As I’ve said in the previous four posts on the presidents, the gentlemen who held office from the end of Ulysses Grant’s term to the beginning of William McKinley’s tend to be obscure. Rutherford Hayes spent four years cleaning up the mess left behind by Grant’s cabinet. Grover Cleveland did sow the seeds for the early Progressive movement, but found himself stymied by economic chaos during both his terms. Chester Arthur garners the most stares when his name is mentioned, although for a man intended to spend most of James Garfield’s term in New York City tending to business, Arthur did quite well. Garfield died before accomplishing much, a fate he shared with William Henry Harrison.
It is Harrison’s grandson Benjamin we look at today. Benjamin Harrison rivals Chester Arthur in obscurity, known either as the grandson of that president who died or as Grover Cleveland’s bench warmer. But whereas Arthur reluctantly took up the role of chief executive, Harrison campaigned for it. And like our two most recent presidents, Harrison had a hell of time trying to do his job while pleasing both factions of his party. He was, however, by no means a caretaker president.
Harrison started life on William Henry Harrison’s farm in North Bend, Ohio, and was seven when the elder Harrison died in office. His father dabbled in politics, but mainly focused on keeping the Harrison farm running. The Harrisons were comfortable, but not exactly wealthy. Harrison himself had a very religious education, and that upbringing influenced him throughout his life. Gregarious and insightful in private, people found him rather aloof in public, which Grover Cleveland’s apologists would later use to put Cleveland in a more favorable light.
Harrison attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and read law in Cincinnati. However, he did not wish to build his career on the names of Benjamin Harrison V, General William Henry Harrison, or even his father, Congressman John Scott Harrison. He and new bride Caroline moved to Indianapolis to start anew. Like Cleveland and Hayes before him, his legal star rose steadily, including a stint as attorney general for Indiana. Adding luster to his public career was his role as a deacon of his church. Harrison saw no distinction between his faith and his political career. He saw public service as a way of giving back. His work ethic, no doubt honed as a boy on the Harrison farm, led him all the way to the US Senate and, in 1888, the Republican nomination for president.
Like Rutherford Hayes, Harrison lost the popular vote. Unlike Hayes, Harrison had a clear electoral victory. Thus, Harrison’s defeat of Cleveland seldom draws the same comparisons as Hayes’ of Samuel Tilden in 1876 to the 2000 presidential election. There was no threat of the House of Representatives choosing the president this time.
Harrison was an energetic president, pressing hard to reform election laws in the south, reign in the abuses of large corporations, fix America’s currency, and build up the Navy. This last had become a running theme since the Hayes Administration, and Harrison commissioned four large, modern battleships, which his eventual successor, William McKinley, would put to good use.
The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, a law still in effect and cursed within the halls of BP North America (formerly Standard Oil), IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft, was probably Harrison’s most far-reaching achievement. It is designed to preserve capitalism’s most important cornerstone, competition, by allowing the government to carve up monopolies when they become detrimental to the economy. (This is why DeBeers can make diamonds artificially more valuable than they really are, but Microsoft has to let me write this on WordPress via Firefox.) Harrison, however, was proudest of the McKinley Tariff Act, which reorganized America’s tariff’s to reflect the economy of the time.
But like Chester Arthur before him, Harrison’s attempts to phase out the patronage system of the post-Civil War era weakened his standing within his own party. Though the reform movements of the early twentieth century grew from the efforts to kill patronage, Harrison didn’t make any friends by putting a young Theodore Roosevelt in charge of the civil service commission. Civil service reform went a long way towards repairing the government’s hiring practices, but it alienated state political bosses. Thus, Benjamin Harrison went into the 1892 campaign at somewhat of a disadvantage. This was further complicated by the death of First Lady Caroline Harrison only two weeks before the election. Harrison was largely confined to the White House to tend to his ailing wife and to mourn her. With Harrison, a brilliant stump speaker, out of his own campaign in those final weeks, Grover Cleveland barely squeaked by to return to office.
Harrison, however, did not begrudge Cleveland for his return. Though not a fan of Cleveland’s policies, he seems to have enjoyed the irony of riding to the inauguration with the man who handed him the reigns four years earlier. He also clearly was finished with public life. Harrison might have been a one-term president, but he was very proud of what he accomplished in those four years. And his contributions to the office laid the groundwork for William McKinley and, subsequently, Theodore Roosevelt to turn America into a major world power at the dawn of the twentieth century.