Preparing to read his remarks to jurors in a burglary case, a young Benjamin Harrison was dismayed to discover he could not see his handwritten notes in the dim candlelight of the courtroom.
Harrison, an adopted son of Indiana and 23rd president of the United States, would go on to establish himself as a gifted attorney, a respected officer in the Union Army and someone committed to serving whenever the state and the country came calling for help. Famous trials and progressive government policies would become hallmarks of his career.
A central theme running through Harrison’s adult life was his skill for public speaking. He did not just string together pretty words, but rather made stirring, eloquent speeches that swayed jurors and brought a steady throng to his home during the 1888 presidential campaign. While in the White House, he embarked on speaking tours, traveling more than 10,000 miles across the country and talking to crowds nearly 200 times.
But in the Indianapolis courtroom in 1854, staring at his notes, Harrison couldn’t read a word. Like any good attorney, he carried on. He laid his paper aside and spoke so well from memory that he won the sympathy of the jury and the admiration of his professional peers.
“(He was) someone who could be an extemporaneous speaker as well, I think, because of the influence of his law career, where he had to have that authority and have that capability of reaching and convincing an audience,” said Ray Boomhower, senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press. “He had that experience of trying to convince a jury which, I think, translated very well in trying to convince voters to support his candidacy.”
Boomhower is the author of a new biography on Harrison, just released from the Indiana Historical Society Press. The book, “Mr. President: A Life of Benjamin Harrison,” is written for middle- and high-school readers, but with its easy prose and abundance of historical photographs, the 183-page tome gives adults an engaging overview of the only Hoosier president.
Central to Harrison’s life was the lesson he learned in the dimly lit courtroom. He worked hard, prepared better than his opponents and was always ready to speak off-the-cuff. He rose to prominence and gained a reputation as a “go-to” attorney, and he was among the founders of the Indianapolis Bar Association in 1878.
Boomhower credited Harrison’s work ethic for his success.
“I don’t think a lot things came naturally to Harrison,” Boomhower said. “He worked hard at whatever task he took on in life. He was intelligent man, well-read, but just a very, very hard worker.”
Harrison’s oratorical skills were on display in two sensational courtroom battles that came in the late 1860s and early 1870s, according to Boomhower’s biography. Each time, the future president was asked by the state, and then federal, government to represent their interests.
The first case involved the horrific murder of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young, whose bodies were discovered in 1868 at Cold Spring on the west bank of the White River in Indianapolis. A newspaper recounted the crime scene as “a picture of grisly horror seldom seen except upon the battle field.”
Among those charged with the crime was Jacob Young’s business partner Nancy Clem. Her first trial ended in a hung jury, and when the state decided to try again, it tapped Harrison to help prosecute. He diligently and carefully prepared for trial, which culminated in him giving an eight-hour closing argument that implored the jurors to “remember that orphan child who is wandering fatherless and motherless today.”
Clem was found guilty — the first woman in Indiana convicted of murder.
Next, in 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant asked Harrison to defend several Indiana officials, including former Gov. Oliver Morton, against a defamation lawsuit brought by Lambdin Milligan.
The case was part of the fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866). Milligan had been found guilty and sentenced to death for aiding the Confederacy during the Civil War by conspiring an armed uprising in the Hoosier state. However, his conviction and sentence were overturned on the grounds that his trial in a military court was unconstitutional because the civilian courts were available and could have heard his case.
Milligan then sought restitution against those involved in his arrest and trial, asking for $100,000 in damages. Boomhower noted Harrison “cleverly managed” to get evidence admitted of Milligan’s treasonous actions, then contrasted those actions against the patriotic behavior of the defendants.
“They were United States soldiers who had heard the cry of national distress,” Harrison said of the defendants, “and with brave, true hearts, had forsaken all and dared all, that they might preserve us as a nation.”
Milligan won the lawsuit, but Harrison won the day when the jury awarded only $5 in damages.
Healing the nation’s pain
In contrast to his engaging speaking style was Harrison’s personality. While he was warm and generous with his friends and family, those he did not know well gave him the nickname of the “human iceberg” because his manner was so reserved and aloof.
The contrast was dismaying, Boomhower said. One colleague described Harrison as being able to speak to a crowd of 10,000 and make everyone feel he was a friend, but if he then met all of them individually, “each would depart his enemy.”
Yet, when he arrived in Washington, he strived to make personal connections to advance his agenda that included the progressive ideals of voting rights for African-Americans, expansion of public lands and livable wages, albeit through tariffs. The president would host “Ben Harrison’s Silver Dinners” to bring Congressional Republicans together to discuss strategy, and he would travel miles and miles across the country by train, giving speech after speech.
More than pushing his policies, Harrison was trying to unite the country. Charles Hyde, president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis, pointed out that the anger and heartache from the Civil War was still creating great division among people. Talking to the populace, Harrison articulated the ideals of the law and democracy, as well as what it meant to be an American.
“Harrison sought to do the right things for the right reasons in the right way,” Hyde said.
Boomhower’s biography amplifies Harrison and his accomplishments, which have been somewhat silenced by history. Comparatively little has been written about the Hoosier president, in part, Hyde explained, because his personal papers were not publicly released until nearly 50 years after his death. Harrison’s family wanted the release to coincide with a biography of his life, and although there was immediate interest, many would-be biographers were derailed by a series of unfortunate mishaps, including one writer who died while he was overseas and had the papers in his possession.
Researching for his book, Boomhower got to know Harrison and came to believe the Hoosier accomplished a great deal as president, even though he served only one term.
“I think his presidency is perhaps underappreciated …,” Boomhower said. “If you look at his four years in office, he did a lot and should be appreciated for what he did. I think you can see him as a precursor to the modern president (because he was) more hands-on instead of the laissez faire chief executive who let Congress do all the work.”•