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.)
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.