March 13th, 2020


Remembering Benjamin Harrison

On March 13, 1901 (119 years ago today) Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States, died at his home in Indianapolis, Indiana at the age of 67. Harrison was the grandson of the ninth President, William Henry Harrison, and the great grandson of Benjamin Harrison, one of the signers of the Declaration of independence. Harrison had been a prominent attorney, a soldier and and politician in Indianapolis. During the Civil War, he served as a brigadier general in the Union Army. He ran unsuccessfully to be the governor of Indiana, but was later elected to the U.S. Senate by the Indiana legislature.

Harrison was elected as President of the United States in 1888, defeating the Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland. As President, Harrison's administration saw the passage of significant economic legislation, including the McKinley Tariff, which imposed historic protective trade rates, and the Sherman Antitrust Act. Harrison facilitated the creation of the National Forests through an amendment to the Land Revision Act of 1891. He also substantially strengthened and modernized the Navy. He proposed federal education funding as well as voting rights enforcement for African Americans during his administration, but was ahead of his time in both of those initiatives.

His administrations saw large surplus revenues from the tariffs, which resulted in federal spending reaching one billion dollars for the first time during his term. But Harrison was defeated by Cleveland in his bid for re-election in 1892, due to the growing unpopularity of the high tariff and high federal spending. A month before the election, his wife Caroline died. Harrison ceased his campaign, and out of respect so did his opponent Grover Cleveland.

After his defeat, Harrison returned to private life in Indianapolis and resumed his law practice. In 1896, Harrison at age 62 remarried, to Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, the widowed 37 year old niece and former secretary of his deceased wife Caroline. Harrison's two adult children disapproved of the marriage and did not attend the wedding. Benjamin and Mary had one child together, a daughter named Elizabeth.

In 1900, Harrison served as an attorney for the Republic of Venezuela in their British Guiana boundary dispute with the United Kingdom. An international trial was agreed upon and he traveled to Paris where he spent more than 25 hours in court. Although he lost the case, his legal arguments enhanced his international reputation as an advocate.


Harrison developed influenza or grippe in February 1901. He was treated with steam vapor inhalation and oxygen, but his condition worsened. He died from pneumonia at his home on Wednesday, March 13, 1901, at the age of 67. Harrison is buried in Indianapolis's Crown Hill Cemetery, next to Caroline. After her death, Mary Dimmick Harrison was buried next to him.

In the American Presidents Series biography of Harrison entitled Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun, the author concludes the book on Harrison at pages 165-6 as follows:

In early March 1901, Harrison again fell ill with an acute case of the grippe, which soon progressed into pneumonia. With his wife of five years the only family at his bedside, he died on March 13, 1901. The next day President William McKinley issued a proclamation of mourning, noting that "in the high office of President," Harrison had "displayed extraordinary gifts as an administrator and statesman."

To himself, McKinley perhaps also acknowledged that he owed something of his own success in the White House to the example Harrison had set. Benjamin Harrison had not set out to transform the presidency, but he was hardly a mere caretaker between the two terms of Grover Cleveland. In his own right, Harrison made important contributions to the evolution of the office. He entered the presidency strongly committed to a set of principles and policies. In defense of those ideas and in pursuit of what he thought to be his duty, he expanded the boundaries of presidential activism. Both publicly and behind the scenes, he effectively intervened in the deliberations of Congress and posted a remarkable record of legislative achievement. He resisted the dictation of party bosses in the matter of appointments, thereby risking his own reelection for the sake of presidential independence. He frequently operated as the nation's chief diplomat and shaped its aspirations in foreign affairs. Through a skillful use of the press and in widespread travels, he took the presidency to the American people. In these and other ways, he unwittingly taught his successors new uses of power and techniques of leadership. The solipsistic and ham-handed Grover Cleveland took cues from Harrison, but William McKinley proved one of his most astute students. As a member of the Fifty-first Congress, McKinley watched Harrison firsthand. A half decade later, borrowing much from Harrison's methods and purposes but unburdened by many of his obstacles and shortcomings, McKinley fashioned a popular and successful administration. Scholars may regard the latter man as the first modern president, but Benjamin Harrison had clearly pointed the way.

Past Campaigns: The Disastrous 1924 Democratic Party Race

The longest convention to select a candidate for president held by a major political party took place in 1924 when the Democratic Party needed 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis as their candidate to challenge Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge for the presidency. The fascinating story of this ultra-marathon political event is ably told in Robert K. Murray's 1976 book The 103rd Ballot: The Incredible Story of the Disastrous Democratic Convention of 1924 (reviewed here in this community). The convention is a classic study in how a contentious nominating contest can badly injure a party as it heads into the election.


One can only imagine what today's Las Vegas odds might have been on the chances of Davis winning the nomination when the convention began. He wasn't one of the favorites going into the race, and didn't even run in any of the primaries. The leading candidate of the Democratic party was William Gibbs McAdoo, former Treasury Secretary. He was sixty years old and was very popular with labor because of his wartime record as Director General of the railroads and was, as former President Wilson's son-in-law, also the favorite of the Wilsonians. But in the January of 1924, evidence came to light about his business relationship with Ed Doheny, a wealthy oil man who was implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal. This alienated many of his supporters. In 1919, McAdoo, a lawyer, had taken on Doheny as a client for an unusually large initial fee of $100,000, in addition to an annual retainer. McAdoo was to receive a million dollar bonus if the Mexican government reach a satisfactory agreement with Washington on oil lands Doheny held south of the Texas border. The bonus was never paid and McAdoo claimed that there never was such a deal. However at the time he said in a telegraph to the New York World that he would have received "an additional fee of $900,000 if my firm had succeeded in getting a satisfactory settlement."

McAdoo's connection to Doheny appeared to seriously impair his chances to be his party's presidential candidate. In February, Woodrow Wilson's former advisor Colonel Edward House, and former Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels urged him to withdraw from the race. So did the party's elder statesman and former candidate William Jennings Bryan.

Much of the dissatisfaction with McAdoo sprang from his acceptance of the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. James Cox, the 1920 Democratic nominee, made an issue of this, but McAdoo remained silent on the issue. But after the Doheny scandal, McAdoo desperately needed support and at the time, the Klan was a formidable political force. A further blow to McAdoo's chances was the death on February 3, 1924, of Woodrow Wilson, who might have given McAdoo a welcome endorsement.

McAdoo pressed on bravely and he won a number of primaries in the south. Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama had presidential aspirations. Underwood was opposed to prohibition and to the Klan, which alienated a lot of natural support for a southern Democrat. McAdoo defeated Underwood in the Georgia primary and evenly split the Alabama delegation.

Governor Al Smith of New York was ten years younger than McAdoo and he decided to run for the nomination. Smith's candidacy regained lost ground for McAdoo, attracting rural, Klan, and dry (pro-prohibition) elements of the party. The Klan seemed to oppose every Democratic candidate except McAdoo. A Klan newspaper told Klan members to reject Henry Ford as a candidate because he had given a Lincoln car to a Catholic archbishop. It rejected Smith, who was Catholic, and it had nothing good to say about Underwood.

Tennessee Congressman Cordell Hull was the Democratic national chairman convention in 1924. The convention was held in New York City, Smith's home turf. It took place at the Madison Square Garden from June 24 to July 9, 1924, and as the title of Murray's book portends, it took a record 103 ballots to nominate a candidate. It was the longest continuously running convention in United States political history.

The Ku Klux Klan, which had been born out of post-Civil War Reconstruction, was resurrected after the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith's very popular motion picture The Birth of a Nation. After World War I, the popularity of the Klan grew and it became a political force in many regions of the country, especially in the south and in the border states, the mountain states, and the West. The Klan was seen as unwelcome by many DNC delegates, especially Catholics and liberals. Non-Klan delegates, led by Forney Johnston of Alabama, put a resolution on the floor for the party to condemn the Klan for its violence as part of the Democratic Party's platform. The motion failed by a very small margin, with 542.85 in favor, 546.15 against, so the plank was not included in the platform. Tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied in a field in New Jersey, across the river from New York City, to celebrate their victory. At the event, subsequently dubbed the "Klanbake", Klan delegates burned crosses, urged violence and intimidation against African-Americans and Catholics, and attacked effigies of Al Smith.

Al Smith's name was placed into nomination by Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first appearance at the Democratic National Convention since he contracted polio. This was a significant event in Roosevelt's political career. He would be elected Governor of New York four years later and President eight years later.

On the first day of balloting (June 30) the predicted deadlock between McAdoo and Smith occurred, with the remaining delegates divided mainly between local "favorite sons". McAdoo and Smith both made small gains in the day's fifteen ballots, but the winning candidate needed to secure 2/3 of the ballots and it looked like neither candidate could rise to this level. On the tenth ballot, Kansas abandoned its favorite son candidate Governor Jonathan M. Davis and threw all of its votes to McAdoo. This was offset when New Jersey made did the same thing, but for Smith.

As time passed, the factions became more desperate. McAdoo supporter Daniel C. Roper went to Franklin Roosevelt to offer Smith second place on a McAdoo ticket. Smith backers attempted to give a false impression of momentum by packing the galleries with noisy local rooters. But the rudeness of Tammany Hall members, who booed when William Jennings Bryan addressed the convention, seemed to backfire on Smith. McAdoo supporters introduced a motion to eliminate one candidate on each ballot until only five remained, but the motion was defeated. Smith suggested that all delegates be released from their pledges. McAdoo agreed on condition that the two-thirds rule be eliminated. Neither proposal was accepted.

It appeared for a time that Indiana Senator Samuel Ralston would be an acceptable compromise candidate. On July 8, the eighty-seventh ballot showed a total for Ralston of 93 votes, chiefly from Indiana and Missouri; before the day was over, the Ralston total had risen to almost 200. Ralston was unsure on whether or not to run. His doctor recommended against it. He was 66 years old, over 300 pounds, and in addition to his own poor health, his wife and son also had serious medical issues. He ultimately decided not to run, and he would pass away the following year.

The stubbornness of the two leading candidates forced the convention to the one hundred and third ballot. Smith and McAdoo finally withdrew after accepting that neither would win the nomination and that the ongoing turmoil was crippling the party's chances in the upcoming election. John W. Davis was agreed upon as a compromise candidate. Davis had served as a United States Representative from West Virginia from 1911 to 1913, and then as Solicitor General of the United States and US Ambassador to the UK under President Woodrow Wilson. For Vice-President, the Democrats nominated Charles W. Bryan, governor of Nebraska, and also the brother of William Jennings Bryan.

With the disastrous Democratic Convention having badly divided the Democrats, and with the economy booming, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Coolidge would win the election. The death of Coolidge's son Calvin Jr. in July had resulted in a considerable outpouring of sympathy and support for Coolidge and his wife Grace. His campaign slogan, "Keep Cool with Coolidge", was highly popular.

Davis carried only the traditionally Democratic southern states. Many liberal Democrats voted for Robert La Follette, the candidate for the Progressive Party. Davis lost the popular vote to Coolidge by 25.2 percentage points. The Republicans even carried New York City, a feat they have not repeated since.

Coolidge received 15,723,789 votes (54.04%) and won 382 electoral votes. Davis finished second with 8,386,242 votes (28.82%) and 136 electoral votes, while La Follette received 4,831,706 votes (16.61%) and 13 electoral votes.