True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

Benjamin Harrison



The Orator President

You have been told in an earlier story of the great part that was played by the Adams family in the history of the United States; how two Presidents came from that family, and how it had two younger members of much note. We may say the same of the Harrison family. It also gave two Presidents to this country, while an older Harrison had the high honor of signing the Declaration of Independence, and had other honors besides.

He bore the same name as his great-grandson, who became President more than a hundred years afterward. If you examine the list of names of the men who signed the Declaration you will find among them the name of Benjamin Harrison. That is not all to be said about him. He was in the Continental Congress through the Revolution, and then became Governor of the great State of Virginia. And he was also one of the wise men who made the Constitution of the United States.

The Harrisons were from Virginia, the State which has been named the "Mother of Presidents." But William Henry Harrison, who was born in that State, was an Ohio man when he was made President. And his grandson Benjamin, who was born in Ohio, was a citizen of Indiana when he was chosen to fill that high office.

The second Benjamin was born in his grandfather's homestead, at North Bend, Ohio. Here the boy's father, John Scott Harrison, lived with his father, and here Benjamin was born on the loth of August, 1833, over seven years before his famous grandfather was to be elected President.

The Harrison estate lay in the southwest corner of Ohio, between the Ohio and Miami Rivers. It was not a grand mansion in which little Benjamin grew up. It was a farmer's simple home, and the first school he went to was kept in a small log-cabin, not far from his father's house. I do not think many of you would have liked much to go to the school he studied in, for the children had to sit on seats made of planks, with no backs, and so high that their feet could not touch the floor. Benjamin went there only in winter, for in summer he had to work on the farm.

When he grew old enough Benjamin was sent to a school named Farmer's College, near Cincinnati. After he had been there two years he was sent to Miami University, in the town of Oxford, Ohio. He was a little fellow for a college boy at that time, and was much given to study, though he liked the college games as much as the other boys. He was only eighteen when he graduated, but he showed that he had been a good scholar by the honors of his graduation.

The young graduate now had to start out in life for himself. His father was too poor to let his children lead an idle life. Benjamin made up his mind to be a lawyer, and entered a law-office in Cincinnati. He was bound to get to the place he started for if he had to work through sand and rocks. The boys and men who get to the top are the ones who do not stop for any hard places on the road.

But he did one thing that looked a little bit hasty. He fell in love while a mere boy, and married when he was only twenty years old. His bride was Miss Caroline W. Scott, whose father was at the head of an academy near Miami University. There the schoolboy had met and fallen in love with her. Very likely his parents thought their son had done a foolish thing to marry before he was ready to earn a penny.

When the young student finished his studies he went to Indiana, where he hung up his sign as a lawyer in Indianapolis, the capital of that State. All the money he had was a few hundred dollars, which an aunt had left him. He could not venture to rent a house with that, and hardly an office, and he had much trouble to live till business came. He knew nobody of importance in the city, and for several years he had very little practice and money was very scarce with him. In those days, as he has told us, "a five dollar bill was an event."

We are told that in one of his first law suits he had made a careful set of notes, to help him in pleading his case. But when he came to look at them he could not read them. The room was so dark that he could not make out a word. Here was a tight place for a young lawyer. He must have been very nervous and shaky, but he let the notes go and set in to do his best without them. And he did it so well that he won his case, and won the praise of the lawyers who heard him He afterward became a very ready speaker, and this may haves been the first time he found out what he could do.

When the Civil War began Harrison was very busy at the bar, making money and reputation both. But when, in 1862, the state of affairs began to look very gloomy for the North, he felt that it was his duty to set business aside and strike a blow for the safety of the Union. New regiments were forming and he set in to recruit and drill a company of soldiers. Other companies joined it, and it became the Seventieth Indiana Volunteers. He began as a lieutenant, but was made colonel of the new regiment. People did not forget that his grandfather had been a famous general, and they felt sure that he would make a good soldier.

When the chance came he showed them that they were right and that he was a good soldier. At the battle of Peach Tree Creek we hear his ringing shout, "Come on, boys! We've never been licked yet, and we won't begin now."

His men were proud and fond of him. To them he was "Little Ben." No woman could have been kinder and more tender. After the battle of New Hope Church he went to the little frame house which had been made a hospital for his wounded men, and there threw off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and set to work dressing their wounds in the dim candle light. For hour after hour he worked on gently and tenderly, till midnight came, and with it the surgeons.

There is one more story of his kind thoughtfulness for his men. It was near the end of the war, when his regiment was in camp near Nashville. A night of terrible cold came on, with fierce snow and sleet. Ice covered the ground. Some of the men on picket duty froze stiff at their posts. Others were frost-bitten by the intense cold. Out from his warm quarters came Colonel Harrison into the bitter chill, carrying a can of hot coffee to the men on picket duty. "I was afraid the men would freeze," he said, "and I knew the hot coffee would keep them alive."

He took part in other hard battles and fought well in them all. He was made brevet brigadier-general for his gallantry at the battle of Peach Tree Creek. When Sherman marched through Georgia and up north, Harrison and his old regiment was with him. Only after Johnston surrendered and the war ended did General Harrison's service come to an end. When the lawyer-soldier got back to Indianapolis and to his law practice, he found that he had been elected Reporter of the Supreme Court. As time went on he entered actively into the political field, and when Grant was nominated for President in 1868, and again in 1872, Harrison worked like a beaver for him, making many speeches before large audiences.

In 1876 his friends asked him to run for Governor of Indiana. He declared that he would not. But Hayes was on the ticket for President and the Republicans were very anxious to elect him. They were sure that Harrison's name would help him in Indiana, and insisted so strongly on his running that in the end he gave way. But after all they lost the State. The Democrats won and he was defeated.

Our Indianapolis lawyer was now a prominent man in his party. His fine work as a soldier hade done him a great deal of good, and his telling oratory helped him very much. And they did not forget that he was the grandson of General Harrison, who had been President of the United States. So, in 1880, when the Republican Convention was having a great contest over the nomination for President, General Harrison's name was brought up. But he would not let it be used, and did his best to have Garfield nominated.

When Garfield became President, he asked Harrison to accept a place in his cabinet. He had to decline, for he had just been elected to the United States Senate, and thought he would rather be Senator than cabinet officer. And a good Senator he made, too, and won great honor by his ability as a statesman and an orator.

White House


In 1884 there was again talk of nominating him for President, and in 1888 the Convention that met at Chicago selected him as its candidate for this office. His opponent was Grover Cleveland, who had just served one term as President. Harrison defeated him, and was elected with 233 electoral votes to 168 for Cleveland. There is one interesting point in Harrison's election. Just one hundred years before, Washington took his seat as President; so he began the second century of the Presidency. The anniversary was celebrated with great demonstrations of joy in New York, where the new President was one of the spectators.

President Harrison's term of office was a quiet and prosperous one. All went well with the country; business was active, the people were happy, and the great national debt of the country was much reduced. One important event was the dedication of the great World's Fair at Chicago, in memory of the discovery of America by Columbus four hundred years before. The President was there and opened the Fair with an excellent speech, on October 14, 1892. The Fair itself; as you may know, was not ready for the public till the next year, after Harrison's term as President was over.

In 1892 Harrison and Cleveland were both nominated as Presidential candidates again. This time the Democrats won, Cleveland receiving 277 votes and Harrison 145; while Weaver, the Populist candidate, got 22 votes.

When his term ended, on March 4, 1893, Harrison went home to his law office in Indianapolis. He was afterward appointed a lecturer on law in the great Leland Stanford University of California. But he did not live very long afterward, for death came to him on March 13, 1901.