Indiana at 200 (61): Benjamin Harrison
by Andrea Neal
Although his name does not show up on lists of greatest presidents, Benjamin Harrison did more during his one term in office than some better-known presidents accomplished in two. Consider the following:
- He expanded the U.S. Navy to both coasts and strengthened its fleet, which had no working battleships when he took office.
- Fulfilling a campaign pledge, he signed into law the Sherman Antitrust Act, landmark legislation that outlawed monopolistic business practices.
- He was a conservationist before environmental protection was popular. He lobbied for and signed the 1891 Forest Reserve Act and used it 17 times to set aside 13 million acres in the western United States for national forests.
- He opened Ellis Island, advocated for African-American voting rights, commissioned the Pledge of Allegiance and convened the first modern Pan-American Conference.
The only president elected from Indiana, Harrison was a man of action who believed in energetic and transparent government.
“He wasn’t a Hoosier by birth but by choice,” notes Charles A. Hyde, president of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. “And Indiana could not have had any president more closely aligned with its altruistic values. In typical Hoosier fashion, he diligently went about his work, quietly doing what was right for the right reasons and never seeking undue recognition.”
From a young age, Harrison seemed destined for a life in politics. His great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence; his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was first governor of the Indiana Territory and ninth president of the United States. His father, John Scott Harrison, represented Ohio in Congress — the only American to be both child and parent of a president.
Harrison was born and educated in Ohio; he moved to Indiana with his wife, Caroline, in 1854 to start a legal career. While building his business, he held a variety of court positions and, in 1860, was elected State Supreme Court reporter.
When the Civil War broke out, Gov. Oliver P. Morton personally called Harrison into service. Immediately commissioned a lieutenant, Harrison raised a regiment of 1,000 volunteers and rose to the rank of brigadier general by war’s end. As in other aspects of his life, Harrison led by example. Harrison the officer would fix coffee in the middle of the night and take it to enlisted men shivering on the picket line.
After the war, Harrison resumed his law practice, built a three-story 16-room home on the north side of Indianapolis and got deeply involved in Republican politics. From 1881 to 1887, he served as a U.S. senator. In 1888, he secured the GOP nomination for president – emerging as a consensus candidate at the national convention because he was most delegates’ second choice in a field of seven.
Four times in U.S. history, a candidate won the election but lost the popular vote. It happened in 1888. Although the incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland received 90,000 more votes, Harrison carried the Electoral College 233 to 168 and was inaugurated on March 4, 1889.
Four years later, Cleveland got his revenge. Historians say a combination of circumstances cost Harrison reelection. He had refused to curry favor with party bosses, so they were a bit lukewarm about his second candidacy. And his wife was fatally ill during the campaign. Harrison suspended his efforts, and she died two weeks before the election.
His personal loss weighed heavily upon him but not the electoral defeat. He said laying down the burdens of the presidency was like being released from prison. Harrison returned to his home in Indianapolis, resumed his law practice and married again. Visitors to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site can see much of the home’s original furniture and artwork, including the rosewood and satinwood bed in which Harrison died in 1901 at the age of 67.
Directions: The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is at 1230 N. Delaware Street, Indianapolis.