01 Oct 1832 1
Oxford, OH 1
25 Oct 1892 1
Washington, DC 1

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Personal Details

Full Name:
Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison 1
Also known as:
Carrie 1
01 Oct 1832 1
Oxford, OH 1
Female 1
25 Oct 1892 1
Washington, DC 1
Cause: Tuberculosis 1
Burial Place: Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, IN 1
Mother: Mary Potts Neal 1
Father: John Witherspoon Scott, 1
Benjamin Harrison 1
20 Oct 1853 1
Oxford OH 1
Spouse Death Date: 13 Mar 1901 1
27th First Lady of the United States 1
Presbyterian 1

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Caroline Harrison

A family portrait titled "Four Generations" included (left to right) First Lady Caroline Harrison, grandson Benjamin Harrison McKee, daughter Mary Harrison McKee, granddaughter Mary Lodge McKee, and and father Reverend Dr. Scott, 1889. Library of Congress

The centennial of President Washington's inauguration heightened the nation's interest in its heroic past, and in 1890 Caroline Scott Harrison lent her prestige as First Lady to the founding of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She served as its first President General. She took a special interest in the history of the White House, and the mature dignity with which she carried out her duties may overshadow the fun-loving nature that had charmed "Ben" Harrison when they met as teenagers.

Born at Oxford, Ohio, in 1832, "Carrie" was the second daughter of Mary Potts Neal and the Reverend Dr. John W. Scott, a Presbyterian minister and founder of the Oxford Female Institute. As her father's pupil--brown-haired, petite, witty--she infatuated the reserved young Ben, then an honor student at Miami University; they were engaged before his graduation and married in 1853.

After early years of struggle while he established a law practice in Indianapolis, they enjoyed a happy family life interrupted only by the Civil War. Then, while General Harrison became a man of note in his profession, his wife cared for their son and daughter, gave active service to the First Presbyterian Church and to an orphans' home, and extended cordial hospitality to her many friends. Church views to the contrary, she saw no harm in private dancing lessons for her daughter--she liked dancing herself. Blessed with considerable artistic talent, she was an accomplished pianist; she especially enjoyed painting for recreation.

Illness repeatedly kept her away from Washington's winter social season during her husband's term in the Senate, 1881-1887, and she welcomed their return to private life; but she moved with poise to the White House in 1889 to continue the gracious way of life she had always created in her own home.

During the administration the Harrisons' daughter, Mary Harrison McKee, her two children, and other relatives lived at the White House. The First Lady tried in vain to have the overcrowded mansion enlarged but managed to assure an extensive renovation with up-to-date improvements. She established the collection of china associated with White House history. She worked for local charities as well. With other ladies of progressive views, she helped raise funds for the Johns Hopkins University medical school on condition that it admit women. She gave elegant receptions and dinners. In the winter of 1891-1892, however, she had to battle illness as she tried to fulfill her social obligations. She died of tuberculosis at the White House in October 1892, and after services in the East Room was buried from her own church in Indianapolis.

When official mourning ended, Mrs. McKee acted as hostess for her father in the last months of his term. (In 1896 he married his first wife's widowed niece and former secretary, Mary Scott Lord Dimmick; she survived him by nearly 47 years, dying in January 1948.)


Campaign poster showing Caroline Harrison at far left with her husband, presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison and their adult children Russell and Mary.

Caroline Harrison

Caroline Lavinia Harrison was not pleased with her new living quarters. Although her home was now the White House, the presidential mansion was cramped, shabby, and overrun with rats -- hardly a building that would command the respect of visiting dignitaries.


She therefore set about reconfiguring the place. Caroline wanted to separate the family's living area from her husband's working space and conceived of a plan that would add two enormous wings to the house: the West Wing would be devoted to offices so that the original mansion could be used for entertaining and private use, while the East Wing would house an art gallery. But neither the wings nor the greenhouses and fountains she proposed came to fruition. Instead, the new First Lady had to be content with a budget that barely covered the expenses for housecleaning and minor repairs. Despite her disappointment, Caroline did what she could. She combated the rats by releasing an army of ferrets throughout the house, bought new curtains and furniture, renovated the kitchen, laid new floors, and installed private baths, electric lighting, and a new heating system.


As she worked to refurbish the White House, Caroline was careful to inventory the contents of every room. She cataloged the mansion's furniture, pictures, and decorative objects, working to preserve those that had historical value. In particular, she unearthed the chinaware of former presidential administrations and cleaned, repaired, and identified which pieces belonged to which First Lady. Her interest in presidential china was not confined to the past, however, as she designed the official pattern for her husband's administration.


Nor was her artistic expression limited to china patterns. Caroline's paints accompanied her to the White House, as did her kiln, which she set up in the newly refurbished mansion. Despite her busy schedule as First Lady, she took three art lessons a week and organized art classes for the wives and daughters of White House staff and federal officials.


Women's rights would be another one of her passions. Caroline Harrison believed firmly that women should pursue activities outside the home and lived according to that creed. As First Lady, she agreed to serve as head of a national committee that raised a much-needed $500,000 for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as long as the institution agreed to admit women. She also became the first "President-General" of the newly created Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), regarding it as a potentially "Powerful political force for women." Speaking before the DAR as First Lady, Caroline credited America's early success as a country partly to the efforts of its women. As a result, she believed that "the unselfish part [women] acted constantly commands itself to our admiration and example. If there is no abatement in this element of success in our ranks, I feel sure that their daughters can perpetuate a society worthy the cause and worthy themselves."


Caroline Harrison was also conscious of her duties inside her home. She gave elegant receptions and dinners, grandly celebrated the Centennial of the Presidency, and was the first First Lady to decorate a Christmas tree in a public White House ceremony. Because she suffered ill health throughout her years at the White House, she asked daughter Mary Harrison McKee and daughter-in-law Mary Harrison, as well as various nieces, to attend social events and greet guests in her stead. Her decision in this matter was not popular among the wives of administration officials. Both the vice president's wife, Mrs. Levi P. Morton, and the wife of the secretary of state, Mrs. James G. Blaine, thought that protocol required they be tapped as substitutes before family members.


Such social squabbling did not overly concern Caroline Harrison. Of greater distress was the publicity she and her family garnered in the press. When Benjamin Harrison was elected President in 1888, Caroline was stunned to discover the press she generated whether at home in Indiana or shopping in New York. She received letters by the hundreds requesting her opinions on fashion and her assistance in gaining presidential favors. She particularly resented the invasion of privacy resulting from press scrutiny of her family's activities, especially those of her grandson. Although she detested the attention, some articles reported that she and her family actually courted and welcomed it, which prompted her, late in her tenure, to write, "I have about come to the conclusion that political life is not the happiest -- you are [so] battered around in it that life seems hardly worth living."


In fact, after writing those words, Caroline Harrison did not live long much longer. She died of tuberculosis and influenza just before Benjamin Harrison lost his bid for reelection in 1892. At the conclusion of the official mourning period, daughter Mary Harrison McKee and daughter-in-law Mary Harrison assumed Caroline's hostessing duties for the short time left of the Harrison presidency.


Like Elizabeth Monroe, Caroline Harrison coped with the challenge of following a very popular predecessor. The public had adored both Dolley Madison and Frances Cleveland and was critical of their successors. In addition, Caroline suffered from accusations that she had accepted bribes. Although she seemed to be innocent in the matter, her questionable judgment and her insistence on privacy alienated some Americans.


Her legacy, however, has proved to be historically important. The current architectural plan of the White House, complete with an East and West Wing, reflects the plan suggested by Caroline Harrison, and the White House china room is certainly a testament to her historical sensitivity in rescuing, repairing, and identifying artifacts from previous administrations. Her public support of women's rights focused greater attention on the issue and promoted greater acceptance of a First Lady's public political stands. Although often forgotten or disdained, Caroline Lavinia Harrison contributed greatly to both the evolution of the White House and the evolution of the role of First Lady.

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