Reviewed by Michael Oppenheim for American History Magazine
By Charles W. Calhoun
Times Books, June 2005
Benjamin Harrison is the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only president (1889-93) whose predecessor and successor was the same man, Grover Cleveland?
No biographer feels his subject is deservedly neglected, and historian Charles Calhoun is no exception. He makes a convincing case that Harrison was a competent president who had the good luck not to face a major crisis but who dealt skillfully with several moderate ones. With better luck, his dynasty would have rivaled the Adams’. His great-grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence and served as governor of Virginia. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was a famous general and our ninth president, who died after a month in office. William Henry’s farm near Cincinnati passed to a less-ambitious son, who raised and educated a large family including Benjamin. Always deeply religious, Benjamin seriously considered joining the ministry but chose law.
Passing the bar in 1854, Harrison moved to Indianapolis, where he joined the local church and the new Republican Party. By 1861, as the Civil War began, he had a prospering law practice and was in no hurry to answer President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers. A year passed before he entered military service, helping to recruit the 70th Indiana Regiment and quickly becoming its colonel. As a commander Harrison was a strict disciplinarian, often disliked by his men. He distinguished himself in fighting around Atlanta, at Nashville and during William T. Sherman’s Carolinas campaign, and was eventually brevetted a brigadier general.
Following the war, Harrison returned to his law practice and then entered the political arena. In 1872 he ran unsuccessfully for governor, and in 1881 became Indiana’s senator. A recognized national figure but a dark horse at the 1888 convention, Harrison ran a distant fourth on the first ballot but won on the eighth. The election was also a squeaker. (Despite the popular image of 1860-1900 as a Republican era, Calhoun correctly points out that the parties were equally matched; Democrats won half the national elections.)
Once in office, Harrison proceeded to annoy Republican bosses by paying insufficient attention to their patronage requests. Everyone expected him to appoint as secretary of state the most popular Republican of his generation, James G. Blaine. Harrison complied but refused Blaine’s request to make his son, Wayne, first assistant secretary. Blaine accepted this, but his wife didn’t, becoming a permanent enemy. The author adds that the Eastern Republican establishment (Blaines, Lodges, Aldriches) looked down their noses at the Hoosiers in the White House. Everyone noticed Harrison’s “chilly” personality, the single characteristic mentioned in traditional histories. Calhoun delivers the conventional explanation that intimates found him warm and considerate but admits Harrison lacked the public geniality of the professional politician.
By contemporary standards, Harrison was an activist president with a clear policy. Among his accomplishments that still meet approval were passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the first reciprocal trade policy, generous pensions to disabled Civil War veterans and the beginning of naval expansion.
Sadly for readers, the two burning issues in late 19th-century politics were tariff reform and monetarism. No historian has succeeded in making them entertaining. Calhoun, like most, does not bother to explain them in terms that a noneconomist can understand. Congress devoted great energy to debating free coinage of silver, a policy that might benefit farmers and would certainly benefit Western mine owners. Harrison and Easterners were certain that disaster would follow retreat from a strict gold standard. Working hard, Harrison guided a compromise bill to successful passage. Like previous silver purchase legislation, it produced no noticeable benefit. A similar massive effort produced the McKinley tariff, which lowered a few duties and raised many. Calhoun does not quarrel with Harrison’s claim that high tariffs help the workingman by keeping wages from falling.
As inheritors of Lincoln’s mantle, Republican presidents retained a mild interest in the welfare of blacks. All knew that the Southern states (mostly Republican in that pre-FDR era) viciously oppressed blacks, and all, from Rutherford B. Hayes to William McKinley, expressed concern. Several even tried to help. Harrison supported a strong voting rights measure (called the Lodge bill after then Massachusetts congressman Henry Cabot Lodge). Its fate will remind readers that oppressing blacks was not merely a Southern concern. It was a Southern priority. Faced with the Lodge bill, Southern Republicans offered votes to free-silver Republicans to persuade them to break their pledge of support for the bill, and, to Harrison’s distress, it died.
Renominated, but without great en-thusiasm, in 1892, Harrison lost to Cleveland in another close election. Thereafter he faded into obscurity. Yet no one at the time considered Harrison colorless. Opponents denounced him as venomously as others denounced Lincoln or Roosevelt. Supporters praised his talents with equal passion.
Minor presidents remain shadowy not because they lacked personality but because brilliant historians prefer to study major figures. A dozen vivid accounts of Washington, Adams, Lincoln and the Roosevelts have appeared since 2000, but 40 years have passed since a non-academic publisher released a life of Harrison. Readers are unlikely to seek out Harry J. Sievers’ massive three-volume biography, but they may feel confident that Charles Calhoun, a competent historian, has written the best available one-volume biography.
Calhoun’s Benjamin Harrison is only the latest in a superb collection of presidential biographies called The American Presidents Series. Published by Times Books, they have been rolling slowly off the presses, with remarkably little publicity, since 2001.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., general editor of the series, has chosen his authors well, and few have disappointed him. None of the works on a major president breaks new ground, but John Patrick Diggins presents a more balanced (read stubborn and bad-tempered) portrait of John Adams than the recent bestseller by David McCullough.
Like his subject, Diggins spends a good deal of time sniping at Thomas Jefferson. Writing on the latter, Joyce Appleby draws a politically correct but insightful portrait of our third president while making no attempt to reverse his slowly declining reputation.
Biographers of lesser-ranked presidents rarely resist the temptation to rehabilitate them. Journalist Tom Wicker uses his experience covering the Eisenhower years to draw a flattering portrait, adding to Ike’s rising reputation. Josiah Bunting and Kevin Phillips insist that Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley are cruelly underrated. While neither makes an airtight case, they provide good food for thought. In contrast, Zachary Karabell makes it clear that Chester Arthur was a genuinely likeable fellow and not at all incompetent. Ted Widmer argues convincingly that Martin Van Buren deserves more credit than historians have granted. He was the brains behind Andrew Jackson, and he (not Jefferson) founded the Democratic Party and our current political party system.
Historians traditionally describe bad presidents as weak, but Jean Baker insists that James Buchanan was a strong leader who knew what he wanted. He was, she states bluntly, wholeheartedly pro-Southern. For 3 1/2 years Buchanan successfully maintained that policy; only after the shock of secession did he lapse into the torpor that everyone criticizes. Baker’s biography (the first on Buchanan from a commercial publisher since the 1880s) may be the most significant of the series.
All of the volumes are short (averaging 150 pages), opinionated and inexpensive at $20. They also look attractive on the shelf, so there’s no reason not to collect them all.