Term: March 4, 1889 – March 4, 1893
Vice President: Levi P. Morton
Home State: Ohio & Indiana
1st Wife: Caroline Lavinia Scott
Children: (mothered by Caroline) Russell Benjamin & Mary Scott
2nd Wife: Mary Scott Lord Dimmick
Children: (mothered by Mary) Elizabeth
While it is reported that President Franklin Pierce was the first to decorate a White House Christmas tree, the tradition was not begun in earnest and announced to the public until the presidency of Benjamin Harrison over four decades later. On the morning of December 25, 1889, the Harrison family gathered in the second-floor Oval Room of the White House (later called the Blue Room) and stood around a tree decorated with glass ornaments, toy soldiers, and lit candles.
President Harrison’s young grandchildren, Benjamin and Mary McKee, were the leading recipients of gifts, which filled tables and stockings hung from the mantel. Besides the presents, candy and nuts were distributed to family and staff, and the President distributed turkeys and gloves to his employees. While there is no mention of White House Christmas cards being exchanged, Harrison did receive a silver dollar-shaped picture holder from his daughter, Mary Scott “Mamie” Harrison McKee. First Lady Caroline Harrison, an artist, was instrumental in planning how the tree would be adorned. The Harrisons played an essential role in setting the stage for a tradition which has lasted to the present day, as the First Family’s Christmas tree is still set up in the same location in the White House chosen by the 23rd President of the United States.
The Harrisons were a religious clan and were known for throwing lavish, well-attended feasts at the White House in observance of the Christmas holiday. The following is the menu from their 1890 holiday celebration: to start they had Blue Point Oysters on the half shell and Consommé Royal; the main portion consisted of Bouchées a la Reine (pastries filled with a sweetbread and béchamel mixture), turkey, cranberry jelly, potatoes Duchesse, stewed celery, terrapin a la Maryland, salad with plain dressing, mince pie, and American plum pudding; and for dessert they had ice cream tutti-fruiti, lady fingers, macaroons, Carlsbad Wafers, and an assortment of fruit. Harrison’s Christmas parties are credited with popularizing the Carlsbad Wafers, a German-Czech creation which remains popular to this day, particularly in the California wine country.
In 1895, when he was no longer in a position to send White House Christmas Cards, Harrison and the woman who would become his second wife, Mary Dimmick Harrison, used the opportunity of their 1895 Christmas correspondence to announce their intention to marry. Ms. Dimmick was the niece and former caretaker of Harrison’s first wife and was also 25 years his junior. Neither of his adult children approved of the union and declined their invitations to the wedding, but Harrison declared, “I do not wish to spend the rest of my days alone.” The pair was married the following April.
Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833 in North Bend, Indiana. He was the son of a farmer and the grandson of the ninth President of the United States, William Henry Harrison. While growing up, Benjamin spent most of his childhood Christmases on a farm adjacent to his grandfather’s sweeping estate. Even as a boy, he felt destined for greatness.
In 1852, he graduated from Miami University in Ohio near the top of his class and began studying law at a prominent Cincinnati firm. One year later, he married Caroline Lavinia Scott, a young woman he had known for the better part of a decade. The couple would have two children – Russell Benjamin, born 1854, and Mary “Mamie” Scott, born 1858. In 1854, the Harrisons moved to Indianapolis and Benjamin started his own practice. As a young lawyer, he became an active member of the new Republican political party, supporting their first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont in 1856 and working for Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign.
When the Civil War broke out, Harrison joined the Union Army as part of the 70th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers, reaching the rank of brigadier general shortly after Christmas 1863. When the war ended, he returned to politics as a “Radical Republican” – a group which championed equal rights for newly freed slaves and harsh policies towards ex-Confederates. In 1876, Harrison won the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana but lost in the statewide election. He was appointed to the U.S. Senate by the Indiana legislature in 1881.
Benjamin Harrison was known as a religious man of great intellect and unbending principle. In 1882, he broke with his party and made the politically risky choice to oppose an act which would bar Chinese citizens from immigrating to the U.S. He felt that it stripped these individuals of their rights guaranteed under previous legislation. It is unlikely that Harrison received any Christmas gifts from Republican leaders in 1882 and the Chinese Exclusion Act would end up passing without his support.
All was forgiven by 1888 when the Republicans nominated him to run against incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland. In the election, Harrison would end up losing the popular vote by 100,000, but his well-funded campaign outspent the President in the crucial swing states of New York and Indiana. It proved to be the deciding factor in his 233-168 Electoral College victory, made official before Christmas of that year.
Harrison’s presidency is noted for an internationalist foreign policy which sought to expand American influence abroad. He convened the first International Conference of American States (1889-90). The conference established the Pan-American Union, an exchange of cultural and scientific information amongst the American nations. Harrison resisted pressure from Germany and Great Britain to abandon the U.S. portion of the tripartite protectorate of the Samoan Islands. After helping depose Queen Liliuokalani a few weeks after Christmas 1892, he attempted to annex the Hawaiian Islands but was blocked by Democrats in Congress.
In 1890, due to poor economic conditions in the rural West and South, Harrison bowed to conservatives and nurtured the passage of the McKinley Tariff Act, which significantly raised duties on imports. Ultimately, this would lead to an increase in the price of common goods and a dissatisfied electorate. To appeal to rural states and reformers in government, he oversaw the passage of the first major piece of legislation to ever limit the power of America’s largest corporations – the Sherman Antitrust Act. This act outlawed every “contract, combination…or conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce.” The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was also passed. This legislation required the federal government to purchase a minimum of 4.5 million ounces of silver from western mining interests each month for use in the production of coins.
During the first two years of his administration, Harrison and the “billion-dollar Congress” spent so much on soldiers’ pensions and business subsidies that they turned a healthy budget surplus into a deficit. Most rural citizens came to view the Republicans as wasteful spenders who only favored the nation’s wealthy and the interests of business. In the 1890 election, Republicans lost control of Congress and little legislation was passed during the remainder of Harrison’s term. These factors, combined with several strikes in 1892, led to his Electoral defeat at the hands of former President Cleveland. The First Lady was suffering from tuberculosis and passed away shortly before Election Day. Harrison, who had commented that the life of a president was not a happy one, did not campaign much and later stated, “After the heavy blow of the death of my wife, I do not think that I could have stood re-election.”
He retired to his law practice in Indiana, and after spending four Christmases alone, married his second wife, Mary Lord Dimmick, in 1896. The couple had Harrison’s third child, a daughter named Elizabeth, in 1897. He returned to the spotlight briefly to serve as chief counsel to Venezuela in a border dispute with Great Britain before dying of pneumonia at his home in Indianapolis in 1901. Harrison would be the last Civil War general to serve as President.