Monday, April 20, 2015

Benjamin Harrison Museum


Taking a personal look at Benjamin Harrison


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Benjamin Harrison delivered 50 speeches from his front porch during his presidential bid.


            When we arrived a few minutes late for the last tour of the day at President Benjamin Harrison’s home in Indianapolis, we feared we had missed it. Just as we were stepping off the porch, the guide, an older gentleman, opened the door and was kind enough to give us the full tour.

            An obvious expert on the 23rd president, who served from 1889 to 1893, the guide was eager to tell us about Harrison, who he thought was one of our more unappreciated presidents. He also felt some responsibility to tell the real story of Harrison’s accomplishments as president. We found out later that this docent was not alone in making the re-evaluation and that other sources also were raising Harrison in the presidential rankings because of his leadership.

            Harrison built the home in 1875 and lived there for much of his married life. It is filled with the original furniture owned by the Harrison family. The front parlor has been restored to the way it was when he brought his second wife to live here. One of the rooms was equipped with gym equipment so he could work out and stay in good condition. At a room housing a collection of fans, our guide amused us by demonstrating how women at the time used fans to communicate, including ways they used for flirting.

            The family room was filled with portraits and family mementos. Harrison had come from a family of leaders holding important positions. His great-grandfather, also a Benjamin Harrison, had been an early governor of Virginia and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Our guide played a game of “Do you know who or what this is?” In most cases, we didn’t, except for the portrait of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States and the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison.

            Born in 1833, Harrison had been a successful lawyer when he answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call during the Civil War to raise a regiment of soldiers. At one point, he served as a colonel under William Sherman. Later, he became a senator for Indiana. Early in the tour, the docent described Harrison’s family — his wife, Caroline, whom he married in 1853, and a son and a daughter. Caroline died from tuberculosis while they were in the White House. After her death, he married her assistant, who was about half his age and with whom he had a daughter. His other children did not fully approve of the marriage.

            Harrison gave 50 speeches from the front yard of the house when he ran for president. About 30,000 people came to hear him. The porch we saw was a later addition after he returned from the presidency. As an orator, he was considered very impressive, but in his personal contacts, he often seemed cold. Our guide said that was the result of his being very shy in personal situations.

            The guide stressed that Harrison had accomplished much as president: He modernized the Navy, set aside 13 million acres of public domain for national forest preserves, admitted eight states to the union, signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and opened Oklahoma to settlers.

            As president, he was ahead of his time on civil rights and felt that black people should have the right to vote. Because the states were not furnishing them a good education, he felt that the national government should provide funds to states to ensure good education. He believed that American Indians should be assimilated into the mainstream.

            Harrison died from complications of pneumonia in 1901 at the age of 67 and is buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

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