Benjamin Harrison: Life Before the Presidency

Benjamin Harrison: Life Before the Presidency

Benjamin Harrison came to the presidency with little executive experience but great confidence in his own abilities. Born into a family with a legacy of political involvement, Benjamin Harrison believed that he was destined for important work. After all, he was the great-grandson of Colonel Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison ("Old Tippecanoe"), was the ninth President of the United States, and his father, John Scott Harrison, served as a congressman.

Born on August 20, 1833, Benjamin had a relatively comfortable rural upbringing in North Bend, Ohio. As a child, he hunted, fished, hauled wood, tended livestock, and studied at home with private tutors. Being surrounded by family and friends gave Benjamin a sense of order and self-assurance that he carried with him throughout his life. This mark of confidence, however, translated into what others perceived as arrogance. Harrison developed a stiff and formal personality—so aloof was he as President that even his own staff privately spoke of him as "the human iceberg."

Education and Early Career

Growing up with three brothers and four sisters, Benjamin relished his time away from the family. In particular, he especially loved spending hours reading in his grandfather's library on the nearby Harrison estate. Benjamin's father, John Scott Harrison, a moderately prosperous farmer, and mother, Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, a strict Presbyterian, provided loving but not demonstrably affectionate attention to their children. Young Benjamin attended Farmers College, a prep school in Cincinnati, for two years before going on to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A good student, he graduated near the top of his class in 1852. He then married his college sweetheart, Caroline Lavinia Scott, in 1853; he was twenty and she was twenty-one years old. Harrison went on to study law at the Cincinnati office of Storer and Gwynne. After passing the Ohio bar exam in 1854, Harrison and his wife moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he practiced law from 1854 to 1860.

During this early part of his legal career, Harrison joined the new Republican Party and campaigned in 1856 for its first presidential nominee, John C. Fremont. Harrison's political involvement sped forward from there: In 1857, he entered politics himself and won election as Indianapolis city attorney. He continued on this upward trajectory by serving as secretary of the Republican State Central Committee and campaigning for the 1860 presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Determined to forward his career, Harrison decided to take on additional work while maintaining his law practice. To this end, he served as the state reporter for the Supreme Court of Indiana, summarizing and supervising the publication of the court's official opinions. In 1862, he joined the Seventieth Indiana Infantry Regiment at the rank of second lieutenant.

Military Service and Political Career

Unlike many veterans, Harrison did not remember his Civil War years with much fondness—though he rose quickly from lieutenant to become brigadier general by the time he retired in June 1865. Serving under Major General William T. Sherman in the Atlanta campaign, Harrison was among the first of the Union forces to march into the city upon its surrender. According to Sherman, Harrison served with "foresight, discipline and a fighting spirit . . ." But even with such achievements and praise, in his mind, war was a dirty business that no decent man would find pleasurable.

After the war, Harrison resumed his law practice and work as a court reporter. He continued his active participation in state politics, running unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1872. Four years later, he won the Republican nomination only to lose the governor's race in a close election. Impressed by Harrison's enthusiastic campaign support for him in the presidential election of 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed the young Hoosier (a common nickname for anyone from Indiana) to the Mississippi River Commission in 1879. By 1880, Harrison was deeply involved in national politics, chairing the Indiana delegation to the Republican National Convention. When Hayes fulfilled his pledge to serve only one term by withdrawing from this race for the presidency, Harrison threw his support behind the dark horse, James A. Garfield.

From 1881 to 1887, Harrison served as a U.S. senator from Indiana. In that capacity, he supported many of the issues that he later championed as President: pensions for Civil War veterans, statehood for Dakota (then considered one territory and thus one state), high protective tariffs, limited civil service reform, a modernized navy, and conservation of wilderness lands. However, he broke with mainstream Republicans when he opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which ended all immigration from China.