Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893): The 23rd Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Benjamin Harrison was the centennial president elected exactly 100 years after George Washington. While a very good speechmaker, he was not impressive to the public whom considered him a downturn from Washington in a short 100 years.
Harrison’s grandfather, William Henry Harrison, signed the declaration of independence and was president. They are still the only grandfather and grandson to serve as President. He was also the first president to install electricity in the White House, but he and the first lady were too scared too ever use it.
Slavery and Civil Rights
Benjamin Harrison fought in the Civil War, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General, last serving under General William T. Sherman. Harrison served in the Senate from March 4, 1881, to March 4, 1887.
Harrison unsuccessfully supported James Garfield’s plan of aid for education of Southerners, especially the children of the slaves freed in the Civil War. Harrison believed that education was necessary to make the white and black populations truly equal in political and economic power. Senator Harrison differed from his party in opposing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, believing that it violated existing treaties with China.
When he became President, Harrison endorsed the proposed Federal Elections Bill written by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge and Senator George Frisbie Hoar in 1890. The bill would have allowed the federal government to ensure that elections were fair. It was created primarily to guarantee blacks, predominantly Republican at the time, the right to vote in the south which rhe Fifteenth Amendment already formally guaranteed though white Southern Democrats had found loopholes to effectively prevent blacks from voting.
The bill was successfully filibustered and eventually defeated in the Senate. This was to be the last civil rights legislation attempted by Congress until the 1920s. Following the failure to pass the bill, Harrison continued to speak in favor of African American civil rights in addresses to Congress.
For example, in 1892, Harrison went before Congress to speak out against the practice of lynching of African-Americans in the south. He said “the frequent lynching of colored people is without the excuse…that the accused have an undue influence over courts and juries.” Harrison was critical of many of the southern states’ civil rights records. He acknowledged that it was the states who had the authority over civil rights, but said “we have a right to ask whether they are at work upon it.”
Harrison’s civil rights views were similar to many northern Republicans of his era. During his term as President he lacked the support to effect any significant advancements in the field of civil rights, but if he had greater support in Congress during his term in office, he would have been the author or much more progressive reforms most likely. A President who lacks the support of congress and who is steering the ship through a bad economy is going to find it practically impossible to effect any major social policy changes.
March 14, 1891 New Orleans Lynchings
The March 14, 1891, New Orleans lynchings were the murders of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans, Louisiana, by a mob for their alleged role in the murder of city police chief David Hennessy after some of them had been acquitted at trial. It was one of the largest single mass lynchings in American history.
The lynching took place the day after the trial of nine of the nineteen men indicted in Hennessy’s murder. Six of these defendants were acquitted, and a mistrial was declared for the remaining three because the jury failed to agree on their verdicts. There was widespread suspicion in the city that an Italian network of criminals was responsible for the killing of the police chief, in a period of anti-Italian sentiment and rising crime.
Believing the jury had been bribed, a mob broke into the jail where the men were being held and killed eleven of the prisoners, most by shooting. The mob outside the jail numbered in the thousands and included some of the city’s most prominent citizens. American press coverage of the event was largely congratulatory, and those responsible for the lynching were never charged.
The incident had serious national repercussions. The Italian consul Pasquale Corte in New Orleans registered a protest and left the city in May 1891 at his government’s direction. The New York Times published his lengthy statement charging city politicians with responsibility for the lynching of the Italians.
Italy cut off diplomatic relations with the United States, sparking rumors of war. Increased anti-Italian sentiment led to calls for restrictions on immigration. The word “Mafia” entered the American lexicon, and the stereotype of the Italian mafioso became established in the popular imagination of Americans.
Omaha Riot of 1891
Joe Coe, also known as George Smith, was an African-American laborer who was lynched on October 10, 1891, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was alleged to have raped a white girl of 5.
Overwhelmed by a mob of one thousand at the Douglas County Courthouse, the twelve city police officers stood by without intervening. Afterward, the mayor called the lynching “the most deplorable thing that has ever happened in the history of the country”.
States Admitted Into The Union
- North Dakota became the 39th state on November 2, 1889 partially from the Dakota Territory.
- South Dakota became the 40th state on November 2, 1889 partially from the Dakota Territory.
- Montana became the 41st state on November 8, 1889 from the Montana Territory.
- Washington became the 42nd state on November 2, 1889 from the Washington Territory.
- Idaho became the 43rd state on July 3, 1890 partially from the Idaho Territory.
Did Benjamin Harrison Care?
He lost support of those within the party largely because of his indifferent demeanor. Particularly, he alienated Republican party political bosses whom felt they helped him get to the White House. While Benjamin Harrison did help out his fellow veterans, he nearly bankrupted the treasury in the process.
Dependent and Disability Pension Act of 1890
President Harrison presided over the first billion dollar Congress, and passed the first comprehensive pension legislation for Civil War veterans with the Dependent and Disability Pension Act becoming law on June 27 1890. This turned into a boondoggle as 14 year old girls were marrying 70 year old men with knowledge they would soon get their pensions.
Sherman Antitrust Act
The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 is a United States antitrust law which prescribes the rule of free competition among those engaged in commerce. It was passed by Congress and is named for Senator John Sherman, its principal author.
The Sherman Act broadly prohibits:
- anticompetitive agreements
- unilateral conduct that monopolizes or attempts to monopolize the relevant market.
The Act authorizes the Department of Justice to bring suits to enjoin (i.e. prohibit) conduct violating the Act, and additionally authorizes private parties injured by conduct violating the Act to bring suits for treble damages (i.e. three times as much money in damages as the violation cost them). Over time, the federal courts have developed a body of law under the Sherman Act making certain types of anticompetitive conduct per se illegal, and subjecting other types of conduct to case-by-case analysis regarding whether the conduct unreasonably restrains trade.
The law attempts to prevent the artificial raising of prices by restriction of trade or supply. “Innocent monopoly”, or monopoly achieved solely by merit, is legal, but acts by a monopolist to artificially preserve that status, or nefarious dealings to create a monopoly, are not. The purpose of the Sherman Act is not to protect competitors from harm from legitimately successful businesses, nor to prevent businesses from gaining honest profits from consumers, but rather to preserve a competitive marketplace to protect consumers from abuses.
The Tariff Act of 1890, commonly called the McKinley Tariff, was an act of the United States Congress, framed by then Representative William McKinley, that became law on October 1, 1890. The tariff raised the average duty on imports to almost fifty percent, an act designed to protect domestic industries from foreign competition; protectionism, a tactic supported by Republicans, was fiercely debated by politicians and condemned by Democrats.
At the insistence of party leaders, Harrison signed the McKinley Tariff, named after the Congressman and future President. As a result, foreign manufacturers ceased to export products to America, and several American corporations gained monopolies on the manufacture of many essential goods. The lack of foreign competition caused consumer prices to skyrocket, and Harrison’s popularity with the common man plummeted.
Republicans had been saying the protective tariff had been primarily aimed at helping workers. Specifically, it would protect American workers from the products coming abroad from cheap labor. The increase in prices for goods outweighed those concerns. That’s what generally happens.
Harrison was considered by his contemporaries a decent and honest President who tried to do right, but whose policies were a failure. One of his harshest critics was Grover Cleveland.
You want to protect the middle class by proposing a tariff or taxes on foreign goods? This is generally what happens and has happened throughout history. Protectionism was a loser in the late 19th century and it’s still a loser now. You also had a President swept into power by monied interests who ultimately catered to their interests legislatively while still upsetting them politically. We also have the oligarchy in action with the grandfather and grandson both ascending to office. We also have support for veterans counterbalanced against responsible spending.
- August 8, 1893: Message regarding economic crisis. (2017, February 23). Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/august-8-1893-message-regarding-economic-crisis
- Benjamin Harrison and civil rights. (n.d.). Presidential History Geeks — LiveJournal. https://potus-geeks.livejournal.com/162663.html
- The Centennial president with the icy personality. (2017, October 10). THE AMERICAN MOMS. https://theamericanmoms.com/centennial-president-icy-personality/
- Civil War pensions. (n.d.). Essential Civil War Curriculum. https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/civil-war-pensions.html
- Corporate Finance Institute. (2020, January 18). Sherman Antitrust Act – Overview and history, sections, impact. https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/finance/sherman-antitrust-act/
- General William Tecumseh Sherman. (n.d.). The Campaign for the National Museum of the United States Army – Home of The Army Historical Foundation. https://armyhistory.org/general-william-tecumseh-sherman/
- George Frisbie Hoar papers, 1784-1933. (1784). Massachusetts Historical Society. https://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0298
- Harrison and the billion-dollar Congress – Ms. Hoch honors USII website. (n.d.). Google Sites. https://sites.google.com/site/mshochhonorsusiiwebsite/home/national-politics-1877-1900/harrison-and-the-billion-dollar-congress
- Henry Cabot lodge. (n.d.). National Portrait Gallery. https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.67.58
- Mckinley tariff act. (n.d.). Small Business – Chron.com. https://smallbusiness.chron.com/mckinley-tariff-act-733.html
- The murder of New Orleans police chief David C. Hennessey, 1890 – HistoricalCrimeDetective.com. (n.d.). Historical True Crime Stories : Where old crime does new time – The blog for true crime historian and author, Jason Lucky Morrow – HistoricalCrimeDetective.com. https://www.historicalcrimedetective.com/ccca/the-murder-of-new-orleans-police-chief-david-hennessey-1890/
- The president was afraid of the first White House light switches in 1891. (2014, October 2). Gizmodo. https://factually.gizmodo.com/the-president-was-afraid-of-the-white-houses-first-ligh-1595032960
- Signor corte’s farewell; His story of the lynching of the Italians. The consul insists that the whole affair was prearranged by politicians, and that mayor Shakespeare was primarily to blame. (Published 1891). (1891, May 24). The New York Times – Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. https://www.nytimes.com/1891/05/24/archives/signor-cortes-farewell-his-story-of-the-lynching-of-the-italians.html
- Today we honor the federal elections bill #VRABlackHistory. (n.d.). https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Today-We-Honor-The-Federal-Elections-Bill–VRABlackHistory.html?soid=1122865384673&aid=J7FyY7aC3YM
- (2019, April 1). The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/04/01/new-orleans-apologize-lynching-italians-among-worst-american-history/
Grover Cleveland (1893 – 1897) would follow him.
Grover Cleveland (1885 – 1889) preceded him
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War.
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.