[Abridged] Presidential Histories

23.) Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893

November 22, 2021 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
23.) Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893
Show Notes Transcript

When it comes to politicians, promises made + promises kept is supposed to = reelection, right? For Benjamin Harrison and the 51st GOP Congress, this common sense equation failed in a major way. After passing more legislation than almost any Congress in U.S. history, Harrison and the GOP majority were sent packing in one of the most lopsided congressional wipeouts ever. Why?

Follow along as Harrison serves in the Civil War, enters politics, wins the White House, and passes a raft of major legislation - some of which we still live under today - only for the voters to reward him by punching his pink slip. Oh, and he'll acquire the country's first overseas territory, too. Imperialism, here we come!

1. Benjamin Harrison – Charles W. Calhoun
2. Grover Cleveland – Henry F. Graff
3. The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century – Scott Miller
4. T.R. the last Romantic – H.R. Brands

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Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 23, Benjamin Harrison, the Centennial President.


For 100 years, the United States had followed the advice of its first president, George Washington: No Foreign Entanglements! Then came the Centennial president, Benjamin Harrison. Harrison ended that tradition by carrying the U.S. flag into Samoa, popping the cork on more than a century of American overseas adventurism, but even that heady accomplishment is practically a footnote in one of the most busy, most legislatively accomplished, and most forgotten presidencies in U.S. history. 

Harrison is going to accomplish more in the first two years of his presidency than most accomplish in eight. From tariffs to trust-busting legislation to pensions and major acts of environmental conservationism, he’s going to accomplish almost everything he campaigned on doing. So. Why is the country going to boot him out of office after just four years? We often lament politicians who are all talk, no action. What can we learn from the president who did it all, only for us to send him packing?

Let’s dig in.




Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833, in the North Bend, Indiana, home of his paternal grandfather – the eventual 9th president of the United States, William Henry Harrison!

That’s right, Young Ben and old Tippecanoe are the only grandfather-grandson presidential combo in U.S. history.

Not that Ben got to enjoy being the grandson of a president for very long. As long-time listeners may remember, William Henry Harrison is the shortest-serving president in U.S. history. A month after giving the longest inauguration address in American history, William Henry Harrison got sick and died, likely due to bad sanitation at the white house.

So young Ben was the grandson of a president for 31 days.

But that short tenure didn’t diminish the Harrison name. Ben didn’t make his entire living off being a Harrison, but it wasn’t lost on others, either.

Benjamin Harrison grew up during a period of American history known as the Second Great Awakening. This is one of those eras when all the cool kids went to church. But you should remember that 19th century religiosity doesn’t necessarily align with 21st century religiosity. These 19th century folks could be quite progressive on some issues, like the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Benjamin Harrison tapped into this progressive vein of religiosity when he entered politics and those values would be his major values the rest of his life.

In 1847, 14-year-old Benjamin was sent to Farmer’s College, a prep school near Cincinnati. But this isn’t a school where you just learn how to Farm. The school had actually produced several Congressmen over the years, and those guys would send congressional reports back to their old teachers, who passed them on to current students to be the basis of their studies and assignments. This honed Benjamin’s aptitude for analysis, composition, and his understanding of contemporary politics.

And, remember how I said women’s rights was part of Benjamin’s religious upbringing? In one of his essays, he wrote that a good criteria for judging the “true state of a society” was how it treated women, for women, quote, “Are appreciated in proportion as society is advanced.”

Speaking of women, Benjamin met one while he was a student at Farmers. Caroline Lavinia Scott was the daughter of one of the school’s professors. When the professor moved his family to Oxford Ohio, Benjamin transferred schools to follow the family and stay close to Caroline. This dedication worked out well for Benjamin, for, on October 20, 1853, he married Caroline. They’d have two children together and remain married until Caroline’s death 39 years later.

Ok, so it’s 1853 now. Harrison is 20 years old, married, educated, and he’s about to spend the rest of the decade pursuing a career in law and Republican politics, including winning his first local elections, and campaigning for Lincoln in 1860.

And that election of Lincoln means it’s time for the civil war.

Now, you know how I keep saying that, when the civil war started, everyone expected it to be a quick fight that would be over in a few months? Benjamin thought so, too, so he figured, what’s the point of signing up? This thing’s going to be over before I even reach the front. I might as well stay home.

And so he did.


In July 1862, the Civil War was not over, there was no end was in sight, and Lincoln was again calling for volunteers. This time, Benjamin said yes. He recruited a volunteer regiment of 1,000 men, was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant, and marched off to war.

At first, the war was a bit of a bore for young Harrison. His regiment was on Garrison duty and his main struggles were training and instilling discipline in the men. But then, in 1864, his regiment was attached to General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army for Sherman’s march on Atlanta. Benjamin participated in something like eight battles during the campaign – more than his famous grandfather ever fought – and he served admirably, personally tending to wounded men when the regiment got separated from its surgeons and capturing a battery of confederate guns in two different fights.

When the campaign ended with Atlanta’s capture, Ben was granted leave to go home and see his wife, Caroline, who had recently been seriously ill, so he missed Sherman’s march to the sea, but I’m sure he didn’t mind.

And then the war was over.

In the years after the war, Harrison returned to Indiana to focus on his law career and found that between his family name, his politicking, and his exploits during the war, he’d become quite famous. So in 1872, he decided to run for governor!

And he lost.

And then in 1876, he decided to run for governor again!

And he lost. Again. But this time by a very small margin.

So, in 1878, he decided to mix it up and run for senate!

And he lost this time, too. Yeah. Benjamin Harrison did a surprising amount of losing for a man who’s going to get elected president.

In 1880, Harrison was finally elected Indiana senator after the Republicans took control of the state house, which elected senators back then because most states won’t have direct election of senators until the 20th century. 

In 1886, it was time for Benjamin Harrison to run for re-election, and what did he do? He lost. But there was a silver lining to this one. Remember how I just said senators were elected by state houses, and not popular votes? Well, the Democrats had narrowly won the state house, so they tossed him from the senate, but his vigorous campaigning had helped lift Republicans to victory in every position that actually was a state-wide race. So though Harrison was technically defeated, his cache actually grew.

Which was good timing, because the 1888 Presidential election was coming in hot.

The 1888 GOP convention was dominated by a man who refused to seek the nomination and kept swearing he wouldn’t run if nominated – our old friend, James G. Blaine

Quick refresher on Blaine – Blaine, known as “The magnetic man” and “the plumed knight,” was a former speaker of the house, Maine senator, and secretary of state for James Garfield. He was also a three-time presidential hopeful, most recently in 1884 when he lost the general election to Grover Cleveland, which is probably why he kept saying he wasn’t going to run again in 88, even though everyone kept asking.

And everyone did keep asking. 

Sure, guys like Benjamin Harrison wanted to be president, but the majority of the party wasn’t feeling Harrison or any of the other dozen candidates. They wanted Blaine! And they came up with a plan to draft him into the race. These Blainites, I’ll call them, would spread their support between those dozen candidates who actually wanted the job, and then, on each ballot, they’d shift a few votes toward one of those guys, because in 1888, they were all guys, and then away from them. They thought this would create the illusion that each candidate was surging, plateauing, and receding. And that, if the plan worked, it would create the impression that none of the candidates were popular enough to unite the party, and then the Blainites could draft their boy James G. Blaine to rally the party and save the day. And if that sounds like a crap plan, remember, in 1880, the Republican Party nominated James Garfield despite him loudly protesting he didn’t want the job. So if it worked for Garfield, it could work for Blaine, right?


By chance, the first candidate the Blainites shifted their support behind was Benjamin Harrison, so, as planned, it looked like Ben was on the rise. But then, before they could withdraw their support to simulate Ben’s collapse, Blaine reached out and said he would never accept the nomination, and for whatever reason, this denial stuck and the Blainites abandoned their strategy. Instead of support for Benjamin receding, it grew, and Benjamin Harrison soon won the party’s nomination on the 7th ballot, all because the Blainites thought he could be their patsy.

With that settled, it was time for the main show – Benjamin Harrison vs. Grover Cleveland.

The main issue of the 1888 election wassss Tariff’s. I know, exciting stuff. Ben wanted them high, Cleveland wanted them low. But Ben did successfully raise a lot of money from American businessmen by saying, if Cleveland wins reelection, he’ll cut the tariff and you’ll all be out of business. So that’s nice.

What’s more interesting than the issues was the evolving way candidates campaigned. Harrison launched a “front porch” campaign, where, instead of traveling all over the country giving speeches, as his grandfather had, he ran the entire campaign from his front porch, where huge crowds of voters would gather to hear him speak. These groups would organize around issues they cared about and communicate they were coming in advance, so Benjamin could customize each speech to each group’s interests. Benjamin gave more than 90 speeches in 90 days to more than 300,000 people, and a stenographer captured every word, creating transcripts that were edited and sent to the Associated Press for national publication.

Harrison was also boosted by “Tippecanoe” clubs organized by Americans who had supported his grandfather 48 years earlier, which, if they were anything like the log cabin parties of 1840, were probably a really good time.

On election day, 1888, Benjaminnnnnn… lost the popular vote. Of course he did. But he won the electoral college 233-168! Yeah. Just like we saw in 2000 and 2016, a republican candidate lost the popular vote and won the general election. 

Although… I do want to put a big caveat on Benjamin’s popular vote defeat. Sure, Cleveland had won the popular vote by 90,000 ballots, but that was largely thanks to rampant voter suppression in the south keeping black republican voters away from the ballot box. Case in point, South Carolina. South Carolina’s black population had grown 60% since the Civil War, but the number of ballots being cast by African Americans there had dropped 80%. If this had been a fair election, I have a feeling Benjamin would have won the popular vote no problemo. 


And so, on March 4, 1889, 55-year-old Benjamin Harrison, a civil war veteran, former Indiana senator, frequent political loser, and grandson of a former president, was sworn in as the 23rd president of the United States of America 100 years after George Washington had been sworn in as the first. But what did the country, and the world, look like when Harrison became president? Let’s look around.

Internationally, the world’s first commercial automobiles were being sold in Germany, Sherlock Holmes was becoming the world’s greatest detective in England thanks to the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a new emperor had inherited the throne in Germany – the same emperor who will later lead Germany into World War I.

Domestically, a young scientist named Nicolas Tesla earned a patent for the alternating current induction motor in 1888. Alternating current is basically the reason you can turn off one light in your kitchen and your entire home’s power doesn’t go out at the same time. It’s nifty stuff.

More importantly for Benjamin Harrison, the republican party had just swept both houses of Congress, giving them unified control of Washington for the first time since 1875, which is going to give Ben an excellent chance to enact his agenda.

And he’s not going to waste it.

The 51st Congress, which will be in session Ben’s first two years in office, will pass more laws than any congress before or after until Theodore Roosevelt’s second term. These guys are going to get into everything –Tariffs, monopolies, pensions, silver money, voting rights – it’s going to be a lot. And then they’re all going to get kicked out of office for it, and then Harrison will get the boot two years later. Which seems kinda crazy to me, so we’re going to spend some time looking into it.

There are five major pieces of legislation the 51st Congress debated that I’m going to talk about:

1.     The Sherman Anti-Trust act

2.     The Sherman Silver Purchase Act

3.     The McKinley Tariff

4.     The Dependent Pension Act

5.     And the Lodge Bill

Let’s start with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. In short, the Sherman Silver Purchase act allowed the government to mint millions of ounces of silver coins. Ok, so, who cares and why do they care? Well, let’s start with who cares. The answer is farmers and silver miners. 

Farmers wanted this because prices for farm goods had been going down. As the value of farm goods went down, farmer incomes went down with them, and that made it hard for farmers to pay off loans they’d taken out from banks. If more money were introduced to the economy, that would cause inflation, which would push up the value of crops, increasing farmer incomes, and making it easier to pay those loans off and not lose the farm. 

So that’s why farmers wanted it.

The other group that wanted the silver purchase act was silver miners because they were mining a ton of silver and they needed someone to sell it to and they were all going to make a ton of money if the U.S. government started buying silver to mint silver coins.

So that’s the Sherman silver purchase act. It was done for farmers and silver miners with the goal of causing inflation.

Now let’s talk about the Sherman Anti-trust act.

We’ve been talking for quite a while about the growing struggle between labor and management. Well, in 1890, Senator John Sherman – brother of William Tecumseh Sherman – wrote an anti-trust bill that outlawed every contract, combination, trust, or conspiracy, quote “In restraint of trade or commerce” in a bid to address the spiraling inequalities big business was creating. The bill passed with only a single dissenting vote and – here’s the crazy part – this is still the anti-trust bill we live under today. Yeah. Whenever someone wants to break up a monopoly, like when you read about someone trying to break up Facebook, Microsoft, or Google, this 130-year-old law is the law they try to do it with. Benjamin Harrison’s administration would open 7 lawsuits with the bill, which is a pretty aggressive clip compared to most of the presidents that would follow him, though they wouldn’t win any seismic rulings. That would come with time.

So that’s the Sherman Anti-Trust act, and it’s a huge deal.

Up next? The McKinley tariff. Tariffs have been a hot-button issue basically since the nation was founded. And when I say hot, I mean really damn hot. In 1833, we almost had a civil war when South Carolina tried to nullify a tariff during the nullification crisis, something we covered back in episode 7 on Andrew Jackson. So when Ben and the republicans decided to revisit the tariff rates, they knew they were playing with fire and they’d have to be very careful to avoid the issue blowing up in their faces.

To get the new tariff passed, Ben worked with a congressman named William McKinley, who we’ll hear a lot more about when he becomes President William McKinley in episode 25. McKinley was a very shrewd, very detail oriented politician and he carefully weighed the competing political influence of every interest and constituency to come up with a tariff most likely to increase support for the republican party. Farmers, for example, saw their first ever protective tariffs go up to help raise the prices of some American produce and help them pay off those banks they owed loans to. Add it all up, and the average duty increased from 38% to 50%, which was quite the jump and made many goods more expensive for all Americans to purchase – perhaps a bit too much more expensive.

Three down, two to go. The next is the biggest bill of them all, the Dependent Pension Act.

The GOP had been trying to pass a stronger pension plan for union veterans for several years, but Grover Cleveland had kept vetoing the bills – remember, Cleveland issued more vetoes per year than any other president in American history, and that likely played a role in his defeat. Now that Cleveland was out and Ben was in, Pensions were in, too. And you can kind of think of this as one of the country’s first welfare programs. Congress doubled the amount of money being distributed to pensioners, pushing the total to $140 million, good for 40% of the entire federal budget, which is wild. But, even more wild, did you know the last Civil War union pension recipient died on May 31, 2020? That’s right. The United states government was paying civil war pensions until 2020. The last pensioner was a woman named Irene Triplett. Irene was the daughter of a former rebel soldier who had fled the confederate army to fight for the union, and then wayyyy later gave birth to Irene when he was 83 years old. Irene collected her father’s pension every month until she died in 2020 at 90 years old. The monthly value of the pension? $73.13.

Fun facts.

Ok, so that’s the Dependent Pension Act. The last bill I want to talk about is the only major piece of legislation that didn’t get passed, and I have to say, I really wish it had. It’s called the Lodge Bill, but what it really is, is a Voting Rights Act

The Lodge bill is named for the Congressman who drafted it, Henry Cabot Lodge, who will actually be with our narrative for quite a while, so circle that name. He’s a best friend and strong political ally of Theodore Roosevelt, and he will basically be the reason the United States doesn’t join the League of Nations after World War I. But that’s all in the future. In 1890, was a 40-year-old Massachusetts Congressman who wanted to protect the voting rights of African Americans in the south. The status quo then, and now, is that elections are regulated by the states where they’re held. This is why southern states were able to so effectively deny African Americans votes for nearly 100 years with bullcrap jim crow laws. Lodge wanted to take the regulation of congressional elections away from the states and put it under the federal government’s purview, which would have empowered the feds to ensure African Americans had the opportunity to vote. But, here’s the thing. The Republicans might have been able to pass all that other legislation, but that’s because the Democrats were keeping their powder dry for this battle, where they whipped out one weapon they knew the Republican party didn’t have an answers for – the filibuster.

Let’s talk about the filibuster! If you follow modern American politics, you’re probably aware the filibuster is a senatorial maneuver that can allow a single senator to block the senate from voting on anything unless 60 senators vote to override the filibusterer, which is pretty hard to do – nobody has had a 60-40 majority for a full senate term since the 70’s. But the thing is… the filibuster is not supposed to exist. 

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law has a decent little writeup about the origin of the filibuster, so I’ll just quote it here, “Under original Senate rules, cutting off debate required a motion that passed with a simple majority. But in 1806, Vice President Aaron Burr” – yes, the guy who shot Hamilton – “argued that the rule was redundant, the Senate stopped using the motion.

“This change inadvertently gave senators the right to unlimited debate, meaning that they could indefinitely delay a bill without supermajority support from ever getting to a vote. This tactic is what we now know as a filibuster.”

The thing is, Even with Burr changing the rules in 1806, the filibuster was never really used, because it wasn’t supposed to exist. The first filibuster wasn’t even recorded until 1837 because everyone knew it was bullcrap. So when the nation’s democrats filibustered the 1890 voting rights act, the generous thing to say is the Republicans had no answers for it. But the more honest thing to say is they didn’t really even try to fight it. Western republicans had abandoned the Voting Rights Bill in exchange for southern support of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and northern republicans had abandoned the Voting Rights Bill in exchange for southern support of the McKinley tariff. Benjamin Harrison still wanted the Voting Rights Bill passed, and he lobbied hard for it, but the southern democrats outplayed him and refused to budge. The Lodge bill was the biggest piece of legislation that failed to come out of the 51st congress, and it is a tragedy that the nation didn’t rally behind it. With the Lodge Bill defeated, southerners were empowered to increasingly cut off African American access to the ballot box. Southern blacks would be effectively barred from voting until Lyndon Baines Johnson passed his voting rights act in 1965 – 75 years later. With no access to the polls, southern African americans would face 75 years of Jim Crow government, harassment, and lynchings – so, so many murders that were never prosecuted. It’s a terrible legacy we’re still feeling the effects of today.

So, the Lodge Voting Rights Bill failed, but the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the McKinley Tariff, and the Dependent Pension Act, plus 526 other laws, all got passed by Benjamin Harrison and the 51st Congress. 

When you add all this up, you get an equation that doesn’t really make sense. Harrison and the republican Congress delivered on almost all the promises they made on the campaign trail, and you’d think promises made + promises kept would = everyone gets reelected. But it didn’t. The Democrats skewered the 51st Congress for all the money they were spending. The Democrats derided them as the Billion Dollar congress and the general consensus is Americans turned against Congress for passing too much legislation and spending too much money. But, big caveat here, I can’t find any evidence that overall government spending rose at this time. I found one source that said money spent on union war pensions doubled, but whenever I look at total spending, it appears flat. So I’m not sure how much of this billion dollar Congress moniker was real, and how much of it was perception. But I admittedly might just not have good data.

My own personal diagnosis is this: In 1888, the Republican Party promised a lot of things to a lot of people, and each group had at least one thing the GOP was selling that they really wanted, so they lined up behind the party and the party won. But what if each of those groups only really wanted the one thing that was promised to them, and none of the other stuff? Like maybe business owners wanted the McKinley tariff, but not the Sherman Silver Purchase Act or the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. And maybe silver miners wanted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, but not McKinley Tariff or the Dependent Pension Act. And maybe war veterans wanted the Dependent Pension Act, but not the other 500+ laws that were passed. When you pass that much legislation, you have a whole bunch of folks saying, yeah, I got that one thing I wanted, but I also got 500 things I didn’t want, and now the math is different. Now it’s one thing I wanted, minus 500 things I didn’t want, equals nobody gets reelected.

I don’t know that that’s the case, but it makes sense to me.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is this: The 51st Congress will reform the nation’s currency, it’s war pension plan, it’s tariff system, and its business regulation, and it won’t get reelected. The republican party will go from 176 seats in congress to 86 in the midterm elections of 1890. Let me say that again, 176 to 86. The republican congress that passed all those laws it promised it would pass lost 90 seats. The democrats went from being 20 seats in the minority to having a 150-seat majority. That is an INSANE swing – the third largest swing in congressional power EVER. And, well, after the Democrats won Congress, Ben wouldn’t pass major legislation ever again. There would be no second swing at a voting rights act. There would be no further steps toward business reform. There would be nothing. The final two years of Ben’s presidency would feature an unhappy Republican president and an unhappy Democrat congress staring daggers at each other across Capitol Hill until the election of 1892.

But. Before we get to the election of 1892, let’s talk about two other major happenings of the Benjamin Harrison presidency – One overseas, and one in the west. Let’s go overseas first.

For the previous 100 years of American history, United States foreign policy largely followed the advice of its first president, George Washington – no foreign entanglements. But now, in 1889, that’s going to come to an end. And it’s going to end on the islands of Samoa.

The Samoan islands are a small pacific island group located roughly between New Zealand and Hawaii. Eleven years earlier, the United States had signed a treaty of friendship with the islands that allowed us to store coal there for our navy if we’d have Samoa’s back in conflicts with world powers. By the 1880’s, those conflicts had arrived. Both the United Kingdom and Imperial Germany wanted the islands for themselves, and the Germans wanted them bad. The Americans and Germans almost went to war over the islands in 1889, with each nation sending three warships apiece to the region until a cyclone blew through that sank or damaged all of the ships before anyone could start shooting. With the warships effectively destroyed, everyone decided negotiation was maybe not a bad idea after all, and the General Act of Berlin was signed. This act preserved the Samoan king, and kinda sorta independence, but really put Germany, the UK, and the US in charge of the islands. This is the first time the United States accepted responsibility for governing people beyond the north American continent! We don’t talk about the United States being an imperial power today, but we kinda totally are. We currently control 14 overseas territories that are home to roughly 4 million people – people who aren’t represented in Congress, who don’t get a vote in the senate, and who don’t get to vote on the presidency. And that legacy starts right here, in Samoa, during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison.

Ok, so that’s the big overseas event I promised. What was happening out west? Nothing good. The massacre at Wounded Knee. This story is going to sound familiar. For years, American settlers had been encroaching on the lands of the Lakota Tribe and forcing them to abandon their culture by adopting western dress and christianity. In 1890, the U.S. army was sent to escort 350 Lakota elsewhere. The Army surrounded the Lakota camp with rifles and artillery and ordered the Lakota disarm, but one of the Lakota warriors was deaf and couldn’t understand the order. Two american soldiers tried to forcibly take his gun, and it went off. When the american soldiers heard the shot, they reacted by opening fire. Of those 350 Lakota, as many as 300 may have been massacred. Most of them were women and children or old men. 25 U.S. soldiers were also killed in the violence. When Harrison heard contradicting reports over the cause of the violence, he ordered an investigation that basically white washed the whole affair. Then, 20 U.S. Cavalrymen involved in the massacre were given Congressional Medals of honor – the highest honor available to members of the U.S. armed services. Fast forward to September 2021 – just last month – members of Congress have passed a bill to posthumously remove those medals of honor. As of recording, it’s up to the senate to decide what happens with it next.

Wounded knee was the last major act of violence between the U.S. army and the plains Indians. After this, the frontier was over.

So, as you’ve seen, the Harrison administration oversaw some pretty transformative developments in U.S. history. But, and I’ve been talking about this since the top of the episode, Harrison will not be reelected. Why?

Well, for one, he has all the same things working against him that the 51st congress had working against them when they lost the 1890 midterms in such staggering fashion – they’d made, and kept, too many promises to too many people, and the Democrats had done a masterly job painting them as leaders who spent recklessly and were wasting tax payer dollars – a message that always resonates. 

But, in Harrison’s case, he had three other factors working against him.

First – James G. Blaine. I haven’t mentioned it, but, when Ben won the presidency, he named the veteran Blaine his secretary of state. And he kind of had no choice here. Blaine was still the most popular and most powerful Republican in the country, and snubbing him of the prestigious role would have brought all Blaine’s supporters down on Benjamin Harrison’s head. Buuut, the Blaine-Harrison partnership was never a warm one. Blaine thought he should have way more say in just about everything, and Ben thought he was president and Blaine wasn’t, so this partnership was almost more of a case of keep your friends close and your enemies closer. And that became abundantly clear when, in 1892, James G. Blaine resigned from the state department to make himself available for nomination at the 1892 GOP presidential convention. Yeouch! 

This was Blaine’s 4th run for president and the 5th time his name had come up for the position. He’d been a candidate when Hayes won in 76, when Garfield won in 80, and he was the GOP nominee Cleveland beat in 84. There’s an irony here that when Garfield won the white house in 1880, he offered Blaine the secretary of State job on the condition that Blaine never seek the presidency again, and Blaine had said yes. But here he is running again, so he clearly believed you don’t have to keep promises to dead people. Anyway, Harrison did manage to defeat Blaine at the convention, but he did so with less than 60% of the delegates at his back, a sign that the party would not be unified behind him in the general election.

Which is factor Number TWO in Harrison’s reelection defeat. The thing is, 40% of the party hadn’t withheld support from Harrison just because GOP heartthrob Blaine was running again. They withheld their support because they did not like Benjamin Harrison. Back when Ben had been elected, he’d promised to do away with the old spoils system, where new presidents purge the federal government of members of the opposite party and replace them all with members of their own parties as a reward for party loyalty. Well, once Ben was in the white house, GOP party leaders handed him a list of names to be appointed throughout the government, and they were shocked to discover he actually meant all that crap he’d campaigned on about doing away with the spoils system, and they did not like it. I mean, how’s a party boss in Ohio supposed to maintain power when they can’t reward their supporters with cushy jobs when they win? All those bosses, They just didn’t fight as hard for Ben in 1892, because what was the point?

So, that’s the first two factors – the blaine defection and the loss of party boss support. The third factor was much closer to the heart. On October 25, 1892, Ben’s wife Caroline died of Tuberculosis two weeks before election day. Ben, who was known for being a rousing speaker, had kept off the campaign trail – or front porch – to tend to his ailing wife. And when she died? Well, he was in such deep mourning, he couldn’t even leave the house to cast a ballot for himself on election day.

Add it all up, and you get just enough of a swing against Harrison for him to lose reelection, 5.5 to 5.2 million in the popular vote and 277 to 145 in the electoral college.

Benjamin Harrison’s presidency was over.

So how had America changed during the four years of the Harrison administration? 

Territory-wise, six new states were added: North Dakota in 1889, South Dakota in 1889, Montana in 1889, Washington in 1889, Idaho in 1890, and Wyoming in 1890. And yeah, six states is a LOT. You might also notice they were all added when the GOP controlled all three branches of government during the billion dollar congress. These states weren’t really created for just the altruistic reason of, gee, the people in those territories should have a say in the national government. These states were specifically designed to help the republican party control the senate and the white house. Yeah, you know how today some people oppose turning Washington D.C. or Puerto Rico into states because they’re afraid it will give the Democrats an advantage in the senate and the electoral College? Well, in 1889 and 90, six states were added expressly to help the Republicans maintain control of the federal government – I mean, it’s not even clear the areas had large enough populations to become states. Five of them, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are still among the 12 least populous states in the country and the 14 most-republican states. If you combined those five states’ populations into a single state, it would still only be the 25th most populous state in the union with 4.6 million inhabitants, ranking just behind South Carolina. The Dakotas, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming basically just exist to help Republicans control the senate and the presidency. Of the six states the 51st Congress created, only Washington has shifted away from the Republican column.

Ok. I’m off my soap box. Hit me up on Twitter if you’d like to discuss it.

There is one other huge thing that came out of the U.S. in 1890 that I need to mention – American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan published the most influential book ever written by an american: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783. Mahan’s book convincingly argued that every era’s most powerful nation was the nation that had the largest navy. This book would spark a naval arms race in Europe that would directly contribute to the start of World War I. It’s a crazy important book.

Internationally, a civil war was fought in Chile in 1892, and I couldn’t find much else.

Once out of office, the broken-hearted, widowed Harrison found consolation in the company of his deceased wife’s niece, Perhaps … too much consolation. Ben and Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, or Mamie for short, had always been … very close, and they married four years after Caroline’s death. This so upset Ben’s children that they leaked stories to the press insinuating Ben and Mamie had been having an affair behind Caroline’s back and, man, all I’m going to say that he had really, really, really liked having her around for over a decade now, and it was weird.

In his old age, Ben became a bit of a hipster progressive. He opposed America’s drift toward colonialism, represented Venezuela in a legal case against Great Britain, and came out in support of an inheritance tax, arguing that the nation’s wealth inequality had gotten way out of hand, and an inheritance tax was an early proposal on how to fix it.

He also, and this one’s pretty cool, became the first U.S. president to make a recording of his voice during his retirement in the late 1890’s, and that recording survives to this day! It’s pretty hard to understand, because it was recorded on a wax cylinder over 120 years ago, but let’s check it out. The first voice of a former president you have heard on this podcast.


That’s Harrison talking about visiting the Pan-American Congress in Washington D.C. I promise, the recording technology will improve over time.

In February, 1901, Harrison caught the flu and it turned into pneumonia. He died at his home in Indianapolis on March 13, 1901, at the age of 67.

So what can we learn from the life and administration of Benjamin Harrison? I think I’m going to look at the defeat of the Lodge Bill – that votings rights bill the democrats filibustered – and I’m going to say, you can’t let opportunities go to waste. The Republicans controlled all three branches of government. They had a chance to pass a voting rights bill that could have protected minority voting rights and put the rest of American history on a whole ‘nother path. But they didn’t. Because the democrats filibustered, and the republicans wavered, probably telling themselves, we’ll get it next time. But next time didn’t happen for another 75 years.

When your party controls all three branches of government, you need to go for broke, especially when systemic things like voting rights are on the table. Because if you miss that shot, you might be regretting it for the century to come.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was Benjamin Harrison, by Charles W. Calhoun

In our next episode, I’ll talk to professor Calhoun about Harrison’s presidency, his surprising defeat, and why he should be better known.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.