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The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison: Dashed Hopes for African Americans

Sandwiched between the two presidential terms of Democrat Grover Cleveland was the administration of Benjamin Harrison who served as president from 1889 to 1893. As a prominent Republican lawyer-politician from Indiana, he was the grandson of the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison and also a great-grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The second son of John Scott Harrison was born August 20, 1833 in his grandfather’s house at North Bend, Indiana. While there is little evidence that Harrison was especially concerned with the successive crises of the 1850s, after the attack on Fort Sumter he found himself caught up in the popular fervor and soon joined the army rising to the rank of a Brevet-Brigadier General gaining some fame while fighting with General Sherman’s campaign in Georgia. Following the Civil War, Harrison became an attorney with a practice in Indianapolis. Losing in his race for governor of Indiana in 1876, Harrison was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1881. Following leading Republican candidate James G. Blaine’s decision not to run and to support Harrison, his political fortunes skyrocketed.

The overturning of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 gave rise to protest meetings across the nation by African Americans. Benjamin Harrison addressed one of these meeting in Indianapolis on October 23rd, 1883. Addressing his “Fellow-citizens” Harrison immediately commented on the fact that only shortly before in Indiana, he would have not been able to use the term “fellow-citizens.” He recalled that the Dred Scott decision “did not recognize you as citizens” stating forthrightly that those in the audience now enjoyed “every right that I possess” continuing to praise the remarkable change in the African American status undergone since the Civil War. “I do not think there has been any revolution in history more notable or significant than the revolution which has taken place in this country since 1860. . . .” He went on to say that before the war there were four million enslaved blacks who were “absolutely deprived of all natural and political rights; in the eyes of the law mere things, . . –chattels, to be sold upon the auction block...” Even in Indiana, Harrison continued to describe the law Indiana prohibiting the entry and hiring of “colored men.” Turning to education Harrison spoke of the great progress in providing education to African Americans in Indiana:

. . .You have magnificently constructed and equipped school-houses built out of the public taxes of the State of Indiana, in which your children may from day to day acquire the elements of an education which shall fit them for the right exercise of that citizenship with which they are now endowed; and in those schools you have colored men who, by their own intelligence and industry, have made themselves fit to preside over them, . . .

Unusual for a politician of the 19th or, even the 20th century, Harrison envisioned a future warm atmosphere off racial integration:

. . . I noticed to-day as I walked down from my house in the morning young colored children, with their books under their arms, going to the high school, entering there with the children of the white men, rich and poor, of Indianapolis, upon equal terms, to acquire the higher branches of education. . . . .

Harrison rejoiced with black people over this progress occurring in only the previous twenty-five years boldly stating that there “has never been a proposition looking to the striking off of the shackle from the black man’s wrist, or from his mind” or “personal freedom” which he hadn’t enthusiastically supported. Winding down he recalled the sacrifices of black soldiers during the war, recalling the dead he had seen who laid down their lives “in order that they might win freedom for their race.”

In defending a program that fostered education among black people President Harrison pointed to the suddenness of black emancipation; the southern states’ inability to afford to develop it; and the great need for it given existing conditions in the African American communities. Harrison reminded the nation that the “colored people did not intrude themselves upon us; they were brought here in chains and held in the communities where they are now chiefly found, by a cruel slave code.” In 1885, he stated that “the colored race in the South has been subjected to indignities, cruelties, outrages, and a repression of rights such as find no parallel in the history of civilization.” Displaying perhaps unprecedented presidential perspective on the conditions African Americans faced, Harrison felt that “[T]hey have, from a stand-point of ignorance and poverty, which was our shame, not theirs, made remarkable advances in education and the acquisition of property.”

Harrison spoke out against the efforts of emigration agents whom he said enticed blacks away from their places of birth commenting that this would disrupt local southern economies and that blacks generally “do not desire to quit their homes.” He condemned the suppression of black civil rights in “many parts of our country where the colored population is large.” The entire country was harmed by this suppression of political rights, not just African Americans, Harrison contended. Unusually strident with respect to black civil or human rights for an American chief executive, Harrison asserted, “[I]f it is said that these communities must work out this problem for themselves, we have a right to ask whether they are at work upon it. Do they suggest a solution? When and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot?”

Harrison urged Congress to act on this matter and “upon the lines of justice and humanity, not of prejudice and cruelty. . . .” He suggested a strengthened federal elections law as well as protection for black voters, electors, jurors and as “peaceful” travelers on the railroads of the nation. As a Senator Harrison once commented, “We may place the U. S. Marshals at the polls, if we ever recover the Presidency. . .” These were strong statements, sentiments and words which if translated into policy would have greatly relieved the political repression black communities were then experiencing throughout the South. Unfortunately, Harrison’s committment could not withstand the pressures incumbent upon the chief executives of the era, and his high ideals turned out to be largely unimplemented.

Only weeks prior to the 1888 Republican convention, Frederick Douglass delivered a stern warning to the Republican party. After over two decades of working in the Republican Party, African Americans were increasingly conscious of being taken for granted. Douglass cautioned the Republicans that “it can no longer repose on the history of its grand and magnificent achievements.” Now, it was necessary to halt the scourge of anti-black lynching across the nation. The issues for white Americans during the campaign meant little to African Americans Douglass declared:

What to me are questions of gold and silver, of tariffs and currency, while my people are torn from their little cabins, snatched from jails by furious mobs with no chance to prove their innocence of the crime imputed to them, shot down, hanged and burned to death?

The 1888 Republican convention played down the question of black disfranchisement and civil rights in the south. Still, the watered down commitment of the national party was characterized by a weak resolution that recognized the “supreme and sovereign right of every citizen, rich or poor, native or foreign born, white or black, to cast one free ballot in public elections and to have that ballot counted.” Formally Benjamin Harrison was nominated on a platform that officially condemned the forcible disfranchisement of African Americans in the South and called for federal action to protect black voting rights. While Harrison subsequently announced his full support of these policies, the campaign’s strategy was based on downplaying or ignoring civil rights issues.

In his letter of acceptance of the nomination, Harrison said that blacks were not interested in special legislation to help them and instead only asked for the “common rights of American citizenship.” Republicans would appear suspicious to blacks, he felt, if they were implored to support the Republican candidates where they were freely allowed to vote while, at the same time, the party ignored areas where they were not allowed to vote. Harrison’s tweaking of the campaign strategy of de-emphasizing or ignoring black concerns and appealing to pro-tariff whites in the south was accepted by his strategists and handlers.

The candidate discussed civil rights issues more often during his presidential bid than his strategists advised. Writing to Whitelaw Reid, Harrison wrote that he was unwilling “to purchase the Presidency by a compact of silence upon this question.” The Republican nominee’s campaigns stops included Detroit and Chicago where he stressed the need to defend black political rights in the South. The dominant tenor of the campaign and the appeal to white pro-tariff constituencies, however, resulted in a larger white vote for the Republican Harrison than any of the party’s presidential candidates since Grant.

President Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President

1889 to 1893

Birth: August 20, 1833, North Bend, Ohio

Death: March 13, 1901

Education: Farmer's College, Miami University

Religion: Presbyterian

Profession: Politician, Lawyer

Political Party: Whig, Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Political Career of Benjamin Harrison Aug 10, 1999 CSPAN

At home in Indianapolis on New Year’s Day almost two months after his victory, Harrison received about two thousand callers. Although not planned as a formal affair, Harrison felt the urge to address his admirers. Unlike any president before him, and without any prompting, he declared his distaste for the undemocratic practices in the South that deprived African Americans of a free ballot. Music to his ears, he asserted, would be “a bugle-call throughout the land demanding a pure ballot.” For this remark, Harrison came under immediate fire. Harrison was targeted and under suspicion of being too radical. “Mugwumps” from the east attacked him for not being sufficiently conciliatory toward the South. By calling for the enforcement of the U. S. Constitution, Harrison had incurred the wrath of many powerful institutions and individuals within American society.

Harrison’s inaugural message echoed these themes of political justice for the African American people. In this address, the new president said, “[L]aws are general, and the administration should be uniform and equal, implying that in both sections of the nation, North and South, the law would be enforced. This would mean that black political rights would be guaranteed in the South. In his first official pronouncement as president, Harrison asked rhetorically: “Shall the prejudices and paralysis of slavery continue to hang upon the skirts of progress?”

Harrison’s words were greeted by African Americans with a wary enthusiasm, for already during the three decades since Emancipation, there had been many broken promises by the Republican presidents they had been instrumental in electing. While Harrison and other Republicans seemingly had an incentive to work for the enfranchising of African-Americans who voted overwhelmingly Republican, they had allowed the South to violate the promises to guarantee black political rights made as part of the Compromise of 1876. Harrison’s own “southern strategy” was initially, at least, intended to woo southern whites with promises of economic development and prosperity. This would build a Republican constituency among whites. At the same time, the black vote was largely taken for granted by the Republican Party, and Harrison’s main goal in this regard was to ensure that the black vote was “countable.”

Encouraged by the lack of resolve on the part of Harrison and the national Republican leadership, when the desired pro-tariff Republican organizations emerged in the South they were structured along segregationist lines excluding blacks. In April 1889, for example, Alabama protectionists organized met in Birmingham to form a Republican “high tariff” party explicitly excluding blacks. Later when blacks protesting the party traveled to Washington to air their grievances with President Harrison they emerged from the meeting disappointed and apparently convinced that even the president agreed that African Americans should not hold political offices in southern states. Later, President Harrison meeting with a delegation of southern whites expressed sympathy with their problems and, citing his own deep southern roots, promised to appoint blacks only to posts in which the work did not involve “personal contact with and official authority over white citizens. . . which you and your people find so offensive.”

Following Harrison’s victory, Frederick Douglass met with him stating that he intended to hold the new president accountable to his campaign pledges. Later, Douglass joined Mary Church Terrell in a meeting with President Harrison on the subject of lynching. They urged Harrison to make a statement against lynching in his annual message to Congress to no avail. The spread of lynching accompanied a trend of thought among major sections of the white intelligentsia that portrayed blacks literally as violent “beasts,” and consistent with their prevalent Social Darwinist theory, doomed to extinction because of their inherent unfitness for modern society.

President Harrison didn't appoint many blacks to federal positions although they both urged and expected him to do so. A related trend was the marked decline of black elected officials from 1877-78 when there were thirty-nine elected officials in the House and Senate. By 1890-91 there were only six blacks in office. Accepting the overall status quo for blacks in the South, Harrison was clearly not the strident foe of segregation his earlier pro-equality rhetoric would have implied.

His first annual message to Congress in December 1889 sounded more positive toward African Americans than any presidential address had in decades. He promised educational aid to blacks while praising the extent of progress the people had made since Emancipation. Significantly, he condemned employers who sought to lure blacks from their southern homes, in an attempt to win support from the southern white elite dependent upon black labor. He praised blacks for staying in the South despite their lack of civil rights.

With President Harrison’s backing the Lodge Federal Elections bill, which would have allowed federal supervision of congressional races, was passed by the House 155 to 149. Labeled the “Force Bill” by resistant southern Democrats although no force was provided for, Harrison addressed the issue in his second annual message to Congress arguing that the bill would not increase anti-black violence. Harrison’s efforts to guarantee a minimum of African American political rights was the last serious federal effort in the 19th century to do so. Many black organizations, including the The National Colored Farmers’ Alliance, allied with populist white farmers, voiced their wholehearted support of the measure.

Passage of the Lodge measure, however, would have violated the spirit the “Gentleman's Agreement” involving “states’ rights” that had effectively shielded the south from federal intervention since 1877. Southern representatives presented themselves as “the Negro’s best friend” and Northern politicians increasingly tended to agree with them. After a fierce debate the bill was defeated, and subsequently, Harrison made no additional efforts to advance black political rights. He did, however, give verbal support to the federal elections bill in his second and third messages to Congress. In addition, in his acceptance of his second nomination he condemned the rigged elections in the South.

By the final decade of the 19th century as Jim Crow segregation spread African American disillusionment with the Republican Party and their presidential behavior was at an post-Civil War high. War with Spain changed the focus somewhat as optimists in the national African American community felt opportunities to be respected abounded with the chance to go to abroad and fight for America. Others saw this as a deepening and broadening of racist influence and power. Demographically, slow and gradual changes began to increase potential black political power and economic clout, its impact would be increasingly evident in the early decades of the 20th century.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.