A Republican, Harrison was elected to the presidency in 1888, defeating the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland. Hallmarks of Harrison's administration included unprecedented economic legislation, including the McKinley Tariff, which imposed historic protective trade rates, and the Sherman Antitrust Act. Harrison also facilitated the creation of the national forest reserves through an amendment to the Land Revision Act of 1891. During his administration six western states were admitted to the Union. In addition, Harrison substantially strengthened and modernized the U.S. Navy and conducted an active foreign policy, but his proposals to secure federal education funding as well as voting rights enforcement for African Americans were unsuccessful.
Due in large part to surplus revenues from the tariffs, federal spending reached one billion dollars for the first time during his term. The spending issue in part led to the defeat of the Republicans in the 1890 mid-term elections. Cleveland defeated Harrison for re-election in 1892, due to the growing unpopularity of the high tariff and high federal spending. Harrison returned to private life and his law practice in Indianapolis. In 1899 Harrison represented the Republic of Venezuela in their British Guiana boundary dispute against the United Kingdom. Harrison traveled to the court of Paris as part of the case and after a brief stay returned to Indianapolis. He died at his home in Indianapolis in 1901 of complications from influenza. Although many have praised Harrison's commitment to African Americans' voting rights, scholars and historians generally regard his administration as below-average, and rank him in the bottom half among U.S. presidents. Historians, however, have not questioned Harrison's commitment to personal and official integrity.
Harrison's paternal ancestors were the Harrison family of Virginia, whose immigrant ancestor, Benjamin Harrison, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1630. Benjamin, the future president, was born on August 20, 1833, in North Bend, Ohio, the second of Elizabeth Ramsey (Irwin) and John Scott Harrison's eight children. Benjamin was also a grandson of U.S. President William Henry Harrison, the first governor of the Indiana Territory, and a great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison V, a Virginia planter who signed the Declaration of Independence and succeeded Thomas Jefferson as governor of Virginia.
Harrison was seven years old when his grandfather was elected U.S. president, but he did not attend the inauguration. Although Harrison's family was distinguished, his parents were not wealthy. John Scott Harrison, a two-term U.S. congressman from Ohio, spent much of his farm income on his children's education. Despite the family's modest resources, Harrison's boyhood was enjoyable, much of it spent outdoors fishing or hunting.
Benjamin Harrison's early schooling took place in a log cabin near his home, but his parents later arranged for a tutor to help him with college preparatory studies. Fourteen-year-old Harrison and his older brother, Irwin, enrolled in Farmer's College near Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1847. He attended the college for two years and while there met his future wife, Caroline "Carrie" Lavinia Scott, a daughter of John Witherspoon Scott, the school's science professor who was also a Presbyterian minister.