Unlike Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, President Benjamin Harrison isn’t a commander-in-chief that stands at the forefront of great leaders in American history.
But much of the success that the U.S. enjoys can be traced to the policies that Harrison put in place. He started building the country’s Navy from a middling force into what would become a world power.
Conservation of America’s wilderness was a priority for him, and he helped open Ellis Island and pushed for rules regarding the flood of immigrants coming in from Europe.
“Although there were no wars or international conflicts, his administration and the way he served the people of this country is still important,” said Ed Myers, a Benjamin Harrison re-enactor.
After years of intense research, Myers tries to bring to life the personality, achievements and wisdom of Harrison, Indiana’s only president. Dressed in Victorian-era suits, the Indianapolis resident walks people through the early life of Harrison, from his childhood to his career as an Indianapolis attorney.
From pushing back against industrial monopolies to helping protect America’s economy, Myers aims to enlighten people about one of a group known as “the Forgotten Presidents.”
Myers will appear at the Johnson County Museum of History on Saturday to talk about Harrison and his contributions not just to Indiana but to the country as a whole.
“We like having our storyteller around President’s Day be a president, and Ed has done a good job for us in the past,” said David Pfeiffer, director of the Johnson County Museum of History.
Myers has played his role hundreds of times throughout Indianapolis, portraying Harrison at the Columbia Club, at the Indiana Statehouse and in tours at Crown Hill Cemetery.
He is often available at the annual Wicket World of Croquet event at the Harrison presidential home, kissing babies and shaking hands with the guests on the lawn.
“It’s a good thing I like ‘Hail to the Chief,’” he said.
Myers, 76, was volunteering as a docent at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in downtown Indianapolis in the early 1990s when plans for a live enactment program started coming together.
People would give tours and do outside programs portraying Harrison and the people around him in his life. Officials thought it would be an engaging way to make historical figures more real.
Myers spoke up and asked who was going to play the main character.
“They looked right at me and said, ‘You are.’ And I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “There’s a story to be told. He was a very honest, faithful man. He was a great patriot, and he spoke so well.”
Myers has spent hours researching Harrison and takes pride in the fact that everything in his presentation is historically correct. His program staggers between two years — 1888, the year Harrison was elected, and 1898, once his presidency was over.
Harrison’s speaking style was impromptu and off-the-cuff, and Myers mimics that delivery when talking in the community. He was very formal, even referring to his closest law partners as “Mister”
“He was very hard-working, and would not have been an easy man to work for,” Myers said. “I’m sure he expected from other people what he gave himself, and that’s not always what happens.”
But he also enjoyed playing pool, taking carriage rides and going for walks around Washington, D.C., Myers said.
Harrison’s presidency is particularly prescient in today’s political landscape, Myers said. Many of the issues that he addressed in his campaign in 1888 — such as protecting American industry from foreign competition — are the same that cause debate now.
Problems abroad pitted him against officials from Italy and Chile, and he tangled with Britain over regulations of the fur-seal industry.
Harrison helped clean up corruption, ruffling Republican party leaders by declaring no political bosses would be appointed to federal positions throughout the country.
“He was quite independent. He did his own thing,” Myers said.
A flood of new research and books written about Harrison reveals the underlying contributions that he made to the country.
“They’re acknowledging his contributions in a way they haven’t been acknowledged before,” Myers said. “His administration is kind of buried in there, but I think he deserves our respect.”
Voices from the Past storyteller series
President Benjamin Harrison
What: Indianapolis resident Ed Myers will present a journey through the life of Indiana’s only president, Benjamin Harrison, from his early life in Indianapolis to his service in the Civil War to his presidency from 1889 to 1893.
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Johnson County Museum of History, 151 N. Main St., Franklin
Cost: Free and open to the public
Born: Aug. 20, 1833, in North Bend Ohio
College: Graduated from Miami University
- Moved to Indianapolis in 1854 to practice law, eventually forming a partnership in 1855
- Elected to Indiana Supreme Court reporter in 1860.
- Joined the Union Army in 1862, forming the 70th Indiana regiment.
- Harrison led the troops in guarding railroads in Tennessee, and eventually joined Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in his march from Atlanta.
- Elected president in 1888, and sworn in on March 4, 1889.
- Established relations with central America.
- Upgraded the U.S. Navy with armored seagoing ships, including 19 new vessels with 18 more vessels under construction when he left office.
- Signed the Forest Preserve Act to protect wildlife areas, and helped created Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park
- Helped created the Bureau of Immigration, and opened Ellis Island.
- Signed into law the Sherman Antitrust Act, the first federal law limiting monopolies.
Died: March 13, 1901