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American President Essays: Benjamin Harrison

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Benjamin Harrison: Life in Brief

Benjamin Harrison was born in 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, to a prominent family that had a legacy of political activism. After all, he was the grandson of the nation's ninth President, William Henry Harrison. Raised on a farm adjacent to his grandfather's vast estate, Harrison believed he was destined for greatness.

He was tutored at home and read widely on his own, and he would always be more comfortable in the company of books than with other people. Over time, he developed an effective public speaking style, and he was popular among Civil War veterans because of his service as a Union general. Privately, however, Harrison was a frigid character, so stiff and aloof that he was sometimes referred to as "the human iceberg."

Political and Military Activism

Harrison graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, near the top of his class and studied law with a prominent firm in Cincinnati. In 1853, one year before he began his own law practice, Harrison married a young woman he had met while still in his teens, Caroline Lavinia Scott. They moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1854. She was outgoing where he was reserved, and she loved celebrations and holidays. Eventually, she would put up the first Christmas tree ever in the White House. As a young lawyer, Harrison quickly became involved in the affairs of the new Republican Party, supporting its first presidential candidate, General John C. Fremont in 1856 and working for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In 1862, he joined the Seventieth Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general.

Following the war, Harrison returned to political life. He won the Indiana Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1876 but lost the election. He became an influential party power broker, throwing support behind the successful presidential campaigns of Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield, and in 1880, he was named to the United States Senate by the Indiana state legislature—senators were not elected by popular vote until 1913. In the Senate, he championed pensions for Civil War veterans, high protective tariffs, a modernized navy, and conservation of western lands—all issues that he would uphold as President. He also broke with his party to oppose an act designed to close America to Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed without his support.

In 1887, the Indiana state legislature had come under Democratic control, and it declined to return Harrison to the Senate. A year later, declaring himself a "rejuvenated Republican," he announced his candidacy for the party's presidential nomination. He proved to be everyone's second choice in a field of seven serious candidates. He was nominated on the eighth ballot, and New York banker Levi P. Morton was named as his running mate. The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated the incumbent President Grover Cleveland and Ohio Senator Allen G. Thurman.

It was a relatively polite campaign, with both candidates limiting their appearances and focusing primarily on the tariff and Southern problems rooted in Reconstruction. When the votes were tallied, Cleveland had received the larger number of popular votes, but Harrison had carried the Electoral College, thus giving Harrison the victory in the 1888 election.

Tough and Decisive Actions

Even though all his life he believed that he had been born to do great things, historians have traditionally not ranked Harrison as one of our most distinguished chief executives. Some historians contend that his economic policies may have contributed to the economic depression that struck America after he left office. In particular, Harrison was a protectionist who favored high tariffs. This was exemplified by his nurturing of the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which imposed high import duties to protect American corporations but had the effect of increasing prices—a stand that would cost him heavily among the voters. Harrison lobbied successfully for the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which required that silver be used in federal coinage, a concession to the western silver interests. However, this plan was badly conceived and nearly depleted the U.S. Treasury of its gold reserves.

On the other hand, Harrison advocated the conservation of forest reserves, and he embarked on an adventurous foreign policy that included U.S. expansion in the Pacific and the building of a canal across Central America. He also supported the landmark Sherman Antitrust Act, the first bill ever to attempt to limit the power of America's giant corporations. In the area of civil rights for African Americans, Harrison endorsed two bills designed to prevent southern states from denying African Americans the vote, and he appointed the great and eloquent former slave Frederick Douglass as minister to Haiti. Recent assessments of Harrison's accomplishments give him more credit for his vision and convictions.

On the international front, Harrison was the most active President since Abraham Lincoln. He convened the first Pan-American Conference in 1889. He negotiated an American protectorate over the Samoan Islands, attempted to annex Hawaii, and continued the work of modernizing and expanding the United States Navy into a world-class fleet. He moved quickly and decisively where American interests were threatened, taking the nation to the brink of war with Chile over an assault on American sailors and standing firm against Britain and Canada to protect the overharvesting of fur seals in the Bering Sea. Perhaps most importantly, he saw trade as an essential part of the nation's foreign policy and negotiated a number of important reciprocal trade agreements that set the pattern for American trade policy in the twentieth century.

When Harrison lost his bid for reelection in 1892 to Grover Cleveland, he had himself partly to blame. He had frozen out many of those who should have been most active in his support, and his own party was lukewarm toward him. Additionally, midway through this second election, near the end of Harrison's term, his wife, Caroline, died of tuberculosis. Her illness and eventual death greatly distracted him, which accounts in part for the magnitude of his defeat. In 1892, the voters handed Cleveland the most decisive presidential victory in twenty years. Harrison told his family he felt as though he had been freed from prison.

In 1896, Benjamin Harrison married his deceased wife's niece, Mary Lord Dimmick, a widow nearly thirty years his junior. He remained active in public life until his death from pneumonia on March 13, 1901. His activism and willingness to wave a big stick in international affairs inspired Theodore Roosevelt, and years later, the American writer Henry Adams called Harrison the best President since Lincoln. Whether he deserved that high praise or not, there is little doubt that his presidency deserves the reconsideration many historians are giving it.

Benjamin Harrison: Life Before the Presidency

Benjamin Harrison came to the presidency with little executive experience but great confidence in his own abilities. Born into a family with a legacy of political involvement, Benjamin Harrison believed that he was destined for important work. After all, he was the great-grandson of Colonel Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison ("Old Tippecanoe"), was the ninth President of the United States, and his father, John Scott Harrison, served as a congressman.

Born on August 20, 1833, Benjamin had a relatively comfortable rural upbringing in North Bend, Ohio. As a child, he hunted, fished, hauled wood, tended livestock, and studied at home with private tutors. Being surrounded by family and friends gave Benjamin a sense of order and self-assurance that he carried with him throughout his life. This mark of confidence, however, translated into what others perceived as arrogance. Harrison developed a stiff and formal personality—so aloof was he as President that even his own staff privately spoke of him as "the human iceberg."

Education and Early Career

Growing up with three brothers and four sisters, Benjamin relished his time away from the family. In particular, he especially loved spending hours reading in his grandfather's library on the nearby Harrison estate. Benjamin's father, John Scott Harrison, a moderately prosperous farmer, and mother, Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, a strict Presbyterian, provided loving but not demonstrably affectionate attention to their children. Young Benjamin attended Farmers College, a prep school in Cincinnati, for two years before going on to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A good student, he graduated near the top of his class in 1852. He then married his college sweetheart, Caroline Lavinia Scott, in 1853; he was twenty and she was twenty-one years old. Harrison went on to study law at the Cincinnati office of Storer and Gwynne. After passing the Ohio bar exam in 1854, Harrison and his wife moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he practiced law from 1854 to 1860.

During this early part of his legal career, Harrison joined the new Republican Party and campaigned in 1856 for its first presidential nominee, John C. Fremont. Harrison's political involvement sped forward from there: In 1857, he entered politics himself and won election as Indianapolis city attorney. He continued on this upward trajectory by serving as secretary of the Republican State Central Committee and campaigning for the 1860 presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Determined to forward his career, Harrison decided to take on additional work while maintaining his law practice. To this end, he served as the state reporter for the Supreme Court of Indiana, summarizing and supervising the publication of the court's official opinions. In 1862, he joined the Seventieth Indiana Infantry Regiment at the rank of second lieutenant.

Military Service and Political Career

Unlike many veterans, Harrison did not remember his Civil War years with much fondness—though he rose quickly from lieutenant to become brigadier general by the time he retired in June 1865. Serving under Major General William T. Sherman in the Atlanta campaign, Harrison was among the first of the Union forces to march into the city upon its surrender. According to Sherman, Harrison served with "foresight, discipline and a fighting spirit . . ." But even with such achievements and praise, in his mind, war was a dirty business that no decent man would find pleasurable.

After the war, Harrison resumed his law practice and work as a court reporter. He continued his active participation in state politics, running unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1872. Four years later, he won the Republican nomination only to lose the governor's race in a close election. Impressed by Harrison's enthusiastic campaign support for him in the presidential election of 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed the young Hoosier (a common nickname for anyone from Indiana) to the Mississippi River Commission in 1879. By 1880, Harrison was deeply involved in national politics, chairing the Indiana delegation to the Republican National Convention. When Hayes fulfilled his pledge to serve only one term by withdrawing from this race for the presidency, Harrison threw his support behind the dark horse, James A. Garfield.

From 1881 to 1887, Harrison served as a U.S. senator from Indiana. In that capacity, he supported many of the issues that he later championed as President: pensions for Civil War veterans, statehood for Dakota (then considered one territory and thus one state), high protective tariffs, limited civil service reform, a modernized navy, and conservation of wilderness lands. However, he broke with mainstream Republicans when he opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which ended all immigration from China.

Benjamin Harrison: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1888:

In the Mugwump revolt of reform Republicans against the candidacy of Senator James G. Blaine of Maine in 1884, Benjamin Harrison carefully walked the middle ground. Refusing to put his hat in the presidential ring, he eventually supported Blaine with energy and enthusiasm. In February 1887, Harrison lost reelection to the United States Senate in the new Democrat-controlled state legislature. (At this time United States senators were selected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote. Only after passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, which was part of the Progressive Era reforms, did this practice change.) One year later, Harrison announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, declaring himself (in reference to his lack of a power base) a "living and rejuvenated Republican." The words "Rejuvenated Republicanism" became the slogan of his presidential campaign.

At the Republican convention in Chicago in the summer of 1888, front-runner James G. Blaine, unable to secure the nomination for himself, threw his support to Harrison in the hope of uniting the party against the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland. In the hotly contested nomination fight that followed, Harrison became everyone's second choice in a field of seven candidates. When Senator John Sherman of Ohio, the first choice, faltered in the balloting, Harrison's support surged ahead, winning him the nomination on the eighth ballot. The convention picked banker Levi P. Morton of New York as Harrison's running mate. The Democrats, at their national convention in St. Louis, rallied behind incumbent Grover Cleveland of New York and his running mate, Allen G. Thurman, the senator from Ohio.

The campaign of 1888 exhibited little of the hostility that had marked the 1884 race, when candidate Blaine had waged a whirlwind series of public appearances. President Cleveland made only one appearance in 1888. Harrison limited his speeches to front porch receptions in Indianapolis for a stream of carefully selected delegations and press reporters. While the two candidates did not personally campaign, their party organizations, in sharp contrast, did. The tone of the party-sponsored campaign was much more lively. There were posters, political cartoons, speeches, rallies, parades, brass bands, and torchlight demonstrations.

The race centered around the tariff issue, with Harrison speaking forcefully for a strong protective tariff, sound currency, pensions for Civil War veterans, and efficiency in office. A more emotional issue for the electorate was the bloody shirt legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which remained as an unhealed scar in the American consciousness. Cleveland's promise to return captured Confederate flags to Southern states as a show of national unity (in contrast with Harrison's Civil War career) sparked into flame the dry kindling of Civil War sectionalism.

The election outcome gave President Cleveland approximately 90,000 popular votes more than Harrison, but Harrison carried the electoral college 233 to 168. Harrison's victory was based upon two swing states: New York and Indiana. Cleveland probably lost New York because of the anti-Tammany Hall reform measures that he carried out as President. Harrison had failed to carry his home city of Indianapolis, and for years after the election, there was political talk suggesting that his supporters had purchased votes in Indiana to win the state. In any case, Republicans increased their membership in the House of Representatives by fourteen seats, and they continued to control the Senate by a narrow margin. With the appointments of Republican justices to the Supreme Court, Harrison's party dominated all branches of the federal government for the first time in many years.

The Campaign and Election of 1892

In 1892, incumbent Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland in a dramatic turnaround of historic importance. For the first time in the nation's history, the two presidential candidates had both been President. Cleveland's victory, moreover, returned a defeated President to the White House for a second term—a historic first that has never been repeated. The Democrats also regained control of both chambers of Congress.

The seeds of Harrison's defeat in 1892 had been planted early in his administration. The Democrats had surged to power in the 1890 off-year elections by capturing the House of Representatives. Two years later, at the 1892 convention, a major revolt of party regulars threatened to deny Harrison his party's nomination. This threat remained effective only until James G. Blaine, who had broken with Harrison while serving as the President's secretary of state, refused to accept a presidential draft. Although Harrison won the nomination on the first ballot, Blaine and William McKinley of Ohio showed significant strength in the nomination voting, thus denying Harrison a united party ballot.

Harrison's difficulties within the party stemmed from his arbitrary treatment of party bosses and even its rank-and-file supporters. His frozen demeanor, refusal to listen to advice, standoffish behavior, and insensitivity to style and convention alienated even members of his own cabinet. He probably would not have stood for reelection but for his anger at the revolt within his party in support of Blaine, with whom he had become embittered.

As in the election of 1888, both candidates conducted unspectacular and modest campaigns. Cleveland refused to engage in an active or personal campaign when he learned of Mrs. Harrison's serious illness—from which she died on October 25, 1892, just two weeks before the election. Harrison limited himself to a few appearances in New York and New Jersey, two crucial swing states. Both candidates tried to ignore the rebellious third party, the Populists, or People's Party. The Populists nominated Civil War General James Weaver of Iowa, a former Greenback Party candidate, three-term member of the House of Representatives, and advocate of the free coinage of silver.

In the final tally, voters handed Cleveland the most decisive victory of any presidential candidate in twenty years. Cleveland beat Harrison by a margin of approximately 375,000 popular votes. The electoral college vote outcome was more dramatic, allowing Cleveland to win by nearly a two to one margin over Harrison. The Populists drew one million voters and twenty-two electoral ballots. Cleveland swept the Solid South and all four swing states: New York, New Jersey, Indiana, and Connecticut. He also carried Illinois and Wisconsin—this was the first time these states had gone Democratic since the Civil War.

Harrison's defeat stemmed from a lack of backing by his own party as well as from his failure to resolve three national issues. First, Harrison's support for the high McKinley Tariff of 1890 enraged millions. In the public's mind, higher prices seemed directly related to government protection of special corporate interests. Second, agrarian discontent in the South and West led thousands of farmers to look to the Populist Party as a political alternative. Third, a series of bloody labor strikes—at the silver mines in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and at Andrew Carnegie's steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania—linked Harrison to monopoly industrialists and bankers. For these reasons and others, voters felt that the President was uncaring and did not act appropriately on their behalf.

Equally important in explaining Harrison's 1892 defeat was the public dissatisfaction with the burst of Republican legislation during Harrison's first year in office. Republican Party leaders had considered the party's sweep in 1888 as a mandate for change. The long 303-day first session of the Fifty-first Congress enacted nearly the entire Republican platform. Flush with over $100 million of surplus revenues, Congress pushed through generous pensions for Civil War veterans, expanding the list of eligible recipients to noncombatant soldiers and the children of veterans. Known thereafter as the first "Billion Dollar" Congress, its surge of controversial Republican activism laid the groundwork for the disastrous reverses in public support for Harrison's party in the midterm elections of 1890 as well as his defeat at the hands of Cleveland in 1892.

Benjamin Harrison: Domestic Affairs

Although Harrison never managed to put his stamp on the office and failed to win reelection, his administration functioned efficiently, faced tough issues decisively, and proved remarkably productive. At that time, the House of Representatives was controlled by Speaker Thomas Reed, who was considered more powerful in the Republican Party than the new President in fashioning a domestic legislative agenda. No rubber stamp, however, Harrison picked legislation that he could support and effectively lobbied congressmen to move bills of his liking. Several key pieces of legislation were landmark bills.

Legislating Foreign Trade

Most importantly, Ohio's William McKinley submitted, with Harrison's support, the highest protective tariff in the nation's history. Known as the McKinley Tariff of 1890, the legislation raised rates an average of 49.5 percent. This bill also handed enormous authority to the President in the area of foreign trade. These expanded powers allowed the President to conduct trade conventions, to negotiate reciprocity agreements (i.e., offering lower import rates on foreign products in return for lower rates on American March 16, 1889 exports) without congressional oversight, and to erect a federal bureaucracy empowered to administer the complicated details and functions of foreign trade.

Regulating Corporate Giants

At the end of the nineteenth century, the American public held great animosity toward arrogant corporate giants that had seemingly appeared overnight to monopolize the economy. These powerful entities, such as John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust, resulted from crafty business combinations that served to eliminate competition, set monopoly rates and prices, and dominate the market. In response to the public outcry against such business practices, there was virtually unanimous bipartisan support for antimonopoly legislation. The Harrison administration, in turn, supported the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Sponsored by Senator John Sherman of Ohio, the act was the first federal law to regulate giant corporations.

The bill proved too vague in language, too limited in staff and budget allocations for bringing suits, and too weak in damages assessed (fines of up to only $5,000 for conviction) to have much effect on reining in the nearly limitless power of giant industry at the turn of the century. Indeed, in 1895, the Supreme Court gutted the law by eliminating suits against manufacturers from its provisions. Despite its flaws, the legislation was nevertheless a first step of historic importance. Presidents after Harrison (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) strengthened and used the law with significant force, curbing the ability of giant corporations to set prices and restrain competition. Today, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 remains an operational law.

Trading Silver for Tariff Support

Besides the McKinley Tariff and the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Fifty-first Congress passed a third milestone piece of legislation, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. Sponsored again by Senator Sherman of Ohio, the act represented a concession to western silver interests in return for their support of the McKinley Tariff. It also appealed to Populist-type currency reformers. The "Silverites" wanted silver to be included in federal coinage because this would bring a higher price for their product and might trigger inflation in general, especially in farm prices. Higher farm prices would lure back depressed farmers who were poised to leave the party in favor of Populism. Most debtors also agreed, thinking that an increase in the money supply and the resulting price inflation would reduce the value of the dollars that they owed their creditors.

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act stipulated that on a monthly basis the U.S. Treasury would either purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver at market price or the entire output of the nation's mines. The silver would be bought with U.S. Treasury notes redeemable in either gold or silver. Almost immediately, holders of these silver certificates began turning them in for gold, nearly depleting the Treasury's supply. Also, the act spurred the production of silver, driving silver prices down rather than up, as the mine owners had originally hoped. President Cleveland would repeal the act three years later, an action denounced by Populists and Silverites as the "Crime of '93."

Three other administration-backed measures generated heated debate in the Fifty-first Congress. Two of the pieces of legislation focused on ensuring African Americans the right to vote, and the other was about the conservation of natural resources. Sponsored by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the so-called Force Bill attempted to establish federal supervision of congressional elections as a means of preventing the disfranchisement of southern blacks. Henry W. Blair, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, forwarded the Blair Education Bill, which advocated the use of federal aid for education in order to hamper southern whites from employing literacy tests to prevent blacks from registering to vote in party primaries. Finally, the Land Revision Act of 1891, which created the national forests, was also a focus for congressional debate. Although Harrison supported all three measures with vigorous presidential lobbying, only the Land Revision Act passed through Congress for his signature; Harrison authorized America's first forest reserve located in Yellowstone, Wyoming.

Benjamin Harrison: Foreign Affairs

No President since Lincoln pursued a more active foreign agenda than Benjamin Harrison. Historians have long debated the extent of Harrison's foreign policy role in comparison to the influence of his secretary of state, James G. Blaine, traditionally seeing Harrison as following Blaine's lead. Recent scholarship, however, credits Harrison with being the driving force in his presidency, especially noting Harrison's growing estrangement from Blaine by 1890.

Harrison achieved remarkable success in several areas. He convened the first modern Pan-American Conference in October 1889 and also boldly negotiated the establishment of a protectorate over the Samoan Islands with Germany and Great Britain. In this post-Reconstruction period, Harrison appointed the nation's leading black leader, Frederick Douglass, minister to Haiti.

On several occasions, Harrison demonstrated that he was willing to go up against foreign nations when American interests were at stake. For example, he took the nation to the brink of war with Chile over an incident involving harm done to United States sailors in Valparaiso. In the end, Chile apologized and paid $75,000 in reparations. The President also confronted an ugly incident with Italy over the mob execution of eleven Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans. Additionally, Harrison stood firm against Britain and Canada to protect the overharvesting of seals in the Bering Sea. As a sign of his interest in defending the nation against foreign powers, Harrison supported the expansion of the Navy, begun by President Chester Arthur, into a world-class fleet of seven armored ships.

President Harrison did not always succeed in pushing forward his foreign policy agenda. For example, he failed to secure a coaling station in Haiti. Likewise, the President could not convince Congress to guarantee the bonds of a private company trying to build a canal in Nicaragua, nor did he achieve the annexation of Hawaii. Harrison strongly advocated the latter issue by sending 150 Marines to protect a white settler government that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani. The Senate, however, refused to consent to a treaty of annexation offered by the Hawaii settlers.

In weighing Harrison's achievements and shortcomings in the area of foreign affairs, there can be no doubt that his administration launched the nation on the road to empire. His firm and purposeful actions, especially in the Chilean and Samoan episodes, inspired Theodore Roosevelt's "Big Stick" diplomacy. Perhaps most importantly, Harrison undertook a vigorous trade agenda, negotiating substantial reciprocal trade agreements with key American trading markets—novel actions that set the pattern for American trade policy in the twentieth century.

Benjamin Harrison: Life After the Presidency

Benjamin Harrison, the last Civil War general to serve as President, died from pneumonia on March 13, 1901, at his home in Indianapolis. He had spent the following his presidency as an "elder statesman." Harrison delivered a series of lectures on constitutional law at Stanford University and served with energy and dedication as chief counsel for Venezuela in its boundary dispute with British Guiana.

The poet James Whitcomb Riley, in his funeral eulogy for Harrison, depicted the dead President as a man both fearless and just. Years later, the American intellectual Henry Adams spoke of Harrison as the best President since Lincoln. Harrison was buried next to his first wife at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. He left the bulk of his estate, valued at about $400,000, to his second wife, whom he had married after leaving the White House, and their four-year-old daughter.

Benjamin Harrison: Family Life

Although stiff and formal with acquaintances, Benjamin Harrison opened up with his family. During his one term as President, he spent as little time as possible in the office, usually working only until noon. He loved to play with his grandchildren, many of whom had moved into the White House with their parents—Russell Benjamin Harrison, age thirty-six in 1890, and Mary Scott McKee, age thirty-two. The children were allowed to keep as many pets on the grounds as they wanted, including a goat whom they named Old Whiskers. One memorable story told of Harrison chasing the goat down Pennsylvania Avenue with his three grandchildren in tow and top hat in hand while waving his cane.

Harrison also tried to escape Washington as often as possible, frequently going on hunting trips in secret. One trip made the national press when he shot a farmer's pig by mistake. When Harrison lost the election to Cleveland in 1892, he told his family that he felt like he had been freed from prison.

Benjamin Harrison: The American Franchise

At noon on April 22, 1889, just a few weeks after Harrison’s inauguration, a gunshot signaled the opening of the Indian Territory in Oklahoma—some 1.9 million acres—to white settlers. That day, 20,000 people crossed into the territory, claiming all the available acreage. This event in Oklahoma was on the heels of the land rush for over 11 million acres of Sioux Indian territory in the Dakotas two months earlier. On October 15, 1892, Harrison made an additional 1.8 million acres of the Crow Indian reservation in Montana available for general settlement. Indeed, during Harrison's administration, Native Americans continued to be pushed out of the last vestiges of their homelands.

End of the Frontier Era

In a desperate bid to end the poverty, disease, apathy, and alcoholism that characterized reservation life, a revitalization movement known as the "Ghost Dance" sprang up among the Sioux Indians of the western plains. These mysterious and emotionally charged rituals supported the passionate belief that an Indian spirit, or savior, soon would destroy the hated whites, returning stolen lands to the Indians once and for all. Alarmed by the frenzy, federal troops confronted a band of Sioux—a nonviolent group who had left the reservation fearful of being caught up in the Indian awakening—at Wounded Knee in the Dakota badlands. In this last battle waged on December 29, 1890, the United States Army massacred 150 Sioux men, women, and children; only 25 soldiers died during the killing. With the Battle of Wounded Knee and the final distribution of Indian lands, the frontier era of American history had finally passed. Thereafter, white Americans would look to foreign lands, outer space, and their inner selves for new frontiers, leaving the West to history, myth, and cinema.

New States and Immigrants

Over the four years of Harrison's term in office, more states were admitted into the Union than during any previous presidential administration: North Dakota and South Dakota (November 2, 1889), Montana (November 8, 1889), Washington (November 11, 1889), Idaho (July 3, 1890), and Wyoming (July 10, 1890). These actions brought new electors to the ballot box. Additionally, the new states impacted American politics by focusing political attention on western issues like never before. Located far from the eastern United States, the new West at the turn of the century would demand government support for transforming the landscape. Mesas, buttes, dry terrain, and vast grasslands were turned into ranches, farms, mines, timber factories, fisheries, and vacation resorts. The new communities of the West would also need infrastructure for basic needs such as commerce, transportation, communication, water, and power. Thus, the government would become involved in giving land to railroad and telegraph companies, constructing dams and irrigation canals, and providing mining concessions.

On January 1, 1892, at the beginning of Harrison's last year in office, federal officials designated Ellis Island in New York Harbor as the official entry point for the flood of immigrants arriving in New York City. From 1888 to 1892, the nation's population had grown from 60 million to over 65 million. As many as half of the new people listed in the census were immigrants. In the twenty years prior to 1900, almost 9 million immigrants had swelled the nation's population, marking one of the largest folk movements in world history.

Benjamin Harrison: Impact and Legacy

Coffee-table history books depict Benjamin Harrison as a lightweight puppet of political party bosses. He is often viewed as little more than a "human iceberg" who sleepwalked through the presidency. We are told that while he could sway a crowd of 30,000 with powerful speeches, he could not talk for two minutes in a room of five people. Because of his lack of personal passion and the failure of anything truly eventful, such as a major war, during his administration, Harrison, along with every other President from the post-Reconstruction era to 1900, has been assigned to the rankings of mediocrity. He has been remembered as an average President, not among the best but certainly not among the worst.

Since the 1960s, however, historians have given Harrison higher marks. In foreign affairs, Harrison is now credited with having done more to move the nation along the path to world empire than any previous President, serving as a model for the young Theodore Roosevelt to admire and emulate. His commercial reciprocity treaties, support for the annexation of Hawaii, establishment of the first American protectorate in Samoa, and push for a trans-isthmus canal in Central America set the agenda for the next thirty years of American foreign policy.

Where he is found lacking by historians has less to do with his personality and style than with his blindness to a domestic reality that simply overwhelmed him, along with every other political leader of the times: His misguided support for the McKinley Tariff and Sherman Silver Purchase Act may have contributed greatly to the economic collapse of 1893—the greatest depression in American history up to that time. He seemed insensitive and unaware of the massive industrial changes that had overtaken America; of the poverty that Jacob Riis wrote about in his classic study How the Other Half Lives (published in 1890); of the depths of economic hardship affecting the nation's farmers as they fell down the economic ladder to tenancy; and of the industrial crisis that began to topple railroads, banks, and business corporations like dominoes within days of his retirement from office.

On the other hand, in those areas which mattered to him—the conservation of national resources, the linkage of world markets to national prosperity, and the civil rights of African Americans—few post-Reconstruction Presidents stood on firmer ground or tried to accomplish more. When compared with the Roosevelts, Wilson, and Truman—activist Presidents of the twentieth century, men who fought wars, managed empires, and confronted economic depressions—Harrison's ranking looks average. Few historians today, however, would judge him as mediocre or insignificant.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Allan B. Spetter

Professor Spetter is a professor emeritus of history at Wright State University. His writings include:

The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (Co-authored with Homer E. Socolofsky, University Press of Kansas, 1987)