Lawyer: The Early Years
Benjamin Harrison came from a family with many years of political service. His great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison V, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Virginia. William Henry Harrison, Benjamin's grandfather, was the first governor of the Indiana Territory, congressman, senator, and the ninth president of the United States. His father, John Scott Harrison, was a representative from the State of Ohio. The Harrison family record of service to the United States government is matched by few other families throughout history.
Born on August 20, 1833, in North Bend, Ohio, Harrison spent his youth on his grandfather's estate. He received his education at Farmers' College and then attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Upon graduating with honors at age 19 on June 24, 1852, he was baffled by his choice of a lifetime vocation. The scales seemed evenly balanced between theology and law. He eventually made his choice, and the legal profession gained another eager aspirant.
Cincinnati Office of Honorable Bellamy Storer
Benjamin joined the law office of Bellamy Storer, a former Whig Congressman and then a prominent attorney in Cincinnati. After two years with Storer, Harrison was admitted to practice law before the bar.
Move to Indianapolis
Harrison married Caroline Scott in 1853. They considered moving to Chicago or staying in the Cincinnati area. The young couple finally decided on Indianapolis, arriving in April 1854. Here Benjamin found that establishing a law practice was much more difficult than he had anticipated. In September of 1854, he wrote:
... I should feel contented if only I had some business to occupy my attention, however trifling the profits might be... But, however much I may be discouraged at the prospect, I never suffer myself to falter in my purpose. I have long since made up my mind that with God's blessing and good health, I would succeed, and I never allow myself to doubt the result.
Through the friendship of U.S. Marshal John L. Robinson, he was appointed court crier at a salary of $2.50 per day while he tried to build his law practice. In 1855, he formed a law partnership with William Wallace. They enjoyed a steady stream of clients and a regular income. Wallace reflected on their early years:
... He [Harrison] is a hard worker, giving to every case the best of his skill and labor, so that he never went unprepared...He was poor. The truth is, it was a struggle for bread and meat with both of us... He did the work about his home for a long time himself, and thus made his professional income, not large, keep him independent and free from debt.
Harrison's hard work and diligence paid off. Major Jonathan W. Gordon, then Prosecuting Attorney for Marion County, noticed him. Harrison was elected to the position of City Attorney in 1857. Benjamin assisted in the prosecution of a hotel servant charged with poisoning a guest's coffee. The trial was the next day so he asked his neighbor, Dr. Kitchen, to give him a crash course in the chemistry of poisons in the human body. He then studied books for over ten hours. His questioning during the trial confounded the physicians testifying so much that the sensation of the case was transferred from the crime to the prosecution of the crime. He demonstrated his absolute thoroughness when faced with a challenge.
In 1860, Wallace was elected Clerk of Marion County, and the law partnership dissolved. Harrison then formed a partnership with William Fishback.
Supreme Court Reporter
In 1860, Harrison was elected Supreme Court Reporter, according to his own account, the only political office he ever voluntarily sought. He valued the information he gained from his position and considered it equivalent to a postgraduate education in law. In 1862, Harrison joined the Civil War. He made arrangements for his position to be filled while he was gone. The Democrats took advantage of his situation and claimed that he abandoned his position. For more on Harrison's law career click here.
The nation was facing a time of change that would affect most of its citizens. President Lincoln was elected November 6, 1860. Before Lincoln's inauguration, seven Southern states declared their secession and later formed the Confederacy. On July 1, 1862, a full year after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln appealed for an additional 300,000 men in the Union Army. Along with 17 other governors, Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana pledged to aid in the call for reinforcements. Morton asked Harrison to raise a regiment. To find out more about Benjamin Harrison and the 70th Indiana during the Civil War click here.
Returning to Indianapolis after his service in the Civil War, Benjamin was filled with plans for renewing family relationships, re-establishing his law practice and returning to his office of Supreme Court reporter. The firm of Porter, Harrison, & Fishback was formed. The Harrisons built their home at 1230 North Delaware Street in 1875. It is the only house that they ever planned and built for the family. By this time their two children, Russell and Mary, were teenagers. Benjamin Harrison lived in the home until his death in 1901, except for the years he spent in Washington, DC.