September 24th, 2019


Ranking the Presidents: Benjamin Harrison

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Grover Cleveland, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. 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 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.