Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833 in North Bend, Ohio. He grew up on a 600-acre farm given to his father by his grandfather, William Henry Harrison who would become the ninth president. Harrison had tutors at home and then attended a small local school. He attended Farmers' College and then Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Benjamin Harrison graduated in 1852, studied law, and then was admitted to the bar in 1854.
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.
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.
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.
In the Mugwump revolt of reform Republicans against the
candidacy of Senator James G. Blaine of Maine in 1884,
Benjamin Harrison carefully walked the middle ground.
Refusing to put his hat in the presidential ring, he
eventually supported Blaine with energy and enthusiasm.
In February 1887, Harrison lost reelection to the United
States Senate in the new Democrat-controlled state
legislature. (At this time United States senators were
selected by the state legislatures rather than by
popular vote. Only after passage of the Seventeenth
Amendment in 1913, which was part of the Progressive Era
reforms, did this practice change.) One year later,
Harrison announced his candidacy for the Republican
At the Republican convention in Chicago in the summer of 1888, front-runner James G. Blaine, unable to secure the nomination for himself, threw his support to Harrison in the hope of uniting the party against the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland. In the hotly contested nomination fight that followed, Harrison became everyone's second choice in a field of seven candidates. When Senator John Sherman of Ohio, the first choice, faltered in the balloting, Harrison's support surged ahead, winning him the nomination on the eighth ballot. The convention picked banker Levi P. Morton of New York as Harrison's running mate. The Democrats, at their national convention in St. Louis, rallied behind incumbent Grover Cleveland of New York and his running mate, Allen G. Thurman, the senator from Ohio.The election outcome gave President Cleveland approximately 90,000 popular votes more than Harrison, but Harrison carried the electoral college 233 to 168. Harrison's victory was based upon two swing states: New York and Indiana. Cleveland probably lost New York because of the anti-Tammany Hall reform measures that he carried out as President.
Harrison was proud of the vigorous foreign policy which he helped shape. The first Pan American Congress met in Washington in 1889, establishing an information center which later became the Pan American Union. At the end of his administration Harrison submitted to the Senate a treaty to annex Hawaii; to his disappointment, President Cleveland later withdrew it.
Substantial appropriation bills were signed by Harrison for internal improvements, naval expansion, and subsidies for steamship lines. For the first time except in war, Congress appropriated a billion dollars. When critics attacked "the billion-dollar Congress," Speaker Thomas B. Reed replied, "This is a billion-dollar country." President Harrison also signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act "to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and monopolies," the first Federal act attempting to regulate trusts.
The most perplexing domestic problem Harrison faced was the tariff issue. The high tariff rates in effect had created a surplus of money in the Treasury. Low-tariff advocates argued that the surplus was hurting business. Republican leaders in Congress successfully met the challenge. Representative William McKinley and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich framed a still higher tariff bill; some rates were intentionally prohibitive.
Harrison tried to make the tariff more acceptable by writing in reciprocity provisions. To cope with the Treasury surplus, the tariff was removed from imported raw sugar; sugar growers within the United States were given two cents a pound bounty on their production.
Long before the end of the Harrison Administration, the Treasury surplus had evaporated, and prosperity seemed about to disappear as well. Congressional elections in 1890 went stingingly against the Republicans, and party leaders decided to abandon President Harrison although he had cooperated with Congress on party legislation. Nevertheless, his party renominated him in 1892, but he was defeated by Cleveland.