Caroline Harrison

Caroline Harrison Biography.com

Activist, U.S. First Lady, Women's Rights Activist(1832–1892)
Caroline Harrison married future U.S. President Benjamin Harrison in 1853. As first lady, she oversaw the installation of electricity in the White House.

Synopsis

Caroline Harrison was born on October 1, 1832, in Oxford, Ohio. She studied at schools in Ohio and had a talent for painting and music. She married future U.S. President Benjamin Harrison in 1853, and they had two children. They moved to Washington, D.C., when he was elected to the Senate, and stayed there throughout his presidency. Caroline died of tuberculosis during her husband's re-election campaign in 1892.

Early Life

Caroline Harrison, U.S. first lady and wife of President Benjamin Harrison, was born Caroline Lavinia Scott on October 1, 1832, in Oxford, Ohio, the daughter of a minister. Her family, which included four other siblings, stressed the importance of gaining an education. Her father taught science at the Farmers' College in Cincinnati in addition to serving as a reverend. He also established a school for women in Oxford.

Nicknamed "Carrie," in her youth, Caroline met and fell in love with a young man named Benjamin Harrison. By 1852, the pair had become engaged. The couple wed the following year and soon moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where they started a family. Their first child, son Russell Benjamin Harrison, was born in 1854. Around this same time, Benjamin Harrison established a law practice in the city.

Political Wife

Caroline gave birth to their second—and last—child, daughter Mary "Mamie" Scott Harrison (later Mary Scott Harrison McKee), in 1858. Around this same time, her husband was pursuing a political career (he had won election to the post of city attorney in 1857). The Harrisons' life together was interrupted by the Civil War. In 1862, Benjamin Harrison went off to fight. Returning three years later, he began working as a lawyer.

Benjamin Harrison made a failed bid for the Indiana governorship in 1876, but found political success four years later, when he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Caroline Harrison accompanied her husband to Washington, D.C., the following year.

U.S. First Lady

After her husband won the presidential election in 1888, Caroline Harrison made it her mission to renovate the White House. She and her husband lived there with their daughter, Mamie Harrison McKee, and her family, which proved to be challenging. Caroline lobbied Congress for funds to modernize and expand the building, and it was through her efforts that electricity was installed and the plumbing was updated in the building. She also established the tradition of having a decorative Christmas tree at the White House.

Additionally, Caroline involved herself in numerous social causes. She helped raise money to found the Johns Hopkins University medical school, with one condition: that the school admit women. Interested in history, Caroline was also a founding member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a nonprofit women's organization for the descendants of individuals who aided in achieving American independence, and served as the group's first president general.

Caroline delivered a rousing speech that she had written herself—becoming the first U.S. first lady to do so—during a DAR convention in February 1892: "We have within ourselves the only element of destruction; our foes are from within, not without," she stated. "It has been said 'that the men to make a country are made by self-denial,' and is it not true that this society, to live and grow and become what we would desire it to be, must be composed of self-denying women? Our hope is in unity and self-sacrifice. Since this society has been organized, and so much thought and reading directed to the early struggle of this country, it has been made plain that much of its success was due to the character of the women of that era. The unselfish part they acted constantly commends itself to our admiration and example. If there is no abatement in this element of success in our ranks, I feel sure their daughters can perpetuate a society worthy the cause and worthy of themselves."

Final Years

By late 1891, Caroline Harrison's health had begun to decline. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis the following spring. She then traveled to the Adirondack Mountains in New York, hoping that the climate there would help her recover, but when she returned to Washington, D.C., that September, she was sicker than ever.

While her husband sought re-election, Caroline's condition worsened. She died at the White House on October 25, 1892, at the age of 60. After a period of mourning, Mamie Harrison took over her mother's role as hostess for presidential functions. Benjamin Harrison lost his bid for re-election to Grover Cleveland.

Four years after Caroline Harrison's death, her husband married her niece, Mary Dimmick, who had worked as her secretary at the White House.

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