Tuesday, August 21, 2007

August 20, 1833:

Benjamin Harrison's Birthday

Benjamin Harrison has a number of distinctions -- the only Hoosier president, the only grandson of a president to become president, the president who created the most states with his signature on their statehood bills: six, including the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming from late 1889 to mid-1890. The story is that not even Harrison knew whether North Dakota or South Dakota entered the Union first, since he signed the bills one after the other without looking at which was which.

His was not, however, an especially eventful presidency. Even his obituary in the New York Times is hard-pressed to list much exciting during his administration, though perhaps it was better for Harrison, and the nation, that way. He surely must have been glad he didn't have to deal with the Panic of 1893, leaving that to the man who beat him the year before, Grover Cleveland.

The Times obit describes the Harrison administration thusly: "While Mr. Blaine has been credited by many with the full conduct of the affairs of the State Department during the time he held that portfolio, the hand of the President was seen in the discussion of the legal rights of aliens domiciled here, contained in the note to the Italian Government concerning the New Orleans massacre.

"The Bering Sea controversy was full of difficulty when Mr. Blaine's sudden illness threw the burden of the matter for a time upon President Harrison. As Lord Salisbury was delaying and no modus vivendi had been agreed upon, although the season for pelagic sealing was opening, President Harrison took measures for intercepting the Canadian sealers and the terms of the treaty were soon arranged.

"In the Chilean affair, in which that Government denied its responsibility for the assaults upon American sailors and refused safe conduct to some of the members of the Balmaceda Administration who had taken refuge at the United States Legation, President Harrison was persistent in his demands and finally made a peremptory request, which was promptly answered.

"During President Harrison's Administration the Pan-American Congress was held at Washington, at the sessions of which delegates from the South American States discussed mutual trade relations and the policy of negotiating reciprocity tariff treaties.

"Early in 1890 President Harrison made a trip of 10,000 miles to the Pacific Coast and back in thirty-one days, during which he delivered 140 addresses. These addresses are regarded as models of non-political and patriotic speeches and did much to fix the high position which he occupied in the public estimation. They were remarkable for felicity of expression and showed his ability to make a large number of short speeches a day, each having a distinct thought. In these qualities he was not surpassed by any man of his time.

"President Harrison's Administration witnessed the enactment of the McKinley tariff law and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and saw the defeat in the Senate of the Lodge Federal Elections bill."

One more distinction: he was, it seems, the president to have his voice recorded, on an Edison wax cylinder. The clip is here.

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