Benjamin Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio, a small community west of Cincinnati. He was the son of a Whig Congressman and the grandson of former president William Henry Harrison. In 1854, Harrison graduated with honors from Miami University of Ohio and briefly considered entering the ministry, but chose instead to study law in Cincinnati. He later opened a practice in Indianapolis where he hoped also to launch a political career. Breaking with his father's old line political ties, Harrison joined the new Republican Party and worked on behalf of John C. Frémont in 1856 and Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Harrison commanded Indiana volunteers in the Civil War and was promoted to brigadier general following his heroic leadership in the Atlanta Campaign. He took a furlough during 1864 to campaign for pro-Union candidates in Indiana, a fairly common practice during that era. Following the war, Harrison returned to the law and frequently spoke out on current political topics, notably his support for the Radical Republican Reconstruction Plan. In 1876, he ran for governor of Indiana and lost. In 1881, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the state legislature; he was noted for his ardent support of Civil War pensioners, his opposition to the railroad magnates' abusive behavior, and moderate positions on the Tariff and civil service reform. He demonstrated his independence by opposing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which he believed was a violation of the earlier Burlingame Treaty (1868); he was roundly criticized for protecting Chinese civil rights in an age of growing nativism.
In 1888, Harrison won the Republican nomination for president. The election was highly corrupt with vast sums of money used to buy votes, especially in the swing states of Indiana and New York. Harrison failed to win a popular majority, but won an electoral victory.
Deep economic unrest in the South and West forced Harrison and the Republicans into accepting compromise legislation in 1890, which included:
- The McKinley Tariff, which established extremely high rates as requested by Northern manufacturing interests
- The Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed business practices that restrained trade, a move aimed at currying favor with the growing number of big business critics
- The Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which was a temporary victory for bimetallism and supported by farmer and debtor elements
- The Dependent Pension Act, which vastly expanded financial support for an important voting bloc, the Union veterans.
Benjamin Harrison steered a middle course on civil service reform
, a position that alienated everybody. Foreign affairs
, under the leadership of Secretary of State James G. Blaine
, were generally well-handled – Latin American relations improved, tensions with Germany over Samoa were eased, and a seal hunting agreement in the Bering Sea was concluded with Britain. Harrison endorsed the concept of a two-ocean navy
. An effort to annex Hawaii
failed in the Senate after Harrison left office.
Benjamin Harrison's domestic programs came to a halt in November 1890, when the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Deadlock turned into growing unpopularity for Harrison, especially with the continuing unrest in the West and labor strife as exemplified by the Homestead Steel Strike
In the Election of 1892
, a dispirited Republican Party renominated Harrison; he had lost the support of the political bosses, Thomas Platt
and Matthew Quay in particular. Grover Cleveland
won handily in a lackluster campaign.
Benjamin Harrison returned to his law practice and served with great distinction in 1898-99 when he represented Venezuelan interests in a boundary dispute with British Guiana. He also became a popular lecturer.
Benjamin Harrison was a highly capable and intelligent individual, but his principal political position was adherence to protectionism. He made little effort to influence Congress, which was not surprising given that he was widely regarded as an ineffectual political infighter. His presidency, however, did mark the beginning of a significant change as mounting public pressure forced the government to enact legislation to address growing social and economic issues.