Caroline Harrison Juvenile/Educational Biography
Caroline Livinia Scott Harrison
(October 1, 1832-October 25, 1892)
Gifted, artistic, well educated, and gracious, Caroline Harrison had long experience in dealing with the public. Although a private person, she lent her name and her prestige to numerous causes for the betterment of American citizens and the enhancement of our national heritage. One of the first public women to “work for a living,” home and family were her preferred interests. Caroline Harrison illustrates the beginning trend toward the modern First Lady.
Birth, Youth, and Marriage
Caroline Lavinia Scott was born in Oxford, Ohio, on October 1, 1832. Her father was the Rev. Dr. John W. Scott and her mother was Mary Potts Neal Scott. The Rev. Dr. Scott was the grandson of a commissary general of the Continental Line; her maternal grandfather was an English-born banker from Philadelphia. The Rev. Dr. Scott was a Presbyterian minister when he was not teaching mathematics and natural sciences on the college level. In 1828, four years before Caroline’s birth, he received an offer to teach at the newly founded Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he taught until 1845. There, two brothers and a younger sister joined Caroline and her older sister Elizabeth.
Caroline’s childhood was not luxurious and sometimes her parents struggled to make ends meet. However, her childhood home was filled with music, literature, and good conversation. It was also a religious household, with prayers in the morning, at meals, and in the evening. Not surprisingly, her education was thorough. In 1845, the entire family moved to Cincinnati where her father taught mathematics and science until 1849. While in Cincinnati, Caroline met one of her father’s students, Benjamin Harrison, called Ben, who was nearly a year younger than young Caroline. In 1845, the family returned to Oxford where the Rev. Dr. Scott became principal of the newly established Oxford Female Institute. During her senior year, 1851-1852, she was listed among the faculty as “Assistant in Piano Music.” After her graduation, she went to Carrollton, Kentucky, to teach music in a girls’ school; however, she returned to Oxford after a year because of ill health. This illness was probably a poorly treated case of pneumonia and was the beginning of a life-long problem with lung ailments.
Although her parents did not know, young Caroline and Ben had become secretly engaged in 1852 during his senior year in college. The two could not have been more different. Ben was shy, reserved, and scholarly. Caroline was lively, plump, and witty. And she loved to dance although it was frowned upon by the strict Presbyterian Church.
During her slow recovery, Ben is reported to have told her that he had already purchased a black broadcloth suit and he would either be married in it or buried in it! Marriage it was. They were wed on October 20, 1853, in her front parlor, with her father officiating. Ben had graduated with honors from Miami University and was now a law student. They moved to Ben’s family farm to save money and a year later settled in Indianapolis, Indiana, after the completion of Ben’s studies.
Home and Family
The first years were a struggle for the young couple. Ben worked hard to build up his law practice. He worked such long hours that he sent Caroline to her parents’ home in Oxford, Ohio, for the birth of their first child Russell in 1854. After her return to Indianapolis a few weeks later, a devastating house fire claimed everything they owned. The young family escaped unharmed. Eventually they recovered financially when Ben became connected with a local law firm whose founder wanted someone to handle his law cases while he ran for office. During this time, daughter Mary Scott was born in 1858. A second daughter, born in 1861, died at birth.
The beginning of the Civil War found both Caroline and Ben looking for ways to serve. Both were quite active in the First Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis. Caroline saw the neediness of orphan children and in 1860 began thirty years of service as the Director of the Board of Managers of the Indianapolis Ophans’ Asylum, a post she held until her death. Ben raised a regiment for the Union Army in 1862, 1000 men from Indiana, known as the 70th Indiana Regiment, and was commissioned a colonel. He faced a huge task--turning raw recruits into seasoned troops. He marched with his men by day. However, he had to study military strategy late into the night because he had no military training himself. His hard work paid off and by 1865 he had attained the rank of brigadier general.
Caroline also became involved in the war effort; however, she remained at home. She joined the Ladies Patriotic Association, the Ladies Sanitary Committee, and the other local groups that were concerned with the care of wounded soldiers. Lonely without Ben, Caroline turned to her music and became head of the church choir. She also continued her painting, setting up a studio in her home. She oversaw the education of their two children and when at all possible, arranged for the three of them to visit Ben in camp.
At the end of the Civil War, Ben’s rise to general and a hero’s welcome home made it clear that he was destined for greater things. The decade and a half between the end of the war and Ben’s election to the United States Senate were years during which Ben further established his reputation as a lawyer and politician. Money was no longer a worry, and Caroline was able to pursue her interest in painting, music, and the arts.
In 1876, Ben was nominated by the Republican Party to run for governor of Indiana. Characterized by the Democrats as “Kid Gloves” Harrison, he was soundly defeated. Four years later, he ran for the United States Senate and was elected. In 1881, Ben and Caroline moved to Washington, DC, where she entertained on a limited scale. Her health, delicate since her bout with pneumonia, frequently prevented her from participating in the social season in the nation’s capital. In addition, she suffered a bad fall and her health was even more a cause for concern after that. In spite of her frail health, she remained interested in the welfare of others and lent her energies to both local and national charities, particularly the Garfield Hospital whose Aid Society she headed, and the Washington City Orphan Asylum.
When the Republican Convention met in 1888, Ben was nominated on the eighth ballot. He conducted what has come to be called a “front-porch” campaign. In this type of campaign, the candidate delivered short speeches to delegations that visited him on his front porch rather than traveling around as presidential candidates do today. Over 300,000 people came to their home. When the votes were counted, it looked like defeat for Ben. He received 100,000 fewer popular votes than Grover Cleveland, his opponent. However, when the Electoral College met, Ben carried 233 votes to Cleveland’s 168. Benjamin Harrison had defeated the incumbent.
The White House Years
Caroline’s years in the White House played to very mixed reviews. She would be the true ideal of the 19th century woman: a homebody, wrapped up in her husband and her children and their families. Yet, she showed the way to the future in the pursuit of her career as an artist. Furthermore, her work to preserve the past White House china, her leadership of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and her firm stand on the Johns Hopkins University medical school venture foreshadowed the First Ladies of the 20th century.
As the Harrisons settled into the White House in 1889, the cramped family quarters presented quite a problem. Their extended family had accompanied them to Washington. This family included not only Ben and Caroline but also her father Rev. Dr. Scott, her widowed niece, Mary Scott Lord Diemmick, her daughter Mary S. Harrison McKee, Mary’s husband, and their two children. In addition, she was appalled to find all the office seekers, secretaries, and White House staff vying for space in the family quarters. It had been this way for years, and one Mary Lincoln had had to chase office seekers out of her bedroom. As if overcrowding wasn’t enough, the rat problem was horrible. It had gotten so bad that Ben’s secretary Mr. Halford found a rat in his bed. Several days later, Caroline found one crawling on her china bureau. That did it! Within days, she had brought in an army of ferrets to eliminate the hordes of rats.
The rat problem solved, Caroline turned to the problem of overcrowding. Although she and a local architect created a design for an enlarged White House, Congress appropriated only sufficient funds to renovate the existing mansion. Caroline started in the basement and cleaned house all the way up to the attic. Extensive modernizations were also accomplished, including the installation of electric lights throughout the White House. The Harrisons were so afraid of electricity, they refused to touch the switches. Staff had to turn the lights on and off.
In the course of the White House renovations, discarded pieces of china from previous administrations were discovered. Caroline combed written documents to verify their history then created a special bureau to display them. She then decided to design the Harrison White House china. She herself designed the cornstalk-and-goldenrod exterior border, included 44 stars for the number of states in 1890, and placed an eagle in the center of the plate. The Haviland china was delivered during the winter of 1892, only ten months before her death.
The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution was organized in October of 1890. This historical and patriotic society for women asked her to serve as their first President-General. Although a private person at heart, she accepted and probably saved the new organization from an early demise. An over-zealous member had created an internal quarrel; then several men criticized the group as well. Caroline’s tact, cool head, and careful judgment carried the day. Although she did not oversee the day-to-day running of the society, Caroline kept an eye on the other officers and had meetings in the White House. In addition, she gave what has been proven to be the first public address ever made by an incumbent First Lady. On February 21, 1891, she gave a speech calling for unity, a devotion to American’s past, and a better understanding of the role played by our nation’s mothers, daughters, and wives. She stated, “Since this Society has been organized and so much thought and reading directed to the early struggle of this country, it has been made plain that much of its success was due to the character of the women of that era.” Among her last hand-written notes was one to a friend, urging the establishment of an Indianapolis chapter of the DAR.
The year 1890 also saw Caroline deeply involved in a major fund-raising effort. Johns Hopkins University of Baltimore, Maryland, was seeking funds to establish a medical school associated with the university. Caroline agreed to head the Washington committee on one condition: women must also be admitted as medical students. After a brief struggle, Johns Hopkins University yielded. Women would be admitted and Caroline lent her name to their fundraising.
Yet not everything Caroline did was received with approval. During 1889-1890, Caroline unwittingly created a scandal. Just before their first Christmas in the White House in 1889, her older sister Elizabeth died. Even the gaiety of the presence of the first Christmas tree in the White House could lift Caroline’s spirits. At the suggestion of the wealthy businessman who was Postmaster General, Caroline and her grandchildren visited his New Jersey seashore resort at Cape Point May. Caroline enjoyed the visit so much and seemed so much healthier upon her return, the Postmaster General gave her the cottage. The furor that resulted from the gift included accusations of bribery and corruption. This uproar continued for so long that Ben stepped in and purchased the Point Cape May property, a financial hardship for the Harrisons.
Despite the ill health that had plagued her since her youth and which had worsened in the last decade, Caroline often accompanied Ben on official travels. On one such trip, to California in the spring of 1891, she caught a cold. It quickly deepened into her chest, and she was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis. An invalid the last six months of her life, she died in the White House on October 25, 1892. Two weeks later Ben was defeated by Grover Cleveland, the man he had defeated four years previously. After funeral services in the East Room of the White House, Caroline was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.