Benjamin Harrison

Presidential term: March 4, 1889 – March 4, 1893

Our twenty–third President (1889–93) was Benjamin Harrison, a grandson of “Old Tippecanoe,” the ninth President. He, too, served in the Civil War, where his men loved him dearly. After the war, Harrison practiced law, served as a senator, and was chosen to fill the highest position in our country.

Six new states were admitted during his term: North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming. The United States then had forty–four stars in its “field of blue.” In two of the new Western states, Wyoming and Idaho, and also in Colorado and Utah, women are allowed to vote as well as men, the people there having decided in favor of “woman suffrage.”

New land was open to settlers under Harrison, for the territory of Oklahoma, or the “Beautiful Land,” had been bought from the Indians. As Oklahoma once formed part of the Indian Territory, the President had forbidden any white man to set foot in it until he gave permission to do so. But when it became known that the rich lands of Oklahoma would be open to settlers on April 22, 1889, hosts of people prepared to go there.

To make sure they would have a fair chance, they came on foot and in wagons, on horseback and muleback, and camped along the border. When the bugle gave the signal at twelve o’clock on the appointed day, they made a mad rush into the country. Before night more than fifty thousand persons had crossed the line, and by the next morning several “mushroom” towns had sprung up, newspapers had been printed and were ready for distribution, and all kinds of business had begun.

Of course, towns such as Oklahoma city and Guthrie were at first only a collection of tents, clapboard shanties and huts, or prairie wagons, but before many months were over, banks, churches, and town buildings arose, and the people began to plan for street cars and electric lights. Since then the growth of Oklahoma Territory has been so rapid that before long it will probably be ready to join the Union as a state.

The centennial celebration of Washington’s inauguration was held in New York in 1889. There was another grand procession on this occasion, which passed under the Washington Memorial Arch, erected in honor of the centennial of the inauguration of America’s greatest man as our first President. The places made famous by Washington’s presence were all visited; and to commemorate his arrival, President Harrison, too, was rowed to New York in a barge manned by thirteen sailors. Not only did the army and navy figure in this procession, but all the trades and industries of our land were represented by picturesque floats, and there were large deputations of citizens and workmen.

This joyful celebration was soon forgotten, however, for, about one month later, a fearful calamity befell Johnstown in Pennsylvania. The dam of a reservoir burst after long rains, and a wall of water, forty feet high and about half a mile wide, rushed down the Conemaugh valley faster than any express train. A few moments before, seeing the dam was giving way, Engineer Parks rode madly down the valley, calling to all the people to flee. But, in spite of this warning, the waters followed him so closely that more than two thousand persons perished.

Houses were dashed to pieces, locomotives carried away like chips, and millstones weighing a ton apiece rolled along like pebbles. “Trees, brush, furniture, boulders, pig and railway iron, corpses, machinery, miles and miles of barbed wire, and an indescribable mass” of wreckage rushed down the valley, formed a big whirlpool which crushed everything to pieces, and, sweeping on once more, made a jam at the railroad bridge.

Here, as the waters went down, the mass caught fire, and although there were still some living creatures caught in the ruins, they could not be saved. Money, food, clothing, physicians, and nurses were sent on as rapidly as possible, but the flood of Johnstown will never be forgotten by any who saw or heard it.

During that same month another misfortune visited the United States. This was a huge fire at Seattle, which destroyed nearly all the business part of the town; but fortunately, in this case, very few lives were lost.

IN 1889 was held the “Pan–American Congress,” or assembly of delegates from the principal governments of North, South, and Central America. After meeting in Washington, where they settled a great deal of business concerning trade, the strangers visited about forty towns in our Union. They also examined many of the large mines and factories, and went home delighted with their journey and full of admiration for all they had seen.

While Harrison was President, Congress made laws granting more pensions to soldiers, and said that goods coming from abroad would have to pay duty as proposed in the McKinley tariff bill. A new copyright law was also made, whereby foreign artists and writers can be protected by American copyright, provided the conditions of the law are complied with and copies of their works are sent to the Congressional Library (1890).

In 1890 there were more Indian troubles among the Sioux in North Dakota. When told by their chiefs that the Messiah was coming to avenge their wrongs by killing all the white men, these red men grew so excited that an attempt was made to quiet or disarm them. They resisted fiercely, and were not subdued until a small battle had been fought, in which about two hundred Indians were killed.

That same year, a great change took place in Utah. When it belonged to Mexico, our government had gladly seen the Mormons go there, and did not care whether they had several wives or not. But when Utah was handed over to us it became a different matter. The laws of the United States allow a man to have only one wife, so the Mormons were told that they would never be allowed to join the Union until they made laws forbidding polygamy.

For a time they would not consent. But when they found they could not hold office, or sit on a jury, if they had more than one wife, they made up their minds to end polygamy. Some of the best men among them had never approved of it, and the Book of Mormon does not mention it. All Mormons still consider their book as sacred as the Bible, but they no longer follow the example given by Brigham Young, or allow any of their people to have more than one wife. Six years after the Mormons gave up polygamy, Utah was admitted to the Union as the forty–fifth state (1896).

In 1890, the chief of police in New Orleans found that a few Italians in the city belonged to a secret society called Mafia, whose object was to rob and murder. While he was trying to secure the wrongdoers they watched him closely, and, seeing that he suspected them, murdered him one night while he was walking home alone. Eleven Italians were therefore seized and nine of them brought to trial. But the jurymen were afraid or unwilling to condemn the criminals, though there was no doubt they were guilty. This so angered some of the citizens that they decided to take the law into their own hands.

Collecting at the foot of the Clay statue,—they evidently forgot he was the great peacemaker,—a few men began to make speeches which greatly excited the crowd. Before long, the mob marched off to the prison, seized a huge beam, and, rushing forward, battered in the door.

Warned of what was coming, and knowing they were not strong enough to protect the prisoners from the people’s fury, the policemen set the Italians free, bidding them save themselves if they could. But it was too late; the mob came pouring in, and in a few minutes either shot or hung all the men. This was very wrong; for while the criminals deserved death, they never should have received it through lynch law. Every one who thus takes the punishment of a crime into his own hands shows that he does not respect our Constitution, which says that every man accused is to have the right to be tried by a jury.

Besides, this act of violence made trouble for the country. The king of Italy, hearing that several of his subjects had been murdered, suddenly asked for damages. Although our government explained just how the matter had happened, the Italian government insisted until the United States gave the men’s families $25,000. But if people had quietly waited until the case was again tried, the criminals would have been punished by the law, no fault would have been found with us, and no money need ever have been paid. You see by that how much wiser it always is to respect the laws, and never to allow one’s self to be carried away by speeches made by mob leaders.

In the year 1891, some of our sailors, walking through the streets of Valparaiso, were attacked by the people there, although they were doing nothing wrong. But there had been civil war in Chile, and Chileans on both sides had asked for our help. They felt so angry because it had been refused that they attacked our sailors, killing two and wounding eighteen of them.

When our government heard of this it was justly angry. Chile was called upon to apologize and pay damages. At first, the South American republic refused to do so, but finally the affair was quietly settled to our satisfaction.