On the countdown of the Presidents of the United States from Worst to First we are at #31 the 23rd POTUS, Benjamin Harrison.
Benjamin Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio on August 20, 1833. He grew up in North Bend which was out in the country-not too far from Cincinnati. Benjamin and his grandfather William Henry Harrison are the only grandfather- grandson to ever be president. Benjamin was named for his great-grandfather Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Having grown up in a Whig household he favored that party while a young man but joined the Republican Party soon after it was formed in 1856. By 1856, Harrison had graduated from college, was starting a career as a lawyer, had married his first wife Caroline in 1853 and after inheriting $8oo from an aunt, had moved to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1854.
When the American Civil War began, Harrison wanted to enlist but worried about how to support his young family, the Harrison’s had two young children. Harrison would help recruit a regiment from Indiana to fight in the war and was offered the command of the regiment but since he had no military experience he declined command but would be commissioned as a captain and then two weeks later was made a colonel. In January 1865 President Lincoln nominated Harrison to brevet brigadier general of volunteers. This would be approved by Congress in February 1865 and Harrison would ride in the Grand Review after the war ended.
In 1872 Harrison campaigned for governor of Indiana but lost, went back to his law practice and then in 1876 ran again for governor and lost once again this time by 5,084 votes. In 1880 Harrison would be selected by the Indiana state legislature as U.S. Senator. He would serve as senator from 1881-87. After serving one term he is defeated in his bid for re-election in 1886 and leaves office in early 1887. Harrison would go back to his law practice and would stay involved in politics. But it wouldn’t be long before this relative unknown would be in the spotlight.
The 1888 Republican National Convention was held in Chicago. The early favorite was James Blaine but after he wrote several letters denying any interest in the nomination his supporters were divided among other candidates. John Sherman of Ohio was the leading candidate and on the first few ballots he led. Harrison was fifth on the first ballot. By the fifth ballot the Blaine delegates started to shift towards Harrison and he was nominated on the 8th ballot. In the 1800’s this was a common thing- not having a nominee beforehand. Now the political parties want to go to the conventions with everything wrapped up and no suspense.
Harrison would be taking on the incumbent Grover Cleveland. Harrison’s campaign would go back to the old front porch campaign. He pretty much stayed at home in Indianapolis and the people came to him. Looking back now on history- Cleveland had what is viewed as a decent first term. A big issue was tariffs and the Republican’s campaigned for a protective tariff. The campaign focused as our recent campaigns have on the swing states. In 1888 the swing states were New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Indiana. In the election Harrison and Cleveland would split the four swing states with Harrison winning his home state of Indiana and winning Cleveland’s home state New York. There was a lot of interest in this campaign and 79.3% of the eligible voters turned out to vote. Cleveland won the popular vote by 90,000 votes but Benjamin Harrison was elected president by winning the Electoral College 233-168.
Harrison was a short man, 5’6″ with short legs, was rather paunchy. He had blue eyes and light brown hair. He had a full beard- he would be the last president with a full beard. He had a high but soft voice. Harrison’s nickname tells you all you really need to know about his personality “The Human Iceberg.” He was described as a cold, formal man who didn’t like small talk. He was an intelligent and honest man, a hard worker but totally lacked in charisma and the common touch with people.
In reading about Harrison’s lack of charisma, you have to wonder how he would have done in today’s politics. Back then without television or radio most people would never meet a president. They could read about him, see his picture but never see or hear him. Maybe charisma wasn’t that big of a deal in a presidential election in 1888. In thinking about the modern world most of the presidential elections have been won by the man who had the most charisma. Think of elections from today and going back to the 1920’s. I can only think of a couple where the most charismatic person didn’t win- and those were cases were they really wasn’t a charismatic candidate. Trump, Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton were all more charismatic than their opponents. the George H.W. Bush – Dukakis race neither had much of it but GHWB though lacking seriously in the charismatic department- Dukakis was flat lining. Reagan had it over his opponents. The Carter-Ford race was pretty even as was the Nixon-Humphrey. To cut to the chase the last time I think the candidate won with less charisma was Herbert Hoover over Al Smith in 1928.
On March 4, 1889 Benjamin Harrison was inaugurated as the 23rd president. The inaugural ceremony took place at the U.S. Capitol in the pouring rain with outgoing President Cleveland holding an umbrella over Harrison’s head as he took the oath of office.
Harrison had a Republican Congress to work with during his four years and he had some accomplishments. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act remains in effect all these years later. It had bipartisan support. Harrison’s support for protection of African-American voting rights were the last attempts to protect Civil Rights until FDR in the 1930s.
In 1892 the nations economic situation was worsening -this would lead to the Panic of 1893. Harrison got the Republican nomination and would face the man that he had beaten four years earlier- Grover Cleveland. The tariff issue was a big one again- the high tariff’s that Harrison and the Republicans had supported had made it imports expensive and the voters shifted to the reform position. Cleveland would win the popular vote 49% to 46% and the Electoral College rather easily 277-145 with the Populist candidate James Weaver winning 5ive states and 22 electoral votes. Cleveland became the only president who has served two non-consecutive terms.
In between elections Harrison traveled the country giving speeches and many Republicans wanted him to run again, but he declined and campaigned for William McKinley in 1896.
Harrison would die in 1901 of pneumonia at at the age of 67. He wasn’t a charismatic man but no one doubted Benjamin Harrison’s integrity.
- Some trivia to tell your friends about President Benjamin Harrison.
- Oddly for a president who would serve only one term, Harrison would appoint four new members to the United States Supreme Court.
- Six states would be admitted to the Union during President Harrison’s four years- North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming.
- First Lady Caroline Harrison died in late October 1892 right before the election. Harrison would re-marry four years later to a lady named Mary Dimmick who was 25 years younger [she was 37} They would have a daughter in 1897. Harrison’s two children from his first marriage were not happy about this and didn’t attend the wedding. Dimmick was the niece of Harrison’s first wife Caroline.
- Electricity came to the White House during the Harrison presidency but Benjamin and Caroline Harrison would not touch the light switches out of fear of being electrocuted.
- Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have his voice preserved.
- The only president shorter than Harrison is the shortest president- James Madison who was 5’4″ but while Madison was a relatively thin man, Harrison was heavy.