president benjamin harrison -- 10/23/23

Today's selection -- from The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White. The election of Benjamin Harrison, 23rd president of the United States:

“Harrison was the scion of a political dynasty, but it was probably until that time the most undistinguished dynasty in American history. His great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence, and then rested on his laurels. In the presidential campaign of 1840 his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, had been the Tippecanoe of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,’ who had attacked Tecumseh's brother the Prophet at Tippecanoe or Prophetstown, launching the western portion of the War of 1812. It was an odd coincidence that his grandson was now seeking the nomination against the brother of the country's most famous general, named for Tecumseh. In 1840 the Whigs had needed a Westerner to counter the Jacksonians. They had settled on Harrison, who won the election but caught pneumonia at his inauguration and died after serving a little more than a month. Benjamin Harrison's father had done little of note.

“Benjamin Harrison did not lack talents. He was a formidable public speaker, and Rutherford B. Hayes, who advised him, thought him a man of ability. In his front porch campaign, Harrison gave daily speeches not from his porch but from a dais erected in a park in front of his Indianapolis house. The decision to stay home was calculated. ‘There is a great risk of meeting a fool at home,’ Harrison said, ‘but the candidate who travels cannot escape him.’ He did not want to be in attendance if supporters offered ‘Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion’ speeches. Delegations came to him; stenographers recorded his speeches, and the Associated Press distributed them. Both sides moved closer to waging so-called educational campaigns, dependent more on mass mailings than massive rallies of the party faithful.

“Although the Democrats had launched the battle over the tariff, the Republicans put them on the defensive by equating tariff reform with the liberal nostrum of free trade that would remove all duties on imports. Cleveland mostly seemed confused, simultaneously attacking and retreating. A New Jersey congressman put Cleveland's problem succinctly: ‘He argues free trade and declares he is not a free trader. It is like a drunken man protesting that he is sober.’' Too often the Democrats played defense, and as a California Democrat put it, ‘defensive wars do not generally win in politics.’

“In November 1888 Cleveland took a majority of the popular vote, but Harrison carried the electoral vote 233-168. Turnouts exceeded 90 percent in the hotly contested states of Indiana, New York, and New Jersey. As usual, the election came down to Indiana and New York. Harrison carried both of them. He won in New York by 14,373 votes (1.1 percent of those cast) and Indiana by 2,376 votes. Cleveland's margin in Connecticut was only 336 votes. Overall, Harrison carried the North and West and ran surprisingly well in those Border States where blacks retained the vote. Republicans added some Southerners, including three black congressmen, to their House delegation. The Mugwumps largely deserted Cleveland, disappointed in what they regarded as his lukewarm actions on civil service. The Democrats attempted to carry the West by attacking the Chinese, but the Republicans were beating that horse just as hard.

Portrait of Benhamin Harrison by the Pach Brothers, 1896

“Accusations of fraud were rampant. That the majority of voters cast their ballots from deep loyalty to their party, that most of those who sold their votes would have voted for that candidate anyway, and that there may have been less fraud than usual did not really settle the role of fraud when the election in New York and Indiana was so close. Harrison attributed his victory to ‘Providence.’ The Republican boss, Sen. Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania, sneered that Harrison ‘ought to know that Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it.’ Harrison would ‘never know how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him President.’

“The defeat of Cleveland, despite his majority of the popular vote, was not the blot on democracy that it seemed because there were far larger blemishes. Given the suppression of the Republican black vote in the South, it was hard to argue that Harrison was truly a minority president. Three black-majority Southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana—sent only 311,674 voters to the polls to determine twenty-six electoral votes. Their electoral votes were based on the total population, black and white, but in reality only white votes counted. Illinois cast nearly twice as many votes, but had only twenty-two electoral votes. Ohio cast more than 839,000 votes for only twenty-three electors. Southern fraud and violence ensured that every white vote in the South was worth two Northern votes in presidential elections.

“Radical Republicans had designed the Fourteenth Amendment to punish any state that denied the vote to male citizens not involved in rebellion against the country by reducing its representation, but Congress never imposed the penalties. As a result, by 1888 Southern white voters had a disproportionate representation not only in the Electoral College but also in the House of Representatives. Seven states of the Deep South—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—sent forty-five members to the House. Averaged together, this was a representative for every 19,200 voters. California, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Wisconsin had only thirty-three members, or an average of 47,200 voters per member.”



Richard White


The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford History of the United States)


Oxford University Press


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