One of eight children, Harrison was born to Seth Reed and Rhoda (Finney) Reed in Littleton, Massachusetts on August 26, 1813. In 1836, the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he and his siblings contributed to the newly developing area and two of his brothers became politicians. All his siblings married prominent people in the area. There was a judge, banker, railroad tycoon, and a doctor who was the first president of the Milwaukee Academy of Medicine.
Before the family relocated to Milwaukee, Harrison at 16 had been an apprentice to a printer but had to quit because of health problems. Once he was settled in Wisconsin, he became a merchant opening the first general store and also started the first Sunday school. With the Panic of 1837, the business failed and tried farming.
From December 1837 until May 1842, he was the owner and editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel and co-published the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison from 1859 to 1861.
He married Amanda Anna Louise Turner on August 12, 1841, in Milwaukee. Together they helped settle the towns of Neenah and Menasha and had four children together. One of their children died before the age of two.
In 1861, after he joined the Republican Party, Reed moved his family to Washington, D. C. where he had a job working at the Treasury Department. A year later on October 13, 1862, his wife passed away.
President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 appointed him to be the Tax Commissioner in Florida to deal with sales and disposition of confiscated Confederate property. Reed spent a great deal of time at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island working with Union forces to oversee the use of Confederate properties. It was there that he met Chloe Merrick who was teaching freedman children and working to set up an orphanage.
Continuing to be involved in Florida’s postwar development, in 1865 President Andrew Johnson appointed Reed as the Postal Agent for the state.
Under Florida’s new constitution enacted in 1868, freedman was extended the franchise. Most joined the Republican Party, which had just emancipated them. Under the new constitution, Reed was elected the first governor and assumed office on June 8, 1868. Since the Democrats disputed the election results, it was not until July 4, 1868, that the commander of the military forces in Florida for Reconstruction recognized the constitution and validated the election. It was at this time Florida was remitted to the Union.
Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs was appointed by Reed and Florida’s first African American Secretary of State and a lieutenant colonel in the Florida State Militia. His tenure was tumultuous with great opposition from factions of the Republican Party, and they made two attempts to impeach him.
In November 1868, the Senate voted in favor of his impeachment. William Henry Gleason, his Lieutenant Governor from 1868 to 1870, proclaimed himself Governor after the vote. With the state adjutant general and the county’s sheriff supporting Reed, they organized an effort to deny Gleason access to the Capitol. The Florida Supreme Court on November 24, 1868, held that the Senate lacked a quorum at their vote and therefore, Reed could not be impeached. Gleason was forced out.
During Reed’s second attempt to impeach him, his Lieutenant Governor Samuel T. Day claimed to be Acting Governor from February 10 to May 4, 1872, during the hearings and voting. Reed felt he was disqualified from holding office while the impeachment was pending and left the capital. Without bringing him to trial, the Legislature adjourned, and Reed considered himself acquitted. At the time, Day was in Jacksonville for a party caucus, Reed returned to Tallahassee, declared himself Governor, and appointed a new Attorney General. Both the Secretary of State and the State Supreme Court upheld his proclamation.
While he was Governor, he again encountered Chole Merrick who was still teaching freed children. Married on August 10, 1869, they had a son Harrison, Jr. together. With his wife’s interest in education and alleviating poverty, he supported the founding of a state university and gave strong support to public education. The number of public schools in the state increased from 270 to 444, and the number of children served grew from 7,500 to 16,258 from 1870 to 1872. This brought roughly one-quarter of the population of student age into the public-school system.
After office, the Reeds moved to a farm south of Jacksonville along the St. Johns River. Returning to journalism, he became the editor of a local magazine, The Semi-Tropical. President Benjamin Harrison appointed him US Postmaster of Tallahassee in 1889 and served for the remainder of his administration.
Until his death on May 25, 1899, Reed served as the representative of Duval County in Florida’s House of Representatives.
The artist is unknown and is part of the Florida Museum Collection.