“Benjamin Harrison” by Charles W. Calhoun Review

benjamin harrison

Benjamin Harrison

American Presidents #23

Author:  Charles W. Calhoun

Published:  2005

Prior to reading about Benjamin Harrison, there was one reason I was excite to read about him and another that had me kind of dreading it. I was excited because he is the only president from the state of Indiana (where I live) and I’m tired of reading about New York politicians. I was dreading it though because I just read a massive Grover Cleveland biography and Harrison’s term and both elections were covered extensively in that book as he’s the only president whose terms was sandwiched between two terms for the same other guy.

I picked up this biography by Calhoun because there’s not a lot of other choices on Harrison aside from a three volume set that seemed extreme. This is part of the American Presidents series which are a bit shorter than the rest of the biographies I’ve been reading. I tried to be as thorough in noting what I thought was important with Harrison, but this book glossed over so many things briefly I came away with less than usual.

Born into – Benjamin Harrison was born positioned to be president though the author tries to downplay it. The five William Harrisons before him were some of the most powerful men in Virginia, ending in William Henry Harrison who was president. He left his son (Benjamin’s dad) a several hundred acre farm, and his dad also served in Congress. Calhoun downplays this by saying Benjamin’s family was not particularly wealthy, but they were certainly powerful and prestigious. 1 out of 5.

Pre-President – Harrison’s path in life was pointed to being a minister, and he stayed very religious throughout this life. However, after early education, he turned to law. After some initial low income years, he caught on with another firm to be more financially stable and then won his first elected office to City Attorney. Harrison didn’t initially enlist in the Civil War, due to his wife having a newborn. When enlistment was low in 1862, he was asked to do recruitment. He responded that he wouldn’t ask others to do something he wouldn’t do and enlisted as a Lieutenant. In one month of the war he had more battle experience than the entire career of his famous Tippecanoe relative and seemed to do well, getting promoted to Brevet General by the end of the war. His role as a private attorney during some high profile labor disputes haunted him later on in his political career as he seemed to minimize the hardship of employees in favor of the high paying businesses.

Harrison’s first forays into attaining a higher office were unsuccessful, including two failed bids for the governor spot. Despite his failed election attempts, he was the informal head of the Republican party based on name and involvement when he eventually did run and win for United States Senate where he served one term. His one term was fairly uneventful, with him primarily following Republican party line votes and eventually succumbing to pork barrel politics. Due to Indiana and New York being key swing states, Harrison was able to secure nomination for President when James Blaine indicated his reluctance to allow his name to be selected.

The only real scandal that occurred for Harrison during campaign was when one of his friends was found out to have been attempting to secure votes in Indiana via bribery. Harrison never acknowledged (or excused) his friend, which seemed to have minimal effect on the voting. Although he lost the popular vote, he won the electoral college and even took office with a Republican Congress, having defeated Grover Cleveland. 2.5 out of 5.

Presidential Career – The Cabinet Harrison selected did no favors for him when it came time for reelection, as most of his choices were meant to not offend various political groups and the bigger effect was a lack of loyalty from those same groups by not overtly selecting their guys. The head of the cabinet ended up being James Blaine, who Harrison made wait two months before offering him the position in an attempt to show who was in charge. The two had a strained relationship, although not fighting outright Blaine resigned from the Cabinet before the end of the term to campaign against Harrison for the Republican nomination. Secretary Blaine also felt Harrison and his wife were not as sophisticated as Blaine and his wife and made fun of them behind their back.

During Harrison’s administration, the United States was involved in a Samoan affair where multiple countries (America, UK and Germany) were militarily involved in selecting the leadership for the country. This was an extension beyond what was previously done in foreign policy under the Monroe Doctrine. The Republican president and Congress authorized unprecedented levels of payouts on pensions to Civil War soldiers, widows and children of soldiers, some arguably pointing to this as the beginning of the welfare state. For the third straight book, an author points to a president as being the one who really brought the Navy to new heights. I’m under the impression this was less to do with any president and more just the natural growth that occurred under Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison.

Overall, Harrison’s presidency passed more laws than any other president until Theodore Roosevelt’s second term. Midterm elections seemed to show the unpopularity of such an active government, as Democrats went from minority position to overwhelming majority in House of Representatives. On the major issues of the era, Harrison supported the Republican position on Tariffs and opposed unlimited coinage of silver. At very end of his term, Harrison submitted for possible annexation of Hawaii to Congress, but it didn’t pass under Cleveland’s leadership. There was a financial crisis during Cleveland’s term, but the author doesn’t even point this out, assuming that Harrison’s record setting law passage had nothing to do with it. 2 out of 5.

Vice President – His running mate was Levi Morton, a New Yorker who the author ignores completely throughout the book aside from that fact. 1 out of 5.

First Lady – Harrison fell in love with future wife Caroline and the two quickly got married. The author writes on page 16 that the couple were married on October 20, 1853 and in less than a month Caroline Harrison was pregnant. Later on the same page, he writes that she gave birth on April 12, 1854 to a boy, Russell. I’m not a prude and don’t judge Harrison, but I do think this was lazy writing by Calhoun to gloss over the real reason for the rushed wedding. Caroline got sick at end of his term as president and died a few weeks before the election. Not much was written about her but there was some speculation her illness (tuberculosis) could have been related to her going in basements and attics a lot in her renovation efforts.
Harrison found love again in the form of Mary “Mame” Dimmick, the 37 year old niece and former secretary of his dead wife. Harrison married her (he was 62, his two kids were both older than his new wife) and had a new child. There was some scandal that he may have been involved with her prior to his wife’s death and his children certainly didn’t approve of his new wife. 2 out of 5.

Post Presidency – After retiring from office, Harrison continued to practice law, taking some lucrative clients. He also continued to make speeches for the Republican party. His most prestigious post-presidency involvement was likely his representation of Venezuela in arbitration in their boundary dispute with the United Kingdom. Harrison’s side lost and he was unhappy with the judges. 2 out of 5.

Book itself – This book succeeded in being a quick, decent summary of Harrison’s life and presidency but it really failed at providing context for the man or interesting details. I lost faith in the author very early on when he perpetuated a lie about Caroline’s pregnancy rather than write that the couple got married because she was pregnant. Similarly, trying to downplay what a leg up Harrison had in the world due to his family hurt his credibility. There were a few attempts at pointing to Harrison’s legacy, saying he was the precursor for McKinley’s administration who many historians point to as the first modern president. However, all of these were positives on the legacy and the one-sidedness had me doubting their credibility. 2 out of 5.


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