Harrison took office as the country was undergoing a relatively quiet transition. There was no great crisis at the time of the character that tends to thrust greatness upon the office holder, nor did he have the type of colorful personality that tends to draw the public’s attention and thus leave the individual seeming more important than they actually were. But it was a time when our country was moving beyond many of the internal issues of the past that kept it focused on itself and emerging into the more modern role of “protector of the hemisphere” and a leader in world trade and international affairs. Many of Harrison’s policies were instrumental in keeping our country moving in that direction, and perhaps our country’s growth during these years is best demonstrated by pointing out that we had our first billion dollar budget while he was president. The Pan American Conference, which he hosted in 1889, strengthened our relations with Central and South America. His support for building a modern navy and aiding American shipping enabled us to become a dominant military and commercial force in both oceans. The tariffs he supported, one of the era’s hottest issues, were designed to encourage reciprocal trade and not just restrict it. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was the direct result of one of his campaign promises, as were various civil service reforms, an expanded veteran’s pension, a Meat Inspection Act, and an International Copyright Act. Also, six states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming, joined the union during his administration.
Harrison was also first “environmental” president. He started a policy of creating forest preserves and his own personal edict set aside 17 such areas in eight different states around the west. As another expression of our country’s leaving its frontier days of continual expansion and ever growing resources, during the month of May in 1891, he made what became known as “the swing around the circle” in which he visited 20 states and 3 territories, traveling 10,000 miles from coast to coast and from north to south, delivering 142 impromptu speeches.
Harrison developed a mostly undeserved reputation as “the White House Ice Chest.” Certainly he was an austere man whose reserved nature was tempered by his strict Presbyterian upbringing and practices. But those who complained were not those who knew him, but those who were unable to bend him to their will. When asked to do favors during the campaign, he would reply, “I can very well afford to be beaten, but I cannot afford to do what you ask.” He was proud of the fact that “when I was elected I was absolutely without any obligation or promise as to any official act or appointment — as thoroughly as if I had been born that day.” (The Harrisons, p.156)
In 1892 he and Cleveland ran against each other a second time. Harrison’s refusal to do favors had not won him any loyalty from the party bosses, and Caroline’s illness and eventual death from consumption in the last weeks of the campaign had kept his attention focused away from seeking the presidency. Cleveland this time not only had a larger popular margin, 5,556,918 to 5,176,108, he carried the electoral college by 277 to 145. He returned to Indianapolis and resumed his law practice. From 1893 to 1901 he was actually a member of Crown Hill’s Board of Incorporators. On April 6, 1896, he married the widow Mary Lord Dimmick, a niece of Caroline, despite the protests of his first two children, who refused to attend the wedding. A daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1897. For two years he labored as Head Counsel to Venezuela in a boundary dispute with Great Britain. This meant some travel abroad, including time spent before an arbitration board in Paris. Though his skills were recognized by all involved, England in the end received 90% of what they had wanted, though not the important mouth of the Orinco River.
After a brief swing through Europe with his family, he returned home, reading widely and staying involved in politics, although he refused to campaign for McKinley in 1900 due to a number of differences in policy. On March 13, 1901, after a brief bout with pneumonia, he died at 4:45 p.m. in the upstairs bedroom of his home, almost exactly sixty years after his grandfather had succumbed to the same illness.