Louis W Koenig. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
The presidency of Benjamin Harrison attests that the office requires a breadth of personal qualities and political skills and that to fall short in some of these while being strong in others can be fatal to future electoral success. Possessor of an intellect of the first order, high moral principles, statesmanlike perceptions, and commanding skill as a public speaker, Harrison nonetheless failed to stir the public with magnetic responses to its problems and to relate well to fellow party leaders, which impaired his performance of essential party tasks. Elected president in 1888 by the constitutionally required majority of the electoral vote but with a minority of the popular vote, Harrison failed to win reelection in 1892. Instead of improving his tenuous political strength, he suffered persistent decline.
Despite his failure to be reelected, Harrison’s presidency was well regarded by political connoisseurs of his time. Historian Henry Adams wrote that “Mr. Harrison was an excellent President, a man of ability and force; perhaps the best President the Republican party had put forward since Lincoln’s death.” In 1927 a longtime Washington journalist, Henry L. Stoddard, after ranking Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson as the three outstanding presidents between Lincoln and Coolidge, added that “I feel as though I were doing an injustice to Benjamin Harrison not to crowd him into the three, for, intellectually, he outranked them. He was the ablest of them all.” If anything, Harrison has come to be less well regarded since these judgments were rendered.
The object of history’s mercurial assessments, Benjamin Harrison, is the only grandson of a president (William Henry Harrison) to himself become president. Son of a congressman and great-grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Harrison was born on 20 August 1833 on his grandfather’s farm in North Bend, Ohio, the second of nine children. His father, a farmer, served two terms in Congress. Harrison attended Farmers’ College near Cincinnati and completed his education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, from which he graduated in 1852. Harrison married Caroline Lavinia Scott, daughter of the president of a woman’s college in Oxford; read law in Cincinnati; was admitted to the bar in 1854; and moved to Indianapolis that year to commence his law practice.
Although his father warned him that “none but knaves should ever enter the political arena,” Harrison soon occupied a succession of elective offices: city attorney of Indianapolis, secretary of the Republican state central committee, and reporter of the state supreme court. Commander of the Seventieth Regiment of Indiana Volunteers in the Civil War, Harrison rose to the rank of brigadier general. Gaining national distinction as a lawyer after the war, Harrison ran unsuccessfully for the Indiana governorship in 1876. He was nominated shortly before the election, when the prior nominee withdrew because of recently exposed activities that could not bear the scrutiny of the campaign. Harrison turned down an appointment to the cabinet of James A. Garfield, preferring to serve in the United States Senate, to which he was elected in 1881.
As a senator, Harrison supported civil service reform to supplant the traditional spoils system, high protective tariffs to foster industrial development, a strong navy, and regulation of the railroads. He persistently attacked President Cleveland’s vetoes of veterans’ pension bills. Harrison’s popularity with veterans was to be a major factor in winning the presidential nomination in 1888. His bid for a second Senate term was rebuffed when Indiana’s Democratic-controlled legislature defeated his continuation by one vote. (United States senators were then chosen by state legislatures.)
A deeply religious man, Harrison taught Sunday school and was a deacon, and later elder, of the Presbyterian church. The day before he left Indianapolis for his inauguration as president, Harrison passed the collection plate in the First Presbyterian Church, his long practice. As a praying churchman, an ethical lawyer, and an officeholder of sturdy moral courage, Harrison was regarded as an exemplar of political decency, a reputation that accompanied him to the presidency.
Election of 1888
Harrison was an unsuccessful dark-horse aspirant for the Republican nomination in 1884. In 1888 he became a more formidable candidate when Indiana delegates endorsed his nomination and the most preeminent of Republican politicians, James G. Blaine, did not again become a candidate. With a field that at one juncture consisted of nineteen candidates, the organizers of Harrison’s race, led by Louis T. Michener, attorney general of Indiana, concentrated on gaining the second-choice votes of the delegates until the final ballot.
Matt Quay, overlord of Pennsylvania Republicans, offered support in return for a blanket promise of a cabinet post. Harrison rebuffed his managers, who urged him to accept the deal, by recalling his instruction at their departure from Indianapolis that “purchasing capacity” must not supersede moral competency in deciding the nomination. A critical juncture in Harrison’s progress was reached when Chauncey M. Depew, head of the New York delegation and president of the New York Central Railroad, with the approval of the state’s real political boss, Thomas C. Platt, brought the New York delegation into the Harrison fold.
Harrison was nominated on the eighth ballot. The many ballots were telltales of his political weakness. He subsequently acknowledged to Blaine his indebtedness: “Only the help of your friends made success possible.” Other factors favoring Harrison were his name, his war record, and his popularity with veterans. Levi P. Morton, a New York banker, was nominated for vice president. The Democrats re-nominated incumbent President Grover Cleveland, with Allen G. Thurman, a former Ohio senator, as his running mate.
Harrison conducted a “front-porch campaign” from his home. Imaginative pretexts were spawned to bring great crowds of visitors there. On “German Day,” large delegations from Chicago and Milwaukee journeyed to Indianapolis, where they heard from Harrison a eulogy on German virtues. For one of the more imposing receptions, some forty thousand drummers converged from eleven states.
The principal issue in the campaign was the tariff, with Harrison calling for high tariffs and Cleveland, who did not campaign actively because he felt it beneath the dignity of the presidency, advocating lower tariffs. The contrasting positions on the tariff reflected basic differences between the Republican and Democratic parties in the decade 1884–1894, with Republicans espousing doctrines of nationalism and active governmental intervention to promote the expansion of the economy. The Democrats, under Cleveland, advocated states’ rights and opposed the employment of national governmental power to speed economic growth. Harrison was severely pressured to make a strong commitment to service pensions for Civil War veterans. Sensing that the public might not welcome costly outlays, he limited himself to general pledges and platitudinous statements about veterans. A skilled formulator of positions on issues that served his political necessities, Harrison promised “liberal treatment” of veterans’ pensions.
The Harrison campaign was lavishly financed, and its prime money-raiser was John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store magnate and chairman of the campaign’s finance committee. Wanamaker was given “unrestricted power in raising and deciding upon the expenditure of funds.” As a governing principle, he believed it “right” to solicit businessmen’s contributions, and an imposing fund was raised “so quickly,” Wanamaker noted, “that the Democrats never knew anything about it.” In his expenditures, Wanamaker emphasized a “campaign of education” by salaried speakers and tons of protective tariff literature. His ebullient enterprise prompted charges that he was softening up the public to tolerate expensive favors from the future Harrison administration to business contributors.
As election day neared, Harrison was confident, predicting that “if we can secure an approximately fair election, I think we are safe.” His attainment of a majority of the electoral votes—233 to Cleveland’s 168—with only a minority of popular votes was aided by his successes in large states. His plurality in New York of 14,000 gained him 36 electoral voles, and he repeated that pattern of narrow popular-vote victories in such major electoral vote states as Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. So evenly was the vote distributed nationwide that the election became described as one of “no decision.” Cleveland had a slight popular majority of about 100,000, largely because of increased Democratic majorities in southern one-party states.
Another major factor was the Republican campaign fund of over $400,000, the expenditure of which was concentrated in crucial states. Also of prime importance was Tammany Hall’s betrayal of Cleveland, which helped Harrison carry New York. Despite Harrison’s caution on veterans’ pensions, the premier veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), was converted by his nomination and campaign into an instrument of the Republican party.
Harrison was inaugurated in a relentless rainstorm, with Grover Cleveland holding an umbrella over his successor’s head. His address, after crediting the nation’s growth to the benign influences of education and religion, urged that the cotton states and mining territories attain the thriving industrial levels of the states of the Atlantic seaboard, and toward that end, he reaffirmed his promise of a protective tariff. Stressing that “laws are general, and their administration should be uniform and equal,” without special regard for sections, Harrison in effect foreclosed special treatment for the South. He urged that blacks be granted the right to vote in both North and South. He lamented the proliferating monopolies and trusts, and he committed his administration to the advancement of social justice.
Harrison also urged early statehood for the territories and in general terms advocated pensions for veterans, a statement that evoked the most enthusiastic applause. He declared that the civil service law would be applied fully and that party service would not become “a shield for official negligence, incompetence or delinquency.”
In foreign affairs, Harrison pledged vigilance of national honor and due protection of the personal and commercial rights of American citizens everywhere. He reaffirmed the Monroe Doctrine as a cornerstone of foreign policy and urged the building of a modern navy and a first-rate merchant marine, since the flag would follow every citizen “in all countries and many islands.” Although he declared his commitment to international peace through noninterference in the affairs of other governments and the application of arbitration to international disputes, Harrison clearly accorded the development of national strength the foremost priority.
Presidential Style and Appointments
The twenty-third president of the United States, barely five foot six in height and just a bit corpulent, was fifty-five years old when inaugurated. He had piercing blue eyes and a full, meticulously trimmed gray beard. His bearing was energetic, dignified, and graceful. His rival, Grover Cleveland, was one of many who were impressed by Harrison’s intellectual abilities and honesty of purpose. Writing in retrospect, editor William Allen White admired his “instinct to do the polite, honest, dignified thing in every contingency.”
In making decisions, Harrison was methodical and legalistic, his actions unhurried and maturely deliberated, and he largely kept his own counsel. But many were also disenchanted by aspects of his manner, a list that grew as his administration proceeded. His legalistic style of thought, strong intellectuality, and summoning of lofty principle provided a ready wherewithal for rebuffing those who sought consideration or favor. Some found him impatient, brusque, and even irascible. Governor Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio called him “grouchy.” Others thought him cold. When Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed was asked if he would board “the Harrison bandwagon,” he replied, “I never ride an ice-cart.” A governor, calling at the White House with business to transact, was affronted by Harrison’s greeting: “I’ve got all these papers to look after, and I’m going fishing at two o’clock.” The president opened his watchcase and awaited the governor’s response.
In selecting his cabinet, Harrison emphasized competence and “irreproachable character”; party activity and previous office holding were not prerequisites. For the senior cabinet post, secretary of state, Harrison followed tradition in appointing his party’s chief claimant for the presidency, James G. Blaine. He also followed tradition in awarding the postmaster generalship to a principal manager of the campaign, John Wanamaker. Determined to appoint one friend from Indiana of unquestionable loyalty and competence, Harrison chose his law partner, William Henry Harrison Miller, as attorney general. Cabinet making was also an occasion for making enemies. Harrison bypassed two powerful New Yorkers eager for cabinet posts, Platt and Senator Warner Miller. When Harrison appointed Benjamin Franklin Tracy as secretary of the navy and as the new administration’s recognition of New York, Platt and Miller became forever hostile.
Harrison’s other appointees tolerably approximated his standards, which in effect meant that he chose men much like himself. The final list consisted of six lawyers and two businessmen—all of them regular churchgoers, But Harrison’s cabinet making also raised a danger signal for his future. None of the eight cabinet secretaries had worked actively for his nomination, and their selection did not serve the traditional function of placating important party factions to help build consensus for future policy. Harrison, in sum, had a sturdy nonpolitical streak.
Like other presidencies of his era, Harrison’s was inundated by office seekers. The problem was compounded by the shakeout of Republicans in the preceding Cleveland administration, the first Democratic incumbency since the Civil War. Republicans now meant to reclaim offices in full number. Despite a plank in the Republican platform promising further civil service reform, a clean sweep of the nonclassified civil service quickly materialized. The chief patronage dispenser, J. S. (“Headsman”) Clark-son, removed half of the postmasters. Unlike Cleveland, Harrison removed many officers before they completed their four-year terms.
But Harrison was unable to convert the dispensations of patronage into political advantage. If anything, they became a sizable liability. In awarding offices, the president offended the leading bosses, Quay of Pennsylvania and Platt of New York. Quay, chairman of the Republican National Committee and United States senator from Pennsylvania, presented Harrison with a lengthy list of names to fill various federal offices. When Harrison requested information concerning the fitness and character of each candidate, Quay demurred, noting that the entire matter could be handled by senatorial courtesy with the president simply ratifying what was put before him. But Harrison stood his ground and thus began an enduring enmity. His frequent purpose to represent geographic areas rather than senators’ preferences often prompted the legislators to feel humiliated. Unlike other presidents who delegated patronage to subordinates, Harrison handled the task himself. His cool, expeditious management stoked further ill will, especially his requirement that office seekers make their case standing.
While pursuing a vigorous commerce in spoils, Harrison sought to maintain his credibility with a valued constituency, the civil service reformers. He sought to appease them by appointing as civil service commissioner the New York civil service reformer Theodore Roosevelt, who later noted that Harrison “gave me my first opportunity to do big things.” Despite Roosevelt’s aggressive administration, the Civil Service Reform League denounced Harrison for violating his campaign pledges for civil service reform and the Nation characterized him as a “subservient disciple of the spoils doctrine.”
Like other presidents of his time, Harrison was caught between the reformers, who pushed him hard and watched for backsliding while advocating extension of the merit system to new offices and agencies, and party leaders and workers, who reminded the president that he owed his election to their work and that their interest could be sustained only by adequate reward. Harrison was unable to devise a formula acceptable to both constituencies, and the compromises he structured badly damaged his standing with party workers.
Cool Relations with Congress
In his dealings with Congress, always a complex, high-risk area for presidents, Harrison was handicapped by the frequent poverty of his relations with Capitol Hill’s key power holders. Trouble sometimes sprang from dissatisfaction with Harrison’s award of appointments, particularly when party factions other than those of the individual legislators were rewarded with patronage. Harrison’s penchant for appointing newspaper editors and publishers to diplomatic and other posts angered senators aggrieved by some past journalistic attack or exposé. The Senate, for example, rejected Harrison’s nominee for ambassador to Germany, the distinguished Cincinnati editor Murat Halstead, who had once flayed the chamber for its easy tolerance of corruption in its ranks. Halstead’s rejection was Harrison’s first defeat from his party.
The president’s personality did not wear well with legislators. Senators and congressmen were put off by his ready recourse to high principle and legal niceties. Others were offended by his seeming coldness. “There are bitter complaints,” a critic reported. “Senators call and say their say to him, and he stands silent … As one Senator says: ‘It’s like talking to a hitching post.’ “Some legislators were put off by Harrison’s displays of a lack of political sense. He once grasped Quay’s hand and said solemnly, “Providence has given us the victory.” The veteran boss and senator, taken aback, observed afterward that Harrison was “a political tenderfoot. He ought to know that Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it!” Harrison’s most vitriolic detractor was House Speaker Thomas B. Reed. Their severest clashes were over a patronage appointment and the president’s exercise of his pardoning power, and the individuals who benefited were the only “two personal enemies” in Reed’s life. Imbued with a Whig perspective, especially its precept of legislative supremacy, Harrison did not initiate legislation. His most daring venture was to reecho the Republican platform.
Harrison’s approach to legislative leadership was largely one of emphasizing his role as public leader, of presenting policy proposals in his arresting rhetorical and an analytical style, to rally the public behind them. Unfortunately for Harrison, these efforts were of little avail, since public support steadily diminished as his administration proceeded. Nonetheless, Harrison was aggressive in asserting personal influence. He held informal dinners and receptions for legislative leaders, informing them of items he wanted incorporated in bills. He made few vetoes, although he often used the threat of veto profitably. In both legislative houses he was hampered by divisions within his party over the allocation of spoils. In the Senate, where Republicans enjoyed only a bare majority, a “silver bloc” of sixteen western senators held the balance of power. To implement his party’s platform on the tariff and the civil rights of blacks, Harrison needed support from Silver Republicans, as they were called, much as they needed his backing for a stronger silver law.
Unlike Cleveland, who was an adamant foe of silver, Harrison was supportive without committing himself to the extreme of free coinage, which Silver Republicans and other advocates of silver desired. With Treasury Secretary William Windom, he developed a bill authorizing the issuance of treasury notes on deposits of silver bullion. A tortuous legislative struggle, with Harrison devising compromises and rallying votes, led to passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (July 1890), which increased the amount of silver to be coined but stopped short of free coinage. The act required the purchase of 4.5 million ounces of silver each month at the prevailing market price, through the issuance of treasury notes redeemable in gold or silver. The greater outpouring of paper money would badly strain the treasury’s reserves of gold.
The momentum for silver came from the worsening plight of western and southern farmers who carried a heavy burden of debt. Already the emerging Populist party, which championed their needs and featured among its planks the free coinage of silver, had acquired a strength that would afflict Harrison in future elections. As well, free-silver Republicans from the West frequently were allied with eastern Republicans disaffected by Harrison’s patronage policies. The president trod cautiously on the silver issue, aiming to maintain maximum political support. Simultaneously, he wished to avoid what he termed “unsound money.” He styled himself a “bimetallist” rather than a gold standard advocate, since he favored expanding the paper currency backed by silver. But his opposition to free coinage cost him the support of western free-silver Republicans.
In campaign speeches, Harrison had proclaimed his belief in a protective tariff, which promised relief from the competition of cheap foreign-made goods. A tariff, he had contended, was beneficial to all—to workers whose jobs in effect were protected “at good wages,” to farmers who supplied their needs, to the railroads transporting their goods. The tariff became a reality when Congressman William McKinley of Ohio and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island became the chief authors of the McKinley Tariff Law of 1890, whose principal schedules were imposed by the National Association of Wool Manufacturers, the Tin Plate and Iron and Steel Associations, Louisiana sugar growers, and other groups. The McKinley bill reached out to farmers by placing protective rates on agricultural products, and it put raw sugar on the free list while compensating Louisiana and Kansas beet growers with a bounty of 2 cents a pound. Harrison helped devise the sugar provision when it threatened to deadlock the bill. He also over-saw the development of a reciprocity provision that empowered the president to impose duties on sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, and hides if he determined that nations exporting them were imposing unequal and unreasonable duties on American goods. No apparent heed was given to the prospect of severely rising prices, which the new law did indeed inflict on consumers. Fortunately, Harrison and Secretary of State Blaine negotiated more than a dozen reciprocal agreements that modified tariff duties with leading trading partners.
A major measure that was responsive to the rising threat of the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist party, and their likely combination with the Knights of Labor, was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. For Harrison, the act redeemed a campaign pledge. He venerated economic competition and disdained monopoly, a sentiment he expressed on inauguration day when he was presented with the gift of a watch-dog, an enormous Siberian bloodhound. The dog, he said, “looks very much like an overfed monopolist.” The new antitrust law, he thought, might offset to some degree the McKinley Tariff Act by prompting lower prices under freer competition. But Harrison did little to enforce the new law. His inaction was encouraged by Congress’ failure to appropriate funds to investigate the trusts. The administration initiated only seven antitrust cases.
In his early policymaking, Harrison was also preoccupied with the rights of blacks in the context of general policy toward the South. His campaign statements were positive but general. Harrison was alert to the necessity of strengthening Republican voting performance in the South, where his own campaign had fared badly. From a series of measures introduced in Congress emerged a consolidating bill known as the Lodge bill or force bill, which sought to protect the rights of blacks at the polls by putting southern elections under federal supervision. The bill left Republican legislators divided, again demonstrating that Harrison could not count on his party’s support for prime legislative objectives. Senators Quay and Cameron of Pennsylvania typified a basic cause of Republican recalcitrance by bowing to corporate interests of their state with holdings in the South that the new legislation might impair. Black leaders pressed Harrison to lead a public crusade for “free speech, a free ballot and a fair return of votes at the South.” The Lodge bill passed in the House, but the nervous business interests prevailed in the Senate, where an administration advocate of the black cause noted, “We have had too much … of what may be called ‘strictly business’ politics.”
Harrison, who considered voting rights for blacks a moral isuse, chose not to go to the people in behalf of the Lodge bill but heeded a traditional demand of black leaders for a share of the patronage. He promptly continued his party’s policy of rewarding a few black leaders as a bestowal of recognition on the entire race. Generally, his favors fell on younger leaders rather than old. The president’s major coup was the installation of N. Wright Cuney to the important post of collector of the Port of Galveston. The distinguished black leader Frederick Douglass was named United States resident minister and consul general to Haiti. Harrison also sought to name blacks to the postmasterships of larger southern cities, but that policy was deterred when the Senate forced the withdrawal of Dr. W. O. Crum’s nomination for postmaster of Charleston. In net effect, Harrison’s efforts enhanced his regard in the eyes of the black press and black leaders.
In Congress, Harrison had been known as the “Soldier’s Senator” because of his sponsorship of liberal pension legislation for Civil War veterans, and in his presidential campaign he had declared that the nation should not use “an apothecary’s scale to weigh the rewards of the men who saved the country.” The presence of four generals in the cabinet enhanced the confidence of pension advocates even further, and in addresses on patriotic occasions and to GAR encampments, Harrison reemphasized his commitment to improved pensions for veterans.
One of the president’s more promising contributions to the well-being of the veterans was his appointment of Corporal James R. Tanner, GAR commander from New York, who had lost both legs in the Second Battle of Bull Run, as commissioner of pensions. Tanner deemed it his duty “to assist a worthy old claimant to prove his case rather than to hunt for technical reasons under the law to knock him out.” Even this was a modest understatement, for Tanner’s many critics were soon charging that his handouts to veterans were lavish and illegal. He shot back defiantly that he would “drive a six-mule team through the Treasury.” When his administrative superior, Interior Secretary John W. Noble, with the president’s encouragement, commenced an investigation of Tanner’s prodigal stewardship, Tanner challenged the secretary’s authority in a letter released to the press. The intervention of friends of both Tanner and the president induced Tanner to resign, an act that relieved the president of a burgeoning political liability.
Harrison was more successful in moving a new liberal pension law through Congress. Under existing law, wounds or disease traceable to the war entitled the veteran to a pension. At Harrison’s urging, Congress adopted in 1890 the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, which provided pensions for all veterans who had served ninety days and who were unable to perform manual labor, regardless of the cause or origin of their disability. The new law also initiated the government’s commitment to the principle that its pension system provide for minors, dependent parents, and widows.
An explosion of expenditure promptly followed the enactment of Harrison’s measure. Between 1891 and 1895, the number of pensioners rose from 676,000 to 970,000, and by the completion of Harrison’s term, the yearly appropriation for pensions increased from $81 million to $135 million. In little more than a decade, the new law cost the government over $1 billion. Ironically, the extravagance of Harrison and Congress far exceeded Tanner’s open-handedness. The new pension law confirmed the growing suspicion of citizens that governmental extravagance was moving far beyond bounds. Nonetheless, when critics referred to Congress as the “Billion-Dollar Congress,” Speaker Thomas B. Reed retorted, “Yes, but this is a billion-dollar country.”
Life in the White House was also on a large scale. Not only President and Mrs. Harrison lived there, but many members of their family. Harrison was described as “the only living ruler who can gather at his table four generations,” which he did daily. Those at his board included Mrs. Harrison’s father and the Harrisons’ daughter, Mary, who helped with her mother’s social schedule. With Mary were her two young children. Harrison’s son, Russell, divided his time between New York and Montana, but his wife and daughter lived in the White House. Also present was an older sister of Mrs. Harrison. Since the executive mansion had only five bedrooms, the Harrisons found it unduly small.
The household was run methodically, with meals served at their appointed time. Breakfast was followed by prayers led by the president. An hour in the afternoon was reserved for a brisk walk or drive. On Washington’s streets, Harrison was often seen conversing with citizens who accosted him. The Harrisons remained regular churchgoers; the president engaged in no business on Sunday and even left his mail unopened. Mrs. Harrison, a lively presence, designed the family china set; decorated hundreds of porcelain dishes, the proceeds of whose sales were donated to charities; engaged a professor of French to instruct the wives and daughters of cabinet families and others; and presided with charm and grace at White House functions. The Harrisons conveyed an easy informality, a relief to many after the stiffness of the Cleveland years. The younger Harrisons restored dancing at the White House, which was said to have been in abeyance since the time of Mrs. Polk.
Harrison’s chief aide was Colonel Elijah Walker Halford, his executive secretary and confidant, a former editor of the Indianapolis Journal. Like others who served as secretaries to presidents, both before and after Harrison’s time, Halford was a factotum who dealt with Congress, the press, and party figures, and the steady march of other White House callers. Halford was overseer of Harrison’s daily political well-being. Presidential business was aided by the presence of telephones in the White House, although there was no telephone operator.
Harrison was readily accessible to his cabinet secretaries and followed a regimen of two weekly cabinet meetings and seeing each secretary on a scheduled day each week when, as the president explained, the secretary would come with his papers and a full consultation would proceed concerning appointments and other important business. Harrison devoted cabinet meetings to discussions of items that were of general interest or that at least affected more than one department. Before signing legislation involving a department, Harrison consulted the department head.
Of all his cabinet secretaries, Harrison’s most complex relations were with Secretary of State James G. Blaine. For decades the most popular man in American politics, a controlling power of the Republican party, a perennial presidential candidate, and a leader in legislation, Blaine was versatile in both foreign and domestic policymaking. Harrison was slow in offering Blaine the post of secretary. By delaying until mid-January 1889, he sought to avoid any appearance that a deal had been made at the Chicago convention or that Blaine, and not Harrison, was choosing the cabinet.
As secretary of state, Blaine was constrained by the watchful, possibly jealous, Harrison to limited diplomatic initiatives, to concentration on inherited problems and isolated incidents as they arose. Occasionally relations between the two foremost Republicans of the day were brittle. As Mrs. Blaine complained, after a sequence of her husband’s disappointments, “All propositions are rejected.” Blaine was not invited to accompany the president on his extensive political trips, although other cabinet secretaries and the vice president were. Harrison vetoed a request that Blaine desired above all else, the appointment of his son Walker as assistant secretary of state, for which he was well qualified by ability and diplomatic experience. A lawyer, Walker could have been of estimable assistance to his father, who was not a lawyer, in an administration where legal questions were at the forefront of policymaking.
Despite the rough edges of their relationship, Blaine and Harrison were mutually supportive in the quest for a new and better policy. Blaine, who fore-saw great trouble under the McKinley Tariff’s high rates, urged, in testimony to congressional committees, sweeping empowerment of the executive to negotiate reciprocity agreements with other countries for individual commodities, instead of general reciprocity treaties.
After initial hesitation, Harrison became more hospitable to reciprocity, influenced by Blaine’s tutelage and by his understanding that western farmers welcomed reciprocity as an avenue to enlarged markets for their produce. With agrarian unrest and Populist strength growing, the Republicans patently needed to be more responsive to western sentiment if they were to hold the allegiance of that area.
It was fortunate that Harrison immersed himself in the business of his departments from the outset. An exceptional number of his department secretaries became ill or resigned. Blaine sustained a severe nervous disorder in 1891, a period of intense activity in foreign affairs, and Harrison immediately became his own secretary of state. In the same year, Interior Secretary John W. Noble took extended leave because of health, Secretary of War Redfield Proctor resigned to become senator from Vermont, and Treasury Secretary William Windom died. The heavy burden of additional work prompted Harrison to observe, “The President is a good deal like the old camp horse that Dickens described; he is strapped up so he can’t fall down.”
A chief preoccupation of Harrison and his colleagues in 1890 was the midterm congressional elections. The fast-developing image of the Harrison administration’s extravagance, the hammer blows of the McKinley Tariff on the cost of living, and the distress of agriculture all foreordained that the oncoming congressional elections would constitute a setback to the administration of more severe proportions than the losses a president’s party usually sustains in such testings. For Republican congressmen, the elections were a massacre. Before the elections, the Republicans controlled the House; after the elections, only 88 Republicans were returned, with 235 Democrats and 9 Populists. In the Senate, the Republican majority was reduced to 8 undependable votes from the Far West. Staunch Republican states such as Michigan and Massachusetts went Democratic, and McKinley himself was defeated.
The elections, with their crushing impact on Republican fortunes, indicated that the country desired major policy changes. But the result of the elections—the decimation of House Republicans—virtually foreclosed any sizable adjustments of domestic policy. The elections revealed fast-rising Populist strength in the Midwest and South, which alarmed the president’s chief political advisers, who anticipated that the Senate’s Silver Republicans would become all the more unreliable. The altered congressional party picture stalled most of Harrison’s domestic program in his administration’s final two years. His strength in the Senate was sufficient to forestall repeal of legislation passed in the first half of his administration.
In the depressed state of the president’s political fortunes, the one area in which there might be some hope for a brighter future was foreign policy. Conceivably, the president could set forth appealing prospects and manage crises in ways that would attract the attention and approval of the public, and simultaneously diminish its absorption in domestic affairs.
In the initial two years of his term, Harrison had by no means been inattentive to foreign affairs. He entered office intent on abandoning isolation as a cornerstone of foreign policy, and his selection of Blaine as secretary of state augured an era of initiative and creativity. He and Blaine seized the opportunity provided by a law enacted late in the Cleveland administration that requested the president to convene a meeting of Latin American countries. Arrangements begun by Cleveland were completed by Harrison and Blaine. They agreed that the nation’s growing industrial production made expansion of foreign markets a principal goal. Discussions preparatory to the conference, scheduled to begin on 2 October 1889, looked toward a customs union, inter-American rail and steamship lines, trademark and copyright laws, and arbitration treaties.
A major feature of this first Pan-American Conference, to which seventeen Latin American nations sent delegates to Washington, was a six-thousand-mile tour to impress the visitors with the size, wealth, and manufacturing capabilities of the United States. When the conference reassembled, with Blaine presiding with brilliance and tact and Harrison watchful of progress and problems, the United States offered its plan for a customs union, through which tariff barriers would be reduced and trade with Europe curtailed.
Despite Blaine’s skilled advocacy, the resolution was voted down as unworkable. In a second thrust, Blaine urged that machinery be created for the arbitration of disputes. Again the proposal lost, by a wide margin. National rivalries and fears of United States dominance shaped these decisions. The conference’s most signal achievement was the creation of what became known as the Pan American Union, a clearinghouse for disseminating information and fostering cooperation among the member nations. At other junctures, Harrison advocated construction of a Central American canal and increased U.S. presence in Latin America. In both Latin America and the Pacific, Harrison pursued expansionist policies sometimes expressed in a bellicose manner. Although his efforts produced few tangible successes, he heralded the nation’s subsequent imperial policies of 1898.
The heritage of foreign policy issues from the Cleveland administration also included the Bering Sea controversy, which centered on the wanton slaughter of fur seals off the Alaskan coast. The scalers, mostly Canadians who stationed their vessels outside the three-mile limit, soon threatened the seals with extinction. Shortly before Harrison’s inauguration, the president was authorized by Congress to seize vessels encroaching upon American rights in the “waters of the Bering Sea.” Harrison promptly warned all persons “against entering the Bering Sea for the unlawful hunting of fur-bearing animals, “and revenue cutters began intercepting Canadian vessels. An intricate diplomatic controversy ensued, and continued after the termination of the Harrison administration.
More suited to Harrison’s need to distract the public from the inadequacies of domestic policy was the Mafia affair in New Orleans. The murder of the local police superintendent on 16 October 1890 was attributed to the Mafia, inspired by the heavy migration of Italians, many from Sicily, where the Mafia Black Hand Society flourished. Numerous Italians in New Orleans were arrested, and fearful of violence, Harrison requested a full report from the governor of Louisiana. In March 1891 a jury found six defendants not guilty and a judge declared a mistrial for the remaining three. An aroused local citizenry stormed the prison and shot down some prisoners and hanged others.
Because Blaine was ill, Harrison composed a telegram to the governor of Louisiana deploring the massacre and requesting protection for Italians in New Orleans. Italian Americans elsewhere in the country called for full and prompt justice. The outraged Italian government demanded indemnity. Harrison directed the American minister in Rome to explain “the embarrassing gap in federalism—that in such cases the state alone has jurisdiction.” Although talk of war raged in both countries, in time tempers cooled and the incident was officially closed when Harrison, nudged by Blaine, paid a modest indemnity to the Italian government.
Even more distracting was a stormy interlude in relations with Chile when its government was overthrown in 1891. Harrison disdained the rebels who, he said, “do not know how to use victory and moderation,” and he delayed his conferral of recognition. Meanwhile, sailors of the USS Baltimore on shore leave in Valparaiso, Chile, engaged in a saloon brawl in which two sailors were killed, seventeen others were injured, and still others were chased by rioters, aided by police, around the city.
The crisis in Chilean relations coincided with Blaine’s absence as secretary of state and Halford’s illness, a time of many burdens for the president. When Chile made no apology or expression of regret, Harrison directed that a sharp note be dispatched complaining of the delay. With Chilean legal processes moving slowly in dealing with alleged wrongdoers, Harrison declared in his annual message to Congress (9 December 1891) that if the Chilean investigation did not provide satisfaction to the United States, he would again bring the matter before Congress “for such action as may be necessary.” When the Chilean foreign minister responded by maligning the president, Harrison, who regarded this new affront as “an atrocious insult to the American government,” ordered the navy to prepare for action. Blaine urged caution and understanding for the Chileans amid angry cabinet discussions, and on one occasion, the president leaned forward and with an emphatic gesture declared, “Mr. Secretary, that insult was to the uniform of the United States sailors.”
For a time the public was deeply stirred by hostility toward Chile. A new Chilean foreign minister fortunately proved more accommodating and made an unexceptionable apology. Even as the apology was being decoded, Harrison milked the episode for all of its political worth by dispatching another special message to Congress (25 January 1892), detailing the crisis at great length, and submitted the irritating diplomatic papers “for the grave and patriotic consideration” of Congress “and for such action as may be deemed appropriate.”
Harrison, in effect, was inviting Congress to declare war at a moment when Chile was about to back down. The Democratic press, agitated by the president’s warlike moves, accused him of maneuvering to commence a war to assure his election with the slogan “Don’t Swap Horses in Midstream.” Soon Blaine, mindful of the lofty sentiments of the Pan-American Conference, induced Harrison to mute his bellicosity, and the controversy petered out when the Chilean apology was released, followed by an indemnity from its government.
Harrison inherited the perplexities of policymaking concerning the distant Samoa Islands, where Britain, Germany, and the United States had long been jockeying for ascendance. Relations with Germany were particularly edgy when Harrison began his administration, but Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, who wished to avoid further trouble, convened the Berlin Conference (29 April 1889). Thanks to Blaine’s firm and efficient management of negotiations, Samoa’s native ruling dynasty was preserved and a tripartite protectorate was established. Germany and Britain were not enthusiastic about the arrangement, but Blaine’s skill and tenacity induced their acceptance.
Harrison’s top priority in the Pacific was the Hawaiian Islands, which he meant to annex to the United States. Opportunity knocked late in his administration when a revolution toppled Queen Liliuokalani. The upheaval prompted the United States minister, John L. Stevens, to call for troops—which were dispatched—to protect American lives and property. Stevens and Provisional President Sanford Dole prepared a treaty of annexation. In a report to Harrison, Stevens noted that “the Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it.”
Harrison was eager to complete the annexation as the crowning achievement of his foreign policy. Although it was late in his term, he placed a treaty before the Senate (16 February 1893) and urged “annexation full and complete.” It was essential, the president said, that no other foreign power acquire Hawaii, since “such a possession would not consist with our safety and with the peace of the world.” Although Harrison enjoyed the support of most House Republicans and advocates of a big navy and territorial expansion, his project foundered in the Senate, where the Democrats, who controlled the chamber, refused to act before the expiration of Harrison’s term. When restored to the presidency, Grover Cleveland, a resolute anti-annexationist, withdrew the treaty.
Although Harrison seemingly used foreign policy to satisfy his own political necessities, and especially the gaining of reelection, much of what he did mirrored basic forces and longings of American society. When he became president, Reconstruction was virtually complete, industrial production was fast expanding, and American manufacturers were eager for foreign markets as outlets for their burgeoning surpluses. National consciousness was growing, patriotic societies were proliferating, and Harrison’s plan to build a new and modern navy was widely applauded. In the dawning era of big warships, those built by Harrison’s administration were the biggest in the world. A big navy required coaling stations, and Harrison’s assertiveness in the Pacific meant to fulfill that necessity.
Although Harrison’s handling of foreign policy problems was thoroughly imperial, his use of presidential power in forwarding his designs was, with few exceptions, scrupulously constitutional. He was fastidious in requesting empowerments from Congress, in subjecting his policy initiatives to its approval, and in respecting its constitutionally conferred power to declare war. For major projects, he depended on the treaty power rather than the executive agreement, which can bypass the legislative power. He was solicitous of public approval and alert to the need for informing the public of foreign affairs problems through messages to Congress and his extensive speechmaking across the country.
Foreign policy failed to arouse any tidal wave of demand for Harrison’s renomination. Many Republican professionals regarded that eventuality with apprehension and distaste. Minnesota Senator W. D. Washburn represented that opinion when he said, “There are two serious objections to Harrison’s re-nomination; first, no one cares anything for him personally, secondly, no one, as far as I know, thinks he could be elected if nominated.” Harrison’s most dedicated opponents were the bosses, led by Quay and Platt, who resented the president’s handling of patronage.
Election of 1892 and Retirement
The bosses searched for a candidate to oppose the president. They looked eagerly to Blaine, who had resigned as secretary of state for reasons never made clear, but he was plagued by illness and soon made a public statement that his name would not go before the Republicans’ Minneapolis convention. The statement also mentioned nothing about Harrison, his record, or his renomination. The omission kept the opposition to Harrison alive, as the bosses turned next to McKinley and John Sherman of Ohio, the two candidates that Harrison’s managers feared most.
Harrison did little to help his cause. He was distracted by the serious illness of his wife, a condition first diagnosed as nervous prostration. But as the Minneapolis convention neared, Harrison changed course and sent for his top political adviser, Louis T. Michener. After reviewing the attacks by the bosses and other critics, he declared, “No Harrison ever retreated in the presence of a foe without giving battle, and I have determined to stand and fight.” With demonic toil, Harrison’s managers struggled to round up delegates and to ward off Mark Hanna’s efforts to forestall a first-ballot nomination for Harrison, which might then clear the way for his protégé, McKinley. But Hanna’s strategy failed, and Harrison captured the nomination on the first ballot. A potent factor in his success was the belief of rank-and-file Republicans that they could again win with Harrison. The rejected bosses extracted a measure of satisfaction by vetoing the renomination of Levi Morton for vice president and substituting Whitelaw Reid, also of New York and publisher of the New York Tribune. The maneuver was laid to the New York delegation and Boss Platt.
With Grover Cleveland as the Democratic nominee, the election of 1892 became the only one in which the nominees of both major parties had served as president. Harrison did little campaigning, with Mrs. Harrison’s health in continuing decline, her condition now diagnosed as pulmonary tuberculosis. In deference to Mrs. Harrison, who died midway in the election, Cleveland too did not campaign. The Democratic platform’s strongest words were reserved for the McKinley Tariff, which it denounced as the “culminating atrocity of class legislation.”
Harrison’s cause was gravely injured by a strike at the Homestead Works of the Carnegie Steel Company when twenty men were killed in a battle between locked-out workers and armed Pinkerton detectives. A military force was posted to guard the nonunion labor that was brought in. Harrison’s image with labor worsened when he dispatched federal troops to the Coeur d’Alene mines in Idaho in July 1892 at the governor’s request. The strike was crushed, and union miners retreated into the mountains.
In the 1892 election, Cleveland avenged the defeat he sustained in 1888. He secured a popular majority of slightly under 375,000 votes and won 277 electoral votes to 145 for Harrison and 22 for Populist party candidate James B. Weaver. Although the Republican party spent $6 million on the campaign, nearly double its outlay for 1888, Harrison, the results implied, failed to respond efficiently to the problems and concerns of labor and farmers in the severe recession of 1893. Their dissatisfactions were reflected in the rapid growth of the Populist party. The McKinley Tariff and the steep increases it wrought in the living costs of the general public helped assure Harrison’s downfall.
After completing his presidential term, Harrison returned to Indianapolis and resumed his law practice, which he limited to important and often remunerative cases. He delivered a series of law lectures at Stanford University, which were published in 1901 as Views of an Ex-President. The former president, at sixty-two, remarried. His bride, Mary Lord Dimmick, was the daughter of the first Mrs. Harrison’s sister and had attended her aunt during her final months of illness. They had one child, Elizabeth. In 1899, Harrison represented Venezuela in the arbitration of its dispute with Great Britain over the British Guiana boundary. He died of pneumonia at his home in Indianapolis on 13 March 1901. The last Civil War general to serve as president, Harrison lived to see his policies vindicated in the Spanish-American War, the termination of the 1893 economic crisis, and Republican recapture of the presidency after Cleveland’s term.