By Mary Giorgio
On March 4, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, took the oath of office with a brief speech stressing education and economy, and became the 23rd President of the United States.
A successful lawyer and former senator, Benjamin Harrison was known as an honest and hardworking man. He was born into a political family. Harrison’s grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was the 9th President of the United States. His great-grandfather, Colonel Benjamin Harrison, ranks among the Founding Fathers and signed the Declaration of Independence.
Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833, in Ohio. His father, John Scott Harrison, was a successful farmer and congressman. Benjamin Harrison graduated from Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, in 1852. In 1853, he married Caroline L. Scott.
The couple moved to Indianapolis in 1854, where Harrison started a successful law practice. One of his early law partners was famed Hoosier author, Lew Wallace. Through the course of Harrison’s legal career, he argued five cases in front of the US Supreme Court.
Upon arriving in Indianapolis, Harrison became involved in local politics. Harrison joined the Republican party and ran for city office in 1857. He was elected Indianapolis City Attorney. In 1860, he became the reporter for the Indiana Supreme Court.
Harrison became a prominent supporter of Abraham Lincoln, campaigning for him across Indiana. His leadership soon earned him the role of secretary of the Republican State Central Committee.
During the Civil War, Harrison served in the 70th Indiana Regiment, fighting in several key battles, including the Battle of Atlanta. He rose through the ranks, eventually earning the distinction of Brigadier General, and the respect of General (and future president) Ulysses S. Grant.
When the war was over, Harrison purchased a beautiful double lot on North Delaware St. on the outskirts of downtown Indianapolis. There, in the 1870s, he built an ornate 2-story Italianate home. Boasting 16 rooms, the large home served as President Harrison’s residence until his death in 1901, and now serves as the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.
In the 1870s, Harrison ran for Indiana governor but lost. Despite this setback, he continued to be a respected member of the Republican party. In 1880, Harrison served as chairman of the Indiana delegation to the Republican National Convention. One year later, Harrison won a U.S. Senate seat. He served from 1881 to 1887.
During his time in the Senate, Harrison was approached by senior members of the Republican party concerning a run for president. Harrison agreed. In 1888, he conducted a successful bid for the presidency. Harrison chose not to travel extensively and instead utilized the “front porch” style of campaigning. Most of Harrison’s political speeches were conducted from the balcony of his Indianapolis home.
Although Harrison lost the popular vote, he won in the electoral college. His presidency was plagued by controversy with both political parties over civil service reform, tariffs, and monetary policy. Under Harrison, the first ever billion-dollar Congressional budget was passed.
Like Grant, Harrison worked fought hard to establish and protect the voting and civil rights of African-Americans as well as promoting education. And, like Grant, his impassioned pleas fell on mostly deaf or uncaring ears.
Harrison was more successful in foreign relations. He presided over the first Pan-American Conference in 1889. The conference led to the creation of the Pan-American Union. Harrison also ended a dispute with Chile and expanded the role of the U.S. Navy.
In 1892, Harrison was defeated for his re-election bid by Grover Cleveland. A few days prior to the election, his wife Caroline died. Harrison returned to his law career in Indianapolis. In 1896, the widowed president married Mary Dimmick, thirty-five years his junior, and had one daughter, Elizabeth.
Tragically, his time with his new family would not last. A case of influenza worsened into pneumonia, and President Harrison died in 1901 in his Indianapolis home. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery alongside his two spouses.
In 1937, Mary sold the family home to the Arthur Jordan Foundation. It was used as a dormitory for several years before being restored and opened to the public in 1951. In 1966, the President Benjamin Harrison Foundation was created to operate the museum.
Today, visitors to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site can see 10 of the home’s 16 rooms. Many of the Harrisons’ original furnishings are on display. The home is a celebrated National Historic Landmark, just as its longtime owner is a renowned Hoosier legend.