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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,066

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This is the grave of Benjamin Harrison.

Born in 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, Harrison grew up in the political elite of the pre-Civil War years. His grandfather after all was William Henry Harrison, genocidal general and old president who should have worn a damn coat during his inauguration. However, Harrison’s father did not have that much money for some reason. He ran a big farm but spent most of the income on it getting Benjamin and his siblings the kind of educated expected of the family. He attended a local college in Cincinnati for two years and then transferred to Miami University in 1850 and graduated in 1852. From there it was the law. Harrison was admitted to the bar in 1854. But rather than stay in Ohio, he and his new wife decided to try their hand in Indianapolis. There, he moved pretty quickly into the city’s legal, political, and business elite.

Harrison was a strong Whig of course, but when that party collapsed in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he became a founding Republican in Indiana. He was a leading local campaigner for John C. Fremont in 1856 and then first won elected office for himself the next year, winning a race for Indianapolis’ city attorney. He by now was co-founder of one of the city’s largest law practices. He didn’t really want to give that up to fight in the Civil War and initially did not volunteer. But in 1862, with calls for volunteers becoming more strident, Harrison acquiesced to the idea that he would have to fight. Oliver Morton, Indiana’s hard-core Republican governor, was increasingly upset by the inability of getting people to volunteer. Seeing his real despondence over it, Harrison volunteered to recruit a regiment. This became the 70th Indiana and Harrison was named a colonel because he was a rich guy, which was all that was required to become an officer at this time.

Mostly Harrison’s regiment did minor duties until 1864, things such as railroad reconnaissance. By seeming chance, it didn’t really see major battle until it joined Sherman’s campaign in Georgia. Harrison had proved himself functional enough to be promoted to command the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the XX Corps. He did well enough it seems. Then, when Sherman marched to the sea, Harrison and his men were sent back to Tennessee to stop Confederate raiding up there and was involved in the Battle of Nashville.

After the war, Harrison went back to his law practice in Indianapolis. He was still just a minor guy on the state level. He got touched by the patronage network of the Grant years, hired to represent the federal government in the Ex Parte Milligan case over treason in the war. He was a good public speaker and his friends wanted him to run for Congress. He demurred initially though proved himself a good campaigner for Indiana Republicans. In 1872, he did decide to run for governor of Indiana, but lost the Republican nomination when Oliver Morton supported his opponent. In 1876, Harrison decided to sit it out. But Republicans nominated a super corrupt guy, it all blew up, and they came begging Harrison to take his place on the ticket. He agreed and but lost the race in a very tight margin to the Democrat. 1876 was not a good year for Republicans, with voters still angry about the Panic of 1873. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Harrison proved himself the ally of corporate leaders, creating a militia to kill workers if need be. No friend of the working class would Harrison ever become.

Harrison continued to try and get higher office and continued failing to do so. Republicans hoped he would become senator in 1877 but then Democrats took the state legislature so that didn’t happen. Rutherford Hayes named him to the Mississippi River Commission which is fine and all, but hardly the resume the kind of guy who was going to be president in 10 years.

In 1880, Republicans retook the Indiana legislature. This time, there was an opening for the Senate and they sent Harrison. James Garfield offered Harrison a position in the Cabinet–keeping Indiana happy was important–but Harrison preferred to try his hand in the world’s worst deliberative body. Harrison quickly proved himself on two positions. First, he would be a complete hack for corporations and Republican economic priorities. Second, he would be part of a dwindling number of Republicans who cared about the rights of Black Americans and other minorities. On the latter, he voted against the Chinese Exclusion Act and supported unsuccessful federal legislation to provide educational funding to Black southerners. This is good. He also supported the highest possible tariffs and any legislation that would help corporate leaders. This was not so good. He was also a major player behind the plan to create a bunch of unnecessary new states out of the American West, long before they had reached the normal population requirements for statehood, in order to help Republicans win. That happened finally in 1889, when Harrison became president, but he had pushed for that the whole time he was in the Senate.

In 1886, Democrats retook the legislature and they tossed Harrison out of office. By now, Harrison had big ambitions and while he went back to Indianapolis and his law practice, he declared his candidacy for the presidency. James Blaine was the favorite initially, even though he had lost in 1884. But this massively corrupt and narcissistic senator was highly controversial even in his own, very divided, party and he knew that, so he finally pulled out. Like most of the minor league players who won presidential nominations in this era, Harrison ended up being a favorite son candidate of Indiana who no one really hated, which made him the eventual choice. John Sherman initially had the lead on the first ballot of the Republican National Convention, but Harrison made ground on every ballot and won. Grover Cleveland won the popular vote for the presidency, largely based on sweeping the South with few Black Americans able to vote by this time, but Harrison squeaked out the win in the electoral college.

I used to tell a joke about Harrison–“I’m a professional and even I can’t tell you what Harrison did as president!” A bad joke and also not true, but it’s hard to think of a more irrelevant president, at least among those who were both elected to the office and served an entire term. In short, Harrison was a pro-corporate high-tariff hack who did whatever Senate Republicans wanted him to do. There’s a reason we talk more about James Blaine today than Harrison. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I even mentioned the name of Benjamin Harrison when I taught my Gilded Age/Progressive Era course last fall. Why would I? The real power players were the corporate leaders. The politicians just did their bidding.

But there are a few things worth noting here. First, Harrison named Blaine Secretary of State to kick him upstairs and shut him up in trying to control his administration. This was smart politics and it gave Harrison room to name who he wanted to other positions. He was less interested in paying off Republican bosses with patronage than other presidents of the time, which annoyed them to no end. Second, Harrison was the last president before Lyndon Johnson to really care about Black rights. He wanted to use federal power to enforce Black rights in the South and couldn’t only because the rest of the Republican Party was indifferent to hostile by this time. The most impactful thing Harrison did on this front was naming a lot of Black men to key positions in government, which had become the main way the party could support its commitment to post-Civil War relative equality in the face of outright hostility from the white South and basic indifference from the white North. This leads me to another point–like so much in how we remember our presidents, we tend to focus on one monstrous deed by one president to blame them for particularly egregious racism that isn’t inaccurate but actually is counterproductive because it serves to let off the rest of the nation from its crimes. That is true of Andrew Jackson and Indian Removal. It is also true of Woodrow Wilson and segregating the federal government. Anything you want to say about how Wilson was awful on this is true. However, it is also true that Harrison was the last president to actually care about these issues in a way that would help Black Americans. Like any Democrat, Grover Cleveland most certainly didn’t care. But William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft would all lay groundwork for Wilson’s actions, each materially contributing to greater segregation in the federal government before he laid the final blow. So kudos to Harrison here for actually having some commitment on the issue. He really didn’t have to do so in order to have political success. He also endorsed a constitutional amendment that would have overturned the Supreme Court’s super racist decision in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases and placed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 into the Constitution. This had no chance of ratification, but Harrison did give it public support.

Harrison also supported the Federal Elections Bill of 1890 that Henry Cabot Lodge and George Hoar pushed so hard for, which would have reestablished federal authority over the state elections where the states were making the 14th and 15th Amendments effectively null and void. Harrison stated the “free ballot, honestly expressed and fairly counted is the main safeguard of our institutions, and its suppression under any circumstances cannot be tolerated.” No room for Harrison in the 21st century Republican Party!!! Democrats filibustered the bill to death. Moreover, Harrison appointed Frederick Douglass as Minister to Haiti, which not only pioneered the idea of a Black ambassador but also gave the great aging orator and abolitionist hero a steady income that he desperately needed by this point in his life.

Harrison had also initially opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act, though he later acquiesced to its inevitability. On the other hand, Harrison was not good on Native rights and ordered troops to South Dakota to suppress the Ghost Dance, which led to one of the most despicable acts of genocidal violence in American history for no good reason. If one wants to be fair to Harrison here, one has to note that by the time Harrison got information about the Ghost Dance, it had been fear-mongered way out of context and made to be seen as a huge threat rather than a fundamentalist religious movement by people facing the apocalypse of their societies and ways of life. But in any case, Harrison had no real problem in sending troops to massacre the Lakota if need be. He also opened up Indian Territory to white settlers, expanding upon the evil Dawes Act that stole yet more lands from the tribes already moved there, which were initially exempt from said act. He also sent George Crook, notorious Indian hater, to South Dakota, to steal more lands from the various Sioux tribes, as if the government hadn’t stolen enough of them already. Harrison was all about opening up the Plains to white settlement and there simply was no room for Indians in the American Inn.

Naturally enough, Harrison didn’t mind accepting a few illegal gifts. It was the Gilded Age after all and what was the point of politics if not to make some extra bucks. Shortly after he became president, John Wanamaker, the department store capitalist who Harrison named Postmaster General for no good reason and who managed to probably be the worst in history until Louis DeJoy, got some of his friends together and they went in to buy a big house at Cape May, New Jersey for Harrison’s wife. Uh huh. This actually went public and there was a lot of criticism and finally Harrison paid Wanamaker $10,000 for it.

This said, compared to other leading Republicans, Harrison was a bit more pro-reform. He generally supported the creation of the civil service, which undermined the patronage networks and reduced the power of party bosses. That said, he didn’t really care, took forever to decide on appointments, and really didn’t push forward the cause of civil service reform in any meaningful way.

What Harrison did care about was Civil War pensions. That had always been a big project for him, back to the Indiana days. The Dependent and Disability Pension Act of 1890 was the first big welfare program in American history. The government was so cheap during these days that it also had a budget surplus while millions of Americans suffered with zero safety net. Republicans, very much including Harrison, had no interest in providing any kind of safety net to any but the deserving and the only category of deserving was Civil War veterans, only of the Union. Given the reconciliationist politics of the time, it’s a bit surprising to me that they didn’t extend some kind of sop to traitors, but they did not. Anyway, this took care of the annual budget surplus and gave desperately needed money to veterans and their families who had been struggling for a quarter-century with injuries and all that meant, both to the body and the mind. Of course, this law also led to the patronage people finding new ways to exploit and corrupt and Harrison soon had to fire the Pension Bureau Commissioner James Tanner for massive corruption, including accepting loan payments as kickbacks for expediting cases. Amazingly, his replacement did the same thing, albeit slightly less openly. Ah, the Gilded Age.

Harrison also pioneered what would become the national forests. Usually Theodore Roosevelt gets all the credit for this and that’s fine, he did create the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and hired Gifford Pinchot to manage it. But Harrison laid the groundwork for it by creating forest reserves that meant the goal of the federal government was no longer necessarily dumping public lands into private hands by any pretext necessary.

Harrison’s economic plans were typical of Gilded Age politicians and therefore awful. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was a complete disaster that helped plunge the economy into depression in 1893 by depleting the nation’s gold supplies. Of course, Harrison hardly deserves the only blame for this. The law did pass both houses by large margins. But still. The McKinley Tariff also hurt the economy pretty bad by making the tariff ridiculously high, the highest in American history. Again, normal Republican policies, but Harrison did sign the bills.

Harrison also pushed through his favorite bill, making unnecessary states such as splitting the Dakotas into two states, all with the purpose of putting extra weight onto the Electoral College and Senate to consolidate Republican power. Given the ridiculous nature of contemporary American politics, Harrison deserves a lot of blame for this today. The irony of it is that he lost his reelection bid to Cleveland in 1892. There were a few reasons for this. The Republican bosses hated him for not giving them their expected appointment power. In fact, they tried to dump him for Blaine, which made him determined to run for reelection. The economy was already weakening with the Panic of 1893 just around the corner. Moreover, his wife was dying from tuberculosis (she would finish her life just a couple of weeks after the election) and so even in a day of front porch campaigning, he was pretty distracted. Cleveland blew him out.

In the aftermath of his presidency, Harrison played the role of senior Republican figure. He taught law at Stanford for a bit. He held a lot of honorary positions in an era of honorary positions. Some tried to get him to run for president again in 1896, but he was through with politics. He published a book of essays on the federal government and served on the Board of Trustees at Purdue University. He married his now dead wife’s secretary, even though she was 25 years younger than he. His children were so furious that they refused to attend the wedding. Although Harrison’s foreign policy was a bit indifferent, Venezuela hired him in 1898 to represent it in the British claims against it that would later give rise to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, telling British power that the U.S. would enforce their claims because the Latin American nations were children, but it was the American sphere of influence so stay out England.

Incidentally, Harrison has the first recording of a presidential voice in history, when he recorded a 36 second bit in 1889, which you can actually listen to here with some introductory material.

Harrison died in 1901 of pneumonia. He was 67 years old.

Benjamin Harrison is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harry Truman is in Independence, Missouri and Dwight Eisenhower is in Abilene, Kansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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