Turning Up the Heat on Benjamin Harrison
History really only remembers Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president, by his rather unfortunate nickname: “The Human Iceberg.” That’s how you’ll see the man referred to when you encounter him on our scavenger hunts at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
And sure, the guy was stiff. He was said to greet people in an unusually formal manner, and he always wore gloves to shake your hand. In his stern presidential portraits he looks more like the man voted “Most Likely to Give You a Right Spanking.” He was some one-term afterthought sandwiched between two Grover Cleveland administrations…so, doesn’t a man like that deserve his Batman-villain nickname for all eternity?
It turns out he doesn’t. Harrison wasn’t cold; he was actually almost cool—and as a human being, he was warm to boot.
In a single term, the Republican appointed four Supreme Court justices, admitted six states to the Union and fought hard, in the 1890s, for equal rights for African-Americans. He was also our last bearded president, which oughta buy him a little boho cred.
As to those gloves—Harrison was actually a bit of a germophobe. But you can’t fault the man for being careful. Illness ran in his family, and Purell wouldn’t be invented for another 100 years. So, he wore them because he cared. To Harrison, it was “no glove, no love.”
His presidential portraits do make him look severe, but when has a painting made while you sat in a chair for 12 hours told the true tale? We’ve seen at least one painting of William Howard Taft that looked like it was done by a taxidermist.
The Family Man
But there are photos of Harrison with his first wife, Carrie, and their young grandchild that show the man’s emotional depth. And his letters to Carrie reveal the fiery heart that truly melts the “Iceberg” moniker. In an 1853 letter to a friend, Harrison angrily defends himself against anyone who would question his nuptials after the couple’s two-year engagement. (He was waiting to be fully set up financially.) “Every jeer shall strengthen my purpose,” he wrote, “every taunt [will] raise my mark higher.”
In a later letter, a warmer Harrison gets poetic about the fresh air of winter: “I love to…brave the pinchings of ‘old Jack Frost,’ to hear the cracking of the crusty snow beneath my feet and feel the warm glow kindle in my cheeks.”
Perhaps it’s time to feel the warm glow kindling on this false “iceberg” impression of Benjamin Harrison. Here’s to history finally giving this president a fair shake—with gloves on, of course.