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Caroline Harrison - First Lady

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Caroline Lavinia Harrison was not pleased with her new living quarters. Although her home was now the White House, the presidential mansion was cramped, shabby, and overrun with rats -- hardly a building that would command the respect of visiting dignitaries. She therefore set about reconfiguring the place. Caroline wanted to separate the family's living area from her husband's working space and conceived of a plan that would add two enormous wings to the house: the West Wing would be devoted to offices so that the original mansion could be used for entertaining and private use, while the East Wing would house an art gallery. But neither the wings nor the greenhouses and fountains she proposed came to fruition. Instead, the new First Lady had to be content with a budget that barely covered the expenses for housecleaning and minor repairs. Despite her disappointment, Caroline did what she could. She combated the rats by releasing an army of ferrets throughout the house, bought new curtains and furniture, renovated the kitchen, laid new floors, and installed private baths, electric lighting, and a new heating system. As she worked to refurbish the White House, Caroline was careful to inventory the contents of every room. She cataloged the mansion's furniture, pictures, and decorative objects, working to preserve those that had historical value. In particular, she unearthed the chinaware of former presidential administrations and cleaned, repaired, and identified which pieces belonged to which First Lady. Her interest in presidential china was not confined to the past, however, as she designed the official pattern for her husband's administration.

Nor was her artistic expression limited to china patterns. Caroline's paints accompanied her to the White House, as did her kiln, which she set up in the newly refurbished mansion. Despite her busy schedule as First Lady, she took three art lessons a week and organized art classes for the wives and daughters of White House staff and federal officials. Women's rights would be another one of her passions. Caroline Harrison believed firmly that women should pursue activities outside the home and lived according to that creed. As First Lady, she agreed to serve as head of a national committee that raised a much-needed $500,000 for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as long as the institution agreed to admit women. She also became the first "President-General" of the newly created Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), regarding it as a potentially "Powerful political force for women." Speaking before the DAR as First Lady, Caroline credited America's early success as a country partly to the efforts of its women. As a result, she believed that "the unselfish part [women] acted constantly commands itself to our admiration and example. If there is no abatement in this element of success in our ranks, I feel sure that their daughters can perpetuate a society worthy the cause and worthy themselves."Caroline Harrison was also conscious of her duties inside her home. She gave elegant receptions and dinners, grandly celebrated the Centennial of the Presidency, and was the first First Lady to decorate a Christmas tree in a public White House ceremony. Because she suffered ill health throughout her years at the White House, she asked daughter Mary Harrison McKee and daughter-in-law Mary Harrison, as well as various nieces, to attend social events and greet guests in her stead. Her decision in this matter was not popular among the wives of administration officials. Both the vice president's wife, Mrs. Levi P. Morton, and the wife of the secretary of state, Mrs. James G. Blaine, thought that protocol required they be tapped as substitutes before family members. Such social squabbling did not overly concern Caroline Harrison. Of greater distress was the publicity she and her family garnered in the press. When Benjamin Harrison was elected President in 1888, Caroline was stunned to discover the press she generated whether at home in Indiana or shopping in New York. She received letters by the hundreds requesting her opinions on fashion and her assistance in gaining presidential favors. She particularly resented the invasion of privacy resulting from press scrutiny of her family's activities, especially those of her grandson. Although she detested the attention, some articles reported that she and her family actually courted and welcomed it, which prompted her, late in her tenure, to write, "I have about come to the conclusion that political life is not the happiest -- you are [so] battered around in it that life seems hardly worth living."In fact, after writing those words, Caroline Harrison did not live long much longer. She died of tuberculosis and influenza just before Benjamin Harrison lost his bid for reelection in 1892. At the conclusion of the official mourning period, daughter Mary Harrison McKee and daughter-in-law Mary Harrison assumed Caroline's hostessing duties for the short time left of the Harrison presidency.

Like Elizabeth Monroe, Caroline Harrison coped with the challenge of following a very popular predecessor. The public had adored both Dolley Madison and Frances Cleveland and was critical of their successors. In addition, Caroline suffered from accusations that she had accepted bribes. Although she seemed to be innocent in the matter, her questionable judgment and her insistence on privacy alienated some Americans. Her legacy, however, has proved to be historically important. The current architectural plan of the White House, complete with an East and West Wing, reflects the plan suggested by Caroline Harrison, and the White House china room is certainly a testament to her historical sensitivity in rescuing, repairing, and identifying artifacts from previous administrations. Her public support of women's rights focused greater attention on the issue and promoted greater acceptance of a First Lady's public political stands. Although often forgotten or disdained, Caroline Lavinia Harrison contributed greatly to both the evolution of the White House and the evolution of the role of First Lady.

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)