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This column was written for The Indiana Citizen by Charles Hyde, president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, in honor of the Hoosier president’s 190th birthday.

Independency of thought is the first requisite of the responsible citizen” –President Benjamin Harrison

What does it meant to be a “responsible citizen” and to fulfill our civic duties in good faith? As we find ourselves living in interesting times, it’s worth looking into our shared history for guidance on how we might answer such a profound question.


Since the founding of our nation, there have been nearly 500 million American citizens, allowing for abundant examples from which to draw lessons. But of those many millions, just over 12,000 people have served in Congress. And only 116 have served on the Supreme Court. That only 45 individuals—out of those half billion people—have become President of the United States, suggests something exceptional about why their fellow citizens called them to the highest office in the country. And while their individual legacies may be good, bad, or somewhere in between, there is much to be learned from their examples of citizenship that are relevant to conversations we’re all having today.


With that in mind revisiting the story of America’s Hoosier President, Benjamin Harrison, has some special relevance. Who was this one term president, who in serving a full four years from 1889 to 1893 —and calling forth some of the most transformative legislation of the modern presidency—still managed to fade from popular awareness?


First and foremost, he saw himself as a citizen, honoring the rights and humbling himself to the obligations therein. When Indiana’s Governor Oliver P. Morton asked him to help recruit volunteer troops for the Union cause during the Civil War, he stepped forward to the challenge and proceeded to raise a regiment of 1,000 men. In addition to professional renown as an attorney, he served elected office as Indiana Supreme Court Reporter, U.S. Senator, and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Indiana Governor against long odds. His ascent to the presidency was unexpected, but attained through an unconventional front porch campaign that saw him make more than 80 speeches to over 300,000 people—and brought national attention to his adopted hometown of Indianapolis in ways it had never before experienced.

Harrison’s independency of thought was fundamental to his success as he defied convention and would go on to: call for and sign the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Forest Reserve Act (creating the national forest system and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th national parks); champion a groundbreaking new pension system for veterans; launch the careers of two future presidents by hiring them into his administration; become an outspoken advocate for Black civil rights; steward the creation of a Pan-American conference to foster mutual respect; and help create the infrastructure of national identity through the adoption of the Pledge of Allegiance and policy for American flags to be flown in front of schools and public buildings. 


What was his larger aim in these efforts? Two important insights can be gleaned from his words, and another by his actions.


Upon receiving word of his nomination for the presidency, he said to a crowd of 8,000 well-wishers who thronged the streets and yard of his Delaware Street house, “Kings sometimes bestow decorations upon those whom they desire to honor, but that man is most highly decorated who has the affectionate regard of his neighbors and friends.”


In January of the following year, as he was leaving the city to assume office as Commander-in-Chief in Washington, D.C., he said of Indianapolis, “I love this city. It has been my own cherished home. Twice before I have left it to discharge public duties and returned to it with gladness, as I hope to do again.”

 
Considering that his presidency was in the middle of a fifty year period in which three of twelve presidents were assassinated (with additional attempts on the lives of Roosevelt and Taft), this was no idle sentiment.


He did return home to Indianapolis, and his actions post-presidency were guided by the words he spoke at the national Centennial celebrations in New York City, when he said, “those who would associate their names with events that shall outlive a century can only do so by high consecration to duty. Self-seeking has no public observance or anniversary.”


So as we approach celebrations this weekend for the 190th birthday of the 23rd president, we invite you to join us in doing so out of respect for his independency of thought as a responsible citizen, and for his high consecration to duty as a lawyer, citizen soldier, and public servant. While Benjamin Harrison’s decision to avoid self-seeking has consigned him to the list of lesser known presidents, his civic example is a model of leadership by which aspiring public figures today would do well to emulate.

Hyde Headshot
Charles Hyde
President Harrison’s 190th Birthday Celebration

Hoosiers are invited to help commemorate the 190th birthday of Indiana’s own President Benjamin Harrison. A wreath-laying ceremony at Harrison’s burial site is also open to the public.  

Party Details
Day: Sunday, Aug. 20
Time: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Location: Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, 1230 N Delaware St., Indianapolis
Look inside: free first-floor tours of Harrison’s Italianate Victorian family home
Meet and greet: reenactors will be portraying President Harrison and his family
Fun: visitors can join in singing “Happy Birthday” and enjoying complimentary birthday treats
RSVP: The event is free but guests must register by clicking here

Wreath-laying Ceremony
Day: Saturday, Aug. 19
Time: 10 a.m.
Where: Crown Hill Cemetery
Speakers: military officials and dignitaries from the Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution
Also: presentation of the wreath of flowers from President Joe Biden, the singing of the national anthem and playing of “Taps”

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