“The Cabinet”

December 15, 1888

Charles G. Bush

“The Cabinet”

Journalists/Journalism; Presidential Administration, Benjamin Harrison; Presidential Cabinet, Entire;

Harrison, Benjamin;

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Editor of the "Whopper" (to tramp). "You can't get anything to do? Sorry; can't help you. Stop! Here's a pencil and a pad; you might sit down on the curb and busy yourself writing a series of candidates for General Harrison's cabinet; you'll find it an infinite source of amusement, and come about as near to the right one as any of us."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon criticizes rampant speculation in the press about the composition of President-elect Benjamin Harrison’s cabinet.  A reporter for “The Whopper” tells a tramp to get busy writing a series of articles identifying the likely cabinet nominees.  The newspaperman assures him that the result will come as close to reality as other press reports on the topic.

After Harrison’s defeat of President Grover Cleveland in early November 1888, the former U.S. senator (1881-1887) from Indiana began the task of assembling his presidential cabinet.  Hopeful candidates and their supporters vied for the president-elect’s favorable attention over the next four months.  James G. Blaine, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1884, wanted to return to the state department he had run briefly in 1881.  Harrison believed that leaving Blaine out of the cabinet could create a problem for the new administration, given the latter’s popularity among Republicans.  On the other hand, a quick announcement of the appointment, which Blaine desired, would give credence to claims that the former nominee was the real power behind the throne. 

Hearing no word from the president-elect for three weeks after the election, Blaine wrote to his political ally, Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, expressing “real curiosity to find out … whether Harrison or his advisors think that the constantly augmented support I have had since 1876 [when he first ran for president] is worth consulting in the organization of the Administration.”  By early December, Blaine directed Reid to plant positive comments in the Tribune to enhance his prospects for the cabinet.  It was not until January 17, 1889, that Harrison finally asked Blaine to serve as secretary of state.  In his letter, the president-elect made it clear that he expected all of the cabinet officers to “cooperate … [in] preserving harmony in the party.” 

Reid was named the U.S. minister to France, but no Blaine supporter was appointed to the original cabinet.  In forming his administration, Harrison treated other national leaders of the Republican Party as cavalierly as he had Blaine, engendering deep-seated resentment.  The common characteristic of the other cabinet appointees was their membership in the Presbyterian Church, the religion practiced by the president-elect.  Several cabinet officers also shared Harrison’s background as an Ohio-born lawyer who was brevetted at the rank of brigadier general for service in the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Thomas C. Platt believed that he should be appointed secretary of the treasury for moving New York’s Republican delegation behind Harrison at the Republican National Convention.  Warner Miller, who had replaced Platt in the U.S. Senate, expected the same appointment.  Wharton Barker, a Philadelphia banker who had been the first prominent Republican to back Harrison’s candidacy, also wanted the treasury post.  New Yorkers Platt and Miller cancelled each other out, and Barker was opposed by Senator Matthew Quay, the chairman of the Republican National Committee who feared creating a rival to his political machine in Pennsylvania.  Harrison selected Senator William Allison of Iowa, a respected expert in monetary policy, but he declined the offer.  The president-elect then turned to William Windom, a former senator from Minnesota, who resided in Manhattan and had served briefly as treasury secretary (March-November 1881) under Presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur.  The Windom appointment angered Platt, Miller, and Barker.

For postmaster general, Harrison rewarded John Wanamaker, the innovative owner of a department-store chain who had raised a record amount of money for the national Republican Party during the 1888 campaign.  The appointment of the Pennsylvania businessman further alienated Barker and upset Quay, as well.  Wanamaker, though, proved to be as visionary in public service as he was in private enterprise, promoting parcel post service, a postal savings bank, and rural free delivery, all of which were adopted by later administrations.  As secretary of agriculture, Harrison chose Governor Jeremiah Rusk of Wisconsin, to the disappointment of his younger rival, Henry Payne, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Harrison’s other cabinet appointments provoked far less controversy within the Republican Party, although they did not initially receive a favorable response in the press.  John W. Noble of Missouri was named as interior secretary.  In office, he encouraged Congress to grant presidents the authority to protect timberlands by presidential proclamation, and President Harrison designated 13 million acres as forest reserves.  To fill New York’s seat in the cabinet, Harrison named Benjamin Franklin Tracy, a law partner of Platt’s son, as secretary of the navy.  Tracy continued the efforts of his predecessor, William Whitney, to expand and modernize the U.S. Navy. 

The only early backer of Harrison’s candidacy to be selected for the cabinet was Secretary of War Redfield Proctor, head of Vermont Marble Company, who had seconded the Hoosier’s nomination at the Republican National Convention.  For attorney general, Harrison chose his law partner from Indianapolis, William H. H. Miller, who was named after the president-elect’s grandfather, President William Henry Harrison.  Attorney General Miller earned a reputation for withstanding political pressure and appointing talented judges to the federal bench.  On March 5, 1889, the Senate approved all members of Harrison’s original cabinet without opposition.  However, squabbling within the Republican Party continued to plague the president’s administration and helped contribute to his reelection loss in 1892. 

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Cabinet”
July 14, 2024

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