America’s First Ladies, #23 – Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison was the 23rd First Lady of the United States and a hard-working one at that. Though her health was never robust during her marriage, she took on many duties to make herself useful both before and during her tenure as First Lady. Here is her story.

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The wife of 23rd US President Benjamin Henry Harrison, Caroline Lavinia Scott was born on October 1, 1832, in Oxford, Ohio. Her father was John Witherspoon Scott, and he was a Presbyterian minister. He was also a professor of math and science at Miami University. Her mother was Mary Potts Neal, a homemaker. Caroline was the second daughter of the couple.

Caroline’s father taught at the university for more than two decades, when he and a few other professors were fired over a dispute with the university’s president about slavery. The university’s president supported it, while John Scott and the other fired professors opposed it. After being fired, John Scott accepted a job at Farmers College, near Cincinnati, Ohio, teaching physics and chemistry. It was while her father was teaching at this college that Caroline met Benjamin Henry Harrison, a freshman in one of her father’s classes. They began courting in 1848.

In 1849, Caroline’s father accepted a job as the president of the Oxford Female Institute, its first president. Her mother joined the faculty of the school as both its matron and as the head of the Home Economics Department. Caroline enrolled there as a student. While a student there, she studied literature, theater, painting, and art. During her senior year, Caroline became part of the faculty, too, as an Assistant in Piano Music. Benjamin changed schools to be closer to her.

Caroline and Benjamin gradually fell in love, so much so that Caroline was willing to risk taking Benjamin dancing against the wishes of her father. John’s strict Presbyterian beliefs made him against such things. Eventually, they became engaged in 1852, during the second semester of Benjamin’s senior year of college. Though engaged, they postponed getting married so Benjamin could go to the law office of Storer and Gwynne in Cincinnati to study law, and so Caroline could graduate. She graduated later in 1852 with a degree in Music and moved to Carrollton, Kentucky to teach. She did not stay there long. After coming down with pneumonia there, she returned home to Ohio to recover. She and Benjamin were married on October 20, 1853, at her parents’ house, with her father officiating at the wedding.

They went to North Bend, Ohio for their honeymoon, then came back to live with Benjamin’s parents while he continued his law studies, and to save money. Eventually, they moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where Benjamin finished his law studies and opened his first practice.

Though in love, they did not spend much time together their first few years of marriage. Setting up and establishing a law practice was a time-consuming task, and Benjamin spent much time building his reputation, and his client list. He also joined many fraternal organizations and went to their meetings for the networking opportunities this offered him. When Caroline became pregnant with their first child, she went back to her parents in Ohio. This was not an uncommon practice at the time. If a woman lived near enough to her parents to visit them easily, she often wanted to have her first child there, so her mother could guide her through it, based on her mother’s own experience.

The couple’s first child, Russell, was born in 1854. After Russell was born and she was fit for travel again, Caroline went back to Indiana with him and reunited with Benjamin. However, she was not there long before a fire destroyed their house and all of their possessions. Benjamin began working as a lawyer for a local law firm whose founder decided to run for political office, and it was by doing this that he helped his new family recover financially. Four years later, in 1858, Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Mary.

Both Caroline and Benjamin helped out when the Civil War began. Caroline joined a couple of different organizations to send supplies to soldiers and help tend wounded ones. She also joined the church choir during this time and continued to raise her two children.

Benjamin recruited 1,000 soldiers from his local area, fought as a soldier himself for the Union, and worked his way up the ranks, so by the end of the war, he was a Brigadier General. Inexperienced in military ways at first, he trained his men during the day and studied military strategy at night, which helped him to lead his men in several successful battles during the war.

After the war, Benjamin continued to work as a lawyer. He also became involved in politics. He went for the governorship of Indiana in 1876 and lost. In 1881, he became a U.S. Senator and the family moved to Washington, D.C. By 1888, he was the Republican Party’s nominee for President, and he won, ousting incumbent Grover Cleveland.

Though Caroline had suffered bouts of poor health since the pneumonia episode just before her marriage, and so did not participate in the full social life of Washington, D.C., she was not idle during her time there. Her father, daughter, two grandchildren, and some other relatives moved into the White House with her, and she tried to get money to have the building enlarged. Congress denied this, but did give her $35,000 to renovate it. She updated the building, got rid of the rodent and insect population there, put down new flooring, added new paint and wallpaper, improved the plumbing, added more bathrooms, and had electricity installed in the building. She was, however, too afraid to handle the light switches, and had a handyman at the White House do it for her.

She raised the first Christmas tree at the White House, introduced the use of orchids at state dinners, and conducted china painting classes on the premises. She also helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution and served as its first President General. She was very interested in the history of the White House itself. Her receptions and dinners were noted for being elegant.

In 1891, she began to have the symptoms of tuberculosis, and though she went to the Adirondacks, which had air considered to be helpful for TB patients at the time, it became clear to her she would not recover, so she returned to the White House, where she died on October 25, 1892. She was 60 years old. Her father remained in the White House and died a few months after her. Her daughter took up First Lady duties for the short remainder of Benjamin’s presidential term, and Caroline was buried in Indianapolis, near the home she shared with Benjamin.

Four years later, Benjamin remarried Caroline’s niece.


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