As liberals prepare to celebrate President Benjamin Harrison's birthday today ....
I'm sorry? Most people don't know that August 20 is Harrison's birthday, much less care?
Well, that certainly is a pity. After all, if it wasn't for Harrison, many of the policies liberals consider so important today might have never been enacted. Indeed, it was the Harrison administration that was responsible for such bills as:
1. The Dependent Pension Act of 1890. To fully appreciate the importance of this bill, one must first understand the origins of the modern welfare state in America. As policy historian Theda Skocpol has pointed out, the first comprehensive social insurance system established in this country was the veteran pension program enacted after the Civil War. Although its original function was to support Union veterans and veteran dependents who could trace their financial difficulties to injuries and/or deaths caused by the war, many began to call for it to provide benefits for anyone connected to the Union cause (as a veteran or veteran dependent) who was suffering from economic hardship that was perceived as being beyond their control, regardless of whether their difficulties were causally linked to the war itself. Because virtually everyone outside the South fell under this aegis, this constituted a de facto welfare program for all of the poor and struggling within the Civil War generation ... one that Harrison's immediate predecessor, Grover Cleveland, opposed in a number of ways (which I discuss in more detail in Chapter One of my master's thesis here). Upon taking office, Harrison rejected Cleveland's position and immediately began pushing for the enactment of the most ambitious economic relief measure in our nation's history up to that point, one that provided general relief for those considered unable to find sustainable employment for themselves and nearly doubled both the pension budget and the number of pensioners by the end of Harrison's term. For better or worse, the dam for social insurance in this country had been broken, with 20th century presidents from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama building on the logic and precedent established by Harrison.
2. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Before the Sherman Antitrust Act, the federal government had never seriously attempted to regulate the large private corporations that had already become a dominant feature of America's socioeconomic life (Andrew Jackson's war on the Second National Bank being an arguable exception). This bill forever changed that, explicitly prohibiting anticompetitive business practices by outlawing cartels and monopolies as well as authorizing the government to investigate trusts and companies believed to be in violation of its tenets. Although Harrison has been criticized for not aggressively enforcing the law after its passage, the very fact that he expended so much political capital putting it into place works to his credit. What's more, without this bill, it is impossible to imagine any of the big business regulations from Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama ever being passed.
3. The Forest Reserve Act and Land Reserve Act of 1891. What the Dependent Pension Act did for social insurance and the Sherman Antitrust Act did for big business regulation, the Forest Reserve Act and Land Reserve Act did for modern environmental legislation. Although Theodore Roosevelt is often credited as America's first great conservationist president, these Harrison era bills were the first ones to nationally designate land for the specific purpose of ecological protection. Setting aside millions of acres of wilderness, they not only made the nature preservation efforts of later presidents possible, but marked the first time in which the federal government implemented any kind of major program with primarily naturalist objectives in mind, be they protecting the public interest from deforestation, pollution, and the loss of recreational space (for hunting, camping, etc.) or simply recognizing environmental preservation as a justifiable end in its own right.
4. The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890 and the Federal Elections Bill of 1890. Of all the issues in which Harrison established himself as ahead of his time, none stand out as more heroic than his efforts on behalf of civil rights. With the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1890, Harrison built on a bill passed by Abraham Lincoln that used federal money to establish land-grant colleges the forebears of modern state universities by requiring states to either admit all qualified students regardless of race or create separate institutions for non-white applicants. Bolder still, Harrison threw his political weight behind the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have authorized the government to send federal troops into the South to protect African American voters from violence and intimidation. Unfortunately, neither of these measures were entirely successful; although the Morrill Land-Grant Act did lead to the creation of several historic black school, its provisions guaranteeing equal education opportunities for minority students were usually ignored by the states, while the Federal Elections Bill failed to pass due to a last-minute in which Republicans who wanted to monetize silver sabotaged the measure to obtain Southern Democratic support for the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 (another Harrison measure). As much as Harrison should be commended for being the last president to passionately strive for meaningful pro-civil rights legislation before the mid-20th Century, it is sobering that these were his least successful domestic policy efforts.
This isn't to say that all of Harrison's policies adhere to liberal values. Like most other politicians of his era, Harrison staunchly believed that America should pursue an imperialist destiny, which drove him to push for increasingly bellicose measures from expanding our navy to attempting to annex weaker nations in our hemisphere (most infamously involving his support for a Hawaiian coup d'etat that Grover Cleveland, his successor, laudably staved off). When confronted with a pair of labor strikes in 1892, Harrison followed the example of previous presidents in throwing his weight behind big business and against the unions. Similarly, instead of trying to tame the plutocratic forces in his own party that insisted on exorbitant tariff rates so as to "protect" American businesses, Harrison became their willing captive, passing a tariff bill so steep (the McKinley Tariff Act) that it collected far more revenue than necessary to pay for the government and wound up branding the legislature with the epithet "The Billion Dollar Congress." Finally, like his predecessors, Harrison had little sympathy for the plight of Native Americans, ordering the military campaign that ultimately resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Lakota Sioux at the Battle of Wounded Knee (as well as generally favoring assimilation and the suppression of indigenous cultures).
While none of these shortcomings should be downplayed, they don't diminish what was otherwise a great legacy. So why isn't Harrison better remembered today?
There are a number of reasons for this. In general, the 36 years separating Abraham Lincoln's administration from that of Theodore Roosevelt is shrouded in obscurity, with most Americans preferring the gravitas of the former and charisma of the latter for the relative blandness of the eight men who came between them (even Ulysses S. Grant, who served as president during this period, is best remembered as a Civil War general). Not helping matters was Harrison's notoriously icy personality, one that Roosevelt himself unflatteringly described as that of a "a coldblooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician." Finally, the controversy surrounding the "Billion Dollar Congress" combined with Cleveland's personal popularity and the dubious circumstances of Harrison's victory in 1888 to cost him reelection in 1892, rendering him one of only 10 incumbent presidents to be denied an additional term of office in a general election (with the others being John Adams, John Q. Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush).
As we celebrate the 180th anniversary of Harrison's birth, however, it is time for us to reevaluate his current obscurity. Even the detached historical scholar can't disagree that he was a remarkably transformative and important president and, as such, deserving of greater scrutiny. If you are a liberal who supports policies that provide social insurance for the working class and poor, generously supports our veterans, regulates big business to safeguard the public interest, protects our natural environment, and fights against the scourge of racial discrimination, it is hard to think of a president more deserving of image rehabilitation than Benjamin Harrison.