Caroline Scott Harrison
First Lady and Domestic Activist
With his family Benjamin Harrison was reportedly warm, but others, even political friends, found him frigid. As one observer put it: “He can make a speech to ten thousand men, and every man of them will go away his friend. Let him meet the same ten thousand men in private and everyone will go away his enemy.”
So why would such a dry and rigid man (later dubbed the “White House iceberg”) decide to marry an artistic and ebullient woman like Caroline Scott? While their relationship was certainly a demonstration of how opposites attract, perhaps it was the contrast of their personalities that intrigued Harrison. And from the beginning they were deeply in love.
Carrie was born at Oxford Ohio in October, 1832, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was also a teacher and director of a girls’ school. Before coming to Oxford, Dr. Scott had been an instructor at a school where Benjamin Harrison was enrolled and when the Scotts moved to Oxford, Harrison also did so. There he resumed his friendship with Carrie, since he had known her from the family’s previous residence.
Harrison was a devoted and compliant suitor, spending time courting Carrie during warm summer evenings on the front porch of the Scott family home, It was this practice that caused his fellow pupils to dub him the “pious moonlight dude.” One time Harrison even escorted Carrie to a dance where, as a Presbyterian, he did not dance, but sat out the evening as she danced – with other young men.
Despite the prestige of an illustrious family name – Harrison’s grandfather William Henry had been briefly president in 1841 – his family was not rich. Ben was the fifth of 13 children and the family farm barely managed to sustain the family. However, Ben applied himself so he could attend Miami University, graduate and then work at a Cincinnati law firm. Then he planned out his future: he would be admitted to the bar, establish a law practice, and within a few years consider marriage. Since this would take several years, Harrison and Carrie believed marriage to be far in the future.
Carrie completed her schooling and then began to teach music at the same school, as she helped nurse the teacher whose position she had assumed. However, Harrison was concerned that all this effort could endanger her health and also that a long engagement and separation would be unbearable to both of them. In short, he believed Carrie would be better off married to him than being away from him. Carrie’s father agreed and after they were married in October, 1853, Carrie went to live at the Harrison family home as Ben continued to study law. Within a year they settled in Indianapolis where Ben set up a law practice and Carrie awaited the birth of their first child. Russell Harrison was born in August, 1854 while Ben struggled to set up his practice. Then a few years later, Harrison acquired a prestigious partner in William Wallace, son of a former Indiana governor and brother of “Ben Hur” author Lew Wallace. This connection improved his professional and financial prospects but he still welcomed the extra income he received as reporter to the Indiana Supreme Court.
Daughter Mary Harrison (called Mamie) was born in April, 1858, and while Carrie kept house for the family, she often found extra company as various Harrison relatives arrived and left. At the start of the Civil War, Harrison began as a recruiter to help the governor and ended up in entering the service, demonstrating great leadership talent. At the same time, he gained a new appreciation for his marriage and decided to curtail his overwork and the resulting income if it meant he neglected Carrie. It was a resolution he kept.
During the Civil War, Carrie did her part for the Union cause by joining organizations that raised money, working in the Ladies’ Sanitary Committee and assisting the Indianapolis Orphans’ Asylum. She remained on their board for her lifetime.
After the war, he resumed his law practice, as well as his business of publishing Indiana Supreme Court reports and thus provided well for his family. By 1875 the family had moved into a roomy home where Carrie entertained local political figures as Harrison unsuccessfully ran for governor. However, while she did not care for politics; she developed her own interests in society and in community welfare. She enrolled in art and literature classes, remained active in the local missionary society and also helped start a book discussion group called the “Impromptu Club.” In addition to church and family activities, she developed her artistic talent by painting watercolors.
In 1881, just before Harrison was set to take a seat in the Senate, Carrie took a fall on icy pavement and her injuries prevented her from going to Washington with him. An operation in 1883 meant a continued convalescence as daughter Mamie kept house for her father in Washington. Though Carrie could not travel to Nebraska for son Russell’s wedding, she was well enough to supervise the wedding of her daughter in Indianapolis.
When Harrison entered the White House in 1889, Washington society was well aware of the contrast between the short, plump, white haired new First Lady and her youthful and glamorous predecessor, Frances Cleveland. Still, Carrie had her own personality and projects in mind. “We are here for four years,” she said, “I do not look beyond that, as many things may occur in that time, but I am very anxious to see the family of the president provided for properly…”
The White House family quarters were crowded during the Harrison administration because of the many family members living there – ranging from her grandchildren to her 90 year old father. “Very few people understand to what straits the President’s family has been put at times for lack of accommodations,” Carrie said, “Really, there are only five sleeping apartments and there is no feeling of privacy.”
But besides being crowded, the White House was in desperate need of modernization and for a time there was some consideration given to moving the presidential family to other quarters. Carrie reportedly would have preferred that the building be completely rebuilt but when political differences with Congress prevented the authorizing funds, she did the next best thing and renovated the entire mansion as she could.
When the multi year project was completed there was a new kitchen, heating system, downstairs flooring, more bathrooms and new furniture, as well as a new switchboard to replace the one phone that had previously been in place. They also added an accommodation to modern technology – electric lights. Reportedly when White House Usher Ike Hoover did not turn them off in the evening, the Harrisons would leave them on all night. Carrie, the President and other family members were so unfamiliar and wary of contact with electricity that they would not turn off the lights for fear of receiving a shock.
Carrie maintained a full schedule of entertaining, as well as other activities as she used her name and prestige to advance the cause of women. She sponsored fund raising for the Women’s Medical Fund of Johns Hopkins University but only with the specifications that the school admit female students on a fully equal basis with men. With her encouragement, her husband hired Alice Sanger, the first female stenographer to be paid for work in the White House. She also was instrumental in establishing the Daughters of the Revolution and served as its first director, hoping that the new organization would assist the cause of women’s rights and suffrage. As a part of this organization she was the first wife of a president to write and deliver a speech in public. “Since this society has been organized and so much thought and reading directed to the early struggles of this country,” she said, “it has been made plain that much of its success was due to … women of that era… I feel sure that their daughters can perpetuate a society worthy the cause and worthy themselves.”
Another major accomplishment was her establishing the White House China collection. Even before entering the White House, Carrie had been an avid painter, and with a special interest in painting china, a common ladies’ pastime at the time. She even had her own kiln. Once in the White House, she explored the closets and discovered in storage china and other articles of tableware that had used by many of her predecessors. Many of these pieces then went on display. Also, she designed her own china pattern that was used at White House events and, using her personal emblem of a shamrock, she established china pieces that would be available as souvenirs for tourists. However, she also used her talent for her family as she decorated a porcelain bathtub with magnolias for her grandson, Benjamin Harrison McKee, Mamie’s 2-year-old son. Known to the media and the public as “Baby McKee,” he was perhaps the most photographed child in the White House until the arrival of the Kennedy children sixty years later.
Carrie’s health remained good for the first few years as she maintained her busy schedule. However, in the fall of 1892, just as her husband was running for reelection, she became ill and died on October 25.
A final tribute came from James Whitcomb Riley, beloved Indiana poet:
“Yet with the faith she knew
We see her still
Even as here she stood
All that was pure and good
And sweet in womanhood
God’s will her will.”
In 1893 the defeated President Harrison returned to Indianapolis and then three and half years he remarried. The new Mrs. Harrison was Carrie’s widowed niece Mary Scott Dimmick, who had lived in the White House as an aide to her aunt. It would seem natural that the former President seek solace in the company of a young woman who had meant so much to both of them, but his children Russell and Mamie did not agree. When Harrison and Mrs. Dimmick were married in 1896, father and children became estranged. Eventually the President removed them from his will.
A daughter Elizabeth was born to the President and his new wife, but he did not live long afterward. Harrison died in 1901 and the second Mrs. Harrison lived till 1948.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College, Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).