Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Benjamin Harrison: a protectionist republican

Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901)
President (1889-1893)
Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of former president William Henry Harrison, and in 1888 became the 23rd president of the United States when he defeated Grover Cleveland in the electoral college (although he would lose the popular vote).

He was a republican and a protectionist, meaning he was an advocate of restraining international trade in order to protect American businesses and jobs from foreign intervention.

As a protectionist he would sign the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which raised the tariff (taxes) on foreign goods imported into the U.S. so their prices were competitive with American goods.  Republicans at the time believed this protected American industries and workers by encouraging people to buy products made at home.

Yet despite his pro-business stance, he was a supporter of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act 1890 that was designed to allow the government to break up new business organizations called trusts.  Trusts are when many similar companies band together to form monopolies that allow them to lower prices and put competitors out of business.

Harrison believed monopolies were unfair for consumers.  Yet despite signing the law, only one monopoly was broken up during Harrison's term in office.  The real stance against such monopolies would come a decade later when progressive republican Theodore Roosevelt was elected President.

Roosevelt in mind, many republicans did not like him because he was a progressive. Yet the man who was responsible for his first job on the national level was Harrison, who appointed him to the U.S. Civil Service Commission.  Roosevelt would prove to be a thorn in Harrison's side, as Harrison refused to accept many of his progressive recommendations.

Harrison was also a supporter of protecting the voting rights of African Americans.  This came to the forefront of his agenda because many southern states had created laws raising requirements for voters that essentially prevented African Americans from voting in the south.

No one knows whether Harrison was truly concerned about African Americans, or if he was doing this for political gain, for it was almost guaranteed that African Americans would vote republican. However, in the end, he did not have enough support in congress (mainly due to a democratic filibuster), and such noble efforts to protect African American voting rights did not gain steam for another 70 years.

Many western states met requirements for statehood when Cleveland was president, but he and his administration dragged their feet on this issue mainly because those states would shift the balance of power in Congress in favor of republicans.

Yet when Harrison was elected, the republican controlled congress took swift action to see to it that Washington (1889), Montana (1889), Idaho (1890), Wyoming (1890), North Dakota (1889) and South Dakota (1889) were admitted as new states.  As expected, the six new states elected 12 new senators, greatly enhancing the republican majority in the senate.

In 1878 Congress succeeded in passing the Bland Allison Act, which required the U.S. Treasury to buy between $2 million and $4 million in silver each month. This was a response to pressure by some Congressmen to purchase from minors some of the surplus of silver in order to back the dollar not just with gold (as was traditionally the case) but also with silver. The bill also allowed for the coinage of silver.

The 12 new western senators once again reinvigorated talk about the surplus silver supply in western states.  They tried to push through congress bills to increase federal dollars spent each month on silver and allow the U.S. to coin silver.

Former president Grover Cleveland was watching these actions closely.  As an ardent opponent of the U.S. purchasing silver, he was very concerned.  While his political advisors recommended he stay silent on the issue as to not offend potential voters, he said, "I am supposed to be a leader of my party.  If any word of mine can check these dangerous fallacies, it is my duty to give that word, whatever the cost may be to me."

So Cleveland published a letter in opposition to the coinage of money, and it became known as the "Silver Letter."  While Harrison signed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890.  Yet the bill to allow the U.S. to coin silver failed to make it out of congress, and Cleveland was happy about this. But his political aspirations were reinvigorated, and he decided he wanted to run again for president.

The Congress of 1889-90 created bills that appropriated so much money to unworthy causes that it was often referred to as the "billion-dollar Congress."  It appropriated money to steamship companies and new railroads, and spent large sums for the construction of new U.S. navy ships.  This soured voter opinion of Congress.

While the Sherman Silver Purchase Act resulted in an economic boom (it was short lived, but lasted through the end of Harrison's term), but the McKinley Tariff Act was seen as a boon to wealthy industrialists.  Such displeasure was revealed at the midterm election of 1890 when House Republicans lost 93 seats that lead democrats to a commanding majority.

Harrison faced strong opposition from William McKinley and James G. Blaine at the republican convention, and even though Harrison won the nomination on the first ballot, the party was not united.

So, Harrison ran for re-election in 1892, and this time he once again faced his arch nemesis, Grover Cleveland.  This was the only time in U.S. history a president and a former president were the two main candidates.   Harrison would once again lose the popular vote, only this time he lost the electoral college as well.

The economic boom created by purchase of silver turned out to be short lived, and almost as soon as Harrison was out of office was the  Panic of 1893, which resulted in a major depression.  Both the McKinley Tariff Act and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act were blamed.  This pretty much sealed Benjamin Harrison's legacy as a poor president.