Benjamin Harrison (1833 – 1901), the 23rd president of the United States, was the second in his family to be elected to the position. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president and served the shortest term in history. He was in office exactly one month before dying of pneumonia. Ironically, the elder was known as the “Indian Fighter” while the grandson, Benjamin, fought for Native American rights.
During the Civil War, Benjamin joined the Union Army in the 70th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment and achieved the rank of brigadier general by 1865. He was the last Civil War general to become president.
In 1876, Harrison was defeated in his bid for governor of Indiana by the Democrats who dubbed him “Kid Gloves” Harrison. During the 1888 Republican Convention he was nominated for the presidency and started the first “front-porch” campaigns, in which he gave short speeches to the delegates that visited him in Indianapolis. Democrats again tried to derail his campaign, calling him “Little Ben” in reference to his small stature of five feet, six inches in height. Republicans rallied their support and said he was large enough to wear the hat of his formidable grandfather, also known as “Old Tippecanoe.”
Benjamin Harrison Presidency
Harrison had already demonstrated his belief in equal rights, fighting for homesteaders, Native Americans, and even going against the Republican Party in 1882 to oppose the Chinese Exclusion Act which would prevent Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. He continued to champion veterans’ rights and forest protection as well.
In 1889, the First International Conference of American States was held in Washington, D.C. This would become the Pan-American Union. During this meeting, the state department negotiated terms for an American settlement in the Samoan Islands with Germany and Great Britain. Harrison tried – but failed – to construct a canal in Nicaragua and annex Hawaii.
One of the biggest challenges the new president faced, and which would ultimately cost him the re-election, was economic. He was faced with managing a large government surplus. For the first time (except during a war), Congress had amassed a billion dollars. In July 1890, Harrison enacted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which forbade business practices that tried to create a monopoly. He also signed the Sherman Purchase Act into law that month, which doubled the amount of silver that could be purchased by the Treasury to 4.5 million ounces each month.
On October 1, 1890, Congress passed the McKinley Tariff, a very controversial bill that increased the president’s power in foreign trade. It was hoped this legislation would help Harrison to have more influence over Latin countries so that American export rates would be lowered.
On December 29, 1890, Harrison created the nine Circuit Courts of Appeal to help relieve the Supreme Court’s workload.
Harrison’s presidency saw many changes, but also a lot of conflicts across the nation. During the New Orleans Lynchings on March 14, 1891, 11 Italian immigrants from Sicily were killed. The Italians, who had been accused of murdering Police Chief David C. Hennessy, were cleared of the crime – and still lynched anyway. This incident began the use of the word “mafia.”
The United States came close to going to war with Chile. On May 6, 1891, the U.S., responding to a request from the Balmaceda government, seized a Chilean rebel ship, the Itata, which was carrying an arms shipment. Relations between the two countries grew tense after the rebels defeated the Balmaceda government in a civil war. Then, on October 16, two Americans were killed during a fight between American sailors and Chilean nationals in Valparaiso. Friction escalated until a war seemed imminent, but Chile finally backed down on January 26, 1892, and paid a $75,000 settlement to the U.S.
Harrison ran for re-election but was defeated by Grover Cleveland, who had already served his first term as president and was now elected for his second.