Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833 in North Bend, Ohio on a farm by the Ohio River. His father was John Scott Harrison, a member of the United States House, and his mother was Elizabeth Ramsey Irwin Harrison. He was the second of eight children in his family.
The Harrisons were among the First Families of Virginia, with roots stretching back to Jamestown. Ben’s great-grandfather was Colonel Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe”) was the ninth President of the United States, and his father, John Scott Harrison, served as a congressman.
As a child, he hunted, fished, hauled wood, tended livestock, and studied at home with private tutors. He also attended school in a one-room schoolhouse and in 1847, attended the Farmer’s College, a prep school in Cincinnati for two years. He transferred to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and graduated near the top of his class in 1852.
After completing college he studied law as a legal apprentice in the Cincinnati law office of Storer & Gwynne. He later moved to Indianapolis to begin practicing law and became a crier for the Federal Court in Indianapolis.
On October 20, 1853, he married his college sweetheart Caroline Lavinia Scott, he was a twenty and she was twenty-one years old music teacher. The couple was blessed with two children; Russell Benjamin Harrison, born in 1854, and Mary “Mamie” Scott Harrison, born in 1858.
Ben joined the new Republican Party and campaigned in 1856 for its first presidential nominee, John C. Fremont. In 1857, he entered politics himself and was elected as the Indianapolis City Attorney. Later he served as secretary of the Republican State Central Committee and campaigned for the presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860. He was also the state reporter for the Supreme Court of Indiana, summarizing and supervising the publication of the court’s official opinions.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Ben joined the Union Army as a lieutenant in the 70th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, he would attain the rank of brevet brigadier general by 1865. He served under Major General William T. Sherman in the Atlanta campaign and was among the first of the Union forces to march into the city upon its surrender.
After the Civil War he was Colonel of the 70th Volunteer Infantry and became a pillar of Indianapolis. He resumed his law practice and worked as a court reporter. He unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana in 1872, but won the Republican nomination in 1876.The Democrats defeated him for Governor by branding him as “Kid Gloves” Harrison. Ben was nicknamed “kid gloves,” because he wore goat-skin gloves, allegedly to protect himself from infection.
By 1880 he became involved in national politics and led the Indiana delegation to the Republican National Convention. From 1881 to 1887, he served as a U.S. senator and championed Indians, homesteaders, and Civil War veterans. Ben broke with his party to oppose the controversial Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and when the Indiana state legislature came under Democratic control in 1887, he declined to return to the Senate.
Ben announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, declaring himself a “living and rejuvenated Republican.” The words “Rejuvenated Republicanism” became the slogan of his presidential campaign and he was nominated for President at the 1888 Republican Convention. He was only 5 feet, 6 inches tall so Democrats called him “Little Ben”, Republicans responded that he was big enough to wear the hat of his grandfather, “Old Tippecanoe,” William Henry Harrison who was elected as the ninth president of the United States in 1840, but died of pneumonia only one month after he took office.
The two candidates did not personally campaign, President Cleveland made only one appearance and Ben limited his speeches to front porch receptions in Indianapolis for selected delegations and press reporters. In the Presidential election, Ben received 100,000 fewer popular votes than Cleveland, but received 233 Electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168. He took oath as the 23rd President of United States of America on March 4, 1889 and became the only grandson to become President whose grandfather had been a President.
Ben developed a stiff and formal personality and his own staff privately spoke of him as “the human iceberg.” Although stiff and formal with acquaintances, Ben opened up with his family. He spent as little time as possible in the office, usually working until noon. He loved to play with his grandchildren, many of whom had moved into the White House with their parents, Russell Benjamin Harrison and Mary Scott McKee. The children were allowed to keep as many pets as they wanted, including a goat whom they named Old Whiskers. In one situation Ben was seen chasing the goat down Pennsylvania Avenue with his three grandchildren.
First Lady Caroline Harrison was appalled at the living conditions in the White House stating that it was cramped, shabby, and overrun with rats. She used ferrets to combat the rats, bought new curtains and furniture, renovated the kitchen, laid new floors, and installed private baths, a new heating system and electric lighting installed by Edison General Electric Company. However, Ben and Caroline wouldn’t touch the light switches for fear of being electrocuted and often went to bed with the lights on. Ben also used a different Edison invention when he became the first president to have his voice preserved in a thirty-six second speech recorded on a wax phonograph cylinder.
At first Ben supported large corporations but when powerful entities like John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust started to eliminate competition, set monopoly rates and prices, he supported the bipartison antimonopoly legislation. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the first federal law to regulate giant corporations. Today, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 remains an operational law.
Congress appropriated a billion dollars during Ben’s administration, angering many Americans who saw Ben and his fellow Republicans as too supportive of wealthy interests. The treasury had a surplus at the beginning of Ben’s administration, but the incorporation of soldiers’ pensions and business subsidies evaporated the budget surplus. Ben also advocated for the expansion of the U.S. Navy and forest conservation, authorizing America’s first forest reserve located in Yellowstone, Wyoming.
Ben supported bills that promoted voting rights of African Americans in the South, but could not get them through Congress. He appointed Frederick Douglass, the most famous African American of the day, as ambassador to Haiti.
Over the four years of Ben’s term in office, more states were admitted into the Union than during any previous presidential administration: North Dakota and South Dakota (November 2, 1889), Montana (November 8, 1889), Washington (November 11, 1889), Idaho (July 3, 1890), and Wyoming (July 10, 1890). When Ben signed the proclamations admitting North and South Dakota to the Union he ordered the papers to be shuffled due to a rivalry between the two states, the names where hidden from him while signing so there would be no argument over which he signed first. However, since North Dakota is before South Dakota alphabetically, its proclamation was printed first in the Statutes At Large, thus North Dakota has always been considered the 39th state.
The Republican Party re-nominated Ben as their Presidential candidate in 1892, but due to Caroline becoming seriously ill he chose not to campaign and remained by her side. In respect for Ben and his dying wife Grover Cleveland didn’t campaign either, letting both parties to lead the campaign trail. Caroline died in October 1892 from tuberculosis and two weeks later Ben lost to Cleveland by an electoral vote of 145 to 277, the most decisive victory in 20 years.
Prior to leaving office, an American-led coup toppled Queen Liliuokalani in the Hawaiian Islands in February 1893. Ben submitted a treaty of annexation before the Senate due to his interest in establishing a naval base at Pearl Harbor. Democrats blocked it for the remainder of Ben’s term and President Cleveland later withdrew it. Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until August 21, 1959.
When Harrison lost the election to Cleveland he told his family that he felt like he had been freed from prison. He was the last Civil War general to serve as president of the United States. He returned to his legal practice in Indiana and wrote several books including ‘This Country of Ours’ (1897) and ‘Views of an Ex-President’ (1901). He served on the Board of Trustees of Purdue University from July 1895 until he passed away. A campus dormitory was named after him in 1966. He also spent time in San Francisco, California to teach at Stanford University.
On April 6, 1896, Ben married the niece of his late wife, Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, who was 37 years old, 25 years younger than Ben. Ben’s grown children from his first marriage disapproved of the marriage to a relative 25 years his junior and did not attend the wedding, which only consisted of about three dozen guests. The couple had one child together, a daughter named Elizabeth.
Ben became a respected elder statesman and acclaimed public speaker. He died of pneumonia on March 13, 1901, in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the age of 67. He was buried next to his first wife at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis and left the bulk of his estate, valued at about $400,000, to his second wife and their four-year-old daughter.
Mary went on to establish The Benjamin Harrison Memorial Home in Indianapolis. She and Elizabeth traveled to Europe and returned upon the outbreak of World War I. She died in New York City on January 5, 1948 from asthma and is buried next to Ben and his first wife at the Crown Hill Cemetery.
“Great lives never go out; they go on.”
“I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth will starve in the process.”
“We Americans have no commission from God to police the world.”
“Prayer steadies one when he is walking in slippery places – even if things asked for are not given.”
“I am thorough believer in the American test of character. He will not build high who does not build for himself.”
“No other people have a government more worthy of their respect and love or a land so magnificent in extent, so pleasant to look upon, and so full of generous suggestion to enterprise and labor.”
“I knew that my staying up would not change the election result if I were defeated, while if elected I had a hard day ahead of me. So I thought a night’s rest was best in any event.”
“God forbid that the day should ever come when, in the American mind, the thought of man as a consumer shall submerge the old American thought of man as a creature of God, endowed with unalienable rights.”
“I cannot always sympathize with that demand which we hear so frequently for cheap things. Things may be too cheap. They are too cheap when the man or woman who produces them upon the farm or the man or woman who produces them in the factory does not get out of them living wages with a margin for old age and for a dowry for the incidents that are to follow. I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process.”
“The bud of victory is always in the truth.”
“Sir, I wish to understand the true principles of the Government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”
“Lincoln had faith in time, and time has justified his faith.”
“There never has been a time in our history when work was so abundant or when wages were as high, whether measured by the currency in which they are paid or by their power to supply the necessaries and comforts of life.”
“Will it not be wise to allow the friendship between nations to rest upon deep and permanent things? Irritations of the cuticle must not be confounded with heart failure.”
“The disfranchisement of a single legal elector by fraud or intimidation is a crime too grave to be regarded lightly.”
“The indiscriminate denunciation of the rich is mischievous…. No poor man was ever made richer or happier by it. It is quite as illogical to despise a man because he is rich as because he is poor. Not what a man has, but what he is, settles his class. We can not right matters by taking from one what he has honestly acquired to bestow upon another what he has not earned.”
“That one flag encircles us with its folds today, the unrivaled object of our loyal love.”
“If you take out of your statutes, your constitution, your family life all that is taken from the Sacred Book, what would there be left to bind society together?”
“I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.”
“If the educated and influential classes in a community either practice or connive at the systematic violation of laws that seem to them to cross their convenience, what can they expect when the lesson that convenience or a supposed class interest is a sufficient cause for lawlessness has been well learned by the ignorant classes?”
“Have you not learned that not stocks or bonds or stately houses, or products of the mill or field are our country? It is a spiritual thought that is in our minds.”
“The evil works from a bad center both ways. It demoralizes those who practice it and destroys the faith of those who suffer by it in the efficiency of the law as a safe protector.”
“It is often easier to assemble armies than it is to assemble army revenues.”
“I’d rather have a bullet inside of me than to be living in constant dread of one.”
“When and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot? When is he in fact to have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law?”
“There is no constitutional or legal requirement that the President shall take the oath of office in the presence of the People but there is so manifest an appropriateness in the public induction to office of the chief executive officer of the nation that from the beginning of the Government the people to whose service the official oath consecrates the officer, have been called to witness the solemn ceremonial.”
“I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry. When we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
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