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Column: Pence inauguration touches on Hoosier history

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When Mike Pence took the oath to become the 50th governor of Indiana, he placed his hand on an open Bible borrowed from the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. It had been used by Harrison at his own inauguration as the 23rd president of the United States.

When Benjamin Harrison recited his oath in 1889, his hand was on Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

As Pence stood on the west steps of the Indiana State House at his inauguration, he took a moment to turn the Harrison Bible to I Kings Chapter 3. This “Wisdom Chapter” of the Old Testament includes verse 9: “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad; for who is able to judge this so great a people?”

A history major in his days at Hanover College, Pence has an appreciation for the past. In the ceremony at the Statehouse, he sat in a hickory Windsor chair once owned by William Henry Harrison, grandfather of Benjamin Harrison and the ninth president of the United States. Grandfather Harrison also had served as governor of the Indiana Territory.

Perhaps Hoosiers should use the new governor’s inauguration as a learning opportunity. There seems to be a good deal of confusion about the two Harrisons.

Folks who visit the home of Benjamin Harrison on Delaware Street in Indianapolis are often less than certain about whether it was Benjamin who fought the Indians or his grandfather. Was Benjamin the one who died after only 31 days in the White House or was it his grandpa?

It was Grandfather William Henry Harrison in both cases.

The elder Harrison’s presidential campaign in 1840 set a number of precedents. It was the first to heavily employ rallies, songs and slogans. An Army general, William Henry Harrison was known as “Old Tippecanoe” as a result of the 1811 Indian battle near Lafayette. His vice-presidential running mate was John Tyler.

Their “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” slogan swept the country and still rings a bell over 170 years later, though many who recognize the alliteration do not know its origin.

Harrison and Tyler, members of the Whig Party, defeated the sitting president, Martin Van Buren. He couldn’t compete against the new style of campaigning, which included a variety of other slogans, including “Van, Van’s a used up man, to steer our ship, we need old Tip.”

In 1888, when Grandson Benjamin Harrison waged his own presidential campaign, hundreds of men with long white beards gathered in front of his home on Delaware Street to express their firm support. They were members of the “Tippecanoe Club.” They had voted for Benjamin’s grandfather 48 years earlier.

Benjamin Harrison served his White House term with honor and conscientious respect for the Constitution. After the presidency, he returned to his law practice, where he maintained his reputation as a man with a strong sense of justice and devotion to doing the right thing.

Indiana’s new governor and Benjamin Harrison seem to have a good deal in common. Harrison left the Whigs to join the new Republican Party. Pence was a young Democrat in Bartholomew County before joining the Republicans.

Both chose law as their profession. Both sought to be governor of Indiana. Pence won. Harrison lost (in 1880, against the colorful James “Bluejeans” Williams).

Both put their Christian faith up front in their public lives. Benjamin Harrison taught Sunday School and conducted daily prayer at home and at the White House.

In his 12 years in Congress, Pence made no secret of his religious faith. As governor, he took the oath and, before plunging into state business, reported straight to the chief executive’s office for prayer.

President Benjamin Harrison and Gov. Mike Pence are separated in time by 124 years. Yet they seem bonded by the same Holy Bible and the shared inspiration to lift their eyes unto the hills to seek wisdom from on high.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood.

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