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Mrs. Benjamin Harrison

Caroline Lavina Scott Harrison 1832 – 1892

Mrs. Benjamin Harrison

For this month’s Moment in History I have chosen to speak on Mrs. Benjamin Harrison.  My information comes from a small booklet titled “Mrs. Benjamin Harrison”  located by Patia Waggoner, Librarian, in our DAR library.  What makes it so special is that it was written by someone who actually knew Mrs. Harrison, our first Indiana State Regent, Harriet McIntire Foster (1844-1924).

Mrs. Foster gives most of the information known by historians about Mrs. Harrison’s lineage and I will not repeat it here.  I will share one comment about Mrs. Harrison’s maternal grandfather, a banker originally from Bristol, England.  She commented that “even Quaker Philadelphia with her high moral standard, marked him as a man of exception integrity.”(page 5)  What better endorsement could he have received?

I wish to share a few of Mrs. Foster’s comments regarding Mrs. Harrison personally.  Mrs. Foster considered her “a fine type of woman of the period preceding the Civil War – a type distinctly different from the women of today.”  That was in 1908.    Mrs. Harrison “was both educated and accomplished, being a good performer on the piano and had a very sweet voice.” (page 7)

“The grave and the gay commingled in her happy nature.   With all her gaiety of disposition, there was real depth of character, a serious and religious mind.” (page 8)

One of Mrs. Harrison’s interests other than painting and maintaining a good home life for her family was the Indianapolis Orphans’ Asylum.  She was a member for over 31 years, attending meetings regularly and taking her turn on their monthly visits.  Children were of prime importance to her and one of the most interesting moments mentioned of her White House years was a description of a birthday party held for her grandson, Benjamin Harrison McKee.   Each child sat in a high chair at the tea table, and after tea the President and Mrs. Harrison danced the Virginia reel with the little ones in the corridor, to the music of the famous Marine band.  You don’t normally expect the President of the United States and his wife to cavort in such a manner with small children.

You could tell the book was written by a close friend.  In Mrs. Foster’s judgment “the press of the country exalted the domestic qualities of Mrs. Harrison at the expense of her higher intellectual character, which received too small a degree of recognition.” (page 21-22)    You could almost feel her prickling at the insult to her friend.

Mrs. Foster had a great eye for detail, especially of the fashions that Mrs. Harrison wore.  A portrait by Daniel Huntington of Mrs. Harrison was given to the White House by the DAR in 1894 and in 1939 a copy of it was painted by an Indianapolis artist, Randolph Coats, and presented to the Benjamin Harrison home as part of their Golden Jubilee celebration. You may see it in the upstairs sitting room.  The greatest surprise, however, was the quote, “The dress copied in the portrait, a blue and white satin brocade, is to be presented to the Chapter by Mrs. McKee as soon as there is a place for it.” (page 21)   That comment started a search for the dress.

What was discovered was that our Chapter never received the dress.  It went to the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution.  Over the years the dress deteriorated and National had it copied.  The copy of the dress is the one that is one displayed in Washington, D.C.

Mrs. Harrison’s commitment to the DAR was stressed throughout the booklet.  It was great self-sacrifice for her to accept the honor of the office of President-General, (DAR) as her health was then delicate.  Her opening speech to the First DAR Congress was quoted.  “It may be in the future that other difficulties shall arise – it would be a rare society if everything should move along smoothly– and I can only commend a little patience, and for a rule of action Pryor’s advise to a man on the regulation of his conduct towards his wife:  “Be to her faults a little blind, and to her virtues very kind.” (page 24)     Those words are as valid today as they were then.   “One of the last certificates to bear the signature of Mrs. Harrison was the certificate of the State Regent of Indiana.” (page 25)

When this Chapter was organized and named the Caroline Scott Harrison Chapter, the news was telegraphed to the Congress of 1894 and received with enthusiasm and great applause. (page 51)    It was no doubt as much in remembrance of this lovely lady as for our emerging chapter.

Compiled by Joann Wasson, past Historian
Caroline Scott Harrison Chapter
Daughters of the American Revolution
Indianapolis, IN
Presented May 5, 2010