Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison

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Steven Shamlian, Anubhav Kaul

Benjamin Harrison was the 23rd president of the United States, from 1889-1893. He was 56 when he was elected president. Benjamin Harrison was born to a Presbyterian family on Aug. 20, 1833, on his grandfather's farm in North Bend, Ohio. He was named for his great-grandfather, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather was William Henry Harrison, the 9th president. Ben was the second of the 10 children of John Scott Harrison and Elizabeth Irwin Harrison. Harrison attended Farmers' College in a Cincinnati suburb for three years. While a freshman, he met his future wife, Caroline Lavinia Scott. Harrison and "Carrie" Scott were married in 1853. They had two children, Russell Benjamin and Mary. One year before their marriage, he graduated with distinction from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1854, Harrison passed the bar exam and moved to Indianapolis. In Indianapolis, he practiced law and campaigned for the Republican Party. In 1860, he was elected reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court. A deeply religious man, Harrison taught Sunday school. He became a deacon of the Presbyterian Church in 1857, and was elected the elder of the church in 1861.

In 1862, Governor Olive P. Morton asked Harrison to recruit and command the 70th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers in the Civil War. Harrison accepted the challenge. He was a fearless commander and rose to the rank of brigadier General “foe ability and manifest energy and gallantry in command of brigade.” After the war, Harrison won national prestige as a lawyer. President Hayes appointed him to the Mississippi River Commission in 1879, and he held this post until 1881. Harrison turned down a post in the cabinet of President Garfield because he was elected to the U.S. Senate in January 1881. During his tem in the Senate, Harrison upheld civil service reform, a protective tariff, a stronger navy, and regulation of railroads. He made speeches in favor for the restriction of Chinese immigration and against the importation of contract labor. He criticized President Cleveland’s vetoes of veterans’ pension bills. Harrison was looking forward to a second term in senate, but was defeated by Indiana’s Democratic legislature by one vote.

James G. Blaine, who had lost the 1884 election to Cleveland, refused to run in 1888. The Republicans nominated Harrison to represent their party, partly because of his war record and his popularity with the veterans.

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Levi P. Morton was, a New York City banker, was nominated as the vice-president. The Democrats re-nominated Cleveland and named Allen G. Thurman as his running mate. Harrison supported high tariffs. Cleveland called for low tariffs, but did not campaign actively because he felt I was beneath the dignity of the presidency.

Nominated for the presidency by the Republicans in 1888, he lost the popular vote by 5,444,337 to Cleveland's 5,540,309 but won the election by outpolling Cleveland in the electoral college by 233 electoral votes to Cleveland's 168. Harrison's victory in the Electoral College owed much to lavish spending by his campaign in the crucial swing states of New York and Indiana.

During his inaugural speech, Harrison stressed the idea of westward expansion and state formation. He cheered the Emancipation Proclamation and said that the South had no reason to drop in production just because slave labor was hindered. Harrison wanted the devastated South to grow and in economic success like the North. He did not want the South to be a Congress or President governed society, Harrison wanted to assure them with state rights. He thinks that it is wise to remain neutral in European affairs and conflicts for their own benefit. He believed that calmness, justice, and consideration should characterize our diplomacy. Harrison agreed to the idea that Presidents should have the luxury of choosing officers in cabinet positions or as ambassadors. He wanted to put heavy funds in the American navy. Harrison addressed the fact that he will work towards election reforms, but will take steps cautiously in amending the laws laid down by the founding fathers. Harrison promised the people that he would exert himself to create a stable society of justice and ensure prosperity for all.

President Harrison was inaugurated March 4, 1889. He named the following cabinet = Secretary of State: James G. Blaine; Secretary of the Treasury: William Windom; Secretary of War: Redfield Proctor; Secretary of Navy: Benjamin F. Tracy; Attorney General: William H.H. Miller; Postmaster General: John Wannamaker; Secretary of Interior: John W. Noble; and Secretary of Agriculture: Jeremiah M. Rusk.

During the campaign, Harrison had promised to extend the civil service law to cover more jobs. He kept his promise by increasing the number of classified positions from 27, 000 to 38,000.

The four most important laws of Harrison’s Administration were all passed in 1890. During the period of rapid industrialization in the late 1880’s, many corporations formed trusts that controlled market prices and destroyed competition. Farmers and owners of small businesses demanded government protection from these trusts. The Sherman Antitrust Act, fulfilling one of Harrison’s campaign pledges, outlawed trusts or any other monopolies that hindered trade.

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act met another demand of farm voters. Farm prices were falling, and farmers asked the government to put more money into circulation, either paper money or silver coins. Farmers felt that this addition would increase farm prices and thus make it easier for farmers to pay their debts. The owners of the silver mines naturally favored a demand that would boost heir own profits. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act increased the amount of silver that could be coined. The government purchased this silver, and paid for it with Treasury notes that could be redeemed in either silver or gold. Because most people chose to redeem their notes in gold, the fear of a resulting drain on the Treasury’s gold reserves helped cause a financial panic in 1893.

The McKinley tariff Act was designed mainly to protect U.S. industries and their workers. Its sponsors tried to make the law attractive to farmers by raising tariffs on imported farm products. However, the McKinley Tariff Act set tariffs at record highs, and farmers regarded it chiefly as a benefit to business.

The Dependent Pension Bill broadened pension qualifications to include all Civil War veterans who could not perform manual labor. The cost of pensions soared from $88 million in 1889 to $159 million in 1893.

Harrison launched a program to build a two-ocean navy and expand the merchant marine. Both actions helped shape the new and vigorous foreign policy developed by Harrison and Secretary of State James G. Blaine.

In 1889, the first Pan-American Conference met in Washington. The delegates began expanding the meaning of the Monroe Doctrine by promoting cooperation among the nations. The Pan American Union was created at this conference.

Trade with other nations was being threatened by U.S. tariffs that constantly grew higher. Harrison began to negotiate reciprocal trade agreements. This was a constructive attempt to compromise between manufacturers who wanted free competitive markets and those who favored protective tariffs.

Early in 1893, Queen Liliuokalani had lost her throne in a revolution led by American planters. The new Hawaiian government asked the United States to make Hawaii a territory. Harrison had been defeated for reelection the previous November, but he rushed a treaty of annexation to the Senate before his term ended. Cleveland returned to the presidency before the Senate could act on the treaty, and withdrew it. He declared that the whole affair was dishonorable to the United States.

The Harrison Administration also settled a number of old quarrels. The government agreed to arbitrate the long-standing dispute with Great Britain over fur seals in the Bering Sea. In 1889, a quarrel over the ownership of Samoa seemed likely, and the United States joined Germany and England in establishing a protectorate over the islands. In 1892, Congress passed the Oriental Exclusion Act, which long remained a sore spot in America’s relations with China and Japan.

Although the treasury had a surplus at the inception of Harrison's administration, the "Billion-Dollar Congress" spent such enormous sums on soldiers' pensions and business subsidies that the surplus soon vanished. Many Americans, particularly farmers, viewed the Republican-controlled White House and Congress as wasteful and too closely aligned with the nation's wealthy elite. In the congressional elections of 1890, the Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives by a large majority, and during the remaining two years of his term Harrison had little, if any, influence on legislation. He was re-nominated at the party convention in Minneapolis (1892), but growing populist discontent and several major strikes late in his term--especially the violent steel strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in July 1892--largely accounted for his defeat by his old rival, Grover Cleveland, by an electoral vote of 145 to 277. Neither candidate campaigned much; owing in part to Mrs. Harrison's declining health and her death midway through the campaign.

Having retired to his law practice in Indianapolis, Harrison, at 62, married his deceased wife's niece and caretaker, Mary Lord Dimmick; they had one daughter. He emerged briefly to serve as leading counsel for Venezuela in the arbitration of its boundary dispute with Great Britain (1898-99). Harrison was also in much demand as a public speaker, and his series of lectures delivered at Stanford University was published in 1901 as Views of an Ex-President. He died of pneumonia that year at his house in Indianapolis. He was the last Civil War general to serve as president.


"Always sagacious, fearless, and firm, never feeble or foolish, with a wisdom of speech and a wisdom to act born of a true heart, his life was a glorification of simplicity, straightforwardness, and truthfulness. Never false himself, he was the implacable foe of falsity in others. He had a great soul and loved his country. Taking together his soldier, Senatorial, and Presidential record, Benjamin Harrison stands in the highest rank of American statesmen."

(John Wannamaker; Postmaster General during President Harrison’s Administration)

“And when the harvests from the fields, the cattle from the hills, and the ores of the earth shall have been weighed, counted and valued, we will turn from them all to crown with the highest honor the State that has most promoted education, virtue, justice, and patriotism among its people.”

(Benjamin Harrison, from his inaugural speech)

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