Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 by Charles W. Calhoun
I’m really enjoying The American President Series of books of the U.S. presidents. These come in handy when one wants to read about one of the ‘minor’ presidents who might have very little devoted to them in terms of biographies. These books aren’t as detailed as some of the ‘mainstream’ ones, but quality is subjective, and I’ve never been let down by the six or seven of these I’ve read.
What does today’s citizen know about Benjamin Harrison? Probably not too much. Most probably don’t even recognize the name. Most probably don’t know that he was the only grandchild of a former U.S. president (that would be William Henry Harrison). Of course most don’t know who he was either. I came away with great admiration for Benjamin Harrison after reading this book. A great president? Well, maybe not ‘great’ but when one considers how the presidents were selected back in the 19th century (by delegates, the masses had almost no say), one must remember that many men who held the office didn’t necessarily have a life-long dream of one day being the most powerful person in the world. Many men who were elected looked at their accomplishment of achieving the job of POTUS more of an obligation as opposed to a personal goal. Such was the case with Benjamin Harrison. So when one has such an attitude, their more likely to do what they feel is morally right once in office as opposed to what will get them ‘elected’ the next go-round.
This book does a good job of hitting the highlights of the man’s life with the focus being on the four years he was in office. As a progressive Republican, his main goals seem to be on protectionism of the economy via higher tariffs, the ever-expanding place of the United States’ role in globalization, and the notion of backing the U.S. currency with silver as well as gold. As a progressive, he also favored civil rights for black citizens, and although the events around Harrison’s time weren’t as noteworthy as during other presidential tenures, I can’t resist one of his quotes that I found breathtakingly refreshing as well as prophetic on the subject of black suffrage:
“When is he in fact have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law?...This generation should courageously face these grave questions, and not leave them as a heritage of woe to the next.”
On the personal side, we get some details as well. Although he seemed to have a very strong marriage, he also had a very long and close relationship with his niece Mame Dimmick. A lot of personal correspondence between the two throughout the years. Had I been Benjamin Harrison’s wife, I wouldn’t have approved of such a close relationship. Not surprisingly, after Harrison’s wife dies, he and Dimmick marry. Not surprisingly, eyebrows are raised.
I was left with an overall strong impression of the man. After reading accounts such as this, it makes me wish that the way we nominated our commanders in chief would revert to the ways of old. That’s not to sound naïve, nor to infer that politics wasn’t as sleazy as it now is. It just seems as though some of our past leaders actually did quite a good job, even if history remembers them as somewhat inconsequential.