Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Harrison

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VIII. Political Giants of the Present Day—

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison[edit]

Soldier, Orator and Statesman

When General William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe and of more than one important battle of the war of 1812, succumbed to the torments which beset every President of the United States, and suddenly died one month after his inauguration, he left a grandson named Benjamin, not quite eight years old, who was the third son of John Scott Harrison, and was born at North Bend, Ohio, August 20, 1833. His father was the owner of a large farm, where the son toiled while a boy, and laid the foundation of the rugged health and strength which stood him so well in after years.

The first school which Benjamin Harrison attended was kept in a log building, where, so far as is known, he was neither a dull nor an unusually bright pupil. It may have been too early in life for him to display the ability which afterward carried him to the highest office in the gift of his countrymen. He was fortunate in having a sensible parent, who, knowing the value of education, sent him at the age of fifteen to Farmers' (now Belmont) College, near Cincinnati. He remained two years and then became a student at Miami University, Oxford, where he attracted attention by his skill as a debater and orator.

Harrison's Marriage[edit]

While a law student, he made the acquaintance of Miss Caroline L. Scott, a most estimable young woman, and daughter of the president of the University. The two formed a strong, mutual attachment, and were married in 1853, before Harrison had attained his majority. He was graduated in 1852, fourth in his class.

Sterling Integrity and Marked Ability[edit]

He entered the law office of Storer & Gywnne, and shortly after was admitted to the bar. Moving to Indianapolis in the following year, he began to practice, and has made that city his home ever since. Clients were not numerous, nor were fees large, but those who employed young Harrison found him conscientious, devoted to their interests, and possessed of sterling integrity and marked ability. He was prompt and kept his promises. A lawyer of that kind is sure to succeed.

Harrison Becomes a Soldier[edit]

In 1855, he entered into partnership with William Wallace, but six years later that gentleman was elected county clerk and Harrison associated himself with W. P. Fishback. When fairly started upon what was a most promising career, his patriotism led him into the military service of his country, where he made a fine record. He was mustered in as Second Lieutenant, July 14, 1862, as Captain eight days later, and then, August 7th, as Colonel of the 170th regiment of infantry, the term of enlistment being for three years. He commanded his regiment until the 20th of August, 1863; the second brigade of the third division, reserve corps, until September 20, 1863; his regiment again to January 9, 1864, and the first brigade, third division, twentieth army corps, to September 23, 1864, on which date he was detailed for special duty in Indiana. Returning to duty in the field he was ordered in November, 1864, to report in person to the general commanding at Nashville, Tenn. He afterward commanded the first brigade, provisional division, Army of the Cumberland, to January 16, 1865, when upon his own request, he was relieved and directed to rejoin his command, which was then at Savannah, Georgia, under General Sherman. On his way thither, he was stricken with what threatened to be a fatal illness, but, rallying, he pressed on. He was not yet fully recovered and was placed in command of the camp for convalescents and recruits at Blair's Landing, South Carolina. He soon after joined General Sherman at Raleigh, where he resumed command of the first brigade, third division, twentieth army corps, April 21, 1865, and was relieved therefrom June 8th, because of the mustering out of the troops composing it. On the same day he was mustered out and honorably discharged.

Harrison's Record in the Field[edit]

As we have said, General Harrison made a most creditable record in the field. “Little Ben” quickly won the reputation of being a brave man and a skilful leader. He was very popular with his own men and with the general officers. His regiment had no superior in effectiveness and discipline. He was in action at Russellville, Kentucky, and in the numerous severe engagements of the Atlanta campaign, and was present at the surrender of General Jo Johnston, at Durham's Station, North Carolina, April 26, 1865. Fighting Jo Hooker considered Harrison without a superior as a regimental and brigade commander, and it was at his request that, January 23, 1865, he was breveted Brigadier-General of volunteers, “for ability and manifest energy and gallantry in command of a brigade.”

He had already won a fine reputation as a lawyer in Indianapolis. He was elected in 1860 reporter of the Supreme Court, but the office was vacated by his enlistment. He was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1864, while absent in the field. At the close of the term, he had a lucrative practice, and was retained in nearly all the important cases in his State. In 1876, Godlove S. Orth, Republican candidate for Governor, withdrew during the canvass and Harrison's name was substituted without consultation with him and while he was absent from the State. He made a plucky fight, but Governor Hendricks' popularity was too great to be overcome.

In 1880, Harrison was chairman of the Indiana delegation in the convention which nominated James A. Garfield for the Presidency. A strong pressure was brought to bear upon him to permit his name to be presented, but he refused. His splendid work and his great ability led Garfield to offer him a place in his Cabinet, which he declined. He was chosen United States Senator in 1881 and served for six years, during which he took rank among the foremost debaters and leaders.

Harrison Nominated and Elected President[edit]

In the Chicago presidential convention in 1888, Harrison was nominated on the eighth ballot. During that memorable campaign, he made ninety-four speeches, all of which were forceful, effective and beyond criticism even by his enemies. His most extraordinary achievement, however, was after his election to the Presidency. Leaving Washington, April 15th, he made a journey of 10,000 miles to and from the Pacific coast, returning exactly one month later. On that journey, he made one hundred and forty addresses, some of them on five minutes' notice. His audiences at times included old Confederates, colored men and representatives of nearly every grade of society. He was taken without warning to institutions of learning, before the blind, the educated, and was brought face to face with those who had seldom seen the inside of institutions of learning. In none of his numerous addresses did President Harrison repeat himself. Each speech was in exquisite taste, often rising to heights of genuine eloquence. The most prominent newspaper which opposed his election declared that President Harrison has never had a superior, if indeed an equal, as an effective offhand speaker.

His administration was worthy and dignified, and though his Cabinet contained the brilliant Blaine, yet Harrison was President at all times and his influence was felt in every department. Above all things, he was a patriot and an American under all circumstances. His renomination at Minneapolis was to be expected, but the desire for a change throughout the country, rather than any distrust of the President or disfavor with his work, led to his defeat by Grover Cleveland. A few days before election Mrs. Harrison died, after a long and painful illness. The lives of the two had been an ideal one, and no couple ever were more tenderly attached to each other.

After his retirement from the Presidency, General Harrison was engaged by the late Senator Leland Stanford of California to deliver a course of lectures before the University he had founded, upon constitutional law. His practice expanded and he easily took rank among the ablest and most successful counsellors in the country. He was prominently mentioned as a presidential candidate as President Cleveland's term drew to a close, the conviction being general among the Republicans that, with his past record and his great ability, he was certain of success in the struggle of 1896. The nomination, however, seemed to be a matter of indifference to General Harrison and in February, 1896, he made public his decision not to be a candidate. In January, 1896, he announced his engagement to Mrs. Dimmick, a niece of the late Mrs. Harrison. He has since been married and is living quietly at his home in Indianapolis.