Frequently Forgotten President Benjamin Harrison

In 1888 President Cleveland lost the election to Benjamin Harrison. Harrison ran on a pro-business platform and hailed from Indiana, a state that had a healthy number of electoral votes. The election was so close that without states like Indiana and New York, Harrison could not have won.

Throughout his life Benjamin Harrison wanted to be known as an individual. He did not want his presidential campaign to mention his grandfather, former President William Henry Harrison. Against his wishes his campaign supporters used references to “Tippecanoe” and his grandfather’s allegedly humble origins.

They also pointed out that the grandson had inherited his grandfather’s reputation as a fighter. During the Civil War Harrison fought in as many battles as possible. In 1864 he joined General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.


Official Presidential Portrait of Benjamin Harrison

Harrison’s actions as president included generous pensions for Civil War veterans and the signing of an anti-trust law. Under Harrison and the next few presidents, the law, meant to prevent the establishment of monopolies, remained mainly symbolic. Harrison did not wish to anger the businessmen who helped elect him.

The American voters were unimpressed by Harrison’s spending of millions of dollars on pensions and his pro-business stance. As a result his opponent (former President Grover Cleveland) was re-elected in 1892.

Harrison’s personality did nothing to endear him to voters either. Nicknamed “The Icebox” for his cold manner, he disliked having to deal with people outside his family. In public he often looked up at the sky so he would not have to greet others, even if he knew them! He was, however, very devoted to his wife, who died of tuberculosis during his re-election campaign. Harrison personally nursed her through her illness and didn’t care at all when he lost the election.

After his wife’s death he went home to Indiana. In his loneliness he married his wife’s niece, a circumstance that shocked his older children. The couple had a daughter, and Harrison doted on her until he died.


Tippecanoe and Tyler, too: U.S. Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler

William Henry Harrison

In the 1840 election William Henry Harrison’s Whig party supporters got some extra help from a Democratic newspaper. The paper claimed that if he got his pension and a barrel of cider, Harrison would retire to a log cabin in Ohio. As a result people thought of Harrison as a common man, despite the fact that he was the son of a wealthy Virginian who signed the Declaration of Independence. Supporters nicknamed Harrison “Tippecanoe” after a battle he had fought against a confederation of Native Americans. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” made a catchy campaign slogan.

Official White House Portrait of William Henry Harrison

Official White House Portrait of William Henry Harrison

The election also gave birth to the American expression “O.K.” Democrats used O.K. as affectionate shorthand for Harrison’s opponent, Martin Van Buren, who was known as “Old Kinderhook” after the town in New York where he grew up.

Harrison was the first Whig party candidate to win a presidential election. The Whig party had formed out of opposition to President Jackson’s policies. Whigs wanted a strong federal government and social reforms.

Harrison was mainly nominated and elected because he had few political enemies and didn’t share his personal opinions. No one knows what kind of president he would have been because he died from pneumonia one month after his inauguration. He was the first president, though not the last, to die in office.

John Tyler

Tyler’s succeeding Harrison established the precedent of the vice-president taking over for a deceased president. Yet, since the Constitution didn’t specifically state what the vice-president’s role was in case a president died, not everyone thought Tyler should become president. John Quincy Adams referred to Tyler as “His Accidency.”

Official White House Portrait of John Tyler

Official White House Portrait of John Tyler

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Tyler’s wife died, which made him the first president to become a widower in office. Tyler soon married Julia Gardiner, a young woman thirty years younger than he.

In many ways, Tyler seemed like a natural fit for the presidency. At fifty-one he already had political experience serving as a governor and a congressman. His tall, thin frame made him stand out in a crowd, and he had an excellent speaking voice.

Tyler was a former Democrat who had switched over to the Whig party during Jackson’s presidency. Yet he still felt strongly about states’ rights. This feeling got him into trouble with his party, which favored a strong federal government. He vetoed bills that Whigs in Congress and in his cabinet wanted.

After vetoing a tariff bill introduced by Whigs, the first ever impeachment resolution of a president was made against Tyler. The resolution failed. Nevertheless, Tyler remained a mainly ineffectual executive.

Though he supported the annexation of Texas, the Senate would not approve it until Tyler’s successor James Polk was elected so that Tyler’s administration could not take credit. Tyler stated, “A Vice President, who succeeds to the Presidency by the demise of the President…has no party at his heels to sustain his measures.”