Back in my White House staffer days, I used to give friends tours of the East and West Wings. It was one of my favorite perks of my job. As we strolled through the Green Room and passed the portrait of President William Henry Harrison, I would always pause and say “Here is President William Henry Harrison. He gave the longest Inaugural Address in history–two hours in the pouring rain. He died of pneumonia 30 days later . . .”
Then I would pause for dramatic effect, point to the next portrait over, and say “His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, served as president a few decades later. Learning from his grandfather’s mistakes, he gave the shortest Inaugural Address in history.” My guests would be wowed at this random historical fact. The rest of the tour they’d assume I was this awesome database of fascinating historical knowledge.
It turns out, though, that whomever I got my original information was totally wrong. Yes, William Henry Harrison’s address was the longest in history. And yes, it was given in a chilly downpour which resulted in poor President Harrison’s death just 30 days later. But his grandson’s inaugural address was far from the shortest (that honor went instead to George Washington’s Second Inaugural). Too bad. It sure made for an interesting story.
Though Benjamin Harrison, our president of the week, was known as a good, honest man, and a great public speaker, his presidency was considered lackluster at best. He’s probably best known for being the president sandwiched in between the two Grover Cleveland terms.
He was also our nation’s “centennial president”–elected exactly 100 years after George Washington’s first inaugural. Officials at the time made a big deal over it. They even had Benjamin Harrison reenact George Washington’s first swearing-in ceremony and held a parade for him in New York City.
Some historians are baffled that in only 100 years our nation went from the ever revered General George Washington to a lackluster somebody like Benjamin Harrison.
Was he as bad as historians say? I’ll let you decide.
Firsts and a Last for Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison was not a well-known president. One historian even thought Harrison would perhaps be better remembered had he died just 30 days into his term like his grandfather. Ouch! So, just to keep things interesting, and to help make him more well-known by our readers at least, here’s a list of firsts and lasts of President Harrison.
Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have electricity installed in the White House (though, according to this he and his wife never touched the switches because he had a fear he’d be electrocuted)!
Because he was the grandson of our 9th president, he and his grandfather became the first grandfather-grandson duo in presidential history. Benjamin was just seven-years-old when his grandfather was elected but did not attend his inauguration.
So far he is the only president to be elected from the state of Indiana.
He was the first president to have his voice recorded, making his recording the oldest recording of any U.S. president. Though the quality isn’t the best, you can listen to it here. If he sounds like an old man, it’s because he was–at least in those days. He was 55 when he was elected.
Harrison was the last president to wear a beard. I’m going to call that one a win!
He was also the last Civil War general to serve as president.
Finally, he was the first president to try and save a species–fur seals in the Bering Sea. How’s that for noble?
Benjamin Harrison’s “Family Business”
Benjamin Harrison came from a super political family. His great-grandfather was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather was the president with the shortest term in history, William Henry Harrison. Finally, his own father was a Congressman. How do you compete with that? The answer is, you don’t deviate. You just join the ranks!
Benjamin Harrison was born into this super political family on August 20, 1833 in Ohio. Like many politicians of the day, Harrison was college educated and a lawyer. After he became a lawyer, he moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and became involved in local politics. His first elected office was city attorney of Indianapolis.
When the Civil War began, Harrison answered President Lincoln’s call and recruited his own regiment. It didn’t take long for him to rise in the ranks and distinguish himself. Afterward, he returned to Indiana, ran a failed bid for governor, but was elected to the U.S. Senate five years later.
How Harrison Got Elected
Some historians call Harrison’s election a bit of a fluke. When Grover Cleveland announced he was running again, Senator James Blaine refused to run against him again. So the Republicans scrambled for a new nominee. Enter Benjamin Harrison. Basically, he was a supporter of big business and had a lot of money behind him. Plus, he was a Civil War vet so he was the Republican’s answer to run against Grover Cleveland in 1888.
The foreign tariff was the hottest issue of the election. Our nation was super divided but in the end, Harrison came out on top–just barely though. While Harrison won the Electoral vote overall, Cleveland won the popular vote.
Benjamin Harrison’s Presidency (1889-1893)
Benjamin Harrison’s Civil War vet status became important during his only term. Because of it, in 1890 he passed the first comprehensive pension in history–giving a pension to all Civil War vets. His Administration also presided over the nation’s first billion dollar Congressional budget.
He also signed into law the McKinley tariff (named after future president, Congressman William McKinley). It was the highest, most protective import tax in history. As a result, foreign companies refused to import their products to America. Without that foreign competition, some American companies gained a monopoly on the market and consumer prices sky-rocketed. The result was a huge decline in Benjamin Harris’s popularity as president.
One good thing he did while in office was to start the base of land conservation. He created what is today known as the National Forest Service. Plus, he set that historic first for trying to save wildlife.
Additionally, six states officially joined our country under his Administration: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming.
Sadly, Harrison’s wife Caroline died his last year in office. Because of her ailments, Harrison didn’t campaign for himself. There were several other things that sent Harrison packing when re-election time rolled around though. One of those things was his icy personality. He apparently gave the cold shoulder to the very GOP leaders who had helped elect him. That didn’t go over well. The other issue was the McKinley tariff. One of his biggest critics was former President Cleveland who helped seal the deal of Harrison’s one term.
Benjamin Harrison’s “Iceberg” Personality
One of Harrison’s self-imposed undoings was his standoffish personality. He was also super formal and apparently didn’t have much of a sense of humor. It’s said he even hated small talk. He only shook people’s hands when he was wearing gloves. Apparently he did it as a precaution against infection. But it was obsessive and people didn’t care for it. He was said to be hard to work for and hard to work with and alienated other leaders even in his own party.
The combo of all these lovely characteristics earned him the nickname the “Human Iceberg.”
A cold man, or not, perhaps he was just misunderstood or only opened up a bright side to those who knew him best. One year into his term, the Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Tracy’s home caught fire. It was just a couple blocks from the White House. Historians claim that Benjamin Harrison himself rushed to Tracy’s home to assist and even saved Tracy’s life by administering CPR. Tragically, Tracy’s wife and daughter both died in the fire. President Harrison gave the news to Tracy and invited him to live at the White House with his own family while he recovered.
So, “iceberg” maybe, but still a good man at heart.
The First Lady and a Funeral in the White House
Caroline Scott Harrison met her husband while they were attending college. They became engaged his senior year but put the wedding on hold while he finished studying law and she finished her degree in music. She was one of the first college educated First Ladies. The Harrisons had two children together: Russell Benjamin Harrison and Mary “Mamie” Scott Harrison.
Caroline invited her father and several relatives to live with them at the White House. Because of how crowded the White House became, she petitioned Congress to expand the executive mansion. They denied her petition but gave her money to renovate. She helped lay new floors, added bathrooms and electricity, and helped rid the house of major rodent and insect problems.
In 1891, she contracted tuberculosis and died of it in October 1892. Services were held for her in the East Room of the White House. After the official mourning period was over, her daughter Mary took over the First Lady duties.
A few years after leaving office, Harrison married his wife’s niece who was 20-some odd years his junior. His adult children weren’t too happy about that.
New York Congressman Levi Morton. I don’t usually share pictures of vice presidents–but isn’t his great? I thought Chester Arthur had some serious chops, but they’ve got nothing on this guy!
Why Benjamin Harrison Is Cool
Benjamin Harrison had big shoes to fill. I can’t imagine the pressure put on him with his family’s political history. That he was even accomplished enough to get a presidential bid, no matter the outcome, is pretty amazing. Plus, there’s that whole land conservation thing–he set the foundation for Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency (national parks, etc.).
Now matter how accomplished we are, our own personality can prove our undoing. Whether we intentionally come across cold or not, it’s important to be self-aware. Benjamin Harrison had a lot going for him as an accomplished politician with an amazing family legacy. He was a great speaker and did a lot of good. However, his brusk personality drove people against him.
If your children are too young to have discussions about Benjamin Harrison, his presidential website offers coloring pages for younger children.
Sources: My new favorite resource for learning about our presidents is the Washington Post podcast “Presidential.” Check it out if you want a fun escape into history!
And, as always, here’s my favorite documentary on all the presidents. The History Channel put together a mini-documentary on each president and they’re fascinating. Here’s the longer (more expensive version) and here’s the shorter version.
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Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.