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benjamin harrison

9 october 2008

Benjamin Harrison can't be said to have lived in uninteresting times. He was a volunteer colonel in the Civil War, seeing combat in several campaigns. He was a key figure in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. He served in the U.S. Senate during the Gilded Age and as President, signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and other milestone legislation, and fought unsuccessfully to give the 14th and 15th Amendments some statutory teeth. Why, then, does his career seem one of the least interesting of any President?

Part of the problem is that Harrison, an energetic, forceful, but somewhat querulous policy wonk, devoted vast amounts of time to issues like the tariff and the currency that seem pretty quaint to us over 100 years later, when the world-is-flat globalization of trade has made tariffs a relatively minor issue, and the currency is a largely electronic and notional thing, unrooted in the gold and silver that were very tangible indeed in Harrison's era of bimetallic conflict. In foreign affairs, Harrison's big crises included colonial protection of Samoa and sealing disputes in the Bering Sea. He devoted much of his post-Presidential legal career to arguing Venezuela's border claims against those of British Guiana (claims that have never truly been laid to rest, as witness Venezuela's map of itself and its "zona en reclamación"). We can safely say there ain't gonna be a major motion picture in any of that stuff soon.

Charles W. Calhoun's book on Harrison for the Times Books American Presidents series is one of very few concise books on the 23rd President. Aside from a triple-decker biography by Harry Sievers, the only other modern book devoted to Harrison is Homer Socolofsky and Allan Spetter's Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (1987), which is very well-researched but if possible even drier than Calhoun's text. Mechanisms of tariff reciprocity were fascinating to their architects and sometimes of vital interest to late-19th-century voters in America, but compelling bedtime reading they are not. In fact, there are more books about Secretary of State James G. Blaine in Calhoun's bibliography than there are books about Harrison himself. Blaine was one of a handful of Americans who was more major a figure than many Presidents without ever quite managing to reach the Oval Office (others include Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay). Much of Harrison's time was taken up dealing with irresponsible antics and social snubs from the quarter of Blaine and his loyal wing of the Republican Party.

Calhoun does range beyond the 1889-93 Presidency to chart Harrison's very full life. His path to the White House was smoothed by his family name (he was a grandson of the Hero of Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison, who had served as the ninth President for a few weeks before his death). Harrison held very few public offices before the Presidency. He was reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court, not usually a springboard to ultimate power. He was in his late 40s before holding any office of national interest, when he became a one-term Senator in 1881. But he had achieved so much political power as an operative in the crucial swing state of Indiana that his control of the machinery, rather than his resumé, was his ticket to the Presidency.

Harrison's finest hour was his advocacy of an elections bill that would have provided for federal oversight of Southern elections, in hopes of preserving the tenuous franchise that African-American voters had lost by 1890 all across that region. He ultimately failed, and reform would be lost for another 75 years. But we can see in the 50-something Harrison's uncompromising activism for civil rights something of the fire that propelled him into civil war. One suspects that, given a keener historical moment and a more amenable legislature, Harrison might have been a strong, memorable chief executive.

Calhoun, Charles W. Benjamin Harrison. New York: Times Books, 2005.