I find myself captivated by the only Hoosier presidential couple.
If you’re ever in the Indianapolis area, you have to check it out. The home is located in Indianapolis’s historic Old Northside neighborhood, surrounded by a beautiful garden. Even if you aren’t a history buff, the authentic wallpaper, carpets, decorations and artifacts are worth seeing.
Director of Museum Experiences Daniel Bennett gave a fantastic one hour plus tour about Mr. and Mrs. Harrison as well as the late 19th century. I already knew that Harrison was sandwiched between Grover Cleveland’s two terms and was the grandson of William “Tippecanoe” Harrison, giving the two the unique honor as the only grandfather-grandson duo to serve as president. But, like many Americans, I was ignorant of many details.
What I learned was supremely interesting.
While Benjamin Harrison was born in Ohio, he made his mark in Indianapolis. He recruited 1000 men to fight in the Civil War and commanded the 70th Indiana Regiment as a colonel. As the Presidential Site reports:
“Harrison did not ask more of his men than he did of himself. Mr. Richard Smock remembered an incident while they were camped near Nashville during a very cold winter. Men on the picket line were nearly frozen to death, and Colonel Harrison fixed coffee and took it to them in the middle of the night. Harrison always led the men saying ‘Come on, boys!’ as he took the lead.”
Harrison’s leadership seems to be a large factor why the 70th Indiana only lost 203 men during the war, lower than other regiments.
Once the Civil War concluded, Harrison returned to practicing law. He was involved in the (in)famous Cold Spring murder trial, featuring a woman as one of the first murder suspects in our nation’s history. He argued five cases before the Supreme Court. From 1881 to 1887, he was Senator from Indiana.
In 1888, Harrison was elected president. Although he only served one term, he had several notable accomplishments. Daniel pointed out that Harrison often thought differently than his contemporaries. 75 years before the Civil Rights Movement, Harrison protected African-African voting rights in the South with multiple bills. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was “thrilled by Harrison’s election” and praised him as “humane, wise, and strong.”
Harrison also set aside 13 million acres for the national forest reserves by signing the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 and helped create some of the first wildlife reserves, which continued the conservation work he had done while senator. Unsurprisingly, Harrison was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘political heroes’ due to his conservationism.
In another first, Harrison had a pet goat named Old Whiskers who accompanied him to the White House and back to Indiana. In a humorous anecdote, Old Whiskers once ran through the White House gates with Harrison’s grandchildren in a cart, giving some D.C. residents the sight of “their commander-in-chief running down the street holding onto his top hat, waving his cane and yelling at a goat.”
Finally, Harrison called the Pan American Conference, which promoted a more collaborative relationship among North and South America, especially between the United States and Latin America. For those familiar with the Monroe Doctrine and U.S. policy during the Cold War, President Harrison’s policies are of a distinct flavor.
I would be remiss if I omitted the remarkable Caroline Scott Harrison. Like her husband, she was from Ohio but made Indiana her home. She demonstrated a talent in the arts throughout her life and gave French and painting lessons in the White House for “the wives and daughters of White House staff and federal officials.” Many of her paintings decorate the home today.
Scott Harrison lobbied for the White House’s renovation and “rescued many pieces of White House china and inventoried the collection.” She became the first president of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Tragically, she died from tuberculosis on October 25th, 1892.
I had to ask myself throughout my tour and during my subsequent research: Why don’t we hear more about the Harrisons? Both Benjamin and Caroline were accomplished individuals who contributed much to the modern U.S. landscape.
Daniel observed that our 23rd President was very humble, always crediting others when he was praised. Benjamin Harrison would likely have a problem with his own Presidential Site, as he believed that generals, politicians and the like should be forgotten to avoid cults of personality and whatnot.
That raises an interesting question: to what degree should politicians and generals from the past play in the present? In modern U.S. discourse, excessive reference to the Founding Fathers makes it impossible to both assess their lives and careers with objectivity. Often when they are invoked, the conversation stops, because comments like “The Founders wanted X” dominate.
On the other hand, it’s undesirable to forget the leaders who came before us. As historian and philosopher George Santayana observed, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We remember the past not only to avoid its mistakes, but also to replicate what has worked.
As with many things, we must have balance when it comes to evaluating and invoking our past leaders. We don’t want to deify or worship them. We don’t want to disrespect or forget them.
I’m not sure how to achieve that balance, but I’m sure that the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is a place you don’t want to miss.
Oh, and the Harrisons are pretty cool.