Benjamin Harrison was nominated for 23rd American President on the eighth ballot at the 1888 Republican Convention. He conducted one of the first “front-porch” campaigns, delivering short speeches to the delegations that visited him in Indianapolis. Democrats called him “Little Ben,” referring to his less than average height of only 5 feet, 6 inches tall. But the Republicans replied that he was big enough to wear the hat of his grandfather, “Old Tippecanoe.”
Born in 1833 on a farm by the Ohio River below Cincinnati, Harrison attended Miami University in Ohio and read law in Cincinnati. He moved to Indianapolis, where he practiced law and campaigned for the Republican Party. He married Caroline Lavinia Scott in 1853. His father explained to young Benjamin about how the political lifestyle was difficult and high-pressured, but his wife was supportive, and even encouraging, of his political aspirations.
While living in Indiana, Benjamin Harrison started moving into the political realm, joined the young Republican Party, which centered on the opposition of slavery and its acceptance in the western territories. He joined the Union Army when the Civil War began in 1861, and he moved up the ranks from lieutenant to brevet brigadier general. After the Civil War–where he served as Colonel of the 70th Volunteer Infantry–Harrison became a leader in Indianapolis, adding to his already unblemished reputation as a brilliant lawyer.
Path to the White House
The Democrats defeated him for Governor of Indiana in 1876 by using unfair tactics like referring to him as “Kid Gloves” Harrison. In the 1880’s, he was elected to serve in the United States Senate, where he focused on supporting Indians, homesteaders, and Civil War veterans.
In the Presidential election, Harrison received 100,000 fewer popular votes than Cleveland, but he was able to win the Electoral College 233 to 168. Although Harrison refused to make political bargains, his supporters gave numerous pledges on his behalf.
When Boss Matt Quay of Pennsylvania heard that Harrison gave the credit for the narrow victory that earned him the title of American President to divine Providence, Quay exclaimed that Harrison would never know “how close a number of men were compelled to approach… the penitentiary to make him President.”
Harrison was proud of the robust foreign policy which he helped shape. The first Pan American Congress met in Washington in 1889, establishing an information center, which later became the Pan American Union. Substantial appropriation bills were signed by Harrison for internal improvements, naval expansion, and subsidies for steamship lines.
For the first time in the nation’s history, except during wartime, Congress appropriated a billion dollars. When critics attacked “the billion-dollar Congress,” Speaker Thomas B. Reed replied, “This is a billion-dollar country.” President Harrison also approved the Sherman Anti-Trust Act “to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and monopolies,” which was the first Federal act attempting to regulate trusts.
The most perplexing domestic problem Harrison faced was the tariff issue. The high tariff rates in effect had created a surplus of money in the Treasury. Low-tariff supporters argued that the surplus was hurting business. Republican leaders in Congress successfully met the challenge. Representative William McKinley and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich framed a still higher tariff bill and some rates were intentionally prohibitive.
Harrison tried to make the tariff more acceptable by writing in reciprocity provisions. To cope with the Treasury surplus, the tariff was removed from imported raw sugar. Sugar growers within the United States were given two cents a pound bounty on their production.
Long before the end of the Harrison Administration, the Treasury’s surplus was nonexistent, and prosperity seemed about to fade as well. At the end of his administration as American President, Benjamin Harrison went to the Senate and presented a treaty to annex Hawaii, but to his disappointment, President Cleveland later withdrew it.
Congressional elections in 1890 went overwhelmingly against the Republicans, and party leaders decided to abandon President Harrison, even though he had cooperated with Congress on party legislation. Nevertheless, his party re-nominated him in 1892, but he was defeated by Cleveland.
After he left office, Benjamin Harrison returned to Indianapolis, and married the widowed Mrs. Mary Dimmick in 1896. A dignified elder statesman, he died in 1901.
The accompanying graphic highlights the achievements and notable moments of Benjamin Harrison: