Unlike Cleveland, who was an adamant foe of silver, Harrison was supportive without committing himself to the extreme of free coinage, which Silver Republicans and other advocates of silver desired. With Treasury Secretary William Windom, he developed a bill authorizing the issuance of treasury notes on deposits of silver bullion. A tortuous legislative struggle, with Harrison devising compromises and rallying votes, led to passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (July 1890), which increased the amount of silver to be coined but stopped short of free coinage. The act required the purchase of 4.5 million ounces of silver each month at the prevailing market price, through the issuance of treasury notes redeemable in gold or silver. The greater outpouring of paper money would badly strain the treasury's reserves of gold.
The momentum for silver came from the worsening plight of western and southern farmers who carried a heavy burden of debt. Already the emerging Populist party, which championed their needs and featured among its planks the free coinage of silver, had acquired a strength that would afflict Harrison in future elections. As well, free-silver Republicans from the West frequently were allied with eastern Republicans disaffected by Harrison's patronage policies. The president trod cautiously on the silver issue, aiming to maintain maximum political support. Simultaneously, he wished to avoid what he termed "unsound money." He styled himself a "bimetallist" rather than a gold standard advocate, since he favored expanding the paper currency backed by silver. But his opposition to free coinage cost him the support of western free-silver Republicans.
In campaign speeches, Harrison had proclaimed his belief in a protective tariff, which promised relief from the competition of cheap foreign-made goods. A tariff, he had contended, was beneficial to all—to workers whose jobs in effect were protected "at good wages," to farmers who supplied their needs, to the railroads transporting their goods. The tariff became a reality when Congressman William McKinley of Ohio and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island became the chief authors of the McKinley Tariff Law of 1890, whose principal schedules were imposed by the National Association of Wool Manufacturers, the Tin Plate and Iron and Steel Associations, Louisiana sugar growers, and other groups. The McKinley bill reached out to farmers by placing protective rates on agricultural products, and it put raw sugar on the free list while compensating Louisiana and Kansas beet growers with a bounty of 2 cents a pound. Harrison helped devise the sugar provision when it threatened to deadlock the bill. He also over-saw the development of a reciprocity provision that empowered the president to impose duties on sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, and hides if he determined that nations exporting them were imposing unequal and unreasonable duties on American goods. No apparent heed was given to the prospect of severely rising prices, which the new law did indeed inflict on consumers. Fortunately, Harrison and Secretary of State Blaine negotiated more than a dozen reciprocal agreements that modified tariff duties with leading trading partners.
A major measure that was responsive to the rising threat of the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist party, and their likely combination with the Knights of Labor, was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. For Harrison, the act redeemed a campaign pledge. He venerated economic competition and disdained monopoly, a sentiment he expressed on inauguration day when he was presented with the gift of a watch-dog, an enormous Siberian bloodhound. The dog, he said, "looks very much like an overfed monopolist." The new antitrust law, he thought, might offset to some degree the McKinley Tariff Act by prompting lower prices under freer competition. But Harrison did little to enforce the new law. His inaction was encouraged by Congress' failure to appropriate funds to investigate the trusts. The administration initiated only seven antitrust cases.
In his early policymaking, Harrison was also preoccupied with the rights of blacks in the context of general policy toward the South. His campaign statements were positive but general. Harrison was alert to the necessity of strengthening Republican voting performance in the South, where his own campaign had fared badly. From a series of measures introduced in Congress emerged a consolidating bill known as the Lodge bill or force bill, which sought to protect the rights of blacks at the polls by putting southern elections under federal supervision. The bill left Republican legislators divided, again demonstrating that Harrison could not count on his party's support for prime legislative objectives. Senators Quay and Cameron of Pennsylvania typified a basic cause of Republican recalcitrance by bowing to corporate interests of their state with holdings in the South that the new legislation might impair. Black leaders pressed Harrison to lead a public crusade for "free speech, a free ballot and a fair return of votes at the South." The Lodge bill passed in the House, but the nervous business interests prevailed in the Senate, where an administration advocate of the black cause noted, "We have had too much . . . of what may be called 'strictly business' politics."
Harrison, who considered voting rights for blacks a moral isuse, chose not to go to the people in behalf of the Lodge bill but heeded a traditional demand of black leaders for a share of the patronage. He promptly continued his party's policy of rewarding a few black leaders as a bestowal of recognition on the entire race. Generally, his favors fell on younger leaders rather than old. The president's major coup was the installation of N. Wright Cuney to the important post of collector of the Port of Galveston. The distinguished black leader Frederick Douglass was named United States resident minister and consul general to Haiti. Harrison also sought to name blacks to the postmasterships of larger southern cities, but that policy was deterred when the Senate forced the withdrawal of Dr. W. O. Crum's nomination for postmaster of Charleston. In net effect, Harrison's efforts enhanced his regard in the eyes of the black press and black leaders.
In Congress, Harrison had been known as the "Soldier's Senator" because of his sponsorship of liberal pension legislation for Civil War veterans, and in his presidential campaign he had declared that the nation should not use "an apothecary's scale to weigh the rewards of the men who saved the country." The presence of four generals in the cabinet enhanced the confidence of pension advocates even further, and in addresses on patriotic occasions and to GAR encampments, Harrison reemphasized his commitment to improved pensions for veterans.
One of the president's more promising contributions to the well-being of the veterans was his appointment of Corporal James R. Tanner, GAR commander from New York, who had lost both legs in the Second Battle of Bull Run, as commissioner of pensions. Tanner deemed it his duty "to assist a worthy old claimant to prove his case rather than to hunt for technical reasons under the law to knock him out." Even this was a modest understatement, for Tanner's many critics were soon charging that his handouts to veterans were lavish and illegal. He shot back defiantly that he would "drive a six-mule team through the Treasury." When his administrative superior, Interior Secretary John W. Noble, with the president's encouragement, commenced an investigation of Tanner's prodigal stewardship, Tanner challenged the secretary's authority in a letter released to the press. The intervention of friends of both Tanner and the president induced Tanner to resign, an act that relieved the president of a burgeoning political liability.
Harrison was more successful in moving a new liberal pension law through Congress. Under existing law, wounds or disease traceable to the war entitled the veteran to a pension. At Harrison's urging, Congress adopted in 1890 the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, which provided pensions for all veterans who had served ninety days and who were unable to perform manual labor, regardless of the cause or origin of their disability. The new law also initiated the government's commitment to the principle that its pension system provide for minors, dependent parents, and widows.
An explosion of expenditure promptly followed the enactment of Harrison's measure. Between 1891 and 1895, the number of pensioners rose from 676,000 to 970,000, and by the completion of Harrison's term, the yearly appropriation for pensions increased from $81 million to $135 million. In little more than a decade, the new law cost the government over $1 billion. Ironically, the extravagance of Harrison and Congress far exceeded Tanner's open-handedness. The new pension law confirmed the growing suspicion of citizens that governmental extravagance was moving far beyond bounds. Nonetheless, when critics referred to Congress as the "Billion-Dollar Congress," Speaker Thomas B. Reed retorted, "Yes, but this is a billion-dollar country."
Life in the White House was also on a large scale. Not only President and Mrs. Harrison lived there, but many members of their family. Harrison was described as "the only living ruler who can gather at his table four generations," which he did daily. Those at his board included Mrs. Harrison's father and the Harrisons' daughter, Mary, who helped with her mother's social schedule. With Mary were her two young children. Harrison's son, Russell, divided his time between New York and Montana, but his wife and daughter lived in the White House. Also present was an older sister of Mrs. Harrison. Since the executive mansion had only five bedrooms, the Harrisons found it unduly small.
The household was run methodically, with meals served at their appointed time. Breakfast was followed by prayers led by the president. An hour in the afternoon was reserved for a brisk walk or drive. On Washington's streets, Harrison was often seen conversing with citizens who accosted him. The Harrisons remained regular churchgoers; the president engaged in no business on Sunday and even left his mail unopened. Mrs. Harrison, a lively presence, designed the family china set; decorated hundreds of porcelain dishes, the proceeds of whose sales were donated to charities; engaged a professor of French to instruct the wives and daughters of cabinet families and others; and presided with charm and grace at White House functions. The Harrisons conveyed an easy informality, a relief to many after the stiffness of the Cleveland years. The younger Harrisons restored dancing at the White House, which was said to have been in abeyance since the time of Mrs. Polk.
Harrison's chief aide was Colonel Elijah Walker Halford, his executive secretary and confidant, a former editor of the Indianapolis Journal . Like others who served as secretaries to presidents, both before and after Harrison's time, Halford was a factotum who dealt with Congress, the press, and party figures, and the steady march of other White House callers. Halford was overseer of Harrison's daily political well-being. Presidential business was aided by the presence of telephones in the White House, although there was no telephone operator.
Harrison was readily accessible to his cabinet secretaries and followed a regimen of two weekly cabinet meetings and seeing each secretary on a scheduled day each week when, as the president explained, the secretary would come with his papers and a full consultation would proceed concerning appointments and other important business. Harrison devoted cabinet meetings to discussions of items that were of general interest or that at least affected more than one department. Before signing legislation involving a department, Harrison consulted the department head.
Of all his cabinet secretaries, Harrison's most complex relations were with Secretary of State James G. Blaine. For decades the most popular man in American politics, a controlling power of the Republican party, a perennial presidential candidate, and a leader in legislation, Blaine was versatile in both foreign and domestic policymaking. Harrison was slow in offering Blaine the post of secretary. By delaying until mid-January 1889, he sought to avoid any appearance that a deal had been made at the Chicago convention or that Blaine, and not Harrison, was choosing the cabinet.
As secretary of state, Blaine was constrained by the watchful, possibly jealous, Harrison to limited diplomatic initiatives, to concentration on inherited problems and isolated incidents as they arose. Occasionally relations between the two foremost Republicans of the day were brittle. As Mrs. Blaine complained, after a sequence of her husband's disappointments, "All propositions are rejected." Blaine was not invited to accompany the president on his extensive political trips, although other cabinet secretaries and the vice president were. Harrison vetoed a request that Blaine desired above all else, the appointment of his son Walker as assistant secretary of state, for which he was well qualified by ability and diplomatic experience. A lawyer, Walker could have been of estimable assistance to his father, who was not a lawyer, in an administration where legal questions were at the forefront of policymaking.
Despite the rough edges of their relationship, Blaine and Harrison were mutually supportive in the quest for a new and better policy. Blaine, who fore-saw great trouble under the McKinley Tariff's high rates, urged, in testimony to congressional committees, sweeping empowerment of the executive to negotiate reciprocity agreements with other countries for individual commodities, instead of general reciprocity treaties.
After initial hesitation, Harrison became more hospitable to reciprocity, influenced by Blaine's tutelage and by his understanding that western farmers welcomed reciprocity as an avenue to enlarged markets for their produce. With agrarian unrest and Populist strength growing, the Republicans patently needed to be more responsive to western sentiment if they were to hold the allegiance of that area.
It was fortunate that Harrison immersed himself in the business of his departments from the outset. An exceptional number of his department secretaries became ill or resigned. Blaine sustained a severe nervous disorder in 1891, a period of intense activity in foreign affairs, and Harrison immediately became his own secretary of state. In the same year, Interior Secretary John W. Noble took extended leave because of health, Secretary of War Redfield Proctor resigned to become senator from Vermont, and Treasury Secretary William Windom died. The heavy burden of additional work prompted Harrison to observe, "The President is a good deal like the old camp horse that Dickens described; he is strapped up so he can't fall down."
A chief preoccupation of Harrison and his colleagues in 1890 was the midterm congressional elections. The fast-developing image of the Harrison administration's extravagance, the hammer blows of the McKinley Tariff on the cost of living, and the distress of agriculture all foreordained that the oncoming congressional elections would constitute a setback to the administration of more severe proportions than the losses a president's party usually sustains in such testings. For Republican congressmen, the elections were a massacre. Before the elections, the Republicans controlled the House; after the elections, only 88 Republicans were returned, with 235 Democrats and 9 Populists. In the Senate, the Republican majority was reduced to 8 undependable votes from the Far West. Staunch Republican states such as Michigan and Massachusetts went Democratic, and McKinley himself was defeated.
The elections, with their crushing impact on Republican fortunes, indicated that the country desired major policy changes. But the result of the elections—the decimation of House Republicans—virtually foreclosed any sizable adjustments of domestic policy. The elections revealed fast-rising Populist strength in the Midwest and South, which alarmed the president's chief political advisers, who anticipated that the Senate's Silver Republicans would become all the more unreliable. The altered congressional party picture stalled most of Harrison's domestic program in his administration's final two years. His strength in the Senate was sufficient to forestall repeal of legislation passed in the first half of his administration.