Carter Henry Harrison Senior, who served five terms and eight years as Mayor of Chicago until he was assassinated in 1893, came from a family which was, steeped in American history and political involvement dating back to 1635, when the patriarch of the Harrison family was Clerk of the Virginia Council. Carter Henry Harrison’s great grandmother Susannah Randolph was a descendant of Pocahontas. What is remarkable, however, is that in Carter Henry Harrison’s family line one finds a signator of the Declaration of Independence, and two U.S. Presidents. Carter Henry Harrison’s great uncle, Benjamin Harrison not only signed the Declaration of Independence, but also introduced a resolution of independence to congress. One of Benjamin Harrison’s sons, William Henry Harrison went on to become President of the United States in 1841, and President Harrison’s great grandson Benjamin Harrison became President of the United States in 1889.
While Carter Henry Harrison Senior’s father’s side was noted for its politicians, his mother’s side was distinguished for its soldiers. Carter Henry Harrison Senior’s mother was Caroline Evalind, whose father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all notable soldiers in their time. Her great grandfather was an officer in the English Army, her grandfather was General William Russell famous for fighting the Indian Wars, and her father Colonel Russell, a cavalry captain, is credited for leading the attack in the Revolutionary War Battle, King’s Mountain.
Carter Henry Harrison Senior was born February 15th, 1825 to Carter Henry Harrison II and Caroline Evalind. Although, Carter Henry Harrison Senior is known as “senior,” he is technically the III in his family to bear the name. He grew up in Elk Hill, Kentucky in a log cabin. His father died, shortly after his birth, and his mother schooled him until he was 15. At this time, he went to Lexington to study under Dr. Lewis Marshall who was the brother of Supreme Court Justice Thomas Marshall. In 1845 he began attending Yale, and after graduating at age 20, studied law at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. After one year of law school, however, he decided to return home to live the life of a farmer on his family’s plantation. In 1851, Harrison traveled Europe for two years where he began to develop an affinity for urban life. When he returned to the states he finished his law degree and graduated in 1853. The same year he married Sophonisba Preston and moved first to St. Louis and then finally to Chicago.
Although Harrison intended to open a law office, he became involved in buying and selling real estate. However, a financial storm in 1857 affected him terribly and Harrison spent the next ten years trying to get on his feet financially. During this time, five of his children died in infancy.
In an attempt to move away from real-estate, Harrison made an unsuccessful attempt at running for the lower house of the State legislature, but it was not until the great Chicago Fire in 1871 that the catalyst for Harrison’s life as politician would emerge. Harrison’s support for the “fire proof ticket,” a ticket composed of both Democratic and Republican nominations for city offices, gained him a nomination and election as County Commissioner. After serving a three-year term as County Commissioner, Harrison decided to run again for congress. He was narrowly elected as the Democratic Representative for 44th National Congress, in March of 1875. Harrison quickly developed a reputation as a skilled orator, and was re-elected for a second term. During his re-election campaign his wife died suddenly of illness and Harrison immersed himself in his work. He served in congress until the end of his second term in 1878, and chose not to seek a third term. Harrison would lament later in life that he never fully enjoyed the life of a congressman. Harrison did not abandon statesmanship all together; in fact, he barely missed a beat. In the spring of 1879, Harrison was elected to be the mayor of Chicago.
Harrison was elected to the office of mayor five times, serving from 1879-1887 and then again in 1893.. The time that Harrison served in office was a time of expansion and development for Chicago. When Harrison arrived in Chicago in 1855 the public revenue for taxation was slightly over $200,000; by the time of his death this number exceeded $15,000,000. Harrison was known, however, as a champion of people’s rights. With railroads being built from one end of Chicago to the other, Harrison continually fought for workers’ rights against the railroad companies that tried to usurp them. Harrison’s commitment to the public is epitomized by his role in the Haymarket Riot. The night of March 4th, 1886 an unknown person threw a bomb at police officers during a workers’ strike organized by local socialist party members. Harrison was quick to speak out against anti-socialist language in the media, not only saying that socialists did not sympathize with the bomb throwers, but also asserting that socialists represented the “workers, thinkers, and writers” of the United States.
Harrison made an unsuccessful bid for Governor of Illinois in 1884, and was only narrowly re-elected to his 4th term as mayor; he stepped down at the end of that term. Harrison decided he wanted to get back in public life, however, and ran for the mayorship unsuccessfully in 1891. Not to be easily dissuaded, however, he ran again, and was re-elected in 1893 in time to host the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His term, however, was cut short by assassination. Two days before the World Fair opened, on October 28th, 1893, failed politician Patrick Eugene Prendergast killed Carter Henry Harrison in Harrison’s home. Earlier that day Harrison had announced in a speech “I intend to live for more than half a century! And at the end of that half century London will tremble lest Chicago shall surpass her.” Carter Henry Harrison Senior was the first Chicago Mayor to serve five terms; the next Mayor of Chicago to serve as long a term, was his son Carter Henry Harrison II.
Next: Johnny Powers
Abbot, Willis John. Carter Henry Harrison: A Memoir. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1895. Kantowicz, Edward R. “Carter H. Harrison II: The Politics of Balance.” Ed. Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli. The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.