Presidents in Their Youth: Ronald Reagan

Though Ronald Reagan is most commonly associated with California, the state where he made all of his movies as an actor and later became Governor of, he was actually born further east, in Illinois on February 61, 1911. His father, John Edward Reagan, was called Jack by his friend. He was an Irish Catholic with too much of a fondness for whiskey. His mother, the former Nellie Clyde Wilson, was a Scottish Protestant whose family had moved to Illinois from Ontario. Nellie's father abandoned his wife and seven children (Nellie was the youngest) and her mother raised the brood while working as a domestic servant. Nether Jack nor Nellie attended high school. Reagan's parents were married in 1904 and the future president was the second child born to the couple.


Reagan was born in the family home above the bakery and general store where his father worked in Tampico, Illinois. The baby Reagan was given the nickname "Dutch" because Jack said that he looked like a "fat Dutchman" and the name stuck. His older brother Neil (nicknamed Moon because of his resemblance to the comic strip character Moon Mullins) had been born in 1908. It was difficult pregnancy and Nellie's doctor recommended that she not have any more children. Nellie had left the Catholic Church in 1910 to join the Disciples of Christ, a theologically liberal sect with strong abolitionist sentiments. Her husband's binge drinking likely played a significant part in her motivation to convert to this denomination.

Young Ronald Reagan's first performance on stage was said to be playing roles in temperance themed plays that his mother wrote for her church. Jack worked at various jobs including as a shoe salesman, but hard drinking and hard times combined to keep the family in poverty. The family moved around a number of times. They moved to Chicago when Ronald Reagan was three where Jack sold shoes in the Fair Store on State Street (that great street). He lost that job after he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Jack lost another job in Galesburg due to his drinking. The family moved to Monmouth where Nellie almost died during the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918. From there they moved to Tampico and then to Dixon where the family lived in five different homes.

By age 10, Ronald Reagan had lived in at least ten different homes. Because of this he was unable to cultivate lasting childhood friendships and was said to have spent a lot of time in solitary pursuits such as swimming, skating, and horseback riding. Poor eyesight frustrated his abilities as a baseball player. Reagan liked to read as a youth, with his favorite authors said to be Zane Grey, Horatio Alger, Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The Reagans lived in Dixon until Ronald Reagan was twenty-one. It was a town of about 8,000 people and the main industry was dairy farming. Though Reagan would later present fond childhood memories of the Norman Rockwell variety, his brother Neil had less nostalgic memories, including his father's drinking and how he would either drink away the Christmas present money, or overspend on things the family couldn't afford. Ronald Reagan recalled, when he was 11 years old, finding his father passed out in the snow at the back of the family home.

Reagan continued to pursue acting when he attended North Dixon High School, where he was president of the Drama Club. He wrote school plays and starred in them, doing so as a means of escaping an unhappy home life. His high school yearbook showed his motto as "Life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music", predicting the life of an optimist. This was a line from a poem he wrote called Life. Despite not yet hitting his growth spurt (he was just 5'3" in high school), he played football and excelled as a swimmer, becoming certified as a lifeguard at the local YMCA. At age 16 he worked seven days a week as a lifeguard at nearby Lowell Park for $15 a week. He had to perform rescues and even artificial respiration on occasion.

His high school girlfriend was Margaret Cleaver and it was her father, a minister at a local church, who taught Reagan to drive, and helped him to get into Eureka College, an institution run by the Disciples of Christ. He used his lifeguarding money, as well as an athletic scholarship to pay his tuition and washed dishes to support himself. His grades were not great, but he was said to have succeeded because of an excellent memory.

When the Great Depression hit, Jack worked as a travelling salesman, and his drinking problem was compounded with his marital infidelity. Jack was fired from his salesman job, but was saved due to his allegiance to the Democratic Party, which managed to provide him with a job in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, distributing food stamps. Reagan's parents did instill the value of rejection of racism. When two African-American football players from another city were denied hotel accommodation, Regan brought them home to stay at his house, with his parents' blessing.


Reagan and Margaret Cleaver became engaged in 1932 when they graduated from Eureka, but the two soon began to drift apart. Margaret was a strong scholar, finishing at the top of her class, and while she had ambition, she saw him as directionless at the time. The engagement was broken off in 1934. Reagan went on to a career in radio, which led to the movies, and to the fame that would propel him to the presidency.
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Remembering Ronald Reagan

On June 5, 2004 (16 years ago today), Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, died at his home in Bel Air, California at the age of 93. He died from pneumonia, which was complicated by the Alzheimer's disease that he had been suffering from. Prior to his presidency, he had served as the 33rd Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, and before that he was a well-known radio, film and television actor.


Reagan was born on February 6, 1911. He was born in Tampico, Illinois, raised in Dixon, Illinois and attended Eureka College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology. After graduating, Reagan moved first to Iowa to work as a radio broadcaster and then, in 1937, to Los Angeles where he began a career as an actor, first in films and later in television. Some of his best known films include Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Kings Row (1942), and Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). He served as President of the Screen Actors Guild and later became the spokesman for General Electric. He got his start in politics during the time that he worked for GE. Originally he had been a member of the Democratic Party and was an admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But his positions began shifting to the right in the 1950s, and he became a member of the Republican Party in 1962.

Reagan delivered a very memorable in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964, known as "A Time for Choosing" that was admired by and inspired conservative Republicans. He was persuaded to seek the GOP nomination for Governor of California and he was elected to that office two years later. He won re-election in 1970. Reagan sought his party's nomination for President in 1968, but finished third behind Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. He tried again in 1976, losing to incumbent President Gerald Ford. Persevering, he won both the nomination and the Presidency in 1980, defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter.

As president, Reagan was proactive both politically and where the economy was concerned as well. His supply-side economic policies (called "Reaganomics" by the media) advocated reducing tax rates to spur economic growth, controlling the money supply to reduce inflation, deregulation of the economy, and reducing the size of the federal government. In his first term he survived an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, only 69 days into his term. He also took a hard line against labor unions, threatening to fire striking air traffic controllers if they didn't return to their jobs. He also announced a "War on Drugs" and ordered an invasion of Grenada.

Ronald Reagan was re-elected in a landslide in 1984, running on a campaign which declared that it was "Morning in America". He won every state except for his opponent's home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. His second term was primarily concerned by foreign policy matters, such as the ending of the Cold War, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the revelation of the Iran–Contra affair. He publicly called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and supported anti-communist movements worldwide. He moved away from his first term the strategy of détente, and ordered a massive military buildup in an arms race with the USSR. Reagan negotiated with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, culminating in the INF Treaty which decreased both countries' nuclear arsenals.


Reagan left office in 1989. Five years later, in 1994, the former president disclosed, in a public letter (shown above) that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier that year. He dropped out of the public eye and died ten years later on June 5, 2004 at the age of 93. He remains a conservative icon, and generally ranks highly in public opinion polls of U.S. Presidents. He is credited for generating an ideological renaissance on the American political right and for leading the nation out of one of its worst economic periods, a time when interest rates were extraordinarily high and public morale was extraordinarily low. He is also fondly remembered for his civility and good humor and his infectious optimism.


Presidents in Their Youth: Grover Cleveland

The first Democrat to be elected President of the United States after the Civil War was born with the name Stephen Grover Cleveland. But he never used his first name, and was always known as Grover. That was the name he called himself. Grover Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey. His parents were Richard Falley Cleveland, a Congregational and Presbyterian minister from Connecticut, and the former Ann Neal, a native of Baltimore. Cleveland's ancestors on his father's side emigrated to Massachusetts from Cleveland, England in 1635. The future President's great-grandfather was Richard Falley Jr., who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Neals were Anglo-Irish Protestants and German Quakers from Philadelphia. Cleveland was distantly related to General Moses Cleaveland, the namesake of the city of Cleveland, Ohio.

Reverend Richard Cleveland graduated from Yale in 1829 and later that year he was ordained into the Presbyterian Ministry at the Princeton Theological Seminary. 1829 was also the year the Richard married Ann Neal. They had met when he was a tutor in Baltimore. When Richard was assigned to be the pastor at the First Congregational Church at Windham, Connecticut, the congregation was shocked when the pastor's wife came to town accompanied by an African-American servant. The servant was sent back to Baltimore. Pastor Cleveland was later assigned to churches in Portsmouth, Virginia, where the locals were more accustomed to enslaved help. In 1835 he was assigned as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Caldwell, New Jersey, where he was mentored by Reverend Stephen Grover, the man for whom the Cleveland's fifth child was named.

In 1841, the Cleveland family moved to Fayetteville, New York, a village in western New York, near Syracuse. Young Grover Cleveland was described by neighbors as "full of fun and inclined to play pranks". He was big for his age and even though he used his middle name, his friends nicknamed him "Big Steve". He attended the Fayetteville Academy where it was said that he was fond of outdoor sports. He was a good student, excelling in mathematics and Latin, and was described as being possessed of strong self-confidence. He liked fishing, a hobby that he carried into his old age.

Cleveland described his home as one of strict discipline. He wrote: "Often and often as a boy I was compelled to get out of my warm bed at night to hang up a hat or other garment which I had left on the floor. The Clevelands had nine children, and Grover and his older siblings were often tasked with helping with the care of the younger ones.

Richard Cleveland's health began to decline and this led to his assignment to a less demanding post with the American Home Missionary Society in Clinton, New York, in 1850, where he worked as the society's district secretary. A clergyman's income was insufficient to support such a large family, and as a result, the family was unable to continue to afford Grover's schooling. He had hoped to attend Hamilton College but instead worked at a two-year mercantile apprenticeship in Fayetteville in the village store. He shared a single unheated room with another clerk and began his work day at 5:00 a.m.

In 1853, Richard Cleveland changed jobs again due to his poor health, taking an assignment in Holland Patent, New York, near Utica. Richard died, three weeks after moving to the community, from a gastric ulcer. This made it impossible for Grover to pursue his goal of attending Hamilton College, as he was needed to help support his mother and siblings. His older brother William was hired as a teacher at the New York Institute for the Blind in New York City, and when William became principal of the school, he obtained a place for Grover Cleveland as an assistant teacher.

Cleveland returned home at the end of 1854. A wealthy Presbyterian elder in his church offered to pay for his college education if he would promise to become a minister. Cleveland declined the offer. In 1855 he moved to Buffalo, New York, where his uncle, Lewis F. Allen, gave him a clerical job. Allen was an important man in Buffalo, and he introduced his nephew to a number of influential men there, including the partners in the law firm of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. Millard Fillmore had once worked in that firm. Cleveland took a clerkship with the firm, began to read the law, and was admitted to the New York bar in 1859.

Cleveland worked for the Rogers firm for three years, then left in 1862 to start his own practice. In January 1863, he was appointed assistant district attorney of Erie County. The Civil War was taking place and Congress passed the Conscription Act of 1863, requiring able-bodied men to serve in the army if called upon, or else to hire a substitute. Cleveland chose the latter option. He paid $150 (equivalent to $3,115 in 2019) to George Benninsky, a thirty-two-year-old Polish immigrant, to serve in his place. Benninsky survived the war. As a lawyer, Cleveland adopted a simple lifestyle, living in a boarding house and using his income to the support of his mother and younger sisters.

Presidents in Their Youth: Dwight Eisenhower

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the youth of Dwight Eisenhower is that such a famous general would come from a family of pacifists. It is also somewhat ironic that the General who would be credited with bringing about the defeat of Germany in the second world war was himself of German descent. His family name had been Eisenhauer, a German hybrid word for iron hewer or iron miner. His ancestors had migrated from Karlsbrunn in Nassau-Saarbrücken in the mid 18th century. They settled in York, Pennsylvania, in 1741, and as part of the western expansion opened up by the prevalence of the railways, in the 1880s the family moved to Kansas. It is unclear when the name Eisenhauer was changed to Eisenhower, but it had occurred at least as early as the time of the civil war, when Ike's father, David Jacob Eisenhower, was born in 1863.

Young Ike

David was a college-educated engineer. David's father had wanted him to remain on the family farm, but love intervened when David met Eisenhower's mother, Ida Elizabeth Stover. She was born in Virginia, of German Protestant ancestry, and had moved to Kansas. Ike's parents were married David on September 23, 1885, in Lecompton, Kansas, on the campus of their alma mater, Lane University. By this time David owned a general store in Hope, Kansas. Economic times were not good and the business failed. The family moved to Texas from 1889 until 1892, and it was there, in Denison, that the couple's third son, David Dwight Eisenhower, was born on October 14, 1890. (His mother later reversed the two names because of confusion between father and son.)

The family moved to Abilene, Kansas (site of Eisenhower's Presidential Library), some sources say in 1891, others say 1892. The family lived in a white frame house on southeast fourth avenue (preserved on the grounds of the Library). His father worked in a local creamery. A regular family event was daily bible readings, read aloud by David. Eisenhower described his parents marriage as "genuine partnership." According to Ike, his father was "the breadwinner, Supreme Court and Lord High Executioner" while his mother was the "family manager and tutor" as well as the "psychologist".

Dwight Eisenhower was known as "Little Ike" and his older brother Edgar was "Big Ike". The nickname "Ike" remained with the future president forever after. They boys were active in sports. Ike as said to sometimes have a temper due to his competitiveness in sports. He was described as being a good student, and was said to have developed an early interest in military history. He recalled becoming familiar with "the battles of Marathon, Zama, Samis, and Cannae". He especially admired Hannibal and George Washington as military leaders. His pacifist mother was said to be of two minds about this. On the one hand she was happy to see him reading so prolifically, but wished he had chosen a different subject of interest. Besides history, he was also said to be good at math and spelling.

As a child, he was involved in an accident that cost his younger brother Earl an eye. Ike was supposed to be watching Earl, but in a moment of inadvertence, the three year old Earl managed to find a knife and irreparably damage one of his eyes. Ike felt immense regret over the incident and he later said that this was an experience that taught him the need to be protective of those under him.

Ike attended Abilene High School where he played baseball and football. He also loved hunting and fishing, and learned to play cards from a local named Bob Davis who camped on the Smoky Hill River. He graduated from high school in 1909. While in his freshman year, he injured his knee. This led to an infection that spread into his groin. His doctor diagnosed this as life-threatening and wanted to amputate Ike's leg. A stubborn Eisenhower refused to agree. It seems that he knew better than his doctor, as he fully recovered, but had to repeat his freshman year.

Ike's parents had been members of the River Brethren sect of the Mennonites. But in 1896 Ida joined the International Bible Students Association, later known as Jehovah's Witnesses. The Eisenhower home served as the local meeting hall from 1896 to 1915. Eisenhower himself never joined the International Bible Students. This led to an area of contention between Ida and her son when Ike later decided to attend West Point. Ida said that she believed that was a "rather wicked" pursuit, but she did not overrule his decision. Eisenhower never became affiliated with any formal religious group until 1953 when as President he was baptized in the Presbyterian Church.

Ike and his brother Edgar both wanted to attend college, but they lacked the financial ability to do so. They agreed to alternate years at college while the other worked to earn their tuition. Edgar took the first turn at school, and Dwight worked as a night supervisor at the Belle Springs Creamery. Edgar asked for a second year and Dwight agreed and worked for a second year. In 1911 Ike's boyhood friend Everett "Swede" Hazlett was applying to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He urged Dwight to apply to the same school, since no tuition was required. Eisenhower asked his Senator Joseph L. Bristow to give him consideration for either Annapolis or West Point. By that time, Eisenhower was among the winners of the entrance-exam competition, but he was past the age limit for the Naval Academy. He accepted an appointment to West Point in 1911, where he played on the school football team in 1912. Omar Bradley was a teammate of his.

While not a star cadet, he excelled is sports, though Eisenhower later said that "not making the baseball team at West Point was one of the greatest disappointments of my life, maybe my greatest". He made the varsity football team and was a starter at running back and linebacker in 1912. In one game, he tackled the legendary Jim Thorpe. Eisenhower suffered a torn knee while being tackled in the next game, which was the last he played. Eisenhower later served as junior varsity football coach. He graduated in the middle of the class of 1915. His graduating class was later dubbed "the class the stars fell on", because 59 members eventually became generals.

Presidents in their Youth: Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore was another of the antebellum Presidents from the north who was sometimes pejoratively referred to as a "doughface" (and no, that has nothing to do with body shaming.) Fillmore was a northerner who was sympathetic to southern slaveholding interests, at least to the extent that he was willing to cast the deciding vote in support of a group of bills collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, which included the controversial Fugitive Slave Act. When Fillmore was Vice-President, he presided over some of the most heated and passionate debates in the Senate over the issue of whether to allow slavery in the territories acquired in the Mexican War. In January of 1850, Henry Clay introduced what was called the "Omnibus Bill", a compromise which proposed to admit California as a free state, organize territorial governments in New Mexico and Utah, and ban the importation of slaves into the District of Columbia for sale and export out of it. But the bill also proposed to amend the Fugitive Slave Act, to require northerners to return those arrested while attempting to escape slavery to their southern "masters". President Zachary Taylor did not support the bill, but Fillmore informed him in May 1850 that if senators were divided equally on the bill, he would cast his tie-breaking vote in favor. Taylor died in July of 1850.

What is surprising about Fillmore's position on the issue is that he himself had once escaped a form of slavery, more accurately he had fled from indentured servitude as a child, making one wonder why he was not more sympathetic to the plight of those forced into labor against their will.

Keeping with a trend in early presidents, Millard Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800, in a log cabin on an isolated farm at the southern end of what is now Moravia, Cayuga County, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, just west of Syracuse. His parents were Nathaniel Fillmore and Phoebe Millard and Nathaniel Fillmore. His parents were New Englanders who had left Vermont and its rocky soil, believing that the farming would be better in New York. Millard was the second of eight children and the oldest son. Nathaniel Fillmore was the son of Nathaniel Fillmore Sr., who had been a native of Franklin, Connecticut, and who was one of the earliest settlers of Bennington, Vermont. Fillmore's parents had moved from Vermont in 1799. But they brought their bad luck with them. The title to the Cayuga County land that Nathaniel thought he owned proved defective due to an inaccurate survey. The Fillmore family moved to nearby Sempronius, on Lake Skaneateles, where they leased land as tenant farmers, and Nathaniel occasionally taught school.

Being renters as opposed to land owners was a step down the social circle. Young Millard worked hard on the farm, and his father chastised his son's desire to go fishing as idleness. Millard was said to have worked hard on the family farm, hoeing corn, mowing hay ad reaping wheat. He cut and stacked firewood, helped to clear land and removed stumps for new crop fields. Nathaniel could not afford a formal education for Millard and he hoped that his son would learn a trade. Nathaniel apprenticed fourteen year old Millard to learn the trades of wool carding and cloth dressing. These were professions that could be learned without any cost to the father. The first tradesman he was apprenticed to, Benjamin Hungerford of Sparta, New York, proved to be a cruel taskmaster. According to Fillmore's leading biographer Robert Rayback, Fillmore returned home "tearful and terrorized" after just four months. Nathaniel responded by finding another placement for his son in New Hope.

As an apprentice, Millard Fillmore attended to the mill machines. He is said to have felt lacking in mental stimulation. Though he had leaned to read, his reading material was confined to the Bible and a few spelling and reading books. When he was seventeen, some neighbors had organized a circulating library and this allowed Fillmore to expand his reading options. He also bought himself a dictionary which he made frequent use of.

Nathaniel's fortunes improved as he was chosen to serve in local offices including justice of the peace. In 1819, during a lull in activity at the mill, Fillmore enrolled at a new academy in New Hope. He was said to have enjoyed this opportunity at learning immensely. As Rayback writes: "For the first time, he heard a sentence parsed, for the first time he saw a map, and for the first time he began to experience the pleasure of female society." The female he most socialized with was Abigail Powers, who was two years older than him. Some biographies refer to her as a fellow student, others as a teacher. She was the daughter of a deceased Baptist minister and the sister of a local judge. Despite their differences in social status, the two fell in love.

Later in 1819, Nathaniel moved the family to Montville, where he became a tenant of Judge Walter Wood. Nathaniel convinced his new landlord, who was also the wealthiest person in the area, to allow Millard to be his law clerk for a two month trial period. Wood agreed to employ young Fillmore and to supervise him as he read law. This was done without first consulting Millard, though Fillmore's mother seemed very happy with the news. The next morning Millard Fillmore met his new mentor and his first assignment was to read a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law.

At the conclusion of the two month trial, Fillmore was due to return to the cloth mill in New Hope. Although Wood had not seemed to be encouraging toward his temporary clerk, Wood suggested that Fillmore return to study law. Fillmore explained that he lacked the funds to be able to do so, and Wood responded with a proposal of a loan, as well as some work at the businesses he owned. There was only one problem and that was Fillmore's apprenticeship. His employer at the cloth mill effectively owned Fillmore's work life until the young man turned twenty-one. Fillmore was able to work teaching school for three months and was able to buy out his mill apprenticeship.

Unfortunately things did not go well between Fillmore and Judge Wood. He left Wood's office after 18 months. The two had a falling out over how poorly the judge paid him. When Fillmore earned a small sum advising a farmer in a minor lawsuit, this upset Wood. Fillmore refused to promise not to do it again, and gave up his clerkship.

Nathaniel moved the family west to East Aurora, in Erie County, near Buffalo. He purchased a farm which became successful. Millard accompanied his family. In 1821, at age 21, Millard Fillmore taught school in East Aurora and accepted a few cases in justice of the peace courts, where he was not required to be a licensed attorney. He subsequently moved to Buffalo in 1822 where he continued his study of law, while teaching school. He joined the law office of Asa Rice and Joseph Clary. At that time he also became engaged to Abigail Powers.

In 1823, he was admitted to the New York bar. He turned down offers from Buffalo law firms, and returned to East Aurora to establish a practice as the town's only resident lawyer. Biographer Paul Finkelman writes:

"Fillmore would explain that he chose this route because he lacked the self-confidence to practice in Buffalo. This insecurity reflected his impoverished youth, poor education, and the status decline of his family when they lost their land. He was a poor boy from the sticks. His father was an unsuccessful farmer. He only had a year or two of formal education beyond the rudimentary elementary schools of Cayuga County. He was well read and always striving to appear better read, but his education lacked any intellectual rigor. Throughout his life he was a consumer of books so that he could constantly educate himself. He was always impeccably dressed - perhaps the sign of a pretender trying to convince those around him that he belonged in polite society. He was and always would be cautious and conservative in his demeanor and style. Even in his personal life he must have been plagued by insecurities. It is true that he was a very handsome young man, but he was in love with a beautiful woman who came from a prominent, well-educated and comparatively sophisticated family. He was the son of a dirt farmer, a self-educated factory apprentice who had somehow become a lawyer."

Millard and Abigail wed on February 5, 1826.

Presidents in their Youth: James Buchanan

James Buchanan was born April 23, 1791, the last President to be born in the 18th Century. As seems befitting of Presidential legend, he was born in a log cabin in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. His parents were James Buchanan Sr. and Elizabeth Speer, both of Ulster Scot descent. His father was an orphaned immigrant from Milford, County Donegal in Ireland, who made the journey to America in 1783 at the age of 22. The ship docked in Philadelphia and James Sr. headed southwest to York County to live with an uncle and aunt of his there.


Somehow James Sr. was able to take advantage of economic opportunities that presented themselves in that region and he was somehow able to buy a trading post in Cove Gap. His uncle was a wealthy tavern owner and farmer and James Sr. learned of a location in Cove Gap known as Stoney Batter (batter is a Gaelic word meaning road). James Sr. worked as an apprentice at that trading post. He married Elizabeth Speer in 1788 and in 1791 he was able to buy the trading post, probably assisted by the fact that his bride was the daughter of a wealthy neighbor of his uncle's. James was the couple's second child; the first child, a daughter died in infancy.

After James was born, his mother later gave birth to five daughters. Elizabeth is described as being influential in her son's education. She was said to be fond of reading Milton and Shakespeare, and for discussing public affairs with him. Buchanan began writing (but never finished) his autobiography in which he credited his mother for much of his success. He said: "She excited my ambition by presenting in glowing colors, men who had been useful to their country or their kind, as objects of imitation."

Buchanan was influenced by President George Washington, who had stayed in a nearby tavern during the Whiskey Rebellion in late 1794 or early 1795. Buchanan had three younger brothers, all born after he was 13 years old, and one was named for the first President. Another was named Edward Younger, after one of his mother's favorite poets.

Sometime around the time of the birth of James Jr. in 1791, the family moved to a larger farm in Mercersberg a few miles east. James Sr. prospered and in 1794 the family moved to a two story house in Mercersberg. James Sr. was a shrewd businessman and soon became the town's wealthiest inhabitant. There James attended the Old Stone Academy, where he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, literature and history. He was described as being a good student, and claimed as much is his unfinished autobiography.

In 1807, sixteen year old James was sent to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1808 he was nearly expelled for bad behavior. He was a part of a group of unruly friends who drank at nearby taverns, engaged in food fights, committed acts of vandalism and were the subject of noise complaints from the townspeople of Carlisle. In his autobiography manuscript, Buchanan claimed that he engaged in these acts just to fit in and be one of the boys. This led to his expulsion from the school and a stern rebuke from his father. But Buchanan pleaded for a second chance, which he was given, thanks to the intercession of many of his father's connections in the Presbyterian Church, including the Presbyterian rector and some of the school's trustees. He ultimately graduated with honors on September 19, 1809, though he would later write that he really believed that he deserved highest honors. Buchanan held onto his resentment against the school. He described the school in his unfinished autobiography as being "in a wretched condition" and professed that he had "little attachment to my alma mater."

Buchanan chose not to attend college or university, deciding instead on a career in the law. After his graduation, he moved to the state capital at Lancaster. There, leading lawyer James Hopkins accepted Buchanan as an apprentice, and in 1812 he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. When Harrisburg became the state capital in 1812, many lawyers left Lancaster, but Buchanan made the city his lifelong home. He became a successful lawyer there, earning a very good income. He handled many types of cases, including a much-publicized impeachment trial, where he successfully defended Pennsylvania Judge Walter Franklin.

When the British invaded Maryland in 1814, Buchanan served as a private in Henry Shippen's Company, 1st Brigade, 4th Division, Pennsylvania Militia, a unit of volunteers. Buchanan is the only president with military experience who was not an officer and he was also the last president who served in the War of 1812. He would go on to be a critic of the leadership of President James Madison during that war.

In 1818, Buchanan met Anne Caroline Coleman at a grand ball at Lancaster's White Swan Inn. The two began courting. Anne was the daughter of the wealthy iron manufacturer Robert Coleman and she was also the sister-in-law of Philadelphia judge Joseph Hemphill, one of Buchanan's colleagues from the House of Representatives. By 1819, the two were engaged, but were unable to spend much time together. Buchanan claimed to be extremely busy with his law firm and political commitments during the Panic of 1819. Soon the rumor mill was churning and some suggested that Buchanan was only marrying Coleman for her money. Letters written by Anne Coleman make clear that she was aware of several rumors. Coleman broke off the engagement. On December 9, 1819, died suddenly. Though the cause of her death is unclear, there are suggestions that she died from an overdose of laudanum. Buchanan wrote her father for permission to attend the funeral, claiming "I feel happiness has fled from me forever". Robert Coleman refused to allow Buchanan to attend the funeral. Buchanan never married, leading to rumors of his possible homosexuality. The best historical sleuths agree that there is too little evidence to support any conclusions about this.

Remembering James Buchanan

Today is the anniversary of the death of James Buchanan. He shuffled off this mortal coil on June 1, 1868 (152 years ago on this day.) Buchanan regularly ranks among the worst of the Presidents ratings done by historians and scholars. He is criticized for his weak and ineffective response to the coming of the secessionist crisis, his obsequiousness to the southern slave-holding political powers, his ethical impropriety in seeking to influence the outcome of the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford, his backing of the pro-slavery constitution in Kansas when a majority of Kansans opposed slavery in their territory, his inaction as southern cabinet members raided federal resources for their own cause on the eve of the civil war, his refusal to axe corrupt cabinet members, and the fact that he is the only president to leave office with fewer states then when he entered it. It's quite a shopping list of failings for which many argue that Buchanan deserves the title of "worst president ever."

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It's surprising that his presidency turned out so badly, given that probably no one was ever elected to the office with so much experience and preparation. On the day of his inauguration, Buchanan imagined himself about to embark on a Presidency as great as that of George Washington. He certainly had a wealth of experience that amply qualified him for the office.

On April 23, 1791, James Buchanan was born in Pennsylvania, a state he represented in the United States House of Representatives and later the Senate. Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College with honors on September 19, 1809, after having previously been expelled from the college for bad behavior. Upon graduation, he moved to Lancaster, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1812. When war broke out, Buchanan believed it was an unnecessary conflict, but when the British invaded Maryland, he joined a volunteer light dragoon unit as a private and served in the defense of Baltimore. Buchanan is the only president with military experience who was never an officer.

Buchanan began his political career towards the end of the war of 1812. He was elected to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1814 to 1816 as a member of the Federalist Party. He was later elected to five terms in the US House of Representative from March 4, 1821 to March 4, 1831, and served as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. In 1830, he conducted impeachment proceedings against James H. Peck, judge of the United States District Court for the District of Missouri. Peck was charged with abuse of the contempt power, but was ultimately acquitted. Buchanan did not seek reelection and from 1832 to 1833 he was appointed to the post of Minister (Ambassador) to Russia by Andrew Jackson.

In 1834 Buchanan was elected as a Democrat to fill a United States Senate vacancy. He was reelected in 1837 and 1843. While in the senate he served as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations from 1836 to 1841. Buchanan resigned in 1845 to serve as Secretary of State by President James K. Polk.

During his years in Washington, there were whispers that he and Alabama Senator William Rufus King were gay lovers. Some politician in his own party called King "Mrs. B" and the two were called "Aunt Nancy and Miss Fancy". Their correspondence which remains is especially affectionate, even considering the times they lived in, and their nieces destroyed most of their correspondence after each man's death.

Buchanan was appointed as Minister (Ambassador) to Russia under President Andrew Jackson. He lost his bid for the Democratic Party's nomination for President in 1844, but his consolation prize was to be appointed to the position of Secretary of State in the administration of President James K. Polk. He turned down an offer for an appointment to the United States Supreme Court. President Franklin Pierce appointed him minister to the Court of St. James's, and being out of the country for three turbulent years helped him win his party's nomination for President in 1856.

Buchanan was elected President in a three-man race with John C. Frémont and Millard Fillmore. As President, he was often referred to as a "doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies. As President, he battled with Stephen A. Douglas for the control of the Democratic Party. Buchanan tried to maintain peace between the North and the South mainly by catering to southern interests, but in the end he alienated both sides, and the Southern states declared their secession in the lead up to the Civil War. Buchanan expressed the view that secession was illegal, but going to war to stop it was also illegal.

When Buchanan left office, the country was in trouble. Popular opinion was against him, and the Democratic Party was divided between northern and southern interests. Buchanan had entered the Presidency aspiring to an administration that would rank in history with that of George Washington. Instead he is ranked by many historians as one of the worst presidents in history. His failure to deal with secession is considered to be among the worst presidential mistake ever made.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired less than two months after Buchanan's retirement. He agreed that the attack on Fort Sumter left the government no alternative but to go to war. He also wrote a letter to his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats, urging them to volunteer and to support those who were already serving.

Buchanan spent his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the Civil War. His critics called it "Buchanan's War" and he received angry and threatening letters. Stores displayed Buchanan's likeness with the eyes inked red, a noose drawn around his neck and the word "TRAITOR" written across his forehead. Newspapers accused him of colluding with the Confederacy.

Buchanan defended himself in print in an exchange of letters between himself and Winfield Scott that was published in the National Intelligencer newspaper. He published his memoir entitled Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, in 1866.

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Buchanan caught a cold in May 1868, which quickly worsened due to his advanced age. He died on June 1, 1868, from respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland in Lancaster.

The Obscure Presidents: Millard Fillmore

When lists are made of who the most obscure President is, Millard Fillmore usually finishes first or second. For example, when I counted the number of "tags" that each president had in this community, Fillmore finished last. In part that is because he never won a Presidential election, and after him there were no more Presidents from the Whig Party. But he is still remembered in his home town of Buffalo, where many brave the cold of an upstate New York winter in January for an outdoor ceremony at his grave site on his birthday each year. For those who do know something about him, his historical reputation is very controversial: he is praised by some, for his foreign policy, and criticized by others for his enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and his association with the bigoted American Party (the "Know Nothings".)


Fillmore was born into relative poverty in the Finger Lakes area of New York state. His parents were tenant farmers during his early years and as a child he worked as an apprentice cloth maker, a job he hated. Though he had little formal schooling, he studied hard and became a successful attorney. He became a prominent Buffalo area attorney and politician, and in 1828 he was elected to the New York State Assembly. Four years later, in 1832 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party. He became a Whig when the party formed in the mid-1830s. He even challenged editor Thurlow Weed for the state party leadership.

Through his career, Fillmore said that he personally considered slavery as an evil, but also believed that getting rid of it was beyond the powers of the federal government. Another rival New York Whig, William H. Seward, was also opposed to slavery, but unlike Fillmore, Seward argued that the federal government had had the power to end it.

Fillmore ran unsuccessfully for Speaker of the House when the Whigs took control of the chamber in 1841. He was made Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He ran for and lost his bid to become the Whig Party's candidate for vice president in 1844, and also for New York governor the same year. Three years later, Fillmore was elected Comptroller of New York in 1847, the first to hold that post by direct election.

In spite of his loss in the race for Governor of his state, Fillmore received the Whig vice presidential nomination in 1848 as Zachary Taylor's running mate. The two won the election. But Fillmore was largely ignored by Taylor, even in the dispensing of patronage in New York. Much to Fillmore's dismay, Taylor consulted Weed and Seward instead.

As vice president, Fillmore presided over a number of very contentious debates in the Senate. Congress was deciding whether to allow slavery in the territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War. President Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery despite owning slaves himself. Fillmore supported Henry Clay's Omnibus Bill (which formed the basis of the 1850 Compromise). Taylor did not. Fillmore had the ability to cast the deciding vote in the Senate if there was a tie, while Taylor had the veto. But the conflict between the two men on the issue never came to a head. President Taylor died in July of 1850.

After he was sworn in as President, Fillmore dismissed the cabinet and changed the administration's policy. The new president used the power of his office to lobby for the passage of the Compromise, which he believed would be beneficial to both North and South. By that September, the Compromise of 1850 had become law. The most controversial part of it was the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it the law to compel free states to bring about the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership of them. Fillmore felt duty-bound to enforce it. This damaged his popularity and also the Whig Party. Rather than uniting the nation, the Compromise only seemed to increase tensions between the North and South.

In foreign policy, Fillmore supported U.S. Navy expeditions to open trade with Japan. He opposed French designs on Hawaii. He also was opposed to Narciso López's filibuster expeditions to Cuba.

Fillmore wanted to run for President for a full term in 1852, but instead the Whigs picked General Winfield Scott as their candidate. The Whigs lost the election and the Party broke up after Fillmore's presidency. Many who belonged to Fillmore's conservative wing joined the "Know Nothings, formally known as the American Party. They were a populist party opposed to immigrants and Catholics, which was ironic because Fillmore's daughter was educated in a Catholic school. In his 1856 candidacy as that party's nominee, Fillmore avoided the subject of immigration. Instead he saw the key issue as the preservation of the Union. He won in only one state: Maryland.

In retirement, Fillmore was active in many civic endeavors—he helped in founding the University of Buffalo and served as its first chancellor. During the Civil War, Fillmore spoke out against secession. He agreed that the Union would have to be maintained by force if necessary, but he was also critical of the war policies of Abraham Lincoln. After peace was restored, he supported the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson. Fillmore enjoyed relatively good health for most of the remainder of his life, but he suffered a stroke in February 1874. He died after a second one on March 8. Two days later, he was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo.

Fillmore's biographer Robert Scarry once wrote "No president of the United States has suffered as much ridicule as Millard Fillmore". According to Scarry, this is because of a tendency to lump all the presidents who served in the years just prior to the Civil War together into a group that is considered to be lacking in leadership. President Harry S. Truman characterized Fillmore as "a weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone". Truman considered Fillmore to be partly responsible for creating the conditions that led to the war. Another Fillmore biographer, Paul Finkelman, has also written disparagingly about his subject, commenting that "on the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse. In the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues".

Not all assessments are this negative. Biographer Robert Rayback praised Fillmore for "the warmth and wisdom with which he had defended the Union". Elbert B. Smith described Fillmore as "a conscientious president who chose to honor his oath of office and enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, rather than govern based on his personal preferences." According to Smith, his enforcement of the act gave Fillmore an undeserved pro-southern reputation. He added that Fillmore's place in history has also suffered because "even those who give him high marks for his support of the compromise have done so almost grudgingly, probably because of his Know-Nothing candidacy in 1856". Smith argued that Fillmore's association with the Know Nothings looks far worse in hindsight than it did at the time, and that for Fillmore, nativism was not the motive for his candidacy.

Fillmore, his biographers say, does not get enough credit for his work in international affairs. His administration resolved a dispute with Portugal left over from the Taylor administration, as well as a disagreement with Peru over the Guano Islands. His administration also peacefully resolved disputes with Britain, France, and Spain over Cuba.

Millard Fillmore, along with his wife Abigail, established the first real White House library. Today his home in East Aurora, New York still stands, and other sites have been preserved to honor him at his birthplace and boyhood home, where a replica log cabin was dedicated in 1963 by the Millard Fillmore Memorial Association. His statue stands outside Buffalo City Hall. At the university he helped found, the Millard Fillmore Academic Center and Millard Fillmore College both bear his name. Every year on his birthday, a ceremony is held by his grave site as a remembrance of his life.

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Any assessment of Fillmore should be tempered with a consideration of the times in which he lived. The Whigs were not united enough to survive the divisions they experienced over the issue of slavery. When Fillmore sided with proslavery elements in ordering enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, he signed the death warrant of the Whig President. Eight years later, the election of the first Republican President would guarantee civil war. Fillmore was powerless to stop the momentum of the course that his nation was headed on.

The Obscure Presidents: Chester Alan Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur is almost always ranked in the top three least known of the presidents. That is somewhat understandable, after all, he was more of a political organizer than a politician. No one ever expected Chester Alan Arthur to be President of the United States. He had never held any elected office prior to the election of 1880. He had always been a bagman (a fundraiser) and a backroom politician. No one ever expected Arthur to be chosen as the Republican Party's nominee for Vice-President and only got the job because no one else from the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party would take the job. Even after the ticket of Garfield and Arthur won the election, no one expected that the robust and relatively young President Garfield would die in office. When Arthur became President following Garfield's death, everyone expected his administration would be a corrupt one. Arthur would prove them wrong. Journalist Alexander McClure would later write, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe."


Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, probably. During the election campaign of 1880, a Democratic Party supporter named Arthur Hinman was doing opposition research and wrote a book claiming that Arthur was actually born in Canada. The claim is doubtful and the rumors had no effect on the election outcome. Arthur was probably born in 1829. He told people that he was born in 1830, but his family bible and other records make the 1829 date more probable. Arthur grew up in upstate New York, influenced by the abolitionist leanings of his clergyman father. He practiced law in New York City where part of his law practice involved handling civil rights cases. For a brief period he went to Kansas during the bleeding Kansas saga, working on the side of the anti-slavery cause. Arthur served as quartermaster general of the New York Militia during the Civil War, a job which brought with it the rank of General. He chose not to serve in the field because his wife from from Virginia and had family fighting for the other side.

Following the war, Arthur became very active in Republican politics and quickly rose in New York Senator Roscoe Conkling's political machine known as the Stalwarts. Arthur was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to the lucrative and politically powerful post of Collector of the Port of New York in 1871, probably the highest paying job in government. In 1878, the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, fired Arthur from that job as part of a plan to reform the federal patronage system in New York. But Arthur earned his retribution when he was selected as Garfield's running mate in 1880. Arthur, an eastern Stalwart, was nominated for vice president to balance the ticket in order to keep the Stalwarts working for Garfield's re-election. Roscoe Conkling had instructed other Stalwarts to turn the job down, but the recently widowed Arthur defied his leader and accepted the job. Six months into his term, Garfield was assassinated and Arthur was President.

At the outset, no one trusted Arthur and everyone assumed that as a Stalwart and product of Conkling's machine, his administration would be a corrupt one, whose only goal was to line the pockets of its faction's membership. To the surprise of reformers, and probably everyone else, Arthur took up the cause of civil service reform. He advocated for and enforced the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, legislation that called for the filling of government jobs based on merit and not on political connections. He presided over the rebirth of the United States Navy. He also embarked on a western tour that took him to Yellowstone Park. Arthur reluctantly signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which resulted in denying citizenship to Chinese Americans until 1898 and barred Chinese immigration until 1943. It was the first total ban on an ethnic or national group from immigrating to the country.

At the time many perceived Arthur as a lazy president. In truth, he suffered from poor health, specifically a terminal kidney ailment that he tried to keep hidden. Arthur made only a limited effort to secure the Republican Party's nomination in 1884, and when that was unsuccessful, he retired at the end of his term. He earned praise among contemporaries for his surprisingly solid performance in office. The New York World summed up Arthur's presidency at his death in 1886, when it wrote: "No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation." His friend Mark Twain wrote of him, "It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration."

Over the 20th and 21st centuries, however, Arthur's reputation mostly faded among the public. He is generally ranked as an average president by historians and scholars, and one of the most obscure presidents. He has even been called "the Most Forgotten U.S. President". There are few monuments or memorials to him, with the most notable being created in 1898, a fifteen-foot bronze figure of Arthur standing on a Barre Granite pedestal, created by sculptor George Edwin Bissell and installed at Madison Square, in New York City. The statue was dedicated in 1899 and unveiled by Arthur's sister, Mary Arthur McElroy. At the dedication, Secretary of War Elihu Root spoke and described Arthur as "wise in statesmanship and firm and effective in administration."

Arthur's unpopularity in life carried over into his assessment by historians, and until very recently he may have been the President with the fewest biographies. In 1935, historian George F. Howe said that Arthur had achieved "an obscurity in strange contrast to his significant part in American history." He added that "Arthur remained to everyone a man of his word; he kept scrupulously free from corrupt graft; he maintained a personal dignity, affable and genial though he might be. These restraints distinguished him sharply from the stereotype politician."In 1975, his leading biographer, Thomas C. Reeves, would write that Arthur's "appointments, if unspectacular, were unusually sound; the corruption and scandal that dominated business and politics of the period did not tarnish his administration." In his 2004 biography for the American Presidents Series, Zachary Karabell wrote, although Arthur was "physically stretched and emotionally strained, he strove to do what was right for the country."

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Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Arthur as a below-average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Arthur as the 29th best president, while a 2017 C-SPAN survey has Chester Arthur ranked among the bottom third of presidents of all time. That survey asked 91 presidential historians to rank the 43 former presidents in various categories to come up with a composite score, resulting in an overall ranking. Arthur was ranked 35th among all former presidents. These rankings probably don't give Arthur enough credit, considering what the expectations were when he entered office, and what he was able to achieve without any real base of support in Congress.

The Obscure Presidents: Benjamin Harrison

During his Presidency, Benjamin Harrison was mocked by his political opponents for being the grandson of a former President, William Henry Harrison. The latter President Harrison, who was short in stature, was portrayed in cartoons in an oversized hat and usually shorter than anyone else in the frame. Part of Harrison's problem was the fact that, like four other presidents, he was elected to the office despite losing the popular vote, a phenomena that immediately adds fuel to opponents' fire, and one which today is giving rise to a call by some to eliminate the electoral college. Another parallel between then and now is the debate between protectionism and free trade that Harrison was caught up in. Harrison believed in high tariffs because he felt that they provided American workers with a better wage. His political opponents were opposed to high tariffs because they believed that they fueled inflation. As Sonny and Cher once sang, the beat goes on.


Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio, on the banks if the Ohio river and near the Indiana border. North Bend is also the site of his grandfather's resting place. Harrison was also the great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison V, a founding father and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Before ascending to the presidency, Harrison had established a good reputation as a prominent local attorney, Presbyterian church leader, and politician in Indianapolis, Indiana. Though never elected to office before the war, he managed the campaigns of other Republican candidates and served as secretary of the state party.

During the Civil War, Harrison served in the Union Army as a colonel, and was later confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a brevet brigadier general of volunteers. In 1864, Harrison and his regiment joined William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign and moved to the front lines. On January 2, 1864, Harrison was promoted to command the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the XX Corps. He commanded the brigade at the battles of Resaca, Cassville, New Hope Church, Lost Mountain, Kennesaw Mountain, Marietta, Peachtree Creek and Atlanta. When Sherman's main force began its March to the Sea, Harrison's brigade joined the District of Etowah and participated in the Battle of Nashville. On January 23, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln nominated Harrison to the grade of brevet brigadier general of volunteers, to rank from that date, and the Senate confirmed the nomination on February 14, 1865. He rode in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. before mustering out on June 8, 1865.

Harrison unsuccessfully ran for governor of Indiana in 1876. But he was rewarded for his service to his party when the Indiana General Assembly elected Harrison to a six-year term in the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1881 to 1887. In 1881, a major issue, if you could imagine such a thing today, was the budget surplus. Democrats wanted to reduce the tariff and limit the amount of money the government took in, while Harrison and the Republicans wanted to spend the money on internal improvements and pensions for Civil War veterans. Harrison advocated for generous pensions for veterans and their widows

When James G. Blaine's bid for the presidential nomination sputtered in 1888, his delegates supported Harrison, who was later elected to the presidency in 1888, defeating the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland won the popular vote, but Harrison's narrow victory in some crucial swing states won him the big prize. It was during Harrison's administration that significant and unprecedented economic legislation was passed, including the McKinley Tariff, which imposed historic protective trade rates. The Sherman Antitrust Act was also passed. Harrison also facilitated the creation of the national forest reserves through an amendment to the Land Revision Act of 1891. During his administration six western states were admitted to the Union, more than any other president since the 13 colonies became states. Harrison also strengthened and modernized the U.S. Navy. He was unsuccessful in bringing about his proposals to secure federal education funding as well as voting rights enforcement for African Americans. He also alienated many of the supporters in his own party by disagreements on patronage.

Due in large part to surplus revenues from the tariffs, federal spending reached one billion dollars for the first time during his term. The spending issue in part led to the defeat of the Republicans in the 1890 mid-term elections and a lot of the budget surplus was eaten up by pensions given to Civil War veterans and their widows.

Cleveland defeated Harrison for re-election in 1892, due to the growing unpopularity of the high tariff and high federal spending. Harrison suspended his campaign in October when his wife Caroline died. Cleveland did the same out of respect and because by that point his re-election victory was assured. Harrison returned to private life and his law practice in Indianapolis. In 1899 Harrison represented the Republic of Venezuela in their British Guiana boundary dispute against the United Kingdom. Harrison traveled to the court of Paris as part of the case and after a brief stay returned to Indianapolis. He remarried to a much younger woman, which strained relations that Harrison had with his children. He died at his home in Indianapolis in 1901 of complications from influenza.

Benjamin Harrison remains one of the more obscure presidents. Among those who have considered his legacy, many have praised Harrison's commitment to African Americans' voting rights and his desire to fund a better education for the children of former slaves. But scholars and historians generally regard his administration as below-average, and rank him in the bottom half among U.S. presidents. Historian R. Hal Williams write that Harrison had a "widespread reputation for personal and official integrity". After the Panic of 1893 (which critics say was caused by Harrison's own policies), Harrison became more popular in retirement. His policies led to the modern presidency that would emerge under William McKinley. The bi-partisan Sherman Anti-Trust Act signed into law by Harrison remains in effect over 120 years later and is considered to be the most important legislation passed by the Congress during his presidency. Harrison's support for African American voting rights and education would be the last significant attempts to protect civil rights until the 1930s.

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In an average of surveys and rankings, Harrison's overall rank is 31st. He has never scored higher than 20th (in a 1962 ranking done by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) and the most recent ranking conducted by C-Span in 2017 had Harrison in 30th place. When Harrison is remembered in more recent surveys, he is admired for his progressive views on civil rights and for his forward-thinking on the use of education as a means of achieving social progress.