In his post-Presidential autobiography, Calvin Coolidge described had witnessed former President Benjamin Harrison deliver remarks at the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument when Coolidge was still in college. After examining the relevant passages in Coolidge’s autobiography, I will describe the events of Harrison’s role at the Bennington Monument dedication with excerpts from a book of his speeches.
Coolidge’s Memories of the Bennington Battle Monument Dedication
Calvin Coolidge served as the 30th President of the United States from August 1923 to March 1929. After leaving office, he immediately began working on his autobiography, which was published in late 1929. Coolidge focused far more on his life before becoming president than he did on his tenure in the White House. Coolidge was a skilled writer. I previously wrote about a beautiful passage wherein he described his late mother. Coolidge dedicated a later section of the autobiography to his college years at Amherst. During his summer break in August 1891, Coolidge saw the President of the United States for the first time in his life. I quote from the book below:
During the summer vacation my father and I went to the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument. It was a most elaborate ceremony with much oratory followed by a dinner and more speaking, with many bands of music and a long military parade. The public officials of Vermont and many from New York were there. I heard President Harrison, who was the first President I had ever seen, make an address.
Coolidge, who wrote this as a 57-year old former President, described his recollection of the thoughts of the 19-year old college student Coolidge seeing President Harrison:
As I looked on him and realized that he personally represented the glory and dignity of the United States I wondered how it felt to bear so much responsibility and little thought I should ever know.
The passage caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, Coolidge’s description of the President “personally represent[ing] the glory and dignity of the United States” is a rich description. The scope of the Presidency and the Executive Branch has grown greatly since 1891 – in fact one could argue that Coolidge himself was the last President of a certain era in U.S. history – but I think that Coolidge’s description of the responsibility borne by Harrison would be a more common sentiment of his era than our own. It also occurred to me that Harrison is one of the more nondescript Presidents in historical memory, notwithstanding my one feature article on his journey to the Republican nomination in 1888. Coolidge’s statement reminds us that regardless of how much Harrison features in historic memory, he was once the President of the United States.
(Coolidge came from a prominent Republican family in Vermont. He noted that he had been a supporter: “The Presidential election of 1888 created considerable interest among the students [at Amherst]. Most of them favored the Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison against the then President Grover Cleveland. When Harrison was elected, two nights were spent parading the streets with drums and trumpets, celebrating the victory.)
The second part of the quote that interested me was with respect to Coolidge himself. I highlighted above that the Coolidge, when writing about the first time he saw a U.S. President in the flesh was, himself, a former President. It is the former President Coolidge recalling his younger self pondering what it would mean to, like Harrison, personally embody the glory and dignity of the United States. How much of Coolidge’s recollection described the sentiments of his college-aged self? How much of it was colored by the older Coolidge’s own experience of being President? We will never know the answer. But I did consider Coolidge’s line about wondering what it would feel like to be President in conjunction with his later descriptions of the office. Coolidge lost his son while in office. He described how that affected his view of the presidency:
When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.
Coolidge later tried to describe the indescribable feelings that he had as the occupant of the White House:
Even after passing through the Presidential office, it still remains a great mystery. Why one person is selected for it and many others are rejected cannot be told. Why people respond as they do to its influence seems to be beyond inquiry. Any man who has been placed in the White House can not feel that it is the result of his own exertions or his own merit. Some power outside and beyond him becomes manifest through him. As he contemplates the workings of his office, he comes to realize with an increasing sense of humility that he is but an instrument in the hands of God.
In the end, Coolidge stated that the experience could not be described to people who did not have it:
The Presidential office differs from everything else. Much of it cannot be described, it can only be felt.
I wonder if Harrison would have described his four years in office in a similar way.
An Account of President Harrison at Bennington
Reading this passage my Coolidge made me curious to learn more about the events that he described. I ran a search a few years ago and came across a potentially promising resource on Project Gutenberg: Speeches of Benjamin Harrison, Twenty-third President of the United States. It was from this book that I discovered the speeches that I covered in an article about Harrison informally accepting the Republican nomination for President on July 4, 1888. I searched the book for Bennington and discovered a section titled The Bennington Trip, August 1891. That seemed promising. The section contains a number of speeches that Harrison delivered on the trip. I begin with the introduction:
On Tuesday, August 18, President Harrison left Cape May Point on a journey to Bennington, to participate in the dedication of Bennington Battle Monument. He was accompanied by Private Secretary Halford, Russell B. Harrison, Mr. Howard Cale, of Indianapolis, and George W. Boyd, of the Pennsylvania Company.
I figured that I was over the target of the event Coolidge described in his autobiography (Note: Coolidge followed the Bennington passage with a passage about returning to school in September 1891 – which made it clear that the Bennington dedication occurred in the summer of 1891). However, Harrison made several stops on his trip (by train) en route to Bennington, Vermont. The book lists them in order with all of the speeches and statements that Harrison delivered:
- 8/18: Newburgh, New York
- 8/18: Kingston, New York
- 8/18: Albany, New York
- 8/18: Troy, New York
Finally, after making for stops in New York and delivering four sets of remarks on August 18, 1891, Harrison arrived in Bennington, Vermont, for the dedication of the Battle Monument. The book described his arrival:
President Harrison and his party reached North Bennington at 8 o’clock on the night of the eighteenth. He was met by the following Committee of Reception on the part of the city of Bennington: Gen. J. G. McCullough, M. S. Colburn, J. V. Carney, S. B. Hall, and A. P. Childs; also, Dr. William Seward Webb, and Col. Geo. W. Hooker, representing the State Entertainment Committee. As the President appeared he was greeted with rousing cheers by the large crowd and escorted to the residence of General McCullough, whose guest he was.
After a well-deserved good night’s rest, “Col. W. Seward Webb, President-General of the Sons of the American Revolution, accompanied by a mounted Grand Army Post, escorted President Harrison to the Soldier’s Home, were Gov. Carroll S. Page and all the living ex-Governors of Vermont greeted him.” From there, they went to observe the military parade that Coolidge described in his autobiography. The book reported:
The parade was the most brilliant and imposing ever seen in the State. A feature of the decorations was a magnificent triumphal arch, the turrets and embrasures of which were filled with young maidens clad in brilliant colors, while on the top of the arch were 125 little girls dressed in white, with flowing hair, singing patriotic songs. In the loftiest turret was a gorgeous throne of gold, occupied by Miss Lillie Adams, personating the Goddess of Liberty.
“After the review the presidential party was escorted to the grand stand at the monument, where 15,000 people assembled.”
The Bennington Battle Monument still stands today. Ground had been broken on the construction of the monument on July 4, 1887. The current official Vermont web page for the monument recounts that the “Bennington Battle Monument was dedicated on August 19, 1891, with a grand ceremony lead by President Benjamin Harrison and a gathering of tens of thousands of onlookers.” The Monument was created to honor the soldiers of Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys, the New Hampshire Millitia, and volunteers from Massachusetts, who defeated British troops in the Battle of Bennington on August 16, 1777, which was part of the American War of Independence. The Monument sits squarely on the site of the Bennington military supply depot, which those brave American troops successfully held against a British attack.
The book described what was then the brand new Bennington Battle Monument:
The battle monument is a plain, square shaft of magnesian limestone 302 feet high. The interior at the base is 22 feet square and has a stairway.
Similarly to the festivities for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan and Brooklyn five years prior, which I covered on site, the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument was an occasion for much speech-making. General Wheelock G. Veazey presided over the festivities. A prayer was delivered by Rev. Dr. Charles Parkhurst. Then-Governor of Vermont Carroll S. Page spoke first, followed by former Governor B. F. Prescott of New Hampshire, who had transferred the monument from New Hampshire to Vermont. They were followed by Edward J. Phillips, an orator who was selected to deliver a historical and scholarly address. After the orator rested, Veazey introduced President Benjamin Harrison, who delivered his remarks.
One can imagine given the list of distinguished persons who had already delivered speeches that the audience had been there for a while. Harrison acknowledged this as he began speaking:
There are several obvious reasons why I should not attempt to speak to you at this time. This great audience is so uncomfortably situated that a further prolongation of these exercises cannot be desirable…
Harrison continued with a note of humility, praising the speakers who had gone before him:
…but the stronger reason is that you have just listened with rapt attention to a most scholarly and interesting review of those historical incidents which have suggested this assemblage and to those lessons which they furnish to thoughtful and patriotic men. [Applause.] A son of Vermont honored by his fellow-citizens, honored by the Nation which he has served in distinguished public functions, honored by the profession of which he is an ornament and an instructor, has spoken for Vermont [applause]; and it does not seem to me fit that these golden sentences should be marred by any extemporaneous words which I can add.
Continuing with his humility, the President of the United States sought to lower expectations for his speech:
I come to you under circumstances that altogether forbid preparation. I have no other preparation for speech than this inspiring cup of good-will which you have presented to my lips.
While I am not sure what Harrison was doing immediately prior to the Bennington trip, his itinerary for the 18th suggests he would not have had time to compose a speech at the last minute.
I will skip a couple of lines ahead in the speech (you can see the original in the book on Project Gutenberg) to where Harrison begins his discussion of the purpose of the Monument:
Perhaps I may assume, as a public officer representing in some sense all the States of the Union, to bring to-day their appreciation of the history and people of this patriotic State. Its history is unique, as Mr. Phelps has said. The other colonies staked their lives, their fortunes and honor upon the struggle for independence, with the assurance that if, by their valor and sacrifice, independence was achieved, all these were assured. The inhabitants of the New Hampshire grants alone fought with their fellow-countrymen of the colonies for liberty, for political independence, unknowing whether, when it had been achieved, the property, the homes upon which they dwelt, would be assured by the success of the confederate colonies. They could not know—they had the gravest reason to fear—that when the authority of the confederation of the States had been established this very Government, to whose supremacy Vermont had so nobly contributed, might lend its authority to the establishment of the claims of New York upon their homes; and yet, in all this story, though security of property would undoubtedly have been pledged by the royal representative, Vermont took a conspicuous, unselfish, and glorious part in achieving the independence of the united colonies, trusting to the justice of her cause for the ultimate security of the homes of her people. [Applause.]
In this passage, Harrison referenced the fact that Vermont’s status as an independent entity was unsettled as of the Battle of Bennington, with both New Hampshire and New York staking claims to it. You can find a brief survey of the issues here.
Harrison had begun the above passage by presenting himself as a representative of all the States in his capacity as the President of the United States. However, as I explored in my article on his accepting the Republican nomination for President, Harrison was very much a son of Indiana. He shifted gears to speak on behalf of his own state – describing himself as a citizen of Indiana, a concept that was more common in the nineteenth century than it is today:
It is a most noble and unmatched history; and if I may deliver the message of Indiana as a citizen of that State, and as a public officer the message of all the States, I came to say, “Worthy Vermont!”
Harrison then proceeded to praise Vermont for the character of its people – past and present:
[H]e has kept the faith unfalteringly from Bennington until this day. She has added, in war and peace, many illustrious names to our roll of military heroes and of great statesmen. Her representation in the national Congress, as it has been known to me, has been conspicuous for its influence, for the position it has assumed in committee and in debate, and, so far as I can recall, has been without personal reproach. [Cheers] We have occasionally come to Vermont with a call that did not originate with her people, and those have been answered with the same pure, high consecration to public duty as has been the case with those who have been chosen by your suffrages to represent the State, and I found when the difficult task of arranging a Cabinet was devolved upon me that I could not get along without a Vermont stick in it [laughter and applause], and I am sure you have plenty of timber left in each of the great political parties. [Cheers.]
Harrison then described in cursory detail the deeds of the soldiers who were being honored by the Monument:
The participation of this State in the War of the Rebellion was magnificent. Her troops took to the fields of the South that high consecration to liberty which had characterized their fathers in the Revolutionary struggle. [Applause.] They did not forget, on the hot savannas of the South, the green tops of these hills, ever in their vision, lifting up their hearts in faith that God would again bring the good cause of freedom to a just issue.
I will omit the rest of Harrison’s first speech at Bennington. After he concluded, he and the other guests of Vermont attended a banquet. We are told that “[t]he entertainment was upon an extraordinary scale, inasmuch as over 3,500 persons were seated at the banquet tables at one time, and 16,000 pieces of figured china were used…”
Harrison was called upon to deliver further remarks at the banquet. The passage in Coolidge’s autobiography suggest that both he and his father were also present at the banquet – which makes sense in light of that fact that his father was a public official. Harrison began his second set of remarks by poking fun at the consequences of his having delivered four speeches in New York on the previous day and Vermont’s old rivalry with New York:
Whatever temporary injury my voice has suffered was not at the hands of Vermont. [Laughter and applause.] New York is responsible. In Albany I spoke in the rain to a large assemblage. Perhaps, if it were worth while to trace this vocal infirmity further, I might find its origin at Cape May [laughter], for I think I started upon this trip with the elements of a cold that has to some degree marred the pleasure which I had anticipated to-day.
After describing the extravagance of the banquet, Harrison joked about the effect that the abundance of the ceremonies of 1891 would have had if it was present in the storehouse at Bennington in 1777:
I am sure that if the supplies gathered at Bennington to-day had been here in 1777 that struggle would have been much more obstinate.
After offering more praise for the morals and spirit of Vermont and the Northeast, Harrison honored the soldiers who fought at Bennington and elsewhere in the Northeast in the War of Independence:
The courage of those who fought at Bennington, at Concord, Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga was born of a high trust in God. They were men who, fearing God, had naught else to fear. That devotion to local self-government which originated and for so long maintained the town meeting, establishing and perpetuating a true democracy, an equal, full participation and responsibility in all public affairs on the part of every citizen, was the cause of the development of the love of social order and respect for law which has characterized your communities, has made them safe and commemorable abodes for your people.
Skipping to the conclusion, Harrison ended his remarks with praise for the women of Vermont and the sacrifices that they made in the Revolutionary War:
May I, in closing, tender to these good women of Vermont my thanks for the grace and sweetness which their services and their presence have lent to this happy occasion? May I say to them that the devoted services of their mothers, their courage and patience and helpfulness shown by the women in the great struggle for liberty cannot be too highly appreciated? It was an easier fate to march with bared breasts against the Hessian ramparts at Bennington than to sit in the lonely homestead awaiting the issue with tearful eyes uplifted to God in prayer for those who perilled their lives for the cause. All honor to the New England mother, the queen of the New England home! [Applause.] There, in those nurseries of virtue and truth, have been found the strongest influences that have moulded your people for good and led your sons to honor. [Great cheering.]
The book of Harrison’s speeches states that after he finished his remarks, the organizers of the dedication pinned a commemorative medal of the Bennington Monument to Harrison’s coat. The President stated: “It needed not this memento to remind me of this auspicious occasion.”
Although the Bennington Monument dedication was the principal purpose of Harrison’s trip, his train journey continued after all of the speechmaking in Vermont – as detailed in an August 22, 1891 article in the Rockland County Journal.
Harrison turned 58 one day after he participated in the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument, and he celebrated his birthday at a hotel near Mount McGregor in New York. On August 21, he was greeted by 50,000 people in Saratoga, New York, where he delivered brief remarks. Harrison remained in Saratoga until August 25, at which time he proceeded to return to Vermont and make several stops. On the 25th, Harrison made a stop in Whitehall, New York, before stopping and delivering remarks in the Vermont cities and towns of Fair Haven, Carleton, Brandon, Middlebury, Vergennes, Burlington, and St. Albans. His second trip through Vermont continued on the 26th, when he made stops and delivered remarks in Richmond, Waterbury, Montpelier, Plainfield, and St. Johnsbury. On the 27th, he stopped in Billings Park, Bradford, and Windsor, Vermont, before crossing into New Hampsire to deliver remarks in Charleston, and then returning to Vermont for a stops in Bellows Falls and Brattleboro. He concluded his Vermont swing on the 28th with stops in Rutland and Proctor.
Harrison would go on to lose his bid for re-election in 1892 in a rematch with Grover Cleveland, who he had defeated in 1888. However, lest anyone doubts Harrison’s popularity in Vermont, he carried the state by nearly 39 points.
When I first read Coolidge’s autobiography, it had occurred to me that I should try to find details about the event he described. Starting The New Leaf Journal inspired me to follow through on the project, although I forgot about it after having initially planned to publish an article about the Dedication in August 2020. As striking as Coolidge’s short description of the events was, reading about the number of people involved and the nature of the festivities in other sources brings it to life. Harrison’s speeches were upbeat and full of praise for Vermont, but otherwise unremarkable. What is remarkable, however, is the number of speeches that Harrison delivered on his 10-day swing through New York and Vermont, interrupted by a 3-day vacation in the middle. Harrison himself alluded to the fact that he had delivered four brief speeches in New York one day before his two speeches at the Bennington Monument dedication.