This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: Presidential Rankings
Benjamin Harrison became president in the closely contested election of 1888. Many consider Harrison an “illegitimate” president because he lost the popular vote, but if there had been a fair election in the south, where millions of African Americans had been disenfranchised, Harrison certainly would have won the popular vote, easily overcoming the 105,000 vote deficit. Harrison also has the unique distinction of being both proceeded and followed by the same man in office, Grover Cleveland. Harrison was unwilling to play the game of political patronage, where one would allow senators and party bosses to tell him to appoint to various positions. While choosing only qualified candidates was the right thing to do for the country, Harrison lost support within the party, which cost him in his reelection bid.
Benjamin Harrison was the last Civil War general, but not the last Civil War veteran, to serve in office, that distinction goes to William McKinley. Because of his status as a war veteran, Harrison has been tarred with the charge of giving out exorbitant veteran pensions. Harrison passed the Dependent and Disabilities Act in 1890, which allowed pensions of $6 to $12 for disabled veterans, widows and children under 16. The value of which would be between $169 and $338 in 2019, barely the raid on the treasury that the bill has been made out to be. Grover Cleveland vetoed a similar bill in 1887, and is often praised for his budgetary constraint. Could you imagine a modern president being lauded for denying disabled veterans modest pensions and another president being disparaged for granting them? The federal government had given out veterans pensions dating back to the revolutionary war, with the first act being passed in 1776, so there was a precedent for the law. It was also practical to pass an all encompassing pension bill, as congress was being clogged up with individual pension bills. Of the 414 vetoes that Cleveland issued during his first term, more than 275 were on individual pension bills. To put Cleveland’s vetoes into perspective, the 21 Presidents that preceded Cleveland in office only vetoed 206 bills total.
Harrison oversaw the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Theodore Roosevelt is given great credit for being the “Trust Buster”, but without this act, he couldn’t have broken any trusts. Historians often state that the act sat dormant until Roosevelt became president, but it was used seventeen times before Roosevelt entered office.
The McKinley tariff was passed, which raised rates, but also removed some goods from the duty list. The tariff also contained a provision that allowed the president to negotiate reciprocal trade agreements as well as raise tariffs in retaliation of foreign rate hikes. This was the first tariff which allowed the president to adjust rates without congressional approval. In a political ploy, Democrats pretended to be door to door salesmen and sold silverware at overinflated prices and blamed the tariff. The ploy worked, as Democrats won control of Congress in the 1890 election.
The Land Revision Act of 1891 facilitated the creation of national forests and reserves, by allowing the president to set aside unused lands for public use. Harrison set aside 1.2 million acres for Yellowstone National Park and 13 million acres overall. This act was the building block of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation program.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 was passed to override the Bland-Allison Act, that was passed in 1878. Under the Bland-Allison Act the government was required to coin between $2 and $4 million in silver a month. The Sherman Act required the government to coin 4.5 million ounces of silver a month. The average cost of silver was 92 cents an ounce during the life of the act, so it equated to the coinage of $4.0 – $4.2 million a month. Though the Sherman Silver Purchase Act could cause inflation, by adding too much money to the economy, it is no where near the disaster that it was made out to be. Though inflation should be avoided, currency deflation is a far worse issue, and the act staved off deflation by adding money to the economy. Most economist recommend maintaining an inflation rate of 2% in order to avoid deflation, which is far more ruinous. The result of the act was that inflation was zero percent from 1890 until the Panic of 1893, but the act has wrongly been blamed for the panic, when the real culprit was the over building of railroads. The act would have caused inflation, not a recession, if anything. This is pretty basic economics, but historians are not economist. The government would subsidize railroads, paying them by the mile of track they laid, which led to railroads over building to get the government funds. Inevitably the excess building would need to be liquidated, which would cause railroad failures. Banks had huge financial interests in the railroads, and railroad failures and their inability to make loan payments led to bank failures which rippled through the economy causing a recession. The panic was set off when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad went into receivership in February of 1893, it was soon followed by the bankruptcy of the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific. In all, 157 railroads went bankrupt, causing over 500 bank failures.
Harrison was able to get most of his programs through Congress in his first two years in office, the only exception was civil rights laws. Harrison believed that blacks deserved a seat at the political table, and he tried to secure their rights, which were being taken away by Democratic controlled southern governments. There were three proposals under Harrison.
- The Lodge law – would have allowed for federal supervision over local elections if enough citizens petitioned the federal circuit courts in an area. This Act was aimed directly at southern suppression of the black vote.
- The Blair Education Bill – would have provided federal education funding. This law would have hampered southerner efforts at using literacy tests to prohibit blacks from voting.
- An anti-lynching bill – would have made lynchings a federal crime. Harrison was the first President to ask for legislation to put an end to lynchings.
Democrats in congress successfully blocked these measures with filibusters, which began the long tradition of Democrats using the filibuster to block all civil rights legislation until the 1950s.
The Judiciary Act of 1891, also known as the Evarts Act, created the U.S. court of appeals, establishing a court of appeals for each circuit. The court was created to unburden the Supreme Court from the dramatic increase in federal appeals filings. The act limited the types of cases that would routinely be appealed to the Supreme Court. It was the first federal court created to exclusively hear appeals of cases.
Harrison is associated with the “Billion Dollar Congress”, which was the first peacetime congress to spend over a billion dollars in a two year term. This is done to suggest that Harrison was loose with the governments money, but eventually congress was going to spend over a billion dollars in a two year period. To put the spending in perspective, $1 billion in 1890 would equate to $28 billion in 2019 dollars, the government spent over $11 billion a day in 2018. When adjusted for inflation, the government spent almost as much per day in 2018 as it did per year when Harrison was president. During the whole of Harrison’s term there was a net surplus, a feat only repeated by two Presidents since: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
Upon becoming president, Harrison decided that the United States needed a first class navy. The Navy didn’t have any battleships and only had a few armored cruisers. Harrison wanted to build a two ocean navy that could defend both coasts as well as shipping lanes. Harrison gave the country nineteen new vessels with eighteen more under construction. Without Harrison’s naval programs, the United States would not have been able to fight the Spanish American Was as effectively as it did, or become a world power by the turn of the century.
The Hawaiian Islands sit almost in the center of the Pacific Ocean, giving them a significant strategic location. The United States and Hawaii had a long and close relationship before Harrison became President. John Tyler had warned European leaders away from taking the islands, and Millard Fillmore had kept France from annexing them. With the then modern navies using coal powered ships, Hawaii’s location became even more appetizing. In late 1893, the provisional government of Hawaii asked the United States to be annexed, and Harrison submitted the treaty to the Senate to be approved. Before the treaty could be ratified, Grover Cleveland removed it from consideration. Many have tried to blame the coup on nefarious means, but a congressional investigation, led by Democrat John Tyler Morgan, came out with the Morgan Report, which stated that the cause of the coup was the Queen trying to overturn the Hawaiian Constitution. This led to her overthrow and the setting up of a provisional government. U.S. troops were landed to protect American citizens, but the committee voted unanimously that the U.S. military had acted neutrally during the coup.
The Samoan Islands are another area of strategic importance in the pacific, as they lie halfway between Hawaii and Australia. In early 1889, Cleveland sent a fleet to the islands to keep Germany from taking them as an imperial colony. Nature intervened, and a cyclone hit the American and German fleets, leaving them both wrecked and inoperable. This was the situation that Harrison encountered upon becoming president. The Treaty of Berlin ended the hostilities by setting up a three power protectorate over Samoa, in which the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom all took supervisory powers of the islands. In this agreement Samoan independence and neutrality was insured and the deposed king was restored. This treaty was later superseded by the Tripartite Convention of 1899.
The Baltimore incident happened in Valparaiso Chile in October of 1891. The Chilean government had been overthrown in 1891, and the new government still had ill feeling against the United States because they were unable to secure arms in San Diego earlier that year. Sailors from the USS Baltimore were attacked by a Chilean mob, two of them died, eighteen others were injured with many more men chased by rioters backed by the local police. When the Chilean government made no apology or expression of regret, Harrison sent off a letter to complain about the delay. When the Chilean minister finally responded, he was maligning towards the President. Harrison readied the Navy and addressed Congress with strong words directed towards Chile. Realizing that Harrison wasn’t going to take an affront to American honor, Chile backed down and offered an apology and an indemnity, as was the custom at the time.
The Bering Sea Controversy regarded the wanton slaughter of fur seals off of the Alaskan coastline. Canadian and British sealers were threatening the extinction of the seals in the area with overhunting. Canadian sealers were engaging in open water seal hunting called pelagic sealing. The issue with this type of sealing is that it tends to kill nursing mother seals, which in turn causes the baby seal pups to starve. The incident got so dire, that Harrison eventually order American revenue cutters, known today as the coast guard, to capture Canadian sealer ships that got too close to the coast. The United States and Britain agreed to go to arbitration, which Britain won. After winning in arbitration, Canada commenced with pelagic sealing which eventually led to the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911, that outlawed all pelagic sealing in order to preserve seal populations.
The first Pan American conference was convened in 1890. The conference was put together by secretary of state James Blaine. It involved 18 western hemisphere countries. The conference established the Pan American Union, which was reconstituted to the Organization of American States in 1948.
Benjamin Harrison, while a forgotten president, was a very consequential one. He oversaw many landmark bills and built a world class navy. It is time that Harrison is known as more than just the meat in the Grover Cleveland sandwich and he gets the proper respect that he deserves.