1884 Republican national convention, Harrison's backers put him forward as a possible candidate against both Walter Q. Gresham, Harrison's main political rival in Indiana, and James G. Blaine, former secretary of state under James A. Garfield and the favorite for the nomination. Partly in recognition of his poor chances, as well as a maneuver to undermine Gresham, Harrison dropped out and threw his support to Blaine, a gesture that was not forgotten four years later. A second blow came in 1887 when Harrison lost a bid for reelection to the Senate.
The Republican convention of 1888 offered Harrison an opportunity to take advantage of the support and recognition that he had gained in Republican ranks as a stump speaker and as a senator. While Blaine was again the favorite, he surprised the party by stating in early 1888 that he would not offer his name for nomination. Despite this declaration, the possibility of a late drafting of the political veteran remained a possibility, thus the Blaine contingent wielded tremendous influence at the convention. The two front-runners going into the convention were Harrison and longtime Republican senator John Sherman. Over a period of four days of intense lobbying and vote shifting from June 21 to June 24—in which the Blaine contingent attempted to deadlock the convention and Sherman begged New York delegates to put him over the top—Harrison's campaign manager Louis Michener managed to convince undecided delegates of the importance of Harrison's residence in a vital swing state and moved party leaders such as Thomas Platt of New York into the Harrison camp. On June 24, when a Blaine nomination clearly was no longer possible, Harrison's service during the 1884 race was recalled and Blaine's supporters lined up behind the man from Indiana. By the end of the day, Harrison was the Republican nominee for president.
Harrison's campaign for the presidency was both unconventional and effective. Instead of traveling the country giving stump speeches, he ran a "front-porch"-style campaign: different delegations would travel to Indianapolis by rail and gather to hear Harrison deliver an address on the main issue each group was focused on. The significant issues of the campaign were economic. In response to the debate over a low tariff bill designed by Democrats in Congress, Harrison spoke often on both the constitutionality and necessity of a protective tariff. He was also quick to deflect the criticism that he was no friend of labor by stressing the contribution of a protective tariff to stabilizing prices and maintaining adequate wages for industrial laborers. He also gained support from groups such as the Tippecanoe Clubs; their members had campaigned for Harrison's grandfather 40 years earlier. The election was close, but Harrison was able to carry both his home state of Indiana and New York, the two most vital swing states, into the Republican column, winning 233 electoral votes to Cleveland's 168. Republicans also succeeded in gaining a slight majority in Congress, thus offering much needed maneuvering room to the ambitious and active president.
On March 4, 1889, Harrison delivered his Inaugural Address to a rain-drenched crowd in the nation's capital. His speech made clear that the newly sworn-in president would be an active participant in crafting legislation, leading from the front in both domestic and foreign policy. The plan that Harrison laid out in his first year as president was fully in line with the expansionist and interventionist economic goals that Republicans had pursued since the end of the Civil War. The biggest battles of Harrison's presidency were fought over how he attempted to craft a national agenda around a core of values that he had fought for his entire career.
The most pressing issue for Harrison was the one that gained him the presidency: tariff reform and the related issue of the federal budget surplus. Congressional Republicans, fighting against attempts at obstruction by the Democratic minority, started work on a tariff bill early in 1890. William McKinley, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, took the lead in designing the bill, which came to be known as the McKinley Tariff bill. Following through with Harrison's plan, the committee sought to cut into tariff duties to reduce the budget surplus while maintaining the duties that protected American industries vulnerable to foreign competition. Another key element of reform involved placing certain agricultural goods on the protected list in an attempt to garner support from Western farmers while also placing sugar, a previously costly consumer item, on the free list. The bill passed in the House of Representatives in May of 1890 and then moved into the Senate.
This political cartoon (ca. 1888) depicts Pres. Benjamin Harrison using the musket of the "Force Bill"—one of the most controversial legislative issues of his presidency—to gain "voters" from among the ducks and the fish. The caption reads, "Mr. Harrison goes shooting and fishing." (Library of Congress)
While some legislators were crafting the tariff bill, others were working on legislation to provide for federal oversight of congressional elections in the South, an issue close to Harrison's heart since his years of service during the Civil War. Perhaps the most contentious legislative issue of Harrison's presidency, the Force Bill, as it came to be known, would have provided an outlet for disfranchised black voters to petition the federal government to oversee voter registration and balloting in order to prevent intimidation. Introduced in the House by Henry Cabot Lodge, the bill engendered fierce debate, clearing the House by an extremely close partisan vote, 155 to 149, in July of 1890.
Despite the importance of the tariff and election reform to Harrison, his hand was forced by other issues, specifically antitrust and monetary legislation. While Harrison was no opponent of economic growth, like many others in the late nineteenth century, he had become alarmed at the size and influence of large corporations in American life. Largely a bipartisan issue, a bill to outlaw business combinations in restraint of trade passed Congress fairly easily; Harrison signed the Sherman Antitrust Act into law in July 1890. Although the act gave little guidance on pursuing prosecutions at least seven different suits were brought by the government during Harrison's term.
A more contentious issue concerned monetary policy, specifically the attempt of a variety of different groups to move the country to a bimetallic currency standard with the so-called free coinage of silver. According to supporters, the addition of large amounts of silver to the money supply would inflate the currency and thus help debtor groups, specifically farmers; it also would widen access to currency for those outside of the financial centers of the Northeast. Harrison was a fairly strict supporter of the gold standard and was resistant to these designs, but politically he could not ignore the desires of so-called silver Republicans, or Republicans from Western states who supported free silver and were important for Republican majorities in the Congress. Working with Treasury Sec. William Windom, Harrison devised a plan whereby the Treasury would buy silver at market value with Treasury certificates redeemable in gold or silver tied to the prevailing market price in gold. The plan as conceived by Harrison and Windom would increase the silver supply but would also maintain gold as the standard of value. Harrison held "silver dinners" at the White House in an attempt to win over Republicans who were dissatisfied with the bill. A compromise bill that promised the government would buy close to the entire U.S. output of silver per year finally succeeded in the Senate, and Harrison signed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act into law in July of 1890.
Despite these successes, by the fall of 1890, much of Harrison's remaining legislation was under attack. The tariff bill was deadlocked by a disagreement between Harrison and Sec. of State James G. Blaine over the placement of sugar on the free list. From 1889 on, Blaine had been working on developing, with Harrison's blessing, a closer economic relationship with Latin America, and Blaine had hoped to use the sugar duty as leverage for trade agreements with countries on that continent. Matters were made more difficult when some Senate Republicans struck a deal with Democrats to gain their support for the tariff in exchange for postponing debate on the contentious Force Bill until the next session. Despite attempts by Harrison to save the bill, it fell victim to the compromise, and the McKinley Tariff finally passed in September of 1890.
Any plans to revive the elections bill or other legislation were dashed by the results of the midterm congressional elections of 1890. Democrats vigorously attacked the programs enacted by the Republican-controlled Congress, gleefully using the epithet "Billion-Dollar Congress"; Democrats also focused on the activism and spendthrift ways of the Harrison agenda, ultimately dealing a death blow to the Republican majority in the House. With legislation stalling in the Congress, foreign crises drew Harrison's attention. An incident involving the deaths of American sailors in Chile provoked a stern and unyielding response from Harrison, who even threatened military action if reparations were not made. Harrison also played a dominant role in coordinating a tripartite agreement between the United States, Great Britain, and Canada to protect the seal population of the Bering Sea. Convinced of the role of a strong navy to supplement American economic power in the Western Hemisphere, Harrison also fought for increased appropriations for the navy and sought to establish new naval stations abroad. Indeed, despite Harrison's focus on the important domestic issues of the day, he set broad precedents for the foreign policy agenda of later presidents, including William McKinley.
The months leading up to the election of 1892 did not bode well for Harrison. Secretary of State Blaine, who had worked uneasily with his former rival Harrison from the beginning of the administration, resigned in June amid rumors of intrigues among disaffected Republicans. Harrison won renomination at the Republican convention in July, but the result was far from unanimous. Periodic labor upheavals, including the infamous Homestead Strike, presented the image of a country on the brink. The emergence of the Populist Party, which drew its strength from free silver supporters dissatisfied with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, expressed displeasure with Republican policies. Harrison was sidelined from campaigning by his wife's progressively failing health; her death on October 25 resulted in an Election Day with a White House still in mourning. Harrison failed to hold the key swing states of Indiana and New York that had brought him victory in 1888, and he lost significant ground in the West on the silver issue. Grover Cleveland won the presidency in 1892.
Following the defeat of 1892, Harrison focused on his law practice, most famously acting as chief counsel for Venezuela in a border case against Great Britain in 1897. He continued to be a prodigious writer and speaker. Although he was drafted by Republicans to speak on behalf of William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, Harrison was less than enthusiastic. Harrison had deep misgivings, often religious in nature, about the direction that the Republican Party was taking at the turn of the century, especially the imperialistic cast of Republican foreign policy under McKinley. Harrison died of complications of pneumonia on March 13, 1901.
Although a modest man, Harrison was an extremely able and eloquent proponent of the Republican Party's program of economic expansionism and national growth in the late nineteenth century. He presided over one of the most active Congresses of the period, a Congress that, under his guidance, produced such far-reaching legislation as the Sherman Antitrust Act. As a politician and chief promoter of the United States abroad, Harrison was a successful molder of public opinion, and his activism as president presaged the direct approach of later presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt. While no proponent of the "imperial presidency," Harrison's term was an early model of the increasing importance of the active and engaged executive that characterizes the modern presidency.
- The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 1877-1900 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. .
- Benjamin Harrison The American Presidents Series. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. .
- Grand Old Party: Political Structure in the Gilded Age, 1880-1896 New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Benjamin Harrison: Centennial President New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2006. .
- Benjamin Harrison 3 vols. Vols. 1 & 2: New York: University Publishers, 1952, 1959. Vol. 3: Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
- The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987. , and .
- Years of Decision: American Politics in the 1890s New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978. .
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