Grandson of ninth U.S. President William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison was the nation's twenty-third president from March 4, 1889 to March 4, 1893.
Benjamin Harrison was born near North Bend, Ohio, on August 20, 1833. He was the second of ten children of John and Elizabeth Harrison. He also had three step-siblings from his father’s first marriage. Harrison belonged to a long line of American political luminaries. His great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison, signed the Declaration of Independence as a representative from Virginia at the First Continental Congress. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, served as America’s ninth president for one month before dying in office in 1841. Benjamin’s father, John Scott Harrison, later represented Ohio’s second district in the 33rd and 34th U.S. Congresses from March 4, 1853 through March 3, 1857.
Harrison grew up on his father’s moderately successful six-hundred-acre farm named “the Point” at the juncture of the Great Miami and Ohio Rivers. As a farm youth, Harrison spent a great deal of time outdoors performing chores, hunting, and fishing. He and his siblings were tutored in a small building on the farm that served as a schoolhouse. When Harrison reached age fourteen, his father sent him to nearby Cincinnati to attend Farmers’ College, formerly known as Gary’s Academy. After studying there for two years, Harrison enrolled as a junior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, at age sixteen. An excellent student, Harrison graduated from Miami in 1852, ranked fourth in his class. He then returned to Cincinnati, where he studied law with the firm of Storer and Gwynne. Two years later, Harrison passed the Ohio bar exam and received his license to practice law.
While attending Farmer’s College, Harrison met Caroline Lavinia Scott, the daughter of Reverend John W. Scott, one of Harrison’s professors. In 1849, Scott moved his family to Oxford, Ohio, where he established the Oxford Female Institute, which his daughter attended. When Harrison transferred to Miami, he renewed his friendship with Caroline and courted her for two years. On October 20, 1853, the couple wed at Oxford, Ohio. The bride’s father performed the ceremony. Their thirty-nine-year marriage, which ended with Caroline’s death in 1892, produced one son and one daughter.
In 1854, Harrison moved to Indianapolis, where he joined the law firm of John H. Ray after being admitted to the Indiana bar. To supplement his income, Harrison also became a crier (a person who performs various ceremonial functions, such as introducing judges, calling witnesses to the stand, and announcing the opening and adjournment of court sessions) for the Federal Court in Indianapolis.
In 1856, Harrison joined the fledgling Republican Party, and voters elected him as the Indianapolis City Attorney in 1857. Two years later, he established a legal practice with William Wallace known as Wallace & Harrison. In 1860, the partnership dissolved when Wallace and Harrison were each elected to public office. While serving as the reporter (the official responsible for publishing the decisions of a court) of the Indiana Supreme Court, Harrison partnered with William Fishback to establish a new firm named Fishback & Harrison. During the 1860 presidential election, Harrison campaigned actively for the Republican candidate and eventual winner Abraham Lincoln.
On April 12, 1861, artillery units from the newly formed army of the Confederate States of America began shelling Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, touching off the American Civil War. Freshly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln responded by calling on all state governors to send troops for the formation of a temporary force of 75,000 soldiers to suppress the rebellion. When what many expected to be a short conflict extended into a second year, Lincoln called for an additional 300,000 troops in July 1862.
Answering the call, Harrison left his law firm to help recruit a volunteer infantry regiment. On August 2, 1862, he joined the 70th Indiana Infantry Regiment at the rank of second lieutenant. On August 13, 1862, the regiment departed for duty in Kentucky to reinforce Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio during the Confederate Heartland Offensive. By then, Harrison held the rank of colonel.
Harrison received his first taste of combat on September 30, 1862, leading a surprise raid against a Rebel cavalry force near Russellville, Kentucky near the Tennessee border. Losing only one soldier, Harrison’s men killed or wounded thirty-five Confederates, took ten prisoners, and captured approximately forty horses.
After spending 1863 and early 1864 guarding railroads in Kentucky and Tennessee, officials ordered Harrison’s regiment to join Major General William T. Sherman’s forces during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign in May. Commanding the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, of Major General Joseph Hooker’s 20th Corps, Harrison led his men into action at the battles of Resaca, Adairsville, New Hope Church, Kennesaw Mountain, Marietta, Peachtree Creek, and the Battle of Atlanta.
Following the fall of Atlanta, Harrison commanded a brigade during the Franklin-Nashville Campaign and fought at the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864). After the defeat of John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, Harrison rejoined Sherman during the Carolinas Campaign. Commanding the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division of the 20th Corps (the Army of Georgia), Harrison was present when Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces at Bennett Place, near Durham, North Carolina on April 18, 1865.
During the last months of the war, the War Department awarded wholesale promotions to Union officers. On May 26, 1865, the Adjutant General’s Office published General Orders No. 97, which brevetted Harrison to the rank of brigadier general, to date from January 23, 1865, “for ability and manifest energy and gallantry in command of a brigade.” After marching in the Grand Review in Washington, DC at the end of the war, Harrison mustered out of the volunteer army on June 8, 1865.
While Harrison was still in the army, reelected him to his position as Reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court. When the war ended, he returned to Indiana and resumed his post for four years while establishing the law firm of Porter, Harrison & Fishback.
For the next fifteen years, Harrison actively supported other Republican candidates but rarely sought political office himself. In 1872, he made an unsuccessful bid to secure the Indiana Republican gubernatorial nomination. Four years later, the party nominated him for the position, but he lost a closely contested race to Democratic candidate James D. Wilson. While unsuccessful in the political arena, Harrison was highly successful in the courtroom. By the end of his career, he argued a remarkable fifteen cases before the Supreme Court of the United States.
United States Senator
Although he held no office during the 1870s, Harrison’s support and active campaigning for Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes elevated his standing in the Indiana Republican Party. In 1880, he chaired the Indiana delegation at the Republican national convention in Chicago. During the proceedings, Harrison led the movement to nominate dark-horse candidate James A. Garfield on the thirty-fifth ballot. Subsequently, Harrison declined a cabinet appointment from Garfield after the latter won the November election. Instead, the Indiana Legislature appointed Harrison to the United States Senate.
Harrison served in the U.S. Senate from March 4, 1881 until March 4, 1887 during the 47th through the 49th Congresses. After Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled office-seeker, assassinated President Garfield, Harrison was a vocal proponent of civil service reform in the Senate. He also championed strengthening the U.S. Navy and of boosting veterans’ benefits, making him an attractive presidential candidate for the next election.
By 1886, Democrats regained control of the Indiana Legislature. When Harrison’s term expired, the Democratic majority replaced Harrison with David Turpie.
Presidential Election of 1888
At the conclusion of his term in the Senate, Harrison returned to his law practice in Indiana. The next year, he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. On June 19, 1888, the Republican National Convention convened at the Auditorium Building in Chicago, Illinois. As the delegates assembled, the race was wide open. Thirteen candidates received votes on the first ballot, and the delegates entered five more names into nomination on subsequent votes.
The foremost Republican contenders were Senator John Sherman of Ohio, former Governor Russell A. Alger of Michigan, former Secretary of the Treasury Walter Q. Gresham of Indiana, New York Central Railroad President Chauncey Depew of New York, and Harrison. On the first ballot, Sherman held a commanding lead, garnering 229 of the 416 votes needed to secure the nomination. Harrison was a distant fifth with eighty votes. Through the next five ballots, Harrison’s total gradually increased. On the seventh ballot, he collected enough votes to take the lead from Sherman 278 to 231. On the next ballot, Harrison collected 544 votes, making him the Republican Party presidential candidate. The former general’s war record and his popularity among veterans were influential factors that contributed to his victory.
Harrison seemed unlikely to unseat incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland in November. However, in 1887, Cleveland alienated Northern voters by proposing dramatic reductions in protective tariffs that benefited manufacturers and workers. Still, when the results were tabulated, Cleveland received over 90,000 more votes than Harrison. Nonetheless, the peculiarities of the Electoral College system made Harrison the ultimate victor, receiving 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168. Thus, Harrison became the fourth chief executive to date who lost the popular vote but won the presidency (the others were John Quincy Adams (1824) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), George W. Bush (2000) and Donald J. Trump (2016)).
Harrison took the presidential oath of office on March 4, 1889. He quickly began alienating powerful leaders of his own party by snubbing key Republicans when choosing his cabinet and making political appointments. As a result, many Republican leaders were lukewarm to his reelection bid in 1892.
Pan American Union
Throughout his administration, Harrison was a proactive president, embracing a leadership position, as opposed to merely executing the will of Congress. In the realm of foreign affairs, he promoted the emerging role of the United States as a global power. Under his watch Secretary of State James G. Blaine convened the First International Conference of American States (aka the Pan-American Conference) from October 2, 1889 to April 1890 in Washington, DC, to advance commercial, economic, military, and social cooperation among the nations of North, Central, and South America. The eighteen American States that took part in the conference established the International Union of American Republics, which later became the Pan American Union.
Harrison understood that his designs for the U.S. to become a global power hinged on a strong military presence. When he assumed the presidency, Harrison inherited a navy that had been in decline since the Civil War. During his third state of the union address, Harrison observed that:
There should be no hesitation in promptly completing a navy of the best modern type, large enough to enable this country to display its flag in all seas for the protection of its citizens and its extending commerce.
During Harrison’s tenure, Congress authorized and funded the construction of the nation’s first modern battleships.
On the domestic front, Harrison was an active president. During his first year in office, he urged Congress to expand veterans’ benefits. Congress responded by enacting the Dependent and Disability Pension Act in 1890. Signed into law by Harrison on June 27, 1890, the act established pensions for all veterans who had been honorably discharged from Union service exceeding ninety days and who could not perform manual labor, regardless of their financial situation or when their disability occurred. The bill also extended benefits to veterans’ parents, widows, and children. President Grover Cleveland vetoed nearly identical legislation in 1887, arguing that the cost was prohibitive. Cleveland’s reservations proved to be justified. Implementation of the act resulted in nearly double the number of pensions funded and a spike in pension payments from $89 million in 1889 to $159 million by 1893. By 1894, pension payments comprised over one-third of the federal budget.
A prominent issue during the 1888 election was protective tariffs. During Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s first administration, Republicans began clamoring for higher taxes (tariffs) on imported goods. They claimed that increased tariffs protected American manufacturing, thereby raising workers’ wages and improving their standard of living. Cleveland and the Democrats argued that high tariffs enriched wealthy manufacturers by artificially increasing prices on foreign goods.
After the GOP victory in 1888, Ohio Congressman William McKinley, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, introduced legislation that raised the average duty on imports by almost fifty percent. Harrison signed the bill into law on October 1, 1890, but not before convincing the Senate to insert a provision greatly expanding presidential power in the realm of foreign trade.
To secure Democratic support for the McKinley Tariff, Republicans made concessions to groups lobbying Congress to restore silver as legal tender in the United States. As part of a compromise to ensure the enactment of the McKinley Tariff, Congress passed and Harrison signed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890. The legislation attempted to mollify western silver miners and debt-ridden farmers who were clamoring for more money in circulation. While the bill did not return the nation to bi-metallism, it required the treasury to purchase nearly all the silver that was being mined, thereby increasing the amount of money in circulation. Unfortunately, the act backfired, and the price of silver plummeted. Many people blamed the Silver Act of 1890 for causing the Panic of 1893, and President Cleveland persuaded Congress to repeal the legislation after he regained the presidency.
Sherman Antitrust Act
In 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, sponsored by Ohio Senator John Sherman, who was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Congress enacted the measure to preserve “free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade” by outlawing “every contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint of trade.” Although Harrison supported the legislation and signed it into law on July 2, 1890, his administration did not vigorously enforce it.
In the sphere of civil rights, Harrison urged Congress to enact the Federal Elections Bill of 1890. Introduced in the Senate by Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the legislation would have empowered federal courts to appoint election commissioners where necessary to ensure voting rights. The bill primarily targeted the South, where state governments were implementing poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation tactics to prevent African Americans from voting. The legislation passed the House of Representatives, but despite Harrison’s support, the Senate rejected it on January 22, 1891.
American Indian Policy
During Harrison’s four-year term, Congress admitted six western states to the Union (North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming). Understandably, white encroachment onto Native American land in the West fostered hostilities. Harrison noted in his First Annual Message to Congress on December 3, 1889, “The reservations are now generally surrounded by white settlements. We can no longer push the Indian back into the wilderness.” Instead, Harrison advocated abolishing the reservation system and traditional tribal structures in favor of assimilating the “ignorant and helpless” Indians into white culture individually. When Natives resisted abandoning their own culture, the results were sometimes tragic. On December 29, 1890, an encounter between the 7th U.S. Cavalry and a group of Lakota Sioux near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota led to the deaths of over 150 Lakota men, women, and children, besides roughly twenty-five U.S. soldiers.
National Parks and Forests
Harrison’s antipathy toward Indian traditions and culture did not extend to preserving for public use some land that Native Americans occupied in the West. On October 1, 1890, he signed into law a bill creating Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks. Six months later, on March 3, 1891, he signed the Forest Reserve Act into law. Enacted at the urging of Harrison’s Secretary of the Interior John Noble, the bill authorized the president to “set apart and reserve . . . public land bearing forests . . . or in part covered by timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations.” During his administration, Harrison used the act seventeen times to create national forests, totaling millions of acres, that would, in Noble’s words, “preserve the fauna, fish and flora of our country, and become resorts for the people seeking instruction and recreation.” In 1892, Harrison set aside one square mile surrounding the Casa Grande Ruins in Arizona as the first prehistoric and cultural reserve in the United States.
Election of 1892
When Republican delegates convened for their national convention at Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1892, they nominated Harrison as their presidential nominee on the first ballot. Although Harrison was the incumbent president, his reelection was no certainty. He lacked the support of some influential Republicans because he rebuffed their recommendations for political appointments after his election in 1888. In addition, Harrison’s continued support of the unpopular McKinley Tariff diminished his popularity.
The Democrats nominated former President Grover Cleveland, who had collected more popular votes than Harrison in the previous election. Cleveland’s pledge to lower the tariff resonated well with voters.
The declining health of First Lady Caroline Harrison sapped the campaigns of both candidates. In 1891, doctors diagnosed Harrison’s wife with tuberculosis. After spending the summer of 1892 in the restorative mountain air of the Adirondack Mountains, Carrie returned to Washington in September. Her condition quickly worsened, and she died in the White House on October 25, 1892, at age sixty. Neither candidate actively campaigned after her death.
When voters went to the polls on November 8, 1892, Cleveland emerged victorious, collecting forty-six percent of the popular vote compared to forty-three percent for Harrison. In the Electoral College tabulation, Cleveland reversed his losses in New York and Harrison’s home state of Indiana, garnering 277 votes compared to Harrison’s 145.
After leaving the White House, Harrison returned to Indianapolis and resumed his legal career. In 1894, he traveled to California, where he lived for a brief period while delivering a series of lectures on constitutional law at Stanford University. Harrison published the lectures in 1901 as Views of an Ex-President. During the next year, Harrison began a six-year stint on the board of trustees of Purdue University.
In 1896, at age sixty-two, Harrison married Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, the thirty-seven-year-old niece of his deceased wife. Their union produced one daughter, who was born in 1897.
In the same year that Harrison’s daughter was born, he authored a book about American government, titled This Country of Ours. Three years later, Harrison served as legal counsel for the Republic of Venezuela in its British Guiana boundary dispute with the United Kingdom.
In February 1901, Harrison contracted a respiratory infection that graduated to pneumonia, from which he did not recover. Harrison died at age sixty-seven in his Indianapolis home at 4:45 pm on March 13, 1901. His remains were buried in Indianapolis’s Crown Hill Cemetery, next to his first wife, Caroline. Mary Dimmick Harrison was later buried next to him following her death in 1948.