The Relevance of Benjamin Harrison's Presidency


Mr. Calhoun, Professor of History, East Carolina University, is the author of Minority Victory: Gilded Age Politics and the Front Porch Campaign of 1888 (University Press of Kansas, 2008).

The launching of a new administration inevitably invites attention to past presidents, not only for their impact on the country but also for their contributions to the evolution of the presidency. Barack Obama has deliberately chosen Abraham Lincoln as a model in constructing his cabinet and in framing his approach to governing. The crisis that now hobbles the economy naturally evokes analogies to the Great Depression and Franklin D.  Roosevelt’s response during the first 100 Days and after. Indeed, every president has left an imprint on the office, some more significant and lasting than others. Among those whose contributions have largely been overlooked or underrated is Benjamin Harrison,  who held office from 1889 to 1893.

Over the years, historians have tended to dismiss Harrison as a caretaker between the two terms of the supposedly more vigorous Grover Cleveland. In standard accounts, Harrison lacked clear notions about the country’s direction, failed to offer decisive leadership in relations with Congress, and steadily lost popularity until his resounding defeat for re-election in 1892. Recent research, however, portrays Harrison as a far more engaged and effective chief executive, one who made important contributions to the creation of the modern presidency.

In the first place, Harrison helped transform presidential campaigning with his path-breaking front-porch effort in 1888. Although nineteenth-century presidential nominees typically sat out the campaign, a handful had offered brief public pronouncements in their home towns, and a few had taken speaking tours. After James G. Blaine’s campaign swing in 1884 had ended disastrously with the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” episode, Harrison decided not to travel but instead to stay at home and give a series of speeches to visiting delegations. An accomplished and effective campaigner, he spoke forcefully on the central issues of the campaign: the protective tariff, pensions for veterans, the labor question, immigration, and civil rights. He never gave the same talk twice, and his own stenographer took down his words and gave them to the wire services for the next day’s papers. Nearly every morning for four months, Americans at their breakfast tables could read the Republican candidate’s ideas and proposals for the nation. With this well-orchestrated and effective campaign effort, Harrison took a long step toward putting the candidate himself and his own message at the center of presidential electioneering.

Harrison carried this leadership on issues into the White House. He used his inaugural address not merely to offer the standard encomiums to the nation’s greatness but also to lay out a long list of legislative proposals. He continued to press for congressional action throughout his term in regular annual messages and in special messages. Moreover, he informally but assiduously labored for his agenda by personal persuasion of senators and congressmen, trial balloons floated before the public,  and effective work with the press. In the months-long struggle over the McKinley Tariff Bill, one observer noted, “The President made little dinner parties, in order to bring the leading Republicans together for conference and discussion, with a view of bringing about an agreement between the contending parties.” Harrison’s labor paid off. His party held majorities in both houses during the first half of his term and responded by enacting an array of landmark laws, including the McKinley Tariff, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Dependent Pension Act, and the Forest Reserve Act. Cooperating with Harrison, the 51st Congress passed 531 public laws, posting a record of accomplishment unequalled until Theodore Roosevelt’s second term.

Harrison lacked personal warmth, but he was an effective public speaker. He traveled widely during his term, averaging more than seventy speeches per year. He used these occasions to push for his policy proposals, and, as a “values” president, he frequently espoused ideals of patriotism, equality, civic virtue, and republicanism. Before Theodore Roosevelt, he recognized the efficacy of the presidency as a “bully pulpit.”

Harrison’s activism extended beyond the domestic front into foreign affairs. As Robert Beisner and others have argued, Harrison’s administration represented an important moment in the development of a “new paradigm” in America’s dealings abroad. He and Secretary of State James G. Blaine showed a new energy in the definition and defense of the nation’s interests and in the quest for greater influence abroad, especially in markets and other economic opportunities. Because of Blaine’s frequent illnesses and prolonged absences, Harrison played the guiding role in implementing the administration’s vigorous policy.  He successfully steered the nation through a series of mid-sized crises, particularly with Great Britain and Chile, which earned the nation enhanced respect from the world’s powers both great and small.

Harrison’s term was not without trouble. The massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee occurred during his watch and failed to receive adequate rebuke from the president. While pushing hard for tariff protectionism coupled with trade reciprocity, plus a “sound” currency, as the keys to national prosperity, he failed to appreciate the rumblings of discontent among laborers and farmers that eventually burst forth in industrial violence and the Populist movement. And, like many other nineteenth-century presidents he found that his handling of the patronage proved insufficient to build close alliances with bosses in his party around the country.

Still, neither these deficiencies nor his defeat for re-election should overshadow Harrison’s achievements. To some degree, his defeat (and the Republicans’ earlier loss of the midterm congressional elections) reflected the essentially conservative electorate’s suspicion of a government that did too much. Cleveland returned to power demanding that “the lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned,” but the failure of this minimalist approach to ameliorate the 1890s depression led to a Republican resurgence that lasted for a generation. William McKinley rejected Cleveland’s negativism and picked up where Harrison had left off. After a  successful front-porch campaign, the politically adept McKinley effectively led Congress, traveled and spoke extensively, established good relations with the press, and launched an energetic foreign policy. Many scholars regard McKinley as the first “modern” president, but clearly Benjamin Harrison had laid the groundwork.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

vaughn davis bornet - 2/23/2009

This is a splendid article.

I was reminded of the Kansas series on the Presidency, with its 1987 book on Harrison by two authors, Homer E. Socolofsky and Allan B. Spetter, which also gives the Harrison reputation a boost.

I do wish we could get the public to give our "minor" presidents a chance at appreciation. I don't think it's going to happen, however.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon