“It would be a rare society if everything should move along smoothly; and I can only commend a little patience, and for a rule of action Pryor’s advice to a man in the regulation of his conduct towards his wife: ‘Be to her faults a little blind and to her virtues very kind.’”
-Caroline Harrison in her February 22, 1892 address to the First Continental Congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
(Foster Bowers, Remembering Caroline Scott Harrison, p. 145)
Fresh off my visit to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, I just finished reading Remembering Caroline Scott Harrison, Oxford, Ohio’s First Lady. Oxford native Marjorie Foster Bowers wrote the fascinating read about the famous wife of President Benjamin Harrison from her city.
If you want a copy, you might have to go to the Presidential Site, or Oxford, Ohio. I couldn’t find it posted on Amazon or similar websites.
That’s a shame, because Foster Bowers makes a neglected woman in U.S. history come to life, in addition to the infant United States, Presbyterian influence on it and the development of Oxford.
Thanks to her Presbyterian upbringing and educated family, Caroline was able to study and obtain an education not possible for many women of the 19th century. And she did not wait to use her talents:
“When she was fifteen, she put together a hand-bound seventy-five page book combining carefully penned poetry selections with her own floral illustrations.” (Foster Bowers, Remembering Caroline Scott Harrison, p. 31)
Caroline knew how to enjoy herself, too:
“Even though her father, a strict Presbyterian frowned upon dancing, Carrie loved to glide across the floor and danced as much as any girl at the party.” (Foster Bowers, Remembering Caroline Scott Harrison, p. 35)
Upon graduation from the Oxford Female Institute in 1852, Caroline moved to Kentucky on her own to teach with respected educator and family friend Mrs. Bethania Bishop Bennett. While Benjamin went to Indianapolis for his law practice, Caroline was content doing her own thing. In a humorous anecdote, the postal clerks teased Ben with “no letters today” because he asked about them daily.
As the years progressed, Caroline became a doting wife and mother, despite her husband’s absences for work. During the Civil War, she mended clothes and bandaged injured soldiers at Bowling Green, Kentucky where her husband was then stationed.
Caroline also helped Benjamin’s political career. Her husband was a great speaker and leader, but he struggled to connect with voters or people on an individual level. Perhaps unfairly, Benjamin acquired the nickname “the human iceberg” due to his introverted nature. During the presidential campaign of 1888, Caroline “stood by her husband receiving endless parades, turning down beds for visiting dignitaries and watching a steady stream of visitors pass by the punch bowl on her dining room table… Caroline never seemed to tire of strangers trooping through her house.” (Foster Bowers, Remembering Caroline Scott Harrison, p.113)
While she only served three and a half years as First Lady, Caroline made an impact. The White House was in a shocking state in 1889, Caroline noting in her diary that it was infested with rats, its carpets were tattered, the floors were moldy and the furniture was dilapidated. She attempted to gain funds for a remodel and renovation, but Congress gave her money to clean and for minor repairs: “Throughout her First Ladyship, Harrison directed painting, installing additional private bathrooms, renovating the kitchen, replacing all the dirty and moldy floors, rebuilding the old conservatory, adding greenhouses, and redecorating many of the public parlors.” She even found time to inventory everything in the White House and “laid the foundation for the celebrated White House China Collection.”
When John Hopkins University asked her to help raise funds for its medical school, Caroline agreed only on the condition that it admit women. The University did. As indicated by the beginning quote, Caroline was the first president general of National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR).
Two weeks before the 1892 presidential election, Caroline died from tuberculosis. A remarkable life had been cut short.
There’s plenty more, but you’ll have to read the book!
It’s hard to put into words the impact that Caroline Scott Harrison has had on me. In so many ways, she exemplifies the saying ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman.’ Benjamin Harrison is certainly an impressive individual, and an underrated president, but for as unappreciated as he is, his wife is more unappreciated. His career would not have been possible without her. She did so much on her own initiative and her legacy affects us to this day. In the future, it would be nice if we looked as prominent figures more as couples, rather than individuals. It’s not possible to highlight one partner while ignoring the other.
Caroline reminds me of my maternal grandmother, Helen Dickinson. Grandma Helen was a talented artist, involved in producing drawings and sketches for local events such as EAA. She wrote and contacted politicians both local and national, and received a letter from the president (George H.W. Bush, I believe). Much like Caroline, Grandma Helen was devoted to her grandkids and I have many joyful memories of running around her house when not making wild concoctions like grape bread and riding my Big Wheel.
Finally, I was able to learn so much about Caroline thanks to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and Marjorie Foster Bowsers. History isn’t often lucrative, but it’s important, and I salute everyone involved in preserving the legacy of a great woman and a great man.
Let us hope that the U.S. continues to produce and commemorate women like Caroline Scott Harrison.
Oh, and Benjamin Harrison. He was pretty cool, too.