Walter Harriman by Rev. S. C. Beane

The name of no New Hampshire man of the present generation is more broadly known than that of Walter Harriman. His distinguished services to the state, both in the legislature and in the executive chair; his honorable service as an officer of the Union army; the important trusts he has held at the hands of one and another of our national administrations; and, not least, his brilliant gifts as an orator, which have made him always welcome to the lyceum platform and have caused him to be widely and eagerly sought for in every important election campaign for many years,—combine to make him one of the most conspicuous men in our commonwealth.

The Harriman family is of English origin. Rev. Ezekiel Rogers, a man of eminence in the church, was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1590. He graduated at the University of Cambridge, in 1610. Becoming a dissenter from the Church of England, after twenty-five years of faithful service, his ministerial functions were suspended. He says of himself: "For refusing to read that accursed book that allowed sports on God's holy Sabbath, I was suspended, and by it and other sad signs driven, with many of my hearers, into New England." This stanch Puritan arrived on these shores in 1638. In his devoted flock there was an orphan lad, sixteen years of age, named Leonard Harriman, and from this youthful adventurer the subject of our sketch descended, being of the seventh generation. Rogers selected for his colony an unoccupied tract of country between Salem and Newburyport, Mass., to which he gave the name of Rowley, that being the name of the parish in Yorkshire to which he had long ministered.

The oldest son of Leonard Harriman was massacred, with ninety of his comrades,—"the flower of Essex county,"—in King Philip's war, September 18, 1675, at Bloody Brook. The great-grandfather of Walter Harriman saw eight years of hard service in the French and Revolutionary wars. His grandfather settled in the wilds of Warner, at the foot of the Mink hills, but lost his life, by an accident, at the early age of twenty-eight. His father, the late Benjamin E. Harriman, was a man of character and influence through an honorable life. He reared a large family at the ancestral home in Warner, where the subject of our sketch, being the third son, was born April 8, 1817.

Muscle and intellect and the heroic virtues can have no better nursery than the rugged farm-life of New England, and the Warner homestead was a challenge and stimulus to the qualities that were needed in the future man of affairs. This child of the third generation that had occupied the same house and tilled the same soil, grew up with a stalwart physical organization and a fine loyalty to his native town, a deep interest in its rude history and traditions, and a sympathy with the common people, which in turn made him a favorite with all. To this day there is to him no spot, save his present home, to be compared with his birthplace, and there are no people so interesting and endeared as his old neighbors in the rugged hill-town. He has recently written a history of Warner, which is regarded as "one of the most systematic, comprehensive, and generally interesting works of the kind yet given to the public in the state." The Harriman home still remains in the possession of the family, and, though the ex-governor now resides in Concord, he spends many a day in every year amidst the old familiar scenes. His "schooling" was obtained at the Harriman district school, and at the academy in the adjoining town of Hopkinton.

When hardly more than a boy, he made a successful trial of the excellent self-discipline of school-teaching, and at different times taught in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. While in the latter state, at the age of twenty-two, he became deeply interested in the principles of Liberal Christianity (the form of religious faith which he has steadfastly held to this day), and occasionally wrote sermons, which were well received from the pulpit, and some of which found their way into print. It was certain from his early youth that nature designed him for a public speaker, the rare oratorical gifts which afterwards distinguished him having shown themselves gradually and prophetically in the district school-house and the village academy. This tentative experience in preaching, undertaken of his own motion and without conferring with flesh and blood, resulted in his settlement, in 1841, over the Universalist church in Harvard, Mass., where he remained in active service four years. Returning now to Warner, and soon leaving the pulpit altogether, he became the senior partner in trade with John S. Pillsbury, late governor of Minnesota,—probably the only instance in our history where two young business partners in a retired country town have afterwards become the chief executives of different states.

In 1849, Mr. Harriman was elected by his townsmen to the New Hampshire house of representatives, where he almost immediately became prominent as a leader in debate on the Democratic side. Of his record as a party man little need to be said, except that from first to last, and whatever his affiliations, he has shown great independence in espousing measures and principles which commended themselves to his judgment and conscience, even when it put him in a minority with his political associates. In his first legislative term, on the question of commuting the death sentence of a woman who was sentenced to be hung for murder, he not only advocated such commutation, but was a leader in the movement for the abolition of capital punishment altogether, to which purpose he has ever since stood committed. In the legislature of 1850, he was the leading advocate of the homestead exemption law, at which time a resolution was adopted, submitting the question to the people. The voters of the state gave their approval at the next March election, and in the following June the act was consummated. No legislature has dared to repeal it, and the foresight and courage of its authors and earliest advocates have been so approved by thirty years of experience that it is doubtful if a single citizen can be found to-day who would desire to undo their work.

It was no accident or trifling smartness that could give a man prominence in those two legislatures of a third of a century ago. Among the men of marked ability, now deceased, who held seats in those years, were Horton D. Walker, Samuel H. Ayer, Lemuel N. Pattee, Edmund Parker, Samuel Lee, John Preston, William Haile, Richard Jenness, William P. Weeks, Thomas E. Sawyer, Wm. H. Y. Hackett, Nathaniel B. Baker, Charles F. Gove, Thomas M. Edwards, Josiah Quincy, and scores of others, now living, of equal merit. In this galaxy of brilliant minds, it is no exaggeration to say that, young as he was, Mr. Harriman was an honored peer in legislative duty and debate. Besides the two years named, he represented Warner again in the house in 1858, when he was his party's candidate for speaker. He also represented district No. 8 in the state senate in 1859 and 1860. In 1853 and 1854 he held the responsible office of state treasurer. Appointed in 1856, by the President of the United States, on a board of commissioners (with ex-Congressman James H. Relfe of Missouri, and Col. Wm. Spencer of Ohio), to classify and appraise Indian lands in Kansas, he spent a year of official service in that inviting territory, then turbulent with ruffianism. Border raids, burnings, and murder were daily occurrences. But the duties of this office were faithfully attended to, and no breath of complaint was overheard against the delicate work of this board.

During the reign of that un-American political heresy, popularly called Know-Nothingism, in 1854, 1855, and 1856, Mr. Harriman was its firm and unyielding enemy. In a discussion of this question with Hon. Cyrus Barton at Loudon Center, Mr. Harriman had closed his first speech, and Mr. Barton had just begun a reply, when he dropped dead on the platform,—a tragedy which lingers sadly in the memory of his friendly antagonist of that day.

The outbreak of the civil war began an era in the life of every public man in the nation. It projected issues which made party allegiance a secondary affair. It sent many honest and earnest men across the party lines, while some of our best citizens simply took their stand for the time being outside all political folds, independent, and ready for whatever calls the exigencies of the country might give forth. In that fateful spring of 1861, Mr. Harriman became the editor and one of the proprietors of the Weekly Union at Manchester, which heartily espoused the war policy of Mr. Lincoln's administration for the preservation of the republic, and thus found himself the leader and spokesman of what were known as the "War Democrats." He was placed in nomination as a candidate for governor of the state, at a large mass convention of this class of voters, held at Manchester in February, 1863, and this movement resulted in defeating a choice by the people and throwing the election into the legislature.

No man uttered braver or more eloquent words for the Union cause than Mr. Harriman, and his tongue and pen were an important element in the rousing of the citizens of New Hampshire to the graver duties of the hour. In August, 1862, he was made colonel of the Eleventh New Hampshire regiment of volunteers. He led this regiment to the field, and was at its head most of the time until the close of the war, except the four months, from May to September, 1864, when he was an inmate of Confederate prisons. With some other captured Union officers, he was, for seven weeks of this time, imprisoned in that part of Charleston, S. C, which was most exposed to the fire of the Union guns from Morris island, but providentially, though that part of the doomed city was destroyed, no harm came to him from the guns of his fellow-loyalists.

The first set battle in which the Eleventh Regiment bore a part was that of Fredericksburg, in December, 1862, when, with unflinching courage, Col. Harriman and his men faced the dreadful carnage of that long day before Marye's Height, less than three months after their arrival in the field. The loss of the regiment in this engagement was terrific. Passing over much (for want of space) that is thrilling and praiseworthy, we find the Eleventh under their colonel, at the front, in the battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864, when they made a daring and stubborn onset on the Confederate intrenchments, carrying before them two successive lines of the enemy's works. But among the five thousand Union men that were captured in that bloody engagement, the commander of the Eleventh N. H. was included. Col. Harriman and the survivors of his charge were present at the final grapple of the war before Petersburg, and on the 3d day of April, 1865, he led a brigade of nine large regiments (a force three times as great as the whole American army at Bunker Hill) into that fated city, on the heels of Lee's fleeing command. The war was now virtually ended, the surrender of Lee at Appomattox followed six days afterwards, and the Eleventh Regiment, of proud and honorable record, was mustered out of service in the following June. Their commander was appointed Brigadier-General U. S. V., by brevet, "for gallant conduct during the war," to date from March 13, 1865.

On his arrival home, at the close of the war, Gen. Harriman was elected to the office of secretary of state, by the legislature then in session, and he at once entered upon the duties of the office, which he held two years, and until his promotion to the gubernatorial chair. In the large Republican convention, consisting of six hundred and seventy-five delegates, and held at Concord in January, 1867, he was nominated, on the first ballot, as candidate for governor of the state. One of the most salient and memorable incidents connected with this period was the joint canvass made, by amicable arrangement, between Gen. Harriman and the Hon. John G. Sinclair, the Democratic candidate. Such canvasses are not uncommon in the West and South; but in New England, and with two men of such forensic ability as these distinguished nominees possessed, it was an event fraught with great popular interest, and which drew forth, possibly, the most earnest and eloquent discussions of questions to which a New England people has ever listened. Many flattering notices were given of these discussions. There were thirteen in all. Commenting on one of the number, a leading newspaper said of Gen. Harriman: "Soaring above all petty personal allusions, he held the audience as if spell-bound, and made all his hearers, for the time being, lovers of the whole country,—of the Union, of liberty, and independence throughout the world. He spoke not as a politician, but as a patriot, a statesman, a philanthropist, and his noble sentiments had such power of conviction that it was impossible to ward off the results by argument." His election followed by a decisive majority.

The campaign of 1868 occurred at a time when a strong reaction was setting against the Republican party throughout the country. Fresh candidates for the presidency were about to be nominated; the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was in progress; military rule had been established in the South; utter financial ruin was hotly foretold; and the dominant party was suffering crushing reverses in many of the leading states. To add to the discouragements of this party in New Hampshire, when the municipal elections came on in December, Portsmouth and Manchester rolled up adverse majorities, and the tide was tending strongly in one direction. Encouraged by such promising signs, the Democratic party held its state convention at the early day of the 14th of November. Their old and tried war-horse, John G. Sinclair, was again put upon the track, and his election was, by the party, deemed a foregone conclusion. A long and fierce contest ensued. Gov. Harriman met his fellow-citizens, face to face, in every section of the state. He addressed immense meetings, holding one every secular day for six weeks, and failing to meet no appointment on account of weariness, storms, or any other cause. He was triumphantly re-elected, obtaining a larger vote than any candidate for office had ever before received in New Hampshire.

Of Gov. Harriman's administration of the affairs of the state, in its principal features, with the exacting duties and the keen prudence required of the chief executive in those days of large indebtedness, unbalanced accounts, and new legislation to meet the new and unprecedented demands, his constituents seem to have been hearty and unanimous in their approval. Their feelings may be summed up and expressed in the words of the Boston Journal, when it said: "The administration of Gov. Harriman will take rank among the best that New Hampshire has ever had."

General Harriman was appointed naval officer of the port of Boston, by President Grant, in April, 1869, which office he accepted after the expiration of his gubernatorial term in June following. He was re-appointed in 1873, for a term of four years. The affairs of this office were conducted in such manner as to preclude any word of criticism.

Gen. Harriman has engaged in political canvasses repeatedly in most of the northern states, and in 1872 he participated extensively in the state campaign in North Carolina. In this latter canvass, the key-note of the national campaign was pitched, and the result of the desperate contest there in August made the re-election of Gen. Grant in November a certainty.

Thousands have warmly testified to the rare oratorical powers of the subject of this sketch, the Meriden (Conn.) Recorder being one of the number. That paper says of him: "As a platform speaker, we never heard his equal. His delivery is fine, his logic clear as crystal, his manner easy and natural, and his physical force tremendous. With a voice clear and distinct as a trumpet, of immense compass, volume, and power, his influence over an audience is complete. He affects nothing, but proceeds at once to the work in hand, and from the very outset carries his hearers with him, rising, at times, with the inspiration of his theme, to the loftiest flights of eloquence."

Gov. Harriman has been twice married; first, in 1841, to Miss Apphia K., daughter of Capt. Stephen Hoyt, of Warner, who died two years afterwards; and again in 1844, to his present wife, Miss Almira R. Andrews. By the latter marriage he has had three children. Georgia, the only daughter, is the wife of Joseph R. Leeson, an enterprising importer of Boston. Walter Channing, the oldest son, married Miss Mabel Perkins, of Portsmouth. He is a promising and successful lawyer, living at Exeter, and solicitor of Rockingham county. The younger son, Benjamin E. having prepared himself for the medical profession at some of the best schools in the land, took his degree at Dartmouth College in 1877, and began practice in Manchester. But his health soon failing, after patient and determined efforts for its recovery, and after attempting in another place to resume his professional work, he died at his father's home in Concord, in May, 1880, lamented, not only by his own family, but by a large circle of devoted and enthusiastic friends. His wife, so early bereaved, was Miss Jessie B., only daughter of the late Col. Isaac W. Farmer, of Manchester. A biographical paper read before the N. H. Medical Society, by Dr. A. H. Crosby (a physician of wide reputation), and printed, portrays the character of Dr. Harriman in generous outline, and fine and tender tinting, and from it we know that he was a young man of high integrity, large capacities for friendship, and superior equipment for his life-work. There are two grandsons to represent the family, one in the home of each of the governor's surviving children.

The home of Gov. Harriman in Concord, where he has now lived since 1872, is a delightful one, and no one enjoys it with more satisfaction than he himself. A great traveler, by the necessities of his public career, he has a mastering fondness for quiet domestic life, and never are his rich stores of experience, his knowledge of men, and his fine sense of humor with its exhaustless fund of material, more ready at his command than of an evening in his own house. He writes for various of the standard publications of New England, and no time hangs wearisome on his mind. He wears the honorary degree of A. M., conferred by Dartmouth College in 1867. A good citizen and neighbor, a delightful companion, free and familiar and sympathetic with all persons, his intellectual power now at high noon, and never better able to serve his time than now, it would seem that many years of useful activity are before him ere the restful evening descends.