In my classroom I have a large poster featuring the timeline of the American presidency. A former student once visited my room and began examining the poster. "Mr. Ashcraft" the student said. "I was in APUSH for an entire year, and I passed the test, and I didn't know we had a president named Benjamin Harrison." While this isn't exactly the sort of thing a history teacher likes to hear, I wasn't entirely surprised. Harrison is little more than a footnote in American history. Textbooks hardly mention his name. He is overshadowed by his predecessor/successor Grover Cleveland (the only person to win two nonconsecutive terms) and by his more famous grandfather, William Henry Harrison, who died one month into office. Harrison had an unremarkable presidency and accomplished very little. However, a upon closer examination, Benjamin Harrison had ideas and supported policies that, had he lived in a later era, perhaps would have made him a president of real consequence. Today, we'll examine how Harrison laid a foundation which future presidents would build upon.
Benjamin Harrison was sworn in as President of the United States on March 4, 1889, just a few weeks short of the 100th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. To many observers, the juxtaposition of the god-like Washington and the short, unimposing, unremarkable Harrison made a statement about the changing nature of our political leaders in a mere 100 years. How far had we fallen? The shadow of Washington, along with Harrison's rather short stature (5'6") made it easy to lampoon the new President. Many political cartoons of the day portray a small Harrison being dwarfed by a large hat, not unlike the one his grandfather would wear. To his critics, he didn't seem up to the job; sure to be overwhelmed. It didn't help that Harrison, like several others, was elected President without the consent of the governed. That is to say, he lost the popular vote to President Cleveland, but eked out a narrow win in the Electoral College.
Because this was an era of weak presidents and a strong Congress, Harrison mostly called upon Congress to take action to ensure civil rights protection for blacks. He did order his Justice Department to prosecute violations of the Fifteenth Amendment which prevented discrimination on the basis of race in elections, but the impact was limited. He called upon Congress multiple times to pass legislation which would empower the federal government to take action to protect African American's access to the ballot. He questioned the mantra of states rights as a euphemism for voter suppression. Though Harrison was ultimately unsuccessful in these matters, his support for an more active role in civil rights protection is certainly noteworthy.
In the area of conservation, Harrison supported legislation that would empower future progressive presidents to do much to protect the environment. Working with Congress, Harrison set aside more than 20 million acres of forest for preservation during his term. He also actively became involved in an effort to prevent the eradication of a species; the fur seal. The open water fishing of seals for their pelts was big business in the late 1800s. While the seals primary lived and bred on in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the open sea was where they spent much of their time. This is also where they could be killed in tremendous numbers by various international vessels, most importantly the British. Harrison's navy intercepted Canadian vessels and entered into negotiations to changing fishing rights, and therefore protect the seals, with the British. Negotiations that eventually proved to be successful. Benjamin Harrison is not a man well-known for his conservation efforts, but the work his administration did was fairly forward thinking given the era.
Finally, Harrison made his mark on the economy as well. Though certainly economically conservative, Harrison made it known early in his administration that he was troubled by the concentration and abused of power in the hands a small number of industrialists. His administration supported the groundbreaking Sherman Anti-Trust Act. This act made monopolies (aka trusts) illegal. During the Harrison administration, and the next two that followed, the act was rarely enforced. However, this act would prove critical for future President Theodore Roosevelt who took action on behalf of working Americans earning him the (overstated) nickname "Trust Buster."
That being said, it was also the economy that helped bring Harrison's administration to an end. The economy began to flounder during the second half of his term. A budget surplus from the Cleveland years had evaporated. High tariffs, supported by Harrison, were blamed for a growing recession throughout 1892, eventually leading to the Panic of 1893.
Underwhelmed by his performance, Benjamin Harrison did not have strong support from his own party in 1892. The Democrats renominated former President Grover Cleveland as their candidate. After all, Cleveland had won the popular vote 4 years earlier. As election day neared, Harrison suffered a personal tragedy when his wife became ill and died just weeks before the election. Cleveland won the election comfortably.
After leaving office, Benjamin Harrison became a education advocate, author, and even an international lawyer. He remarried and lived an active life until his death in 1901. Well-liked and fondly remembered in his home state of Indiana, Benjamin Harrison is largely a forgotten figure in American history. His temperament and administrative style were well-suited for his era, but his personal opinions and quiet advocacy were, in many way, well ahead of his time.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
A place to discuss, among other things, politics, culture, food, faith, and nonsense.