Benjamin Harrison: Cold Man in the White House

President Benjamin Harrison

Most politicians excel at the glad-hand. Benjamin Harrison was the exception.

BH: POTUS Grandson

William Henry Harrison died after only one month as President of the US. His grandson Benjamin Harrison (1832-1901) was only nine years old. His memories were sketchy at best.

BenjLincoln

Great Grandpa Benj. Harrison

Grandpa Wm. H. Harrison

Nevertheless, the memory and mantle of his patrician Virginia forebears (namesake Great-Grandpa Ben signed the Declaration of Independence, among other accomplishments), and his illustrious Grandpa General WHH of Tippecanoe/POTUS fame, followed him throughout his life.

Ben’s financial inheritance had long been dissipated by large Harrison families and the once-wealthy Virginians were now scattered and modest in means. Ben was a younger son of a youngest son.

But he managed to get a college education, became a lawyer, married and began a practice in Indianapolis. It was a very slim practice. Harrison took on clerical positions within the court to make ends meet.

The main problem was Ben himself. While his legal abilities and diligence were satisfactory, his personality was a turnoff. Instead of a firm handshake, his was likened to a “wilted petunia.” Small talk was not among his talents, and his conversation skills were nil.

Young lawyers are usually dependent on crumbs from the tables of established attorneys: small cases that a successful lawyer was glad to refer to a beginner. Ben Harrison received few referrals.

One story suggests that he once considered giving up law to open a store, so at least he could feed his family.

The Turning Point: The Civil War

The Civil War was a turning point in Benjamin Harrison’s career.

Harrison was thirty when the Civil War began. His law practice was small, and it is said he thought to use his life savings (around $300) to purchase a substitute so he could support his wife Caroline and their two children.

Since a volunteer army was desperately needed, President Lincoln empowered state governors to commission officers. Indiana’s Governor Oliver P. Morton announced that anyone who could raise a regiment (1000 men) could be its commanding officer. Harrison hung a flag from his office window with a sign to enlist. The regiment was subscribed quickly and “Colonel” Harrison was now assured an officer’s pay to send home each month.

Young General Benj. Harrison

Old Tippecanoe’s grandson knew very little about the military, but he proved to be a quick learner. Attached primarily to the “western” army, he was both brave and competent, and was a brevet Brigadier General by war’s end.

Surprisingly for a personality-challenged man, Ben was an effective public speaker. He was clear and coherent, and could actually inspire a crowd with his oratory. But his one-on-ones had not improved.

After the War, a Republican, a lawyer and a Union General with a Midwestern pedigree were now viable credentials for political office, and Ben was courted by Indiana politicians.

There is a story that one of his colleagues met him at the train station as he was leaving to make a speech out of town, and remarked, “I know you’ll make a fine speech General, but afterwards, try to mix it up with the boys. The fellows like that.” Upon his return, he met up with his colleague and admitted that he tried to be one of the boys, but just couldn’t. “I have to be what I am,” he said honestly.

The Harrison house in Indianapolis.

Wimpy handshake notwithstanding, his law practice improved nicely, and his involvement in Indiana politics was welcomed. At that time, US Senators were “elected” by their state legislatures, and in 1881, Benjamin Harrison was sent to Washington for a six year term as Indiana’s Senator. While he was never part of the “Old Boys Club,” he was perceived as diligent and competent and of good character.

When the opportunity arose for the Republicans to challenge President Grover Cleveland in 1888, a general, a lawyer, a senator and a Midwesterner seemed an ideal candidate.

Once again, the famous Harrison name and “his grandfather’s hat” slogan resonated with the populace, but true to himself, BH did little in the meet-and-greet department, and was always disdainful of the “grandpa” connection.

It was a squeaker. Democrat President Cleveland was only slightly more scintillating than Harrison, and actually won the popular vote. But the Republicans “waved the bloody shirt,” drumming up Civil War political sympathy, and the electoral votes went to Harrison.

BH and Baby McKee

Three generations of Harrisons

The Harrisons moved to the White House with a large extended family: his wife Caroline, her elderly father, her widowed sister and her widowed niece. Then there were the Harrison’s son Russell and his wife and child, and their daughter Mary McKee, and her husband. And a little baby.

The story goes that as the family’s personal belongings were being moved in, reporters saw a baby buggy and high chair on the steps, and asked the staff if the baby was a boy or girl. They didn’t know, so the baby (it was a boy) was immediately nicknamed “Baby McKee.” And “Baby” McKee he remained.

Photo of the Harrison grandchildren.

President Harrison’s legendary permafrost did not melt in the White House, causing his aides to try to whip up whatever favorable publicity they could to warm his image. Babies usually do magic, and Baby McKee (actually Benjamin Harrison McKee), was a cute little fellow.

“Baby” McKee dropped the “baby” part as a grown man.

Photography had improved considerably over the past decades, and “candid” or unposed pictures could be taken. The little guy was a natural. His activities were regularly reported in the newspapers. Aides were able to arrange “naturally posed” photos of the President and his little namesake from time to time.

A huge effort was made to portray the well-known reserved POTUS as a different man when he was “grandpa.” But alas, the actual close relationship appears to be somewhat apocryphal. While Ben Harrison was surely benevolently fond of his namesake grandson, much of the “playful” Grandpa image was a creation of a nearly-desperate public relations team. Like the man said, “I have to be what I am.”

Sources:

Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Crook, Col. W.H. – Memories of the White House: The Home Life of our Presidents from Lincoln to Rooevelt – Little Brown, 1911

Hilton, George – The Funny Side of Politics – G.W. Dillingham Co., 1899

ttps://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/benjamin-harrison/

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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