“I want it understood that I am the grandson of nobody. I believe every man should stand on his own merits,” said Benjamin Harrison when he was just 22 years old and about to embark upon a public life. And what a life it turned out to be. As the 23rd President of the United States — he served a single term between Grover Cleveland’s two nonconsecutive terms — Benjamin Harrison was tremendously productive, working closely with Congress to shepherd an immense amount of legislation, including the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the McKinley Tariff Act, legislation that established federal protection for forests, and much more. He strengthened the U.S. Navy and improved shipping for the trans-Atlantic passage of mail. Benjamin Harrison also skillfully faced a number of foreign policy crises, including disputes with Italy, Chile and Great Britain, all of which required wisdom, tact and steady resolve.
When Benjamin Harrison came into office there was a federal budget surplus, which was considered a big problem. At that time there was still no federal income tax. Instead the government raised revenue mostly through tariffs. Many Democrats wanted the tariffs reduced or eliminated altogether, but Harrison wanted them kept in place to protect American industry. He wanted the protective tariffs coupled with reciprocal trade agreements. He believed the federal government should spend money on veterans benefits, infrastructure and education, particularly schooling for blacks in the South. He was open to debate on currency but vigorously opposed the unlimited coinage of silver money, which would later cost him votes, especially in the West.
Benjamin Harrison also faced setbacks while in office. He failed to get voting rights legislation through Congress, though he did try. The tariff protections were intended to benefit workers, but instead industry leaders cut wages, leading to labor unrest and even violence. Like so many other presidents, Benjamin Harrison faced difficult problems dealing with Indian affairs. The battle of Wounded Knee, in which hundreds of Lakota Sioux were massacred by U.S. troops in North Dakota, happened under his watch. He also signed anti-Chinese immigration legislation.
Many of the bills Harrison got passed were on strict party-line votes, and the Republicans suffered huge losses in the midterm elections in 1890. In Harrison’s failed re-election bid in the presidential election of 1892, it was a rematch with Cleveland. Just two weeks before Election Day, in October of that year, his wife, Caroline, died. After leaving office Benjamin Harrison returned to Indianapolis and resumed his law practice, earning large fees. He represented Venezuela in a lengthy and arduous boundary dispute with Great Britain. He continued to follow politics but declined to seek office again or to campaign much for fellow Republicans. He was not a huge fan of Cleveland or of his successor, William McKinley. Benjamin Harrison died in 1901 at age 67.
Here are some additional facts about Benjamin Harrison, our nation’s 23rd President:
- He served as an officer in the Civil War and was considered a war hero. He led troops in several battles.
- He was from Indianapolis, though he had been born in Ohio.
- Physically, he was small.
- In his personal life he was deeply religious.
- Many of his writings were published as a book, called This Country of Ours.
- His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was elected President when Benjamin was still a boy. The elder Harrison had been a Whig, but Benjamin Harrison was a Republican. President William Henry Harrison, who had also been a military hero, died after about a month in office. The Harrison family went all the way back to the founding of our country. His great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison V, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
- Before Benjamin Harrison became President he served one term in the U.S. Senate, but he was defeated for re-election after the districts in Indiana were gerrymandered. He had also run for governor of Indiana but lost.
- Leading up to the 1888 presidential election, Harrison did not travel but rather conducted a “front porch” campaign, in which various groups came to Indianapolis to hear him speak.
- He selected a political rival, James G. Blaine, as Secretary of State, who turned into a huge pain in the ass. Blaine was frequently absent for long stretches due to his health, and Harrison did much of the State Department’s diplomatic work himself.
- Under Benjamin Harrison, federal spending topped $1 billion for the first time.
- He traveled extensively as president.
- Benjamin Harrison maintained a lifelong friendship with Mary “Mame” Dimmick, a niece of his wife. After his wife died and Harrison had left the presidency, he married this younger woman and they had a child together. His children with his first wife and their spouses loathed Mame.
To learn about the 23rd President, I read “Benjamin Harrison” by Charles W. Calhoun. This is another in the American Presidents series, and like all books in this series it was short, concise and informative. The meatiest and most detailed chapters of the book covered Benjamin Harrison’s presidency. I got confused by all the controversy over silver. And I would have liked to learn just a bit more about his service in the Civil War.