Louis W. Koenig
THE presidency of Benjamin Harrison attests that the office requires a breadth of personal qualities and political skills and that to fall short in some of these while being strong in others can be fatal to future electoral success. Possessor of an intellect of the first order, high moral principles, statesmanlike perceptions, and commanding skill as a public speaker, Harrison nonetheless failed to stir the public with magnetic responses to its problems and to relate well to fellow party leaders, which impaired his performance of essential party tasks. Elected president in 1888 by the constitutionally required majority of the electoral vote but with a minority of the popular vote, Harrison failed to win reelection in 1892. Instead of improving his tenuous political strength, he suffered persistent decline.
Despite his failure to be reelected, Harrison's presidency was well regarded by political connoisseurs of his time. Historian Henry Adams wrote that "Mr. Harrison was an excellent President, a man of ability and force; perhaps the best President the Republican party had put forward since Lincoln's death." In 1927 a longtime Washington journalist, Henry L. Stoddard, after ranking Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson as the three outstanding presidents between Lincoln and Coolidge, added that "I feel as though I were doing an injustice to Benjamin Harrison not to crowd him into the three, for, intellectually, he outranked them. He was the ablest of them all." If anything, Harrison has come to be less well regarded since these judgments were rendered.
The object of history's mercurial assessments, Benjamin Harrison, is the only grandson of a president (William Henry Harrison) to himself become president. Son of a congressman and great-grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Harrison was born on 20 August 1833 on his grandfather's farm in North Bend, Ohio, the second of nine children. His father, a farmer, served two terms in Congress. Harrison attended Farmers' College near Cincinnati and completed his education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, from which he graduated in 1852. Harrison married Caroline Lavinia Scott, daughter of the president of a woman's college in Oxford; read law in Cincinnati; was admitted to the bar in 1854; and moved to Indianapolis that year to commence his law practice.
Although his father warned him that "none but knaves should ever enter the political arena," Harrison soon occupied a succession of elective offices: city attorney of Indianapolis, secretary of the Republican state central committee, and reporter of the state supreme court. Commander of the Seventieth Regiment of Indiana Volunteers in the Civil War, Harrison rose to the rank of brigadier general. Gaining national distinction as a lawyer after the war, Harrison ran unsuccessfully for the Indiana governorship in 1876. He was nominated shortly before the election, when the prior nominee withdrew because of recently exposed activities that could not bear the scrutiny of the campaign. Harrison turned down an appointment to the cabinet of James A. Garfield, preferring to serve in the United States Senate, to which he was elected in 1881.
As a senator, Harrison supported civil service reform to supplant the traditional spoils system, high protective tariffs to foster industrial development, a strong navy, and regulation of the railroads. He persistently attacked President Cleveland's vetoes of veterans' pension bills. Harrison's popularity with veterans was to be a major factor in winning the presidential nomination in 1888. His bid for a second Senate term was rebuffed when Indiana's Democratic-controlled legislature defeated his continuation by one vote. (United States senators were then chosen by state legislatures.)
A deeply religious man, Harrison taught Sunday school and was a deacon, and later elder, of the Presbyterian church. The day before he left Indianapolis for his inauguration as president, Harrison passed the collection plate in the First Presbyterian Church, his long practice. As a praying churchman, an ethical lawyer, and an officeholder of sturdy moral courage, Harrison was regarded as an exemplar of political decency, a reputation that accompanied him to the presidency.
Election of 1888
Harrison was an unsuccessful dark-horse aspirant for the Republican nomination in 1884. In 1888 he became a more formidable candidate when Indiana delegates endorsed his nomination and the most preeminent of Republican politicians, James G. Blaine, did not again become a candidate. With a field that at one juncture consisted of nineteen candidates, the organizers of Harrison's race, led by Louis T. Michener, attorney general of Indiana, concentrated on gaining the second-choice votes of the delegates until the final ballot.
Matt Quay, overlord of Pennsylvania Republicans, offered support in return for a blanket promise of a cabinet post. Harrison rebuffed his managers, who urged him to accept the deal, by recalling his instruction at their departure from Indianapolis that "purchasing capacity" must not supersede moral competency in deciding the nomination. A critical juncture in Harrison's progress was reached when Chauncey M. Depew, head of the New York delegation and president of the New York Central Railroad, with the approval of the state's real political boss, Thomas C. Platt, brought the New York delegation into the Harrison fold.
Harrison was nominated on the eighth ballot. The many ballots were telltales of his political weakness. He subsequently acknowledged to Blaine his indebtedness: "Only the help of your friends made success possible." Other factors favoring Harrison were his name, his war record, and his popularity with veterans. Levi P. Morton, a New York banker, was nominated for vice president. The Democrats re-nominated incumbent President Grover Cleveland, with Allen G. Thurman, a former Ohio senator, as his running mate.
Harrison conducted a "front-porch campaign" from his home. Imaginative pretexts were spawned to bring great crowds of visitors there. On "German Day," large delegations from Chicago and Milwaukee journeyed to Indianapolis, where they heard from Harrison a eulogy on German virtues. For one of the more imposing receptions, some forty thousand drummers converged from eleven states.
The principal issue in the campaign was the tariff, with Harrison calling for high tariffs and Cleveland, who did not campaign actively because he felt it beneath the dignity of the presidency, advocating lower tariffs. The contrasting positions on the tariff reflected basic differences between the Republican and Democratic parties in the decade 1884–1894, with Republicans espousing doctrines of nationalism and active governmental intervention to promote the expansion of the economy. The Democrats, under Cleveland, advocated states' rights and opposed the employment of national governmental power to speed economic growth. Harrison was severely pressured to make a strong commitment to service pensions for Civil War veterans. Sensing that the public might not welcome costly outlays, he limited himself to general pledges and platitudinous statements about veterans. A skilled formulator of positions on issues that served his political necessities, Harrison promised "liberal treatment" of veterans' pensions.
The Harrison campaign was lavishly financed, and its prime money-raiser was John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store magnate and chairman of the campaign's finance committee. Wanamaker was given "unrestricted power in raising and deciding upon the expenditure of funds." As a governing principle, he believed it "right" to solicit businessmen's contributions, and an imposing fund was raised "so quickly," Wanamaker noted, "that the Democrats never knew anything about it." In his expenditures, Wanamaker emphasized a "campaign of education" by salaried speakers and tons of protective tariff literature. His ebullient enterprise prompted charges that he was softening up the public to tolerate expensive favors from the future Harrison administration to business contributors.
As election day neared, Harrison was confident, predicting that "if we can secure an approximately fair election, I think we are safe." His attainment of a majority of the electoral votes—233 to Cleveland's 168—with only a minority of popular votes was aided by his successes in large states. His plurality in New York of 14,000 gained him 36 electoral voles, and he repeated that pattern of narrow popular-vote victories in such major electoral vote states as Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. So evenly was the vote distributed nationwide that the election became described as one of "no decision." Cleveland had a slight popular majority of about 100,000, largely because of increased Democratic majorities in southern one-party states.
Another major factor was the Republican campaign fund of over $400,000, the expenditure of which was concentrated in crucial states. Also of prime importance was Tammany Hall's betrayal of Cleveland, which helped Harrison carry New York. Despite Harrison's caution on veterans' pensions, the premier veterans' organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), was converted by his nomination and campaign into an instrument of the Republican party.
Harrison was inaugurated in a relentless rainstorm, with Grover Cleveland holding an umbrella over his successor's head. His address, after crediting the nation's growth to the benign influences of education and religion, urged that the cotton states and mining territories attain the thriving industrial levels of the states of the Atlantic seaboard, and toward that end, he reaffirmed his promise of a protective tariff. Stressing that "laws are general, and their administration should be uniform and equal," without special regard for sections, Harrison in effect foreclosed special treatment for the South. He urged that blacks be granted the right to vote in both North and South. He lamented the proliferating monopolies and trusts, and he committed his administration to the advancement of social justice.
Harrison also urged early statehood for the territories and in general terms advocated pensions for veterans, a statement that evoked the most enthusiastic applause. He declared that the civil service law would be applied fully and that party service would not become "a shield for official negligence, incompetence or delinquency."
In foreign affairs, Harrison pledged vigilance of national honor and due protection of the personal and commercial rights of American citizens everywhere. He reaffirmed the Monroe Doctrine as a cornerstone of foreign policy and urged the building of a modern navy and a first-rate merchant marine, since the flag would follow every citizen "in all countries and many islands." Although he declared his commitment to international peace through noninterference in the affairs of other governments and the application of arbitration to international disputes,
Harrison clearly accorded the development of national strength the foremost priority.
Presidential Style and Appointments
The twenty-third president of the United States, barely five foot six in height and just a bit corpulent, was fifty-five years old when inaugurated. He had piercing blue eyes and a full, meticulously trimmed gray beard. His bearing was energetic, dignified, and graceful. His rival, Grover Cleveland, was one of many who were impressed by Harrison's intellectual abilities and honesty of purpose. Writing in retrospect, editor William Allen White admired his "instinct to do the polite, honest, dignified thing in every contingency."
In making decisions, Harrison was methodical and legalistic, his actions unhurried and maturely deliberated, and he largely kept his own counsel. But many were also disenchanted by aspects of his manner, a list that grew as his administration proceeded. His legalistic style of thought, strong intellectuality, and summoning of lofty principle provided a ready wherewithal for rebuffing those who sought consideration or favor. Some found him impatient, brusque, and even irascible. Governor Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio called him "grouchy." Others thought him cold. When Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed was asked if he would board "the Harrison bandwagon," he replied, "I never ride an ice-cart." A governor, calling at the White House with business to transact, was affronted by Harrison's greeting: "I've got all these papers to look after, and I'm going fishing at two o'clock." The president opened his watchcase and awaited the governor's response.
In selecting his cabinet, Harrison emphasized competence and "irreproachable character"; party activity and previous office holding were not prerequisites. For the senior cabinet post, secretary of state, Harrison followed tradition in appointing his party's chief claimant for the presidency, James G. Blaine. He also followed tradition in awarding the postmaster generalship to a principal manager of the campaign, John Wanamaker. Determined to appoint one friend from Indiana of unquestionable loyalty and competence, Harrison chose his law partner, William Henry Harrison Miller, as attorney general. Cabinet making was also an occasion for making enemies. Harrison bypassed two powerful New Yorkers eager for cabinet posts, Platt and Senator Warner Miller. When Harrison appointed Benjamin Franklin Tracy as secretary of the navy and as the new administration's recognition of New York, Platt and Miller became forever hostile.
Harrison's other appointees tolerably approximated his standards, which in effect meant that he chose men much like himself. The final list consisted of six lawyers and two businessmen—all of them regular churchgoers, But Harrison's cabinet making also raised a danger signal for his future. None of the eight cabinet secretaries had worked actively for his nomination, and their selection did not serve the traditional function of placating important party factions to help build consensus for future policy. Harrison, in sum, had a sturdy nonpolitical streak.
Like other presidencies of his era, Harrison's was inundated by office seekers. The problem was compounded by the shakeout of Republicans in the preceding Cleveland administration, the first Democratic incumbency since the Civil War. Republicans now meant to reclaim offices in full number. Despite a plank in the Republican platform promising further civil service reform, a clean sweep of the nonclassified civil service quickly materialized. The chief patronage dispenser, J. S. ("Headsman") Clark-son, removed half of the postmasters. Unlike Cleveland, Harrison removed many officers before they completed their four-year terms.
But Harrison was unable to convert the dispensations of patronage into political advantage. If anything, they became a sizable liability. In awarding offices, the president offended the leading bosses, Quay of Pennsylvania and Platt of New York. Quay, chairman of the Republican National Committee and United States senator from Pennsylvania, presented Harrison with a lengthy list of names to fill various federal offices. When Harrison requested information concerning the fitness and character of each candidate, Quay demurred, noting that the entire matter could be handled by senatorial courtesy with the president simply ratifying what was put before him. But Harrison stood his ground and thus began an enduring enmity. His frequent purpose to represent geographic areas rather than senators' preferences often prompted the legislators to feel humiliated. Unlike other presidents who delegated patronage to subordinates, Harrison handled the task himself. His cool, expeditious management stoked further ill will, especially his requirement that office seekers make their case standing.
While pursuing a vigorous commerce in spoils, Harrison sought to maintain his credibility with a valued constituency, the civil service reformers. He sought to appease them by appointing as civil service commissioner the New York civil service reformer Theodore Roosevelt, who later noted that Harrison "gave me my first opportunity to do big things." Despite Roosevelt's aggressive administration, the Civil Service Reform League denounced Harrison for violating his campaign pledges for civil service reform and the Nation characterized him as a "subservient disciple of the spoils doctrine."
Like other presidents of his time, Harrison was caught between the reformers, who pushed him hard and watched for backsliding while advocating extension of the merit system to new offices and agencies, and party leaders and workers, who reminded the president that he owed his election to their work and that their interest could be sustained only by adequate reward. Harrison was unable to devise a formula acceptable to both constituencies, and the compromises he structured badly damaged his standing with party workers.
Cool Relations with Congress
In his dealings with Congress, always a complex, high-risk area for presidents, Harrison was handicapped by the frequent poverty of his relations with Capitol Hill's key power holders. Trouble sometimes sprang from dissatisfaction with Harrison's award of appointments, particularly when party factions other than those of the individual legislators were rewarded with patronage. Harrison's penchant for appointing newspaper editors and publishers to diplomatic and other posts angered senators aggrieved by some past journalistic attack or exposé. The Senate, for example, rejected Harrison's nominee for ambassador to Germany, the distinguished Cincinnati editor Murat Halstead, who had once flayed the chamber for its easy tolerance of corruption in its ranks. Halstead's rejection was Harrison's first defeat from his party.
The president's personality did not wear well with legislators. Senators and congressmen were put off by his ready recourse to high principle and legal niceties. Others were offended by his seeming coldness. "There are bitter complaints," a critic reported. "Senators call and say their say to him, and he stands silent.. . . As one Senator says: 'It's like talking to a hitching post.' " Some legislators were put off by Harrison's displays of a lack of political sense. He once grasped Quay's hand and said solemnly, "Providence has given us the victory." The veteran boss and senator, taken aback, observed afterward that Harrison was "a political tenderfoot. He ought to know that Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it!" Harrison's most vitriolic detractor was House Speaker Thomas B. Reed. Their severest clashes were over a patronage appointment and the president's exercise of his pardoning power, and the individuals who benefited were the only "two personal enemies" in Reed's life. Imbued with a Whig perspective, especially its precept of legislative supremacy, Harrison did not initiate legislation. His most daring venture was to reecho the Republican platform.
Harrison's approach to legislative leadership was largely one of emphasizing his role as public leader, of presenting policy proposals in his arresting rhetorical and an analytical style, to rally the public behind them. Unfortunately for Harrison, these efforts were of little avail, since public support steadily diminished as his administration proceeded. Nonetheless, Harrison was aggressive in asserting personal influence. He held informal dinners and receptions for legislative leaders, informing them of items he wanted incorporated in bills. He made few vetoes, although he often used the threat of veto profitably. In both legislative houses he was hampered by divisions within his party over the allocation of spoils. In the Senate, where Republicans enjoyed only a bare majority, a "silver bloc" of sixteen western senators held the balance of power. To implement his party's platform on the tariff and the civil rights of blacks, Harrison needed support from Silver Republicans, as they were called, much as they needed his backing for a stronger silver law.
Unlike Cleveland, who was an adamant foe of silver, Harrison was supportive without committing himself to the extreme of free coinage, which Silver Republicans and other advocates of silver desired. With Treasury Secretary William Windom, he developed a bill authorizing the issuance of treasury notes on deposits of silver bullion. A tortuous legislative struggle, with Harrison devising compromises and rallying votes, led to passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (July 1890), which increased the amount of silver to be coined but stopped short of free coinage. The act required the purchase of 4.5 million ounces of silver each month at the prevailing market price, through the issuance of treasury notes redeemable in gold or silver. The greater outpouring of paper money would badly strain the treasury's reserves of gold.
The momentum for silver came from the worsening plight of western and southern farmers who carried a heavy burden of debt. Already the emerging Populist party, which championed their needs and featured among its planks the free coinage of silver, had acquired a strength that would afflict Harrison in future elections. As well, free-silver Republicans from the West frequently were allied with eastern Republicans disaffected by Harrison's patronage policies. The president trod cautiously on the silver issue, aiming to maintain maximum political support. Simultaneously, he wished to avoid what he termed "unsound money." He styled himself a "bimetallist" rather than a gold standard advocate, since he favored expanding the paper currency backed by silver. But his opposition to free coinage cost him the support of western free-silver Republicans.
In campaign speeches, Harrison had proclaimed his belief in a protective tariff, which promised relief from the competition of cheap foreign-made goods. A tariff, he had contended, was beneficial to all—to workers whose jobs in effect were protected "at good wages," to farmers who supplied their needs, to the railroads transporting their goods. The tariff became a reality when Congressman William McKinley of Ohio and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island became the chief authors of the McKinley Tariff Law of 1890, whose principal schedules were imposed by the National Association of Wool Manufacturers, the Tin Plate and Iron and Steel Associations, Louisiana sugar growers, and other groups. The McKinley bill reached out to farmers by placing protective rates on agricultural products, and it put raw sugar on the free list while compensating Louisiana and Kansas beet growers with a bounty of 2 cents a pound. Harrison helped devise the sugar provision when it threatened to deadlock the bill. He also over-saw the development of a reciprocity provision that empowered the president to impose duties on sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, and hides if he determined that nations exporting them were imposing unequal and unreasonable duties on American goods. No apparent heed was given to the prospect of severely rising prices, which the new law did indeed inflict on consumers. Fortunately, Harrison and Secretary of State Blaine negotiated more than a dozen reciprocal agreements that modified tariff duties with leading trading partners.
A major measure that was responsive to the rising threat of the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist party, and their likely combination with the Knights of Labor, was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. For Harrison, the act redeemed a campaign pledge. He venerated economic competition and disdained monopoly, a sentiment he expressed on inauguration day when he was presented with the gift of a watch-dog, an enormous Siberian bloodhound. The dog, he said, "looks very much like an overfed monopolist." The new antitrust law, he thought, might offset to some degree the McKinley Tariff Act by prompting lower prices under freer competition. But Harrison did little to enforce the new law. His inaction was encouraged by Congress' failure to appropriate funds to investigate the trusts. The administration initiated only seven antitrust cases.
In his early policymaking, Harrison was also preoccupied with the rights of blacks in the context of general policy toward the South. His campaign statements were positive but general. Harrison was alert to the necessity of strengthening Republican voting performance in the South, where his own campaign had fared badly. From a series of measures introduced in Congress emerged a consolidating bill known as the Lodge bill or force bill, which sought to protect the rights of blacks at the polls by putting southern elections under federal supervision. The bill left Republican legislators divided, again demonstrating that Harrison could not count on his party's support for prime legislative objectives. Senators Quay and Cameron of Pennsylvania typified a basic cause of Republican recalcitrance by bowing to corporate interests of their state with holdings in the South that the new legislation might impair. Black leaders pressed Harrison to lead a public crusade for "free speech, a free ballot and a fair return of votes at the South." The Lodge bill passed in the House, but the nervous business interests prevailed in the Senate, where an administration advocate of the black cause noted, "We have had too much . . . of what may be called 'strictly business' politics."
Harrison, who considered voting rights for blacks a moral isuse, chose not to go to the people in behalf of the Lodge bill but heeded a traditional demand of black leaders for a share of the patronage. He promptly continued his party's policy of rewarding a few black leaders as a bestowal of recognition on the entire race. Generally, his favors fell on younger leaders rather than old. The president's major coup was the installation of N. Wright Cuney to the important post of collector of the Port of Galveston. The distinguished black leader Frederick Douglass was named United States resident minister and consul general to Haiti. Harrison also sought to name blacks to the postmasterships of larger southern cities, but that policy was deterred when the Senate forced the withdrawal of Dr. W. O. Crum's nomination for postmaster of Charleston. In net effect, Harrison's efforts enhanced his regard in the eyes of the black press and black leaders.
In Congress, Harrison had been known as the "Soldier's Senator" because of his sponsorship of liberal pension legislation for Civil War veterans, and in his presidential campaign he had declared that the nation should not use "an apothecary's scale to weigh the rewards of the men who saved the country." The presence of four generals in the cabinet enhanced the confidence of pension advocates even further, and in addresses on patriotic occasions and to GAR encampments, Harrison reemphasized his commitment to improved pensions for veterans.
One of the president's more promising contributions to the well-being of the veterans was his appointment of Corporal James R. Tanner, GAR commander from New York, who had lost both legs in the Second Battle of Bull Run, as commissioner of pensions. Tanner deemed it his duty "to assist a worthy old claimant to prove his case rather than to hunt for technical reasons under the law to knock him out." Even this was a modest understatement, for Tanner's many critics were soon charging that his handouts to veterans were lavish and illegal. He shot back defiantly that he would "drive a six-mule team through the Treasury." When his administrative superior, Interior Secretary John W. Noble, with the president's encouragement, commenced an investigation of Tanner's prodigal stewardship, Tanner challenged the secretary's authority in a letter released to the press. The intervention of friends of both Tanner and the president induced Tanner to resign, an act that relieved the president of a burgeoning political liability.
Harrison was more successful in moving a new liberal pension law through Congress. Under existing law, wounds or disease traceable to the war entitled the veteran to a pension. At Harrison's urging, Congress adopted in 1890 the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, which provided pensions for all veterans who had served ninety days and who were unable to perform manual labor, regardless of the cause or origin of their disability. The new law also initiated the government's commitment to the principle that its pension system provide for minors, dependent parents, and widows.
An explosion of expenditure promptly followed the enactment of Harrison's measure. Between 1891 and 1895, the number of pensioners rose from 676,000 to 970,000, and by the completion of Harrison's term, the yearly appropriation for pensions increased from $81 million to $135 million. In little more than a decade, the new law cost the government over $1 billion. Ironically, the extravagance of Harrison and Congress far exceeded Tanner's open-handedness. The new pension law confirmed the growing suspicion of citizens that governmental extravagance was moving far beyond bounds. Nonetheless, when critics referred to Congress as the "Billion-Dollar Congress," Speaker Thomas B. Reed retorted, "Yes, but this is a billion-dollar country."
Life in the White House was also on a large scale. Not only President and Mrs. Harrison lived there, but many members of their family. Harrison was described as "the only living ruler who can gather at his table four generations," which he did daily. Those at his board included Mrs. Harrison's father and the Harrisons' daughter, Mary, who helped with her mother's social schedule. With Mary were her two young children. Harrison's son, Russell, divided his time between New York and Montana, but his wife and daughter lived in the White House. Also present was an older sister of Mrs. Harrison. Since the executive mansion had only five bedrooms, the Harrisons found it unduly small.
The household was run methodically, with meals served at their appointed time. Breakfast was followed by prayers led by the president. An hour in the afternoon was reserved for a brisk walk or drive. On Washington's streets, Harrison was often seen conversing with citizens who accosted him. The Harrisons remained regular churchgoers; the president engaged in no business on Sunday and even left his mail unopened. Mrs. Harrison, a lively presence, designed the family china set; decorated hundreds of porcelain dishes, the proceeds of whose sales were donated to charities; engaged a professor of French to instruct the wives and daughters of cabinet families and others; and presided with charm and grace at White House functions. The Harrisons conveyed an easy informality, a relief to many after the stiffness of the Cleveland years. The younger Harrisons restored dancing at the White House, which was said to have been in abeyance since the time of Mrs. Polk.
Harrison's chief aide was Colonel Elijah Walker Halford, his executive secretary and confidant, a former editor of the Indianapolis Journal. Like others who served as secretaries to presidents, both before and after Harrison's time, Halford was a factotum who dealt with Congress, the press, and party figures, and the steady march of other White House callers. Halford was overseer of Harrison's daily political well-being. Presidential business was aided by the presence of telephones in the White House, although there was no telephone operator.
Harrison was readily accessible to his cabinet secretaries and followed a regimen of two weekly cabinet meetings and seeing each secretary on a scheduled day each week when, as the president explained, the secretary would come with his papers and a full consultation would proceed concerning appointments and other important business. Harrison devoted cabinet meetings to discussions of items that were of general interest or that at least affected more than one department. Before signing legislation involving a department, Harrison consulted the department head.
Of all his cabinet secretaries, Harrison's most complex relations were with Secretary of State James G. Blaine. For decades the most popular man in American politics, a controlling power of the Republican party, a perennial presidential candidate, and a leader in legislation, Blaine was versatile in both foreign and domestic policymaking. Harrison was slow in offering Blaine the post of secretary. By delaying until mid-January 1889, he sought to avoid any appearance that a deal had been made at the Chicago convention or that Blaine, and not Harrison, was choosing the cabinet.
As secretary of state, Blaine was constrained by the watchful, possibly jealous, Harrison to limited diplomatic initiatives, to concentration on inherited problems and isolated incidents as they arose. Occasionally relations between the two foremost Republicans of the day were brittle. As Mrs. Blaine complained, after a sequence of her husband's disappointments, "All propositions are rejected." Blaine was not invited to accompany the president on his extensive political trips, although other cabinet secretaries and the vice president were. Harrison vetoed a request that Blaine desired above all else, the appointment of his son Walker as assistant secretary of state, for which he was well qualified by ability and diplomatic experience. A lawyer, Walker could have been of estimable assistance to his father, who was not a lawyer, in an administration where legal questions were at the forefront of policymaking.
Despite the rough edges of their relationship, Blaine and Harrison were mutually supportive in the quest for a new and better policy. Blaine, who fore-saw great trouble under the McKinley Tariff's high rates, urged, in testimony to congressional committees, sweeping empowerment of the executive to negotiate reciprocity agreements with other countries for individual commodities, instead of general reciprocity treaties.
After initial hesitation, Harrison became more hospitable to reciprocity, influenced by Blaine's tutelage and by his understanding that western farmers welcomed reciprocity as an avenue to enlarged markets for their produce. With agrarian unrest and Populist strength growing, the Republicans patently needed to be more responsive to western sentiment if they were to hold the allegiance of that area.
It was fortunate that Harrison immersed himself in the business of his departments from the outset. An exceptional number of his department secretaries became ill or resigned. Blaine sustained a severe nervous disorder in 1891, a period of intense activity in foreign affairs, and Harrison immediately became his own secretary of state. In the same year, Interior Secretary John W. Noble took extended leave because of health, Secretary of War Redfield Proctor resigned to become senator from Vermont, and Treasury Secretary William Windom died. The heavy burden of additional work prompted Harrison to observe, "The President is a good deal like the old camp horse that Dickens described; he is strapped up so he can't fall down."
A chief preoccupation of Harrison and his colleagues in 1890 was the midterm congressional elections. The fast-developing image of the Harrison administration's extravagance, the hammer blows of the McKinley Tariff on the cost of living, and the distress of agriculture all foreordained that the oncoming congressional elections would constitute a setback to the administration of more severe proportions than the losses a president's party usually sustains in such testings. For Republican congressmen, the elections were a massacre. Before the elections, the Republicans controlled the House; after the elections, only 88 Republicans were returned, with 235 Democrats and 9 Populists. In the Senate, the Republican majority was reduced to 8 undependable votes from the Far West. Staunch Republican states such as Michigan and Massachusetts went Democratic, and McKinley himself was defeated.
The elections, with their crushing impact on Republican fortunes, indicated that the country desired major policy changes. But the result of the elections—the decimation of House Republicans—virtually foreclosed any sizable adjustments of domestic policy. The elections revealed fast-rising Populist strength in the Midwest and South, which alarmed the president's chief political advisers, who anticipated that the Senate's Silver Republicans would become all the more unreliable. The altered congressional party picture stalled most of Harrison's domestic program in his administration's final two years. His strength in the Senate was sufficient to forestall repeal of legislation passed in the first half of his administration.
In the depressed state of the president's political fortunes, the one area in which there might be some hope for a brighter future was foreign policy. Conceivably, the president could set forth appealing prospects and manage crises in ways that would attract the attention and approval of the public, and simultaneously diminish its absorption in domestic affairs.
In the initial two years of his term, Harrison had by no means been inattentive to foreign affairs. He entered office intent on abandoning isolation as a cornerstone of foreign policy, and his selection of Blaine as secretary of state augured an era of initiative and creativity. He and Blaine seized the opportunity provided by a law enacted late in the Cleveland administration that requested the president to convene a meeting of Latin American countries. Arrangements begun by Cleveland were completed by Harrison and Blaine. They agreed that the nation's growing industrial production made expansion of foreign markets a principal goal. Discussions preparatory to the conference, scheduled to begin on 2 October 1889, looked toward a customs union, inter-American rail and steamship lines, trademark and copyright laws, and arbitration treaties.
A major feature of this first Pan-American Conference, to which seventeen Latin American nations sent delegates to Washington, was a six-thousand-mile tour to impress the visitors with the size, wealth, and manufacturing capabilities of the United States. When the conference reassembled, with Blaine presiding with brilliance and tact and Harrison watchful of progress and problems, the United States offered its plan for a customs union, through which tariff barriers would be reduced and trade with Europe curtailed.
Despite Blaine's skilled advocacy, the resolution was voted down as unworkable. In a second thrust, Blaine urged that machinery be created for the arbitration of disputes. Again the proposal lost, by a wide margin. National rivalries and fears of United States dominance shaped these decisions. The conference's most signal achievement was the creation of what became known as the Pan American Union, a clearinghouse for disseminating information and fostering cooperation among the member nations. At other junctures, Harrison advocated construction of a Central American canal and increased U.S. presence in Latin America. In both Latin America and the Pacific, Harrison pursued expansionist policies sometimes expressed in a bellicose manner. Although his efforts produced few tangible successes, he heralded the nation's subsequent imperial policies of 1898.
The heritage of foreign policy issues from the Cleveland administration also included the Bering Sea controversy, which centered on the wanton slaughter of fur seals off the Alaskan coast. The scalers, mostly Canadians who stationed their vessels outside the three-mile limit, soon threatened the seals with extinction. Shortly before Harrison's inauguration, the president was authorized by Congress to seize vessels encroaching upon American rights in the "waters of the Bering Sea." Harrison promptly warned all persons "against entering the Bering Sea for the unlawful hunting of fur-bearing animals, "and revenue cutters began intercepting Canadian vessels. An intricate diplomatic controversy ensued, and continued after the termination of the Harrison administration.
More suited to Harrison's need to distract the public from the inadequacies of domestic policy was the Mafia affair in New Orleans. The murder of the local police superintendent on 16 October 1890 was attributed to the Mafia, inspired by the heavy migration of Italians, many from Sicily, where the Mafia Black Hand Society flourished. Numerous Italians in New Orleans were arrested, and fearful of violence, Harrison requested a full report from the governor of Louisiana. In March 1891 a jury found six defendants not guilty and a judge declared a mistrial for the remaining three. An aroused local citizenry stormed the prison and shot down some prisoners and hanged others.
Because Blaine was ill, Harrison composed a telegram to the governor of Louisiana deploring the massacre and requesting protection for Italians in New Orleans. Italian Americans elsewhere in the country called for full and prompt justice. The outraged Italian government demanded indemnity. Harrison directed the American minister in Rome to explain "the embarrassing gap in federalism—that in such cases the state alone has jurisdiction." Although talk of war raged in both countries, in time tempers cooled and the incident was officially closed when Harrison, nudged by Blaine, paid a modest indemnity to the Italian government.
Even more distracting was a stormy interlude in relations with Chile when its government was overthrown in 1891. Harrison disdained the rebels who, he said, "do not know how to use victory and moderation," and he delayed his conferral of recognition. Meanwhile, sailors of the USS Baltimore on shore leave in Valparaiso, Chile, engaged in a saloon brawl in which two sailors were killed, seventeen others were injured, and still others were chased by rioters, aided by police, around the city.
The crisis in Chilean relations coincided with Blaine's absence as secretary of state and Halford's illness, a time of many burdens for the president. When Chile made no apology or expression of regret, Harrison directed that a sharp note be dispatched complaining of the delay. With Chilean legal processes moving slowly in dealing with alleged wrongdoers, Harrison declared in his annual message to Congress (9 December 1891) that if the Chilean investigation did not provide satisfaction to the United States, he would again bring the matter before Congress "for such action as may be necessary." When the Chilean foreign minister responded by maligning the president, Harrison, who regarded this new affront as "an atrocious insult to the American government," ordered the navy to prepare for action. Blaine urged caution and understanding for the Chileans amid angry cabinet discussions, and on one occasion, the president leaned forward and with an emphatic gesture declared, "Mr. Secretary, that insult was to the uniform of the United States sailors."
For a time the public was deeply stirred by hostility toward Chile. A new Chilean foreign minister fortunately proved more accommodating and made an unexceptionable apology. Even as the apology was being decoded, Harrison milked the episode for all of its political worth by dispatching another special message to Congress (25 January 1892), detailing the crisis at great length, and submitted the irritating diplomatic papers "for the grave and patriotic consideration" of Congress "and for such action as may be deemed appropriate."
Harrison, in effect, was inviting Congress to declare war at a moment when Chile was about to back down. The Democratic press, agitated by the president's warlike moves, accused him of maneuvering to commence a war to assure his election with the slogan "Don't Swap Horses in Midstream." Soon Blaine, mindful of the lofty sentiments of the Pan-American Conference, induced Harrison to mute his bellicosity, and the controversy petered out when the Chilean apology was released, followed by an indemnity from its government.
Harrison inherited the perplexities of policymaking concerning the distant Samoa Islands, where Britain, Germany, and the United States had long been jockeying for ascendance. Relations with Germany were particularly edgy when Harrison began his administration, but Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, who wished to avoid further trouble, convened the Berlin Conference (29 April 1889). Thanks to Blaine's firm and efficient management of negotiations, Samoa's native ruling dynasty was preserved and a tripartite protectorate was established. Germany and Britain were not enthusiastic about the arrangement, but Blaine's skill and tenacity induced their acceptance.
Harrison's top priority in the Pacific was the Hawaiian Islands, which he meant to annex to the United States. Opportunity knocked late in his administration when a revolution toppled Queen Liliuokalani. The upheaval prompted the United States minister, John L. Stevens, to call for troops—which were dispatched—to protect American lives and property. Stevens and Provisional President Sanford Dole prepared a treaty of annexation. In a report to Harrison, Stevens noted that "the Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it."
Harrison was eager to complete the annexation as the crowning achievement of his foreign policy. Although it was late in his term, he placed a treaty before the Senate (16 February 1893) and urged "annexation full and complete." It was essential, the president said, that no other foreign power acquire Hawaii, since "such a possession would not consist with our safety and with the peace of the world." Although Harrison enjoyed the support of most House Republicans and advocates of a big navy and territorial expansion, his project foundered in the Senate, where the Democrats, who controlled the chamber, refused to act before the expiration of Harrison's term. When restored to the presidency, Grover Cleveland, a resolute anti-annexationist, withdrew the treaty.
Although Harrison seemingly used foreign policy to satisfy his own political necessities, and especially the gaining of reelection, much of what he did mirrored basic forces and longings of American society. When he became president, Reconstruction was virtually complete, industrial production was fast expanding, and American manufacturers were eager for foreign markets as outlets for their burgeoning surpluses. National consciousness was growing, patriotic societies were proliferating, and Harrison's plan to build a new and modern navy was widely applauded. In the dawning era of big warships, those built by Harrison's administration were the biggest in the world. A big navy required coaling stations, and Harrison's assertiveness in the Pacific meant to fulfill that necessity.
Although Harrison's handling of foreign policy problems was thoroughly imperial, his use of presidential power in forwarding his designs was, with few exceptions, scrupulously constitutional. He was fastidious in requesting empowerments from Congress, in subjecting his policy initiatives to its approval, and in respecting its constitutionally conferred power to declare war. For major projects, he depended on the treaty power rather than the executive agreement, which can bypass the legislative power. He was solicitous of public approval and alert to the need for informing the public of foreign affairs problems through messages to Congress and his extensive speechmaking across the country.
Foreign policy failed to arouse any tidal wave of demand for Harrison's renomination. Many Republican professionals regarded that eventuality with apprehension and distaste. Minnesota Senator W. D. Washburn represented that opinion when he said, "There are two serious objections to Harrison's re-nomination; first, no one cares anything for him personally, secondly, no one, as far as I know, thinks he could be elected if nominated." Harrison's most dedicated opponents were the bosses, led by Quay and Platt, who resented the president's handling of patronage.
Election of 1892 and Retirement
The bosses searched for a candidate to oppose the president. They looked eagerly to Blaine, who had resigned as secretary of state for reasons never made clear, but he was plagued by illness and soon made a public statement that his name would not go before the Republicans' Minneapolis convention. The statement also mentioned nothing about Harrison, his record, or his renomination. The omission kept the opposition to Harrison alive, as the bosses turned next to McKinley and John Sherman of Ohio, the two candidates that Harrison's managers feared most.
Harrison did little to help his cause. He was distracted by the serious illness of his wife, a condition first diagnosed as nervous prostration. But as the Minneapolis convention neared, Harrison changed course and sent for his top political adviser, Louis T. Michener. After reviewing the attacks by the bosses and other critics, he declared, "No Harrison ever retreated in the presence of a foe without giving battle, and I have determined to stand and fight." With demonic toil, Harrison's managers struggled to round up delegates and to ward off Mark Hanna's efforts to forestall a first-ballot nomination for Harrison, which might then clear the way for his protégé, McKinley. But Hanna's strategy failed, and Harrison captured the nomination on the first ballot. A potent factor in his success was the belief of rank-and-file Republicans that they could again win with Harrison. The rejected bosses extracted a measure of satisfaction by vetoing the renomination of Levi Morton for vice president and substituting Whitelaw Reid, also of New York and publisher of the New York Tribune. The maneuver was laid to the New York delegation and Boss Platt.
With Grover Cleveland as the Democratic nominee, the election of 1892 became the only one in which the nominees of both major parties had served as president. Harrison did little campaigning, with Mrs. Harrison's health in continuing decline, her condition now diagnosed as pulmonary tuberculosis. In deference to Mrs. Harrison, who died midway in the election, Cleveland too did not campaign. The Democratic platform's strongest words were reserved for the McKinley Tariff, which it denounced as the "culminating atrocity of class legislation."
Harrison's cause was gravely injured by a strike at the Homestead Works of the Carnegie Steel Company when twenty men were killed in a battle between locked-out workers and armed Pinkerton detectives. A military force was posted to guard the nonunion labor that was brought in. Harrison's image with labor worsened when he dispatched federal troops to the Coeur d'Alene mines in Idaho in July 1892 at the governor's request. The strike was crushed, and union miners retreated into the mountains.
In the 1892 election, Cleveland avenged the defeat he sustained in 1888. He secured a popular majority of slightly under 375,000 votes and won 277 electoral votes to 145 for Harrison and 22 for Populist party candidate James B. Weaver. Although the Republican party spent $6 million on the campaign, nearly double its outlay for 1888, Harrison, the results implied, failed to respond efficiently to the problems and concerns of labor and farmers in the severe recession of 1893. Their dissatisfactions were reflected in the rapid growth of the Populist party. The McKinley Tariff and the steep increases it wrought in the living costs of the general public helped assure Harrison's downfall.
After completing his presidential term, Harrison returned to Indianapolis and resumed his law practice, which he limited to important and often remunerative cases. He delivered a series of law lectures at Stanford University, which were published in 1901 as Views of an Ex-President. The former president, at sixty-two, remarried. His bride, Mary Lord Dimmick, was the daughter of the first Mrs. Harrison's sister and had attended her aunt during her final months of illness. They had one child, Elizabeth. In 1899, Harrison represented Venezuela in the arbitration of its dispute with Great Britain over the British Guiana boundary. He died of pneumonia at his home in Indianapolis on 13 March 1901. The last Civil War general to serve as president, Harrison lived to see his policies vindicated in the Spanish-American War, the termination of the 1893 economic crisis, and Republican recapture of the presidency after Cleveland's term.
Harry J. Sievers, Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior (1833–1865), Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Statesman (1865–1888), and Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President (The White House and After) (Indianapolis, Ind., 1952–1968; Newtown, Conn., 1997), constitute the most detailed biography of Harrison, with an extensive Harrison bibliography. Homer E. Socolofsky and Allan B. Spetter, The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (Lawrence, Kans., 1987), is the leading interpretive study of the Harrison presidency. Leonard D. White, The Republican Era, 1869–1901: A Study in Administrative History (New York, 1958), a distinguished administrative history, discusses Harrison and his cabinet and civil service reform. Alice Felt Tyler, The Foreign Policy of James G. Blaine (Minneapolis, Minn., 1927), contains an illuminating account of Blaine as secretary of state. David Saville Muzzey, James G. Blaine: A Political Idol of Other Days (New York, 1934), the standard biography of Blaine, is still very serviceable. William Alexander Robinson, Thomas B. Reed: Parliamentarian (New York, 1930), provides a perspective on the Harrison administration by the Speaker of the House.
D. M. Dozer, "Benjamin Harrison and the Presidential Campaign of 1892," in American Historical Review 54, no. 1 (1948), is an excellent analysis of Harrison's strategies and the context in which they evolved. Herbert A. Gibbons, John Wanamaker, 2 vols. (New York, 1926), is especially good on Wanamaker's role in the 1888 campaign.
Donald L. McMurry, "The Bureau of Pensions During the Administration of President Harrison," in Mississippi Valley Historical Review 13, no. 3 (1926), ably presents the pension issue and the administration of the Pension Bureau. Mary R. Dearing, Veterans in Politics: The Story of the G.A.R. (Baton Rouge, La., 1952), is extremely useful in its treatment of veterans' pension policy in the Harrison administration. Vincent P. De Santis, Republicans Face the Southern Question (Baltimore, 1959), is a valuable treatment of the Harrison administration's relations with black leaders and of pertinent policy questions.
23rd president, 1889–1893
Born: August 20, 1833
Died: March 13, 1901
Vice President: Levi P. Morton
First Lady: Caroline Scott Harrison
Children: Russell, Mary, Elizabeth
Benjamin Harrison may have been destined to enter politics based on his family's history. His great-grandfather, also named Benjamin, signed the Declaration of Independence; his grandfather was the ninth president; his father was a congressman.
Benjamin Harrison was born and raised in Ohio. He studied law and became a lawyer. He also fought in the Civil War, rising to the rank of general. He was elected to the senate in 1880 and ran for president in 1888.
Much of the campaign of 1888 centered around the issue of tariffs—taxes on foreign goods that protected American manufacturers. Harrison and the Republican Party believed that tariffs should be high. They found great financial support among wealthy business leaders and workers in large industrial states, such as Indiana and New York. Harrison was considered a cold, unfriendly man. He disliked running for office and refused to campaign. Instead, he gave short speeches from the porch of his Indiana home.
- Democrats called Harrison "Little Ben," because he was 5'6" tall.
- Harrison's grandfather, William H. Harrison, was the 9th president of the United States.
- While in the Senate, Harrison advocated civil rights for African Americans.
- Harrison was the first president to live in the White House with electrical lights.
Harrison's Democratic opponent, popular incumbent Grover Cleveland, supported lower tariffs to allow greater competition. In what was widely considered one of the most corrupt elections of the 1800s, Cleveland, who received 100,000 more popular votes than Harrison, lost in the electoral college.
Harrison was married to Caroline Scott on April 6, 1896. They had three children: Russell, Mary, and Elizabeth. Mrs. Harrison died at the White House in 1892 of tuberculosis.
During Harrison's term, technology and invention boomed in the United States. Automobiles and electric lights were among the modern conveniences people enjoyed then.
When Harrison Was in Office
- Native American land in Oklahoma was opened to white settlers, setting off the first of several land rushes.
In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the collapse of a dam led to a flood that killed 2,000 people.
Newspaper reporter Nellie Bly traveled around the world in 72 days, a new record.
The Eiffel Tower was dedicated in Paris.
Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota became states.
- At Wounded Knee, South Dakota, U.S. troops killed more than 100 Sioux, many of them women and children.
Idaho became a state.
Wyoming became a state, the first to enter the Union with voting rights for women.
- Whitcomb Judson patented the zipper.
- Ellis Island, an immigrant entry point in New York Harbor, opened its doors.
Harrison ran for reelection in 1892, but was defeated by the man who had preceded him, Grover Cleveland.
On Harrison's Inauguration Day
Benjamin Harrison was inaugurated almost 100 years after George Washington took the first oath of office. While Washington had been a unanimous choice, Harrison had been elected largely because of party vote-buying in states with large electoral votes. The nation was on the verge of an economic depression, yet big businesses such as energy, railroads, and steel were pouring large amounts of money into the campaign funds of lawmakers such as Harrison who were sympathetic to their cause. For that reason, suspicion and distrust swirled around the president as he took office.
Benjamin Harrison's Inaugural Address
In Washington, D.C., Monday, March 4, 1889
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. The oath taken in the presence of the people becomes a mutual covenant. The officer covenants to serve the whole body of the people by a faithful execution of the laws, so that they may be the unfailing defense and security of those who respect and observe them, and that neither wealth, station, nor the power of combinations shall be able to evade their just penalties or to wrest them from a beneficent public purpose to serve the ends of cruelty or selfishness.
My promise is spoken; yours unspoken, but not the less real and solemn. The people of every State have here their representatives. Surely I do not misinterpret the spirit of the occasion when I assume that the whole body of the people covenant with me and with each other to-day to support and defend the Constitution and the Union of the States, to yield willing obedience to all the laws and each to every other citizen his equal civil and political rights. Entering thus solemnly into covenant with each other, we may reverently invoke and confidently expect the favor and help of Almighty God—that He will give to me wisdom, strength, and fidelity, and to our people a spirit of fraternity and a love of righteousness and peace.
This occasion derives peculiar interest from the fact that the Presidential term which begins this day is the twenty-sixth under our Constitution. The first inauguration of President Washington took place in New York, where Congress was then sitting, on the 30th day of April, 1789, having been deferred by reason of delays attending the organization of the Congress and the canvass of the electoral vote. Our people have already worthily observed the centennials of the Declaration of Independence, of the battle of Yorktown, and of the adoption of the Constitution, and will shortly celebrate in New York the institution of the second great department of our constitutional scheme of government. When the centennial of the institution of the judicial department, by the organization of the Supreme Court, shall have been suitably observed, as I trust it will be, our nation will have fully entered its second century.
I will not attempt to note the marvelous and in great part happy contrasts between our country as it steps over the threshold into its second century of organized existence under the Constitution and that weak but wisely ordered young nation that looked undauntedly down the first century, when all its years stretched out before it.
Our people will not fail at this time to recall the incidents which accompanied the institution of government under the Constitution, or to find inspiration and guidance in the teachings and example of Washington and his great associates, and hope and courage in the contrast which thirty-eight populous and prosperous States offer to the thirteen States, weak in everything except courage and the love of liberty, that then fringed our Atlantic seaboard.
The Territory of Dakota has now a population greater than any of the original States (except Virginia) and greater than the aggregate of five of the smaller States in 1790. The center of population when our national capital was located was east of Baltimore, and it was argued by many well-informed persons that it would move eastward rather than westward; yet in 1880 it was found to be near Cincinnati, and the new census about to be taken will show another stride to the westward. That which was the body has come to be only the rich fringe of the nation's robe. But our growth has not been limited to territory, population and aggregate wealth, marvelous as it has been in each of those directions. The masses of our people are better fed, clothed, and housed than their fathers were. The facilities for popular education have been vastly enlarged and more generally diffused.
The virtues of courage and patriotism have given recent proof of their continued presence and increasing power in the hearts and over the lives of our people. The influences of religion have been multiplied and strengthened. The sweet offices of charity have greatly increased. The virtue of temperance is held in higher estimation. We have not attained an ideal condition. Not all of our people are happy and prosperous; not all of them are virtuous and law-abiding. But on the whole the opportunities offered to the individual to secure the comforts of life are better than are found elsewhere and largely better than they were here one hundred years ago.
The surrender of a large measure of sovereignty to the General Government, effected by the adoption of the Constitution, was not accomplished until the suggestions of reason were strongly reenforced by the more imperative voice of experience. The divergent interests of peace speedily demanded a "more perfect union." The merchant, the shipmaster, and the manufacturer discovered and disclosed to our statesmen and to the people that commercial emancipation must be added to the political freedom which had been so bravely won. The commercial policy of the mother country had not relaxed any of its hard and oppressive features. To hold in check the development of our commercial marine, to prevent or retard the establishment and growth of manufactures in the States, and so to secure the American market for their shops and the carrying trade for their ships, was the policy of European statesmen, and was pursued with the most selfish vigor.
Petitions poured in upon Congress urging the imposition of discriminating duties that should encourage the production of needed things at home. The patriotism of the people, which no longer found afield of exercise in war, was energetically directed to the duty of equipping the young Republic for the defense of its independence by making its people self-dependent. Societies for the promotion of home manufactures and for encouraging the use of domestics in the dress of the people were organized in many of the States. The revival at the end of the century of the same patriotic interest in the preservation and development of domestic industries and the defense of our working people against injurious foreign competition is an incident worthy of attention.1 It is not a departure but a return that we have witnessed. The protective policy had then its opponents. The argument was made, as now, that its benefits inured to particular classes or sections.
If the question became in any sense or at any time sectional, it was only because slavery existed in some of the States. But for this there was no reason why the cotton-producing States should not have led or walked abreast with the New England States in the production of cotton fabrics. There was this reason only why the States that divide with Pennsylvania the mineral treasures of the great southeastern and central mountain ranges should have been so tardy in bringing to the smelting furnace and to the mill the coal and iron from their near opposing hillsides. Mill fires were lighted at the funeral pile of slavery. The emancipation proclamation was heard in the depths of the earth as well as in the sky; men were made free, and material things became our better servants.
The sectional element has happily been eliminated from the tariff discussion. We have no longer States that are necessarily only planting States. None are excluded from achieving that diversification of pursuits among the people which brings wealth and contentment. The cotton plantation will not be less valuable when the product is spun in the country town by operatives whose necessities call for diversified crops and create a home demand for garden and agricultural products. Every new mine, furnace, and factory is an extension of the productive capacity of the State more real and valuable than added territory.
Shall the prejudices and paralysis of slavery continue to hang upon the skirts of progress? How long will those who rejoice that slavery no longer exists cherish or tolerate the incapacities it put upon their communities? I look hopefully to the continuance of our protective system and to the consequent development of manufacturing and mining enterprises in the States hitherto wholly given to agriculture as a potent influence in the perfect unification of our people. The men who have invested their capital in these enterprises, the farmers who have felt the benefit of their neighborhood, and the men who work in shop or field will not fail to find and to defend a community of interest.
Is it not quite possible that the farmers and the promoters of the great mining and manufacturing enterprises which have recently been established in the South may yet find that the free ballot of the workingman, without distinction of race, is needed for their defense as well as for his own? I do not doubt that if those men in the South who now accept the tariff views of Clay and the constitutional expositions of Webster would courageously avow and defend their real convictions they would not find it difficult, by friendly instruction and cooperation, to make the black man their efficient and safe ally, not only in establishing correct principles in our national administration, but in preserving for their local communities the benefits of social order and economical and honest government. At least until the good offices of kindness and education have been fairly tried the contrary conclusion can not be plausibly urged.
I have altogether rejected the suggestion of a special Executive policy for any section of our country. It is the duty of the Executive to administer and enforce in the methods and by the instrumentalities pointed out and provided by the Constitution all the laws enacted by Congress. These laws are general and their administration should be uniform and equal. As a citizen may not elect what laws he will obey, neither may the Executive eject which he will enforce. The duty to obey and to execute embraces the Constitution in its entirety and the whole code of laws enacted under it. The evil example of permitting individuals, corporations, or communities to nullify the laws because they cross some selfish or local interest or prejudices is full of danger, not only to the nation at large, but much more to those who use this pernicious expedient to escape their just obligations or to obtain an unjust advantage over others. They will presently themselves be compelled to appeal to the law for protection, and those who would use the law as a defense must not deny that use of it to others.
If our great corporations would more scrupulously observe their legal limitations and duties, they would have less cause to complain of the unlawful limitations of their rights or of violent interference with their operations. The community that by concert, open or secret, among its citizens denies to a portion of its members their plain rights under the law has severed the only safe bond of social order and prosperity. 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. The man in whose breast that faith has been darkened is naturally the subject of dangerous and uncanny suggestions. Those who use unlawful methods, if moved by no higher motive than the selfishness that prompted them, may well stop and inquire what is to be the end of this.
An unlawful expedient can not become a permanent condition of government. 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? A community where law is the rule of conduct and where courts, not mobs, execute its penalties is the only attractive field for business investments and honest labor.
Our naturalization laws should be so amended as to make the inquiry into the character and good disposition of persons applying for citizenship more careful and searching. Our existing laws have been in their administration an unimpressive and often an unintelligible form. We accept the man as a citizen without any knowledge of his fitness, and he assumes the duties of citizenship without any knowledge as to what they are. The privileges of American citizenship are so great and its duties so grave that we may well insist upon a good knowledge of every person applying for citizenship and a good knowledge by him of our institutions. We should not cease to be hospitable to immigration, but we should cease to be careless as to the character of it. There are men of all races, even the best, whose coming is necessarily a burden upon our public revenues or a threat to social order.2 These should be identified and excluded.
We have happily maintained a policy of avoiding all interference with European affairs. We have been only interested spectators of their contentions in diplomacy and in war, ready to use our friendly offices to promote peace, but never obtruding our advice and never attempting unfairly to coin the distresses of other powers into commercial advantage to ourselves. We have a just right to expect that our European policy will be the American policy of European courts.
It is so manifestly incompatible with those precautions for our peace and safety which all the great powers habitually observe and enforce in matters affecting them that a shorter waterway between our eastern and western seaboards should be dominated by any European Government that we may confidently expect that such a purpose will not be entertained by any friendly power.
We shall in the future, as in the past, use every endeavor to maintain and enlarge our friendly relations with all the great powers, but they will not expect us to look kindly upon any project that would leave us subject to the dangers of a hostile observation or environment. We have not sought to dominate or to absorb any of our weaker neighbors, but rather to aid and encourage them to establish free and stable governments resting upon the consent of their own people. We have a clear right to expect, therefore, that no European Government will seek to establish colonial dependencies upon the territory of these independent American States. That which a sense of justice restrains us from seeking they may be reasonably expected willingly to forego.
It must not be assumed, however, that our interests are so exclusively American that our entire inattention to any events that may transpire elsewhere can be taken for granted. Our citizens domiciled for purposes of trade in all countries and in many of the islands of the sea demand and will have our adequate care in their personal and commercial rights. The necessities of our Navy require convenient coaling stations and dock and harbor privileges. These and other trading privileges we will feel free to obtain only by means that do not in any degree partake of coercion, however feeble the government from which we ask such concessions. But having fairly obtained them by methods and for purposes entirely consistent with the most friendly disposition toward all other powers, our consent will be necessary to any modification or impairment of the concession.
We shall neither fail to respect the flag of any friendly nation or the just rights of its citizens, nor to exact the like treatment for our own. Calmness, justice, and consideration should characterize our diplomacy. The offices of an intelligent diplomacy or of friendly arbitration in proper cases should be adequate to the peaceful adjustment of all international difficulties. By such methods we will make our contribution to the world's peace, which no nation values more highly, and avoid the opprobrium which must fall upon the nation that ruthlessly breaks it.
The duty devolved by law upon the President to nominate and, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint all public officers whose appointment is not otherwise provided for in the Constitution or by act of Congress has become very burdensome and its wise and efficient discharge full of difficulty. The civil list is so large that a personal knowledge of any large number of the applicants is impossible. The President must rely upon the representations of others, and these are often made inconsiderately and without any just sense of responsibility. I have a right, I think, to insist that those who volunteer or are invited to give advice as to appointments shall exercise consideration and fidelity. A high sense of duty and an ambition to improve the service should characterize all public officers.
There are many ways in which the convenience and comfort of those who have business with our public offices may be promoted by a thoughtful and obliging officer, and I shall expect those whom I may appoint to justify their selection by a conspicuous efficiency in the discharge of their duties. Honorable party service will certainly not be esteemed by me a disqualification for public office, but it will in no case be allowed to serve as a shield of official negligence, incompetency, or delinquency. It is entirely creditable to seek public office by proper methods and with proper motives, and all applicants will be treated with consideration; but I shall need, and the heads of Departments will need, time for inquiry and deliberation. Persistent importunity will not, therefore, be the best support of an application for office. Heads of Departments, bureaus, and all other public officers having any duty connected therewith will be expected to enforce the civil-service law fully and without evasion. Beyond this obvious duty I hope to do something more to advance the reform of the civil service. The ideal, or even my own ideal, I shall probably not attain. Retrospect will be a safer basis of judgment than promises. We shall not, however, I am sure, be able to put our civil service upon a nonpartisan basis until we have secured an incumbency that fair-minded men of the opposition will approve for impartiality and integrity. As the number of such in the civil list is increased removals from office will diminish.
While a Treasury surplus is not the greatest evil, it is a serious evil. Our revenue should be ample to meet the ordinary annual demands upon our Treasury, with a sufficient margin for those extraordinary but scarcely less imperative demands which arise now and then. Expenditure should always be made with economy and only upon public necessity. Wastefulness, profligacy, or favoritism in public expenditures is criminal. But there is nothing in the condition of our country or of our people to suggest that anything presently necessary to the public prosperity, security, or honor should be unduly postponed.
It will be the duty of Congress wisely to forecast and estimate these extraordinary demands, and, having added them to our ordinary expenditures, to so adjust our revenue laws that no considerable annual surplus will remain. We will fortunately be able to apply to the redemption of the public debt any small and unforeseen excess of revenue. This is better than to reduce our income below our necessary expenditures, with the resulting choice between another change of our revenue laws and an increase of the public debt. It is quite possible, I am sure, to effect the necessary reduction in our revenues without breaking down our protective tariff or seriously injuring any domestic industry.
The construction of a sufficient number of modern war ships and of their necessary armament should progress as rapidly as is consistent with care and perfection in plans and workmanship. The spirit, courage, and skill of our naval officers and seamen have many times in our history given to weak ships and inefficient guns a rating greatly beyond that of the naval list. That they will again do so upon occasion I do not doubt; but they ought not, by premeditation or neglect, to be left to the risks and exigencies of an unequal combat. We should encourage the establishment of American steamship lines. The exchanges of commerce demand stated, reliable, and rapid means of communication, and until these are provided the development of our trade with the States lying south of us is impossible.
Our pension laws should give more adequate and discriminating relief to the Union soldiers and sailors and to their widows and orphans. Such occasions as this should remind us that we owe everything to their valor and sacrifice.
It is a subject of congratulation that there is a near prospect of the admission into the Union of the Dakotas and Montana and Washington Territories. This act of justice has been unreasonably delayed in the case of some of them. The people who have settled these Territories are intelligent, enterprising, and patriotic, and the accession of these new States will add strength to the nation. It is due to the settlers in the Territories who have availed themselves of the invitations of our land laws to make homes upon the public domain that their titles should be speedily adjusted and their honest entries confirmed by patent.
It is very gratifying to observe the general interest now being manifested in the reform of our election laws. Those who have been for years calling attention to the pressing necessity of throwing about the ballot box and about the elector further safeguards, in order that our elections might not only be free and pure, but might clearly appear to be so, will welcome the accession of any who did not so soon discover the need of reform. The National Congress has not as yet taken control of elections in that case over which the Constitution gives it jurisdiction, but has accepted and adopted the election laws of the several States, provided penalties for their violation and a method of supervision. Only the inefficiency of the State laws or an unfair partisan administration of them could suggest a departure from this policy.
It was clearly, however, in the contemplation of the framers of the Constitution that such an exigency might arise, and provision was wisely made for it. The freedom of the ballot is a condition of our national life, and no power vested in Congress or in the Executive to secure or perpetuate it should remain unused upon occasion. The people of all the Congressional districts have an equal interest that the election in each shall truly express the views and wishes of a majority of the qualified electors residing within it. The results of such elections are not local, and the insistence of electors residing in other districts that they shall be pure and free does not savor at all of impertinence.
If in any of the States the public security is thought to be threatened by ignorance among the electors, the obvious remedy is education. The sympathy and help of our people will not be withheld from any community struggling with special embarrassments or difficulties connected with the suffrage if the remedies proposed proceed upon lawful lines and are promoted by just and honorable methods. How shall those who practice election frauds recover that respect for the sanctity of the ballot which is the first condition and obligation of good citizenship?3 The man who has come to regard the ballot box as a juggler's hat has renounced his allegiance.
Let us exalt patriotism and moderate our party contentions. Let those who would die for the flag on the field of battle give a better proof of their patriotism and a higher glory to their country by promoting fraternity and justice. A party success that is achieved by unfair methods or by practices that partake of revolution is hurtful and evanescent even from a party standpoint. We should hold our differing opinions in mutual respect, and, having submitted them to the arbitrament of the ballot, should accept an adverse judgment with the same respect that we would have demanded of our opponents if the decision had been in our favor.
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. God has placed upon our head a diadem and has laid at our feet power and wealth beyond definition or calculation. But we must not forget that we take these gifts upon the condition that justice and mercy shall hold the reins of power and that the upward avenues of hope shall be free to all the people.
I do not mistrust the future. Dangers have been in frequent ambush along our path, but we have uncovered and vanquished them all. Passion has swept some of our communities, but only to give us a new demonstration that the great body of our people are stable, patriotic, and law-abiding. No political party can long pursue advantage at the expense of public honor or by rude and indecent methods without protest and fatal disaffection in its own body. The peaceful agencies of commerce are more fully revealing the necessary unity of all our communities, and the increasing intercourse of our people is promoting mutual respect. We shall find unalloyed pleasure in the revelation which our next census will make of the swift development of the great resources of some of the States. Each State will bring its generous contribution to the great aggregate of the nation's increase. 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.
Quotes to Note
- "The revival at the end of the century..." Harrison compares the debate over tariffs that has defined the campaign with the dispute over the issue that had occurred 100 years earlier. He considers his view "patriotic," although the United States in 1889 was one of the most powerful industrial nations in the world, and not a small newly formed nation as it was in 1789.
- "There are men of all races..." Harrison refers to enormous numbers of immigrants entering the United States at that time. Shortly after his inaugurations, the Ellis Island immigration center would open to screen immigrants arriving in the United States. Harrison emphasizes the problem by saying "even the best" races—he means white people—are a burden on the country.
- "How shall those who practice election frauds..." Harrison is referring to the growing discrimination faced by African Americans who attempted to vote in the South. He would make it a key part of his term in office to support legislation that guaranteed voting rights.
BORN: August 20, 1833 • North Bend, Ohio
DIED: March 13, 1901 • Indianapolis, Indiana
Benjamin Harrison was America's twenty-third president. He was also the grandson of the nation's ninth president, William Henry Harrison (1773–1841; served 1841), and the great-grandson of Colonel Benjamin Harrison (1750–1808), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His time in the White House was largely uneventful, and historians generally consider Harrison a mediocre president. He was not the best or most active president, but he was not the worst, either.
"I do the same thing every day. I eat three meals, sleep six hours and read dusty old books the rest of the time. My life is about as devoid of anything funny as the great desert is of grass."
From farm to war
Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833, in the house belonging to his grandfather, William Henry Harrison. He spent his childhood on The Point, the Harrison family farm, located in North Bend, Ohio. Harrison received his education in a one-room schoolhouse as well as from a tutor at home. Between 1847 and 1850, he attended a preparatory school (a school that prepares students for college) in Cincinnati. In 1852, he graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Harrison loved to read, and it was no secret he preferred the company of books to people. He became an effective public speaker over the span of two years, when he studied law from 1852 to 1854. In 1853, he married Caroline Scott, and the couple moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. There, Harrison quickly became active in the Republican Party. (One of the oldest political parties in the United States, the Republican Party was founded as an antislavery party in the mid-1800s; it transformed into one associated with conservative fiscal and social policies.) In 1862, he joined the Union (North) Army by way of the Seventieth Regiment of the Indiana volunteers during the Civil War (1861–65). He would leave the war as a brigadier general.
Gains political experience
Harrison returned to political activism upon returning home from the war. He was heavily involved in supporting the presidential campaigns of Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–93; served 1877–81) and James A. Garfield (1831–81; served 1881). Both men won their elections. Harrison was named to the U.S. Senate in 1880 (senators were appointed by state legislature until 1913, when they began to be elected by popular vote). As a senator, Harrison supported pensions for Civil War veterans, high tariffs (taxes), and a modern navy.
The Indiana state legislature was taken over by Democrats in 1887, and Harrison was not returned to the Senate. The following year, he ran in the presidential election. In addition to the issues he chose to support as a senator, he upheld conservation of wilderness regions and a limited reform of civil service (government jobs). Harrison broke from traditional Republican viewpoint in his opposition to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which ended Chinese immigration to the United States.
The main issue of the 1888 race was tariffs. These were taxes imposed on goods imported from other countries. Republicans generally favored high taxes because that money went into the government budget and would give the government more spending money. Democrats generally favored lower tariffs because they believed overseas competition was healthy for the American economy.
Becomes twenty-third president
Harrison's campaign was unique. He was the first candidate to participate in what became known as "front-porch speeches." Rather than tour the country giving speeches in formal settings, Harrison would stand on the front porch of his home in Indiana and speak to the public. This folksy atmosphere helped people to consider the president a regular man with a regular family and life. They felt that what mattered to them, mattered to him. Harrison got favorable press coverage from these speeches. His opponent, President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89 and 1893–97; see entry), gave just one speech during the 1888 campaign.
Although Cleveland won 90,000 more popular votes (votes from citizens) than Harrison, Harrison won the election with 233 of the electoral votes (compared with Cleveland's 168). Electoral votes are the votes a candidate receives for winning the majority of popular votes of a particular state. If a candidate wins the most popular votes in a state, he wins all of that state's electoral votes. Not all states are worth the same number of electoral votes. That number is determined by how many U.S. representatives a state has in the House plus two, one for each of the state's U.S. senators. In order to win a presidential election, a candidate must have more than 50 percent of electoral votes. It is very rare that a presidential candidate would win more popular votes than his opponent, yet fail to win the election. In Harrison's case, a Republican president was back in the White House. Not only that, the Republicans controlled the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Life and law on the homefront
The most important piece of legislation to cross Harrison's desk was the McKinley Tariff of 1890. Named after U.S. representative William McKinley (1843–1901; see entry) of Ohio, the law raised protective tariffs an average of 49.5 percent, to make them the highest rates in the nation's history. That same bill also expanded the powers of the president in regard to foreign trade. For example, under the McKinley Tariff, Harrison could negotiate agreements with overseas manufacturers without getting approval from Congress. If he wanted to, the president could offer lower import rates for specific products in exchange for lower rates on American exports. The new law also allowed him to establish a federal committee to authorize and oversee the many details and functions of foreign trade.
The Harrison administration also passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. By the late nineteenth century, big businesses and giant corporations had taken over the economy. American consumers were forced into paying high prices for things they needed, and Republicans and Democrats alike called for reform of regulations in industry. The loudest outcry was against monopolies, businesses that have total control over a sector of the economy, including prices. With a monopoly, there is no competition.
As a result of the public's fury, Harrison passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was named after Republican U.S. senator John Sherman (1823–1900) of Ohio. Some states had already passed laws restricting the use of trusts (companies working together to take total control of production and distribution of a product or service). Those laws applied only to business conducted within those states, however. Under the Sherman Act, trusts and monopolies were illegal both within states and when dealing with foreign trade.
The passing of the act was a step in the right direction, but like many other laws passed during the Gilded Age, it had little effect on reality. (The Gilded Age was the period in history following the Civil War and Reconstruction [roughly the final twenty-three years of the nineteenth century], characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption.) Disobeying the terms of the Sherman Antitrust Act brought a maximum fine of $5,000 and a one-year prison term. Those who were inclined to break the law were not put off by a fine they could easily pay. For these industrialists, the benefits of a trust far outweighed the punishment for building it.
The federal government had the power to dissolve trusts, but the Supreme Court kept them from implementing the act for years. The Sherman Act had little effect until Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9; see entry) took office in 1901. Known as the "trustbusting" president, Roosevelt sought prosecutions of trusts he thought were ignoring the law.
Senator Sherman sponsored another important bill that Harrison passed, again in 1890. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act had the U.S. Treasury purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver at market price each month. The silver was bought with Treasury notes that could be redeemed in either gold or silver. Citizens who held notes turned them in for gold because they got more money for each note that way. In doing so, they nearly emptied the Treasury's gold supply. Silver production increased as a result. Silver prices then went down, rather than up, which was the original intent of the act.
The act was repealed in 1893, when America was experiencing the worst economic decline in its history up to that time. Historians cite a number of factors that contributed to the panic, but the Sherman Silver Purchase Act is the most responsible. In addition to depleting the nation's gold reserves and the decrease in silver prices, railroads went bankrupt (ran out of money and could not repay their debts) and hundreds of banks failed. The results of the financial crisis were high unemployment rates and a shortage of money circulating in the economy.
Land Revision Act of 1891
Harrison, always a supporter of conservation, passed the Land Revision Act of 1891. This law gave the president the authority to set aside public lands for the sake of preservation. Harrison authorized the first forest reserve in Yellowstone, Wyoming.
Harrison was protective of American interests overseas, and worked hard to maintain that protection. He threatened war with Chile when American sailors were injured in the country's port city of Valparaiso. After discussing the incident with Chile's leaders, Harrison received an apology and the United States was paid $75,000 in reparations (compensation for wrongdoing).
Harrison believed in modernizing and expanding the U.S. Navy. Under his direction, the navy was reorganized and developed into a fleet of seven armored ships.
Since the early 1800s, Latin American countries had struggled for independence. They looked to the United States as a model, and President Harrison accepted that responsibility. Working closely with Secretary of State James Blaine (1830–1893; see box), Harrison organized the first Pan-American Conference (the first conference of or relating to North, South, and Central America) in Washington, D.C., in December 1889. Every nation from these regions except the Dominican Republic was represented at the meeting. The mission of the conference was to promote peace throughout the world. Delegates worked together to develop treaties and guidelines for nations to refer to in times of international conflict and dispute.
James Blaine: Persistent Politician
James G. Blaine was born in Pennsylvania in 1830. He spent his entire childhood there and did not leave the state until he moved to Maine in 1854. There, he worked as a newspaper editor. He also was a founder of the Republican Party in Maine.
Respected for his tireless activism and commitment to his party, Blaine was elected to the state legislature for four years (1859–62). He served the last two as speaker (leader) of the state House of Representatives. In 1862, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he would serve for thirteen years. He was Speaker of the House (leader of the entire U.S. House of Representatives; a highly powerful position) for the last six years of his tenure.
Blaine was appointed U.S. senator in 1876 to fill a vacancy and quickly became a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. His reputation suffered when the press publicized a scandal over an Arkansas railroad that Blaine supposedly aided by using his power as speaker. His accusers claimed he used his stature to obtain a land grant for the railroad and then sold the railroad's bonds for a profit. Blaine lost the nomination to Rutherford B. Hayes. Blaine sought the presidential nomination again in 1880, but lost to James A. Garfield. When Garfield won the presidency, he appointed Blaine secretary of state. Garfield was assassinated shortly after taking office, however, and Blaine resigned only a few months after Garfield's successor, Chester A. Arthur, took office. He retired for a brief time.
Although finally nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 1884, Blaine's scandalous past interfered with his efforts, and he could not beat Democrat Grover Cleveland. He used the next four years to give strong vocal support to the tariff and continued to work within the Republican Party.
Blaine surprised everyone in the presidential election of 1888 by not seeking the nomination and supporting Benjamin Harrison instead. The following year, Blaine became secretary of state once again. As part of the Harrison administration, he helped the president develop and maintain improved foreign relations with Latin America. His relationship with Harrison worsened over the year. Harrison, long known as being a cold man who did not listen to or enjoy being around people, often felt overshadowed by his charming and friendly secretary of state. Many people believed Blaine made most of Harrison's decisions for him, but a more modern analysis of the Harrison administration shows that this was not the case. Regardless, the two men had less to say to one another as Harrison's term progressed. In 1892, Blaine resigned his position and once more sought the Republican nomination for the next presidential election. He failed, as the incumbent Harrison again won the nomination in 1892.
Blaine died in Washington, D.C., just four days before his sixty-third birthday, in 1893. He had been suffering from several health problems for years.
An offshoot of the Pan-American Conference was the formation of the Commercial Bureau of American Republics. This group was renamed the Pan-American Union at the fourth conference in 1910. With membership from all three Americas, the Union strove to maintain peace through what they called collective security, which meant that they agreed to help each other in times of trouble. Maintaining and storing official documents was the responsibility of the Union, and it provided useful technical and informational services to the Americas. In 1948, a meeting was held with the single purpose of banding together to fight communism (economic theory of public ownership and control over all production and distribution) in the Americas. The Union was again renamed; as the Organization of American States, it remains active in the twenty-first century. Its members come from all thirty-five independent nations of the Americas.
Harrison believed in territorial expansion, or adding more land to the United States. He felt strongly that Hawaii should become a U.S. territory. Hawaii was important to the United States for a variety of reasons. It was a key spot for America's whaling ships, and hundreds of missionaries traveled to the islands every year. Sugar was an important export of Hawaii's, and the region's economy and politics soon relied heavily on the United States. Furthermore, Harrison did not want Hawaii to become annexed (taken over) by any European country. Such control would have given Europe even more power than it already had.
Sugar cane farmers in Hawaii also wanted the annexation of their homeland to America. They believed that such a move would end the threat of a high export tariff on their product. Harrison tried to convince the Senate to approve the annexation, but he failed. Eventually, Hawaii was annexed in 1898 under President William McKinley. Because of his early efforts, however, Harrison is often credited as being the president who put America on the path to becoming an empire.
More states were admitted to the Union during Harrison's term than during any other 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). On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island in New York Harbor became the official entry point for the millions of immigrants coming to America's shores. America's population increased by more than five million in the years 1888 to 1892; half of the new people were immigrants.
The 1892 election
The election of 1892 was of great historic importance: It was the first election in which both candidates had been president. Harrison beat President Cleveland in the 1888 election, but he did not beat him again.
Harrison had done well for himself and his country with his foreign agenda, but his handling of domestic issues (situations within the country) was not looked upon so favorably. Never a personable fellow, his cold manner and his refusal to listen to advice turned even his own party against him. The president's popularity suffered over three major issues: his support of the McKinley Tariff, which millions of Americans took as a sign that he had for gotten the average citizen and was siding with big business; his lack of response to the plight of farmers in the South and West, who were suffering from the fallout of high tariffs and so were financially in danger; and the fact that throughout his administration, American workers participated in a series of violent labor strikes(when workers refuse to work until negotiations for improvements are made), which again linked the president to monopoly industrialists and unethical bankers.
In addition to these perceptions, many Americans were not in favor of how easily Harrison spent federal dollars. Early in Harrison's administration, Congress was nicknamed the "Billion Dollar Congress" because of all the money that was appropriated. No president before him had so freely spent money in peacetime. According to Harrison's biography on the Web site The White House, Thomas B. Reed (1839–1902), twice Speaker of the House of Representatives, answered critics by saying, "This is a billion dollar country."
Cleveland won the election with 277 electoral votes, as compared with Harrison's 145. Cleveland also won nearly 373,000 more popular votes than his opponent. It was the most decisive victory of any presidential election in twenty years.
His last years
Harrison's wife Caroline had died in 1892 from tuberculosis (lung disease). Together, they had three children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1896, he married again, this time to a widow named Mary Scott Lord Dimmick; she was his first wife's niece. They had one daughter.
Although he was stiff and formal with the public, Harrison was a loving father and husband. His grandchildren were especially dear to him, and he often quit working at noon so that he could have time to play with them.
By the time of his defeat, Harrison was ready to leave the White House. His feelings toward the public were about the same as theirs were for him. Upon learning of his defeat, he told his family he felt as if he had been freed from prison. He spent his last years active in law.
In February 1901, Harrison came down with a cold that eventually turned into pneumonia. He died in his Indianapolis home on March 13, 1901.
For More Information
American Presidents in World History. Vol. 3. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.
Cherny, Robert W. American Politics in the Gilded Age: 1868–1900. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1997.
Sievers, Harry J. Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1997.
Stevens, Rita. Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the United States. Ada, OK: Garrett Educational Corp., 1989.
Williams, Jean Kinney. Benjamin Harrison: America's 23rd President. New York: Children's Press, 2004.
"Benjamin Harrison." American President.org.http://americanpresident.org/history/benjaminharrison/biography (accessed on September 2, 2006).
"Benjamin Harrison." The White House.http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/bh23.html (accessed on September 2, 2006).
The President Benjamin Harrison Home.http://www.presidentbenjaminharrison.org/ (accessed on September 2, 2006).
"Who Was James Blaine?" Blaine Amendments.http://www.blaineamendments.org/Intro/JGB.html (accessed on September 2, 2006).
Benjamin Harrison was born in 1833 in North Bend, Ohio . The grandson of the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison (1773–1841; served 1841), Benjamin Harrison became a lawyer and moved to Indiana , where he volunteered in Republican Party campaigns. Harrison fought in the American Civil War (1861–65) as a colonel. When he returned home, he built a reputation as an excellent lawyer.
Harrison served in the U.S. Senate throughout most of the 1880s, where he supported Native Americans and Civil War veterans. In the 1888 presidential campaign, he defended high tariffs (taxes imposed on goods imported from other countries), conservation of wilderness lands, and limited civil service reform. He broke from the traditional Republican viewpoint in his opposition to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which ended Chinese immigration to the United States. (See Asian Immigration .)
Harrison was the first candidate to participate in what became known as “front porch speeches.” People would visit him at his home in Indiana and listen to him speak from his front porch. This campaign style encouraged citizens to think of Harrison as one of them, a regular man with a regular home and family. These speeches were not as informal as they appeared; Harrison's campaign managers carefully selected which newspaper reporters and community members would attend.
Harrison beat his opponent, President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89 and 1893–97). A Republican president was back in office, and for the first time in years, the Republican Party dominated both the executive branch and legislative branch of the federal government.
In the White House
Harrison was not a unique leader, but his administration was efficient and productive. Some of the legislation that passed during his presidency had a major impact on American business. Harrison supported the McKinley Tariff of 1890, a law that raised tariff rates an average of 49.5 percent. The bill also gave the president expanded powers in the area of foreign trade.
The American public hated giant corporations and big businesses that took over the economy and forced consumers into paying high fees and prices. Republicans and Democrats alike rallied together in the call for reform of dishonest business practices such as monopolies . (Monopolies are businesses that have total control over a certain sector of the economy, including prices; in a monopoly, there is no competition.) As a result of this public outcry, the Harrison administration supported and passed the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. This act was the first federal law to regulate big business. The Sherman Antitrust Act made it a federal crime for businesses to form trusts (the concept of several companies banding together to form an organization that limits competition by controlling the production and distribution of a product or service). Although it had flaws, it was an important first step.
Another important piece of legislation passed during Harrison's term was the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. This bill had the U.S. Treasury purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver at market price each month. The silver was bought with treasury notes that could be redeemed in either gold or silver. Holders of these notes were so eager to turn them in for gold (because they received more money per note that way) that they nearly emptied the Treasury's supply. The act increased the production of silver, which sent silver prices down rather than up, and that was the intent. The act was repealed in 1893, the year of the worst economic decline the United States had ever experienced. Historians point to several factors that contributed to the Panic of 1893 , including the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. In addition to the depletion of the nation's gold reserves and the decrease in silver prices, railroads went bankrupt and banks across the country began to fail. The result was high unemployment and a severe shortage of money circulating in the economy.
Harrison's foreign policy Harrison was one of the most active presidents in the area of foreign diplomacy. He took the United States to the brink of war with Chile over an incident involving American sailors who were harmed in the port city of Valparaiso. After discussion between the countries' leaders, Chile apologized and paid the United States $75,000 for the incident.
In 1889, the president called the first modern Pan-American Conference in Washington, D.C. Leaders from North, Central, and South America attended the conference in an effort to develop military, economic, social, political, and commercial cooperation between the three Americas. Conference attendees developed treaties on how to resolve international conflicts and revised tariff levels. In addition, an organization that would eventually be known as the Pan-American Union was established. The union offered technical and informational services to the Americas and provided a safe place for official documents. By forming various councils, the union took on the responsibility for furthering cooperative relations throughout the Americas. Its founding is celebrated on Pan-American Day each year in April.
As successful as he was in other foreign endeavors, Harrison did not achieve his goal where Hawaii was concerned. Harrison was in favor of annexing (adding another U.S. territory) Hawaii, but he was unable to convince the Senate to do so. Still, because of his efforts and because Hawaii did eventually become part of the United States, modern historians credit Harrison and his administration for putting the United States on its path to becoming an empire.
Harrison's popularity wanes Harrison's popularity among the public took a severe blow on three national issues. The first was his support of the McKinley Tariff. Millions of citizens lost trust in a president who seemed to be siding more with big-business interests than with the average working man. The second issue involved the dissatisfaction of farmers—those hardest hit by the depression—in the South and West. Harrison had done virtually nothing to improve the farmers’ situation, so he lost their support. Finally, a series of violent labor strikes linked Harrison to monopoly industrialists and bankers. Voters did not feel represented in the White House.
Furthermore, Harrison passed a great deal of Republican legislation in his first year in office. Because of the amount of money Congress spent, it soon became known as the “Billion Dollar” Congress.
Harrison could not undo the damage his image had suffered. He had never been known publicly as an overly friendly man, yet he put his family at the center of his life. (In fact, Harrison's campaign activities in 1892 were very minimal due to the illness of first lady Caroline Harrison. She died two weeks before the election.) Harrison's tendency to be a private man, coupled with the unpopular events throughout his term, led him directly out of the White House. Grover Cleveland was reelected in the 1892 election. Upon learning of his defeat, Harrison told his family he felt like he had been freed from prison. He died in 1901.
U.S. president Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), though possibly the dullest personality ever to inhabit the White House, was nevertheless a competent enough president during one of the most eventful administrations of the late 19th century.
Benjamin Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio, on Aug. 20, 1833. The Harrison had been among the most illustrious families of colonial Virginia, and Benjamin was the namesake of a Revolutionary soldier and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, who had transported the family to Ohio, was elected president as "Old Tippecanoe" in 1840.
Harrison graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1852. He Married Caroline Scott of Oxford the following year. He read law for 2 years in Cincinnati, then moved to Indianapolis, Ind., where he established a prosperous practice.
Harrison became a Republican immediately. He was known as a good political orator, although today his speeches seem to combine only triteness and pedantry with 19th-century bombast. His political career advanced slowly but steadily until the Civil War: he was city attorney of Indianapolis in 1857, secretary of the Republican State Central Committee in 1858, and reporter of the Indiana supreme Court in 1860. The last position proved profitable, as Harrison drew large royalties for many years from his compilation of Indiana laws.
Unlike many political contemporaries, Harrison sat out the first campaign of the Civil War. In 1862, however, he organized the Union's 70th Indiana Infantry and was commissioned as its colonel. A typical volunteer officer, he knew nothing of war making and was fortunate in being assigned to guard the newly captured Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
Harrison was not popular with his troops; apparently he was something of a martinet, and the personal coldness of which many contemporaries would later complain was already manifest. The dullness of guard duty also may have affected the unhappy command, but that was relieved in 1864, when Harrison and his men joined Gen. William T. Sherman. Harrison stayed at the front only briefly, as he was quickly requested to return to Indiana in order to head off a Democratic political threat in the fall elections. He rejoined Sherman, but only after Sherman's famous, devastating march through Georgia was complete; Harrison was brevetted as brigadier general, more for political than military services.
Postwar Career and Character
After the war Harrison built his legal practice into one of the most successful in Indiana. Still, he never neglected Republican politics. He supported the victorious radical faction of the party and during the 1870s became a spokesman for the equally dominant fiscal conservatives. He was unsuccessful as candidate for governor of Indiana in 1876 but continued to serve the party. In 1877 he again donned military uniform briefly to command troops during the national railroad strike. He was a solidly conservative Republican.
Harrison's career improved sharply in 1880. He was elected to the U.S. Senate and played an important role in winning the Republican presidential nomination for James A. Garfield. Harrison was himself a "dark horse" candidate for the nomination in 1884, but, realizing that it was the charismatic James G. Blaine's year, he refused to allow his name before the convention. It was this combination of stern party regularity and fortuitous personal decisions— rather than any particular brilliance—that accounted for Harrison's rise.
Harrison's years in the Senate were undistinguished. He played on Civil War emotionalism and appealed to anti-British sentiment but made no significant contributions to the great issues of the day. Rather, he turned his considerable legal talents to constructing interminable constitutional briefs for petty and partisan purposes. But his services paid off when he was nominated to run for president in 1888.
Harrison as President
In the presidential campaign Harrison lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College. More than any previous Republican president, he committed his party to certain high financial and "big business" interests when, through his postmaster general, he systematized the solicitation of party funds. His administration sat during the "Billion Dollar Congress" elected in 1890, the first Congress ever to expend more than $1 billion. That famous Congress also passed a high tariff law containing reciprocity provisions (which Harrison largely wrote) that facilitated American economic expansion abroad, the landmark Sherman Antitrust Act, and the ill-fated Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Harrison's term also saw the Republican party finally abandon its commitment to defend the civil rights of Southern African Americans when Congress failed to pass a law designed to protect them.
Harrison kept in touch with his Congress on the various questions although, in the fashion of the time, he took a minimal part in the public debates. The accomplishments of the "Billion Dollar Congress, " however, bear his mark: the carelessly drawn acts, intended as much to obfuscate as clarify, showed the lack of interest or inability to comprehend long-term effects which characterized Harrison's career.
Harrison was ultimately no more popular with his own party than with the Democrats. Short and portly with a stony, uncomely countenance, he seemed incapable of a warm personal relationship, let alone of the glad-handing conviviality which late-19th-century American politics frequently required. Still, he was the incumbent in 1892 and secured his party's renomination—only to lose the election to Grover Cleveland.
Actually, Harrison was to be just as happy about his defeat. Cleveland's second term was a disaster, marked by agricultural and industrial unrest with which Harrison could hardly have better coped. And Harrison was personally more suited for private life. His first wife had died in the White House, leaving him with two children. He married Mary Dimmick, by whom he had another child. He returned to his legal practice in Indiana, represented Venezuela in a celebrated boundary dispute with Great Britain, and wrote several books, including Views of an Ex-President (1901) and This Country of Ours (1897), a popular textbook for several years. He died of pneumonia on March 13, 1901.
Harry J. Sievers, Benjamin Harrison (3 vols., 1952-1968; vol. 1, 2d ed. 1960), is scarcely inspiring but includes an exhaustively detailed source book. John A. Garraty, The New Commonwealth: 1877-1890 (1968), provides an antidote to Sievers's uncritical admiration. The presidential election of 1888 is covered in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (1969), is the best recent survey of late-19th-century politics. □
Harrison, Benjamin (1833-1901)
Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901)
President of the united states, 1889-1893
A One-Term President. The grandson of President William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) and the great-great grandson of Benjamin Harrison (1726-1791), who signed the Declaration of Inde-pendence, Benjamin Harrison was little known outside Indiana before he ran for president in 1888. I During his one term in office he was often overshadowed by his well-known secretary of state, James G. Blaine, and he lacked the political clout to hold his own in the sharply divided battles over tariffs and civil-service re-form that dominated American politics in the 1880s and 1890s.
Background. Benjamin Harrison was born on 20 August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, and grew up on his family’s nearby farm. Graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1852, Harrison began reading law in Cincinnati and married Caroline Scott on 20 October 1853. After he was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854, the couple settled in Indianapolis, where he established a law practice and became involved in local Republican politics. He was elected city attorney in 1857, secretary to the Indiana Republican Central Committee in 1858, and reporter to the state supreme court in 1860. He served in the Civil War, fighting in Gen. William Sherman’s Atlanta campaign and the Union victory at Nashville and rising to the rank of brigadier general. In 1864, while still serving in the military, he was reelected to the lucrative post of supreme court reporter. After the war he continued law practice.
Political Career. Harrison ran for governor of Indiana in 1876 and lost. He continued to be active in the national Republican Party, and President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him to the Mississippi River Commission in 1879. In 1880 the Indiana legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, where he established a reputation for favoring civil-service reform, pensions for Civil War vet-erans, and regulation of railroads. After the Democrats gained control of the Indiana legislature, Harrison was not elected to a second term in the Senate. In 1888 he won the Republican presidential nomination. He conducted a campaign from his front porch, granting extensive interviews to visitors. Although the incumbent president, Grover Cleveland, earned more popular votes, Harrison won the election in the electoral college.
Harrison’s Presidency. Harrison supported the modernization of the navy and U.S. expansion overseas, backing the establishment of a U.S.-German-British protectorate in Samoa and the treaty for the annexation of Hawaii. In 1891 he took a vigorous stand after a mob in Valparaiso, Chile, killed two American sailors on shore leave and injured several others. Secretary of State Blaine demanded and got an official apology and a $75,000 indemnity after Harrison sent a message to Congress that carne close to asking for a declaration of war. Although Harrison favored civil-service reform, he appointed many of his Republican backers to office, losing support among reformers in his own party. In 1890 he supported the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which lay the groundwork for government regulation of big business; the McKinley Tariff Act, which raised import duties; and the Dependent Pension Act, which greatly increased the number of Civil War veterans who were eligible for pensions. When he ran for reelection in 1892, he was hurt by his stands in favor of raising tariffs, which had led to higher retail prices, and veterans’ pensions, which were popular among former soldiers but had proved a drain on the federal budget. His civil-service appoint-ments had also lost him support from a significant segment of his own party. Like other presidents of his the period, Harrison was caught in a dilemma: support civil-service reform and alienate his own party structure or appoint followers and lose the support of reformers.
Later Years. After losing the 1892 presidential election to Cleveland, Harrison returned to an active law practice. He also remained active in politics, campaigning for candidates in 1894 and 1896. He died on 13 March 1901.
Harry J. Sievers, Benjamin Harrison, Hoosier Warrior, 1833-1865 (Chicago: Regnery, 1952); Benjamin Harrison, Hoosier Statesman, From the Civil War to the White House, 1865-1888 (New York: University Publishers, 1959); Benjamin Harrison, Hoosier President: The White House and After (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968);
Homer E. Socolofsky and Allan B. Spetter, The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987).
On March 4, 1889, Benjamin Harrison was sworn in as the twenty-third president of the United States. Forty-eight years to the day earlier, his grandfather, william h. harrison,had become the ninth U.S. president. His grandfather's presidency ended after only one month when he died from complications due to a pneumonia he developed after delivering his inaugural address in the rain. Harrison's presidency lasted a full four-year term, ushering in sweeping legislative changes, signaling a return of the republican party to the White House, and laying the groundwork for the foreign policy of the late 1800s.
Harrison was born August 20, 1833, in Ohio. After graduating from Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, he moved to Indianapolis to practice law. There he became involved in Republican politics, serving as city attorney, secretary of the Republican state committee, and supreme court reporter for Indiana. During the Civil War, he joined the Union Army. Within a month he was promoted to colonel and commanding officer of the Seventieth Indiana Regiment. He fought under General William T. Sherman and was promoted to brevet brigadier general in February 1865. After the war he returned to Indianapolis to pursue his legal career.
Harrison lost the race for governor of Indiana in 1876, but made a successful bid for a Senate seat in 1881. He held his Senate position for only one term, failing to win reelection in 1887. This loss did not deter ardent Republican supporters who wanted to see Harrison in the White House.
In 1888 Harrison ran against the incumbent Democratic president, grover cleveland. Harrison was the surprise nominee of the Republican party, a second choice after James G. Blaine, who declined to run again after having lost to Cleveland in 1884. Following a very close race, Harrison won 233 electoral votes; although Cleveland took the popular vote, he won only 168 electoral votes.
"The bottom principle … of our structure of government is the principle of control by the majority. Everything else about our government is appendage, it is ornamentation."
In the 1888 election, the Republican party gained control of Congress. During the first two years of Harrison's presidency, Congress enacted into law almost everything contained in the 1888 Republican platform. This was one of the most active Congresses in history. The central themes of Harrison's campaign had been nationalism and tariff protection. The Democrats favored tariff reduction, whereas the Republicans stead-fastly favored a system of protection. The tariff existing at the time Harrison took office produced more income than was needed to run the government and was the cause of much bipartisan debate. In 1889 Harrison signed the McKinley Tariff Act, which raised customs duties to an average of 49.5 percent, higher than any previous tariff. The act contained over four hundred amendments, including provisions for reciprocal trade agreements. It found favor with few Republicans, causing a rift within the party.
One issue in Harrison's term that enjoyed bipartisan support was antitrust legislation. During the late 1800s, business combinations known as trusts were created and began taking over large shares of the market. Both Republicans and Democrats perceived trusts as destructive of competition, and each party's platform was antimonopoly in 1888. In 1889 Senator john sherman introduced antitrust legislation to restrain interstate trusts. On July 2, 1889, Harrison signed the sherman anti-trust act into law. This was the first major piece of legislation enacted during his term, and it remains in effect more than one hundred years after its adoption. Historians view the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as the most important piece of legislation of the Fifty-first Congress.
During Harrison's term legislation providing for federal supervision of all congressional elections was defeated several times. The legislation had been drafted to ensure the voting rights of blacks as mandated by the fifteenth amendment. Harrison was a strong supporter of the bill and also of legislation to ensure education for southern blacks, which was also defeated. These were the last significant attempts to provide these civil rights until the 1930s.
With regard to foreign policy, Harrison had an aggressive attitude and little patience for drawn-out diplomatic negotiations. He helped convince several European countries to lift their restrictions on the importation of U.S. pork products, thus increasing U.S. exports of pork from approximately 47 million pounds in 1891 to 82 million pounds in 1892. Harrison also played a part in solving disputes between the United States, England, and Canada regarding seal hunting in the Bering Sea. And his tenacity proved successful in avoiding a war with Chile in 1892. Harrison's attitude toward foreign relations was emulated by theodore roosevelt and other politicians.
When Harrison sought reelection in 1892, Cleveland once again opposed him. This time Cleveland emerged the victor.
Harrison has been described as an aloof loner, lacking in personal magnetism, but a man of great intellect. After he failed to secure a second term as president, he was revered as an elder statesman, giving lectures and acting as chief counsel for Venezuela in a boundary dispute with British Guiana.
After a bout with pneumonia, Harrison died March 13, 1901, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Lyle, Jack. 1996. "Benjamin Harrison First ISBA President." Res Gestae 39 (January): 19.
Socolofsky, Homer E., and Allan B. Spetter. 1987. The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.
HARRISON, BENJAMIN. (1726?–1791). Signer. Virginia. Born on the family estate in Charles City County, Virginia, Benjamin Harrison belonged to a wealthy and powerful family. He attended the College of William and Mary before taking charge of the family estate, "Berkeley," upon his father's death. He served in the House of Burgesses (1749–1775), frequently as speaker. Although strongly in favor of colonial rights in 1764, he opposed Patrick Henry's 1765 Stamp Act Resolutions as impolitic. By 1773 he was a member of the Committee of Correspondence and completely in favor of resisting British authority. He was appointed to the first Continental Congress, serving until 1777. He was politically active, signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and sat on the committees concerned with foreign affairs, war and ordnance, and the navy. Returning to state politics in 1777, he sat in the House of Delegates, 1777–81, 1785–87, serving as its speaker from 1778 to 1781. He was then governor of Virginia for three years. He opposed the federal Constitution at the state ratifying convention of 1788, and was elected governor that year as an antifederalist. He died in office, 24 April 1791. His youngest son, William Henry, and his great-grandson, Benjamin, were presidents of the United States.
SEE ALSO Henry, Patrick.
revised by Michael Bellesiles