Benjamin Harrison - Presidential style and appointments



The twenty-third president of the United States, barely five foot six in height and just a bit corpulent, was fifty-five years old when inaugurated. He had piercing blue eyes and a full, meticulously trimmed gray beard. His bearing was energetic, dignified, and graceful. His rival, Grover Cleveland, was one of many who were impressed by Harrison's intellectual abilities and honesty of purpose. Writing in retrospect, editor William Allen White admired his "instinct to do the polite, honest, dignified thing in every contingency."

In making decisions, Harrison was methodical and legalistic, his actions unhurried and maturely deliberated, and he largely kept his own counsel. But many were also disenchanted by aspects of his manner, a list that grew as his administration proceeded. His legalistic style of thought, strong intellectuality, and summoning of lofty principle provided a ready wherewithal for rebuffing those who sought consideration or favor. Some found him impatient, brusque, and even irascible. Governor Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio called him "grouchy." Others thought him cold. When Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed was asked if he would board "the Harrison bandwagon," he replied, "I never ride an ice-cart." A governor, calling at the White House with business to transact, was affronted by Harrison's greeting: "I've got all these papers to look after, and I'm going fishing at two o'clock." The president opened his watchcase and awaited the governor's response.

In selecting his cabinet, Harrison emphasized competence and "irreproachable character"; party activity and previous office holding were not prerequisites. For the senior cabinet post, secretary of state, Harrison followed tradition in appointing his party's chief claimant for the presidency, James G. Blaine. He also followed tradition in awarding the postmaster generalship to a principal manager of the campaign, John Wanamaker. Determined to appoint one friend from Indiana of unquestionable loyalty and competence, Harrison chose his law partner, William Henry Harrison Miller, as attorney general. Cabinet making was also an occasion for making enemies. Harrison bypassed two powerful New Yorkers eager for cabinet posts, Platt and Senator Warner Miller. When Harrison appointed Benjamin Franklin Tracy as secretary of the navy and as the new administration's recognition of New York, Platt and Miller became forever hostile.

Harrison's other appointees tolerably approximated his standards, which in effect meant that he chose men much like himself. The final list consisted of six lawyers and two businessmen—all of them regular churchgoers, But Harrison's cabinet making also raised a danger signal for his future. None of the eight cabinet secretaries had worked actively for his nomination, and their selection did not serve the traditional function of placating important party factions to help build consensus for future policy. Harrison, in sum, had a sturdy nonpolitical streak.

Like other presidencies of his era, Harrison's was inundated by office seekers. The problem was compounded by the shakeout of Republicans in the preceding Cleveland administration, the first Democratic incumbency since the Civil War. Republicans now meant to reclaim offices in full number. Despite a plank in the Republican platform promising further civil service reform, a clean sweep of the nonclassified civil service quickly materialized. The chief patronage dispenser, J. S. ("Headsman") Clark-son, removed half of the postmasters. Unlike Cleveland, Harrison removed many officers before they completed their four-year terms.

But Harrison was unable to convert the dispensations of patronage into political advantage. If anything, they became a sizable liability. In awarding offices, the president offended the leading bosses, Quay of Pennsylvania and Platt of New York. Quay, chairman of the Republican National Committee and United States senator from Pennsylvania, presented Harrison with a lengthy list of names to fill various federal offices. When Harrison requested information concerning the fitness and character of each candidate, Quay demurred, noting that the entire matter could be handled by senatorial courtesy with the president simply ratifying what was put before him. But Harrison stood his ground and thus began an enduring enmity. His frequent purpose to represent geographic areas rather than senators' preferences often prompted the legislators to feel humiliated. Unlike other presidents who delegated patronage to subordinates, Harrison handled the task himself. His cool, expeditious management stoked further ill will, especially his requirement that office seekers make their case standing.

While pursuing a vigorous commerce in spoils, Harrison sought to maintain his credibility with a valued constituency, the civil service reformers. He sought to appease them by appointing as civil service commissioner the New York civil service reformer Theodore Roosevelt, who later noted that Harrison "gave me my first opportunity to do big things." Despite Roosevelt's aggressive administration, the Civil Service Reform League denounced Harrison for violating his campaign pledges for civil service reform and the Nation characterized him as a "subservient disciple of the spoils doctrine."

Like other presidents of his time, Harrison was caught between the reformers, who pushed him hard and watched for backsliding while advocating extension of the merit system to new offices and agencies, and party leaders and workers, who reminded the president that he owed his election to their work and that their interest could be sustained only by adequate reward. Harrison was unable to devise a formula acceptable to both constituencies, and the compromises he structured badly damaged his standing with party workers.



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