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May 18th, 2019

In 1888 Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland by a margin of 233 to 168 in the electoral college, despite the fact that Cleveland received more votes. When Cleveland and his wife Frances left the White House early the next year, Mrs. Cleveland vowed they would return. Cleveland did indeed get a rematch with Harrison, and Frances Cleveland kept her promise.

When the Republicans took power, Harrison inherited a problem that many today would consider to be no problem at all. The government had a huge surplus due to revenue from high tariffs. There was a debate about what to do. Democrats wanted to reduce the tariffs, while Republicans wanted to leave the tariffs alone and spend the surplus. The Republicans in Congress held a majority and they opted to maintain the tariff rates and to spend the treasury surplus on internal improvements. Representative William McKinley of Ohio and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island steered the McKinley Tariff through Congress, a plan that raised the tariff even higher. At the urging of Secretary of State James Blaine, Harrison attempted to make the tariff more acceptable by urging Congress to add reciprocity provisions, which would allow the President to reduce rates when other countries reduced their rates on American exports. But even with this reciprocity, the McKinley Tariff led to the highest tariff rates in American history. Government spending increased and Democrats criticized both the tariffs and the spending, by calling the 51st Congress the "Billion-Dollar Congress".

An important issue in the election of 1888 had been the issue of pensions for Civil War veterans who fought for the Union and who suffered some form of disability. There had been an earlier pension scheme for these vets, but the had to have applied for the pension within a year of their discharge from the Army. In 1879, the Arrears of Pension Act was passed. This legislation allowed all Union veterans to reapply for pension and receive back payments to the date of their discharge, regardless of when they may have previously applied. This legislation did not change the requirement that disabilities be service-related. But it was nevertheless a very expensive bill. Veterans became eligible to receive large sums of money for several years of retroactive pension payments. This resulted in a flood of applications and a large increase in pension expenditures for the federal government.

The Arrears Act gave new life to the Grand Army of the Republic (the "GAR"), an organization consisting mostly of Union veterans. With the political assistance from the Republican Party, the GAR became much more active in lobbying for liberal pension legislation following passage of the Arrears Act. A comprehensive pension disability bill was put before Congress in 1887. This bill granted pensions to all Union veterans suffering from a disability, regardless of what caused the disability. It awarded all eligible veterans a pension of $12 per month. (The Dependent and Disability Act gave pensions worth between $6 and $12 depending on the severity of the disability in question). It also required applicants to prove that they were financially dependent on another source, a requirement that was not included in the final version of the bill passed in 1890.

When the first bill was passed, Grover Cleveland vetoed the bill on February 11, 1887, infuriating the GAR and setting the stage to make pensions a central issue in the 1888 election. Cleveland objected to the bill because it was extremely costly, and because he believed that it would be too difficult to determine the extent to which applicants were dependent on others. He also felt that the system would be abused by fraud. The bill returned to the House but did not garner enough votes to override the President’s veto.

Harrison won the crucial swing states of Indiana and New York, which contained 38,000 and 45,000 veterans receiving pensions respectively. The Republican Party’s position on the pension issue allowed Harrison to narrowly win these two states, just 2,300 and 13,000 votes respectively.

Following his inauguration, Harrison reorganized the Pension Bureau and appointed James Tanner as the new commissioner of pensions. Harrison pushed for a disability bill, which ultimately passed without a single vote from a Southern congressman. Under the final form of the law, any disabled Union veteran who had served at least ninety days was eligible to receive a pension, regardless of whether or not his disability was incurred in service. The final version of the act also allowed for the collection of pensions by widows of veterans and for children under the age of 16.

The Disability and Dependent Pension Act was resulted in an enormous spike in federal expenditures on pensions. In 1890, just 537,944 veterans were receiving pensions. By 1893, that number had almost doubled to 966,012. In 1889, the federal government spent $89,000,000 on these pensions, a figure that jumped to $159,000,000 by 1893. By 1894, 37% of the government budget was set aside for pension payments.

The problem was made worse by the people that Harrison put in charge of the Pension Bureau. An investigation into the Pension Bureau too place. The investigation found evidence of lavish and illegal handouts under James Tanner. Although there was no evidence of theft on the part of Tanner, it was discovered that he had a tendency to, in his words, "treat the boys liberally" and loosen rules so that veterans could more easily qualify for pensions.

As a result of the investigation, Harrison realized that appointing Tanner had been a mistake, due to his apparent loose management style and his tendency to brag about his generosity with government money. Harrison asked Tanner to resign and replaced him with Green B. Raum. Raum was also a problem, as he was accused of accepting loan payments in return for expediting pension cases. Congress split on its investigation into Raum and Harrison accepted the dissenting Congressional Republican investigation report that exonerated Raum. He kept Raum in office for the rest of his administration.

When Harrison ran for re-election in 1892, once again his opponent was Grover Cleveland and once again the main issue in the election was the tariff. Harrison defended the protectionist McKinley Tariff. Cleveland told voters that he was opposed to free trade, but that he wanted a reduction in the tariff. He convinced voters that the McKinley Tariff had made imported goods too expensive. Many westerners, who had been traditionally Republican voters, left the Republican Party to vote for James Weaver, the candidate of the new Populist Party. Weaver promised Free Silver, generous veterans' pensions, and an eight-hour work day. Many Populists and labor supporters endorsed Cleveland after an attempt by the Carnegie Corporation to break the union during the Homestead strike in Pittsburgh and after a similar conflict between big business and labor at the Tennessee Coal and Iron Co. Cleveland also made an issue of how the Republicans had spent the treasury surplus.

At the Republican nominating convention, the incumbent President Benjamin Harrison faced a challenge from within his own party. A number of disaffected party leaders started a "dump Harrison" movement and backed veteran candidate James G. Blaine of Maine. But Harrison's organization had the nomination locked up by the time delegates assembled in Minneapolis, Minnesota in June 1892. Harrison was nominated on the first ballot with 535.17 votes to 182.83 for Blaine and 182 for future President William McKinley of Ohio. The Republican platform supported high tariffs, stiffer immigration laws, free rural mail delivery, and a canal across Central America. It also supported Ireland in its struggle for home rule as well as the plight of Jews under persecution in czarist Russia.

When the Democrats met in Chicago in June of 1892, Grover Cleveland was the front-runner for the nomination, but faced formidable opposition. He had come out against the free coinage of silver. His home state of New York was against him because the faction from Tammany Hall were hostile to Cleveland on the issue of patronage. Cleveland managed to score a narrow first-ballot victory in which he received 617.33 votes (slightly over 10 votes more than needed) to 114 for Senator David B. Hill of New York, the candidate of Tammany Hall, and 103 for Governor Horace Boies of Iowa, a populist and former Republican.

The tariff issue dominated the campaign. Harrison defended the protectionist McKinley Tariff passed during his term while Cleveland campaigned for a reduction in the tariff. William McKinley campaigned extensively for Harrison, setting the stage for his own run four years later.

The campaign took a somber turn when, in October, First Lady Caroline Harrison died. Despite the ill health that had plagued Mrs. Harrison since her youth and which had worsened in the last decade, she often accompanied President Harrison on official travels. On one such trip, to California in the spring of 1891, she caught a cold. It quickly deepened into her chest, and she was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis. A summer in the Adirondack Mountains failed to restore her to health and she died in the White House on October 25, 1892, just two weeks before the election. As a result, all of the candidates ceased campaigning.

On election day Cleveland won 277 electoral votes and 23 states. He received 46% of the popular votes. Harrison came in second with 145 electoral votes, 16 states and 43% of the vote. A third party candidate, James Weaver of the Populist Party, won 22 electoral votes and 4 states with just 8.5% of the popular vote. This was the first election in which an incumbent president was defeated for a second time in a row. This wouldn't happen again until 1980.


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