11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice presentation of a lesser-known president
If you ask most people what they know about Benjamin Harrison they might tell you two things they remember from history class...that he was the grandson of a president (William Henry Harrison) and that his term was sandwiched in between the two non-consecutive terms of Grover Cleveland. Beyond that, Benjamin Harrison remains a mystery to most, but author Charles Calhoun...
Published on March 24, 2006 by Jon Hunt
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Abundance Of "Legislative Stuff" Makes This Succinct Biography A Challenge At Times
In compiling a succinct biography of Benjamin Harrison, one of those "forgotten" U.S. Presidents relegated to trivia quiz show answers (in this case, "who was the President who served between the two Cleveland terms), author Charles Calhoun does a very nice job of sorting out the details and giving the reader a glimpse into the life and times of our 23rd...
Published 17 months ago by Zachary Koenig
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice presentation of a lesser-known president,
This review is from: Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 (American Presidents (Times)) (Hardcover)If you ask most people what they know about Benjamin Harrison they might tell you two things they remember from history class...that he was the grandson of a president (William Henry Harrison) and that his term was sandwiched in between the two non-consecutive terms of Grover Cleveland. Beyond that, Benjamin Harrison remains a mystery to most, but author Charles Calhoun has done a crisp and clear job of relating Harrison's life and term in office.
This is the third of the American Presidents series I have read and I think that these books serve better in telling the stories of the more obscure presidents. The brief length of the Harrison book (as well as the ones I've read about Arthur and Harding) give just enough overview regarding these men. They are nice "starter" books, which might, one would hope, prompt the reader to seek out deeper accounts of the lives of these presidents. That said, Calhoun's book offers a good flow of information. Harrison is usually rated in the middle of the presidential mix, and Calhoun creates no impression that Harrison should be moved up or down. He was a solid, if stoic president with some notable legislative accomplishments. While never rising to the stature that a more forceful president might have, Harrison nonetheless fought for rights of blacks to vote and was keen on providing a pension for Union veterans of the Civil War. It was fascinating to read that Frederick Douglass said of Harrison, "to my mind, we never had a greater president". That's certainly high praise coming from one of the leading abolitionists of the nineteenth century and a man who knew Abraham Lincoln personally. Harrison had a few challenges abroad, but his four years were generally quiet as the country saw the passage of such landmark legislation as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Harrison's political problems as president seemed to stem as much from members of his own Republican party, especially his wily Secretary of State, James G. Blaine. Through a combination of forces against him, Harrison lost badly to Grover Cleveland in 1892.
Calhoun tells of the president's dalliance with and subsequent marriage to his wife's niece, Mary (Mame) Dimmick...it's a colorful addition to the life of a pious president. The rift that this marriage caused seems never to have healed with his two adult children as Harrison died just five years after his second wedding.
Benjamin Harrison may have been a footnote in history but Charles Calhoun has rightly written about him. After all, there have been only forty-two different occupants of the presidential chair...and Harrison was one of them. I recommend this book for its insight and easy narrative style.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Little Ben" was bigger than we thought,
This review is from: Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 (American Presidents (Times)) (Hardcover)Benjamin Harrison lived most of his adult life in Indianapolis, and his handsome brick Victorian home on Delaware Street has long been a memorial open to the public. Yet even the citizens of his hometown are vague on who he really was. Many confuse him with his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, "Old Tippecanoe" as he was called, who also served in the White House, albeit for only thirty days. Some see the signature of "Benj Harrison" on the Declaration of Independence and assume that the Indianapolis resident was in Philadelphia in 1776. If they only stopped to think, they would realize that the city of Indianapolis was not founded until 1821 and that their Benj Harrison was not born until 1833. The signer was the great-grandfather of the 23rd President. Charles Calhoun has done a scholarly job of helping stamp out the ignorance and confusion surrounding Benjamin Harrison, the last President to sport a beard and the first to decorate a Christmas tree in the White House. He and his wife Caroline were occupants of the Executive Mansion when electricity was first installed, replacing the gaslight fixtures. The old story goes that they were both afraid of the strange new utility and refused to touch the light switches. Harrison was the second shortest of our Presidents, coming in at 5' 6" and was affectionately referred to as "Little Ben" by the 1000 soldiers of the 70th Indiana Regiment who followed him into the Civil War. His bravery in battle was recognized by General Joseph Hooker ("Fighting Joe") who awarded Harrison a battlefield promotion to Brigadier General. Calhoun makes a good case that Harrison could be considered one of the earliest "activist" Presidents, long before Theodore Roosevelt became the poster boy for the position. He makes the point that Harrison's term helped to restore the power of the Presidency that had been nearly destroyed by the impeachment attempt on Andrew Johnson. Harrison surprised and irritated his own party when he bucked their directives and insisted that party hacks would not automatically get patronage. He wanted to make sure his appointees were qualified for their jobs. It sounds like a "no-brainer" today, but it was liberal thinking in those days. Six states came into the Union under Harrison, more than any other Presidential term. Oklahoma was opened for settlement, 13 million acres of land were put into reserve for national forests, the size of the Navy was greatly increased, and Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the McKinley Tariff. So it's not like nothing happened under Benjamin Harrison. Calhoun points out that Harrison often had to serve as his own Secretary of State as a result of frequent "illness" on the part of James G. Blaine, whose relationship with Harrison can only be described as "chilly." Toward the end of his term, in the midst of a re-election campaign, Harrison's beloved wife Caroline was dying of tuberculosis. He stayed at her bedside. "I was so removed from the campaign that I can scarcely realize that I was a candidate," Harrison wrote to one supporter. Two weeks after Caroline died in the White House, Grover Cleveland won another term. But it was just as well to Harrison. He wrote, "It does not seem to me that I could have had the physical strength to go through what would have been before me if I had been re-elected, with the added burden of a great personal grief." He returned to his beloved home on Delaware Street and resumed the job he really liked from the beginning - attorney at law. Charles Calhoun, a scholar of the "Gilded Age," provides a very readable account of a President who helped lay the foundation for the 20th century.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The President between Cleveland,
This review is from: Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 (American Presidents (Times)) (Hardcover)The 23d United States president, Benjamin Harrison (1824 -- 1901), is best known for serving between the two nonconsecutive terms of Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president. Harrison, the grandson of president William Henry Harrison, received a minority of the popular vote in 1888, but he defeated Cleveland in the electoral college. Harrison's presidency is obscure, and it tends not to be rated highly by scholars. In his highly sympathetic biography, "Benjamin Harrison" (2005), Charles Calhoun makes a strong case for Harrison, arguing that he "pointed the way" to the modern American presidency. Calhoun, professor of history at East Carolina University, has written several books on the United States in the Gilded Age. This short biography is part of the American Presidents series edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Willentz.
For a short study, Calhoun's book offers a detailed consideration of Harrison and his presidency. In contrast to the usual portrayal of Gilded Age presidents, Calhoun sees Harrison as an activist who sought to expand Federal power and to reach out directly to the electorate in support of his policies. As Calhoun puts it, Harrison "harbored a philosophy of government that emphasized possibilities more than restraints." Harrison put the matter succinctly himself, during his unsuccessful campaign for reelection. Speaking in Galveston, Texas, Harrison described the Federally financed harbor in the city as an example of the "work which a liberal and united Government could do." Harrison continued, "This ministering care should extend to our whole country. We are great enough and rich enough to reach forward to grander conceptions than have entered the minds of some of our statesmen in the past." In another speech, Harrison spoke of his goal "by every method to enhance the propserity of all our people; to have this great Government in all that it undertakes touch with beneficience and equal hands the pursuits of the rich and of the poor." With his support for an expansive role for the Federal government, Calhoun argues, Harrison anticipated the modern presidency.
The heart of Calhoun's book considers Harrison's role in proposing and securing a great deal of important legislation during his term in office. Harrison worked closely with Congress and showed a willingness to pursue his programs aggressively and to compromise when necessary. Calhoun devotes considerable space to discussing monetary policy and the support by many people for free coinage of silver. Harrison successfuly resisted this pressure while working with Congress to increase the production of silver in what he believed was a fiscally responsible manner. Harrison also supported the traditional Republican agenda of high tarrifs to protect American manufacturers, but he also introduced flexibility into the system by provisions for reciprocity agreements with foreign countries that would allow free trade to United States products. Harrison's accomplishments also included the enactment of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and of a Forest Reserve Act, among much else. Harrison approved the first billion-dollar budget of the United States.
Harrison also supported modest but new provisions for Federal aid to education. He worked hard but unsuccessfully to strengthen voting rights for African Americans against the already powerful Jim Crow. In supporting voting rights, Harrison said:
"When and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot? When is he in fact to have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law? When is that equality of influence which our form of government was intended to secure to the electors to be restored? This generation should courageously face these grave questions, and not leave them as a heritage of woe to the next."
Calhoun also describes Harrison's important accomplishments in foreign affairs. The president had direct responsibility for many of the achievements of his administration, as Harrison quarelled repeatedly with his Secretary of State, James Blaine.
Calhoun's book is valuable because it takes a fresh look at a president most Americans do not know well and offers a positive assessment of his character and accomplishments. As do most of the books in the American Presidents series, Calhoun focuses upon the valuable traits of his subject and his style of leadership, a course I think is far preferable to tendencies towards deflationary accounts. Calhoun offers a readable, thoughtful presentation of Benjamin Harrison's life and presidency.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Activist President in a Contentious Political Era,
Harrison's legislative and executive activism, combined with sectional and economic divisions, however, spelled doom for Harrison's, and the Republican Party's, fortunes in the off-year elections of 1890 when the Democratic Party swept to landslide control of congress. While Harrison successfully fought off the mechanizations of long time Republican leader and his own Secretary of State James G. Blaine for renomination in 1892, Harrison went on to not only lose the presidential contest to the man he had defeated four years earlier, Grover Cleveland, but also lost his wife, Caroline, to complications from Tuberculosis, weeks before election day. Harrison's last two years in office witnessed the infamous killing of Indians at Wounded Knee, which ultimately proved to be the closing event of the Indian Wars. In Harrison's final months, the economic elite--including American business owners--revolted against the royalty who governed the Hawaian islands, spawning the Harrison administration to prepare for the annexation of the future 50th state. The annexation of Hawaii was negated by Cleveland and the new congress, however, when concerns over American involvement in the "revolution" surfaced.
Harrison returned, but did not retire to, his family home in Indianapolis, where the former president again took up the practice of law. As an attorney, Harrison represented the Latin American country of Venezuela in a losing cause with Great Britain over the proper delineation of the former colony's land boundaries. Harrison did not go out gracefully in a political sense. He resented his eventual Republican successor, William McKinley, for having allowed himself to be nominated in 1892 at the Republican convention. Harrison also later opposed McKinley's policies in the Phillipines and American expansion (despite his administration's support for annexing Hawaii) policies more generally, and after 1893, did not campaign actively for his party or its presidential candidates. Nor did Harrison go out gracefully on the domestic front, at least from the persective of his two children, as the former president remarried his late wife's niece, Mary "Mamie" Dimmick, who had long served as an aid and companion to Harrison while his wife Caroline lived (although no valid evidence existed of an affair between the two during those years). The marriage alienated Harrison from his son Russel and daughter Mary. Harrison had another daughter, Elizabeth, through Mamie but would die five years later, in 1901, from pneomonia.
Calhoun does a good job bringing Benjamin Harrison and his times to life, portraying the post-reconstruction, gilded age as more politically intriguing and contested than normally regarded, at least in comparison to the ideological struggles of the Civil War era that preceded it and the progressive-New Deal era that succeeded it. Calhoun could probably have provided greater insight, particularly as to its geographical aspect, on the electoral upheaval in 1890 when the Democratic Party returned to power in greater numbers than it had witnessed since the time of Andrew Jackson. But Harrison's evaluation of the electoral results--that they represented more of a hyccup in electoral fortunes than a long term realignment--ended up being born out by the equally cataclasmic Republican victories in 1894 and 1896 and the long Republican hegemony from McKinley to Taft.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A little known activist President,
Due to all this activism, Harrison lost the mid term Congressional elections, and ultimately his office. He didn't seem to mind, because he thought he would be happier back home in Indianapolis. I enjoyed the author talking about Harrison's personal life. He married again after he left the White House. A nice biography of a little known President.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine work on a little-known president,
While Benjamin Harrison had a successful career prior to his election as President, he really was no more distinguished than any number of 1880s politicos. A respected Civil War officer and successful lawyer, he was a candidate because of his famous name and his popularity in the swing-state of Indiana. After his election however, Harrison was not able to hold his party together. He could not subdue or satisfy his party rival J. G. Blaine, or enact all of the desired Republican legislation. His presidency was crippled by losses in 1890 congressional elections and dissatisfaction among western Republicans. The death of wife Caroline Harrison in 1892 sapped Ben's desire to wage a strong second campaign.
I was surprised to learn that Harrison was a strong advocate of black civil rights. However, he was not very successful in stepping up federal protection for blacks in the South. Calhoun also covers Harrison's somewhat creepy relationship with his wife's niece, whom he would marry after he left the White House.
If you are not up to reading the three-volume biography of Harrison, this a good place to turn. Recommended for anyone interested in the Gilded Age.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Abundance Of "Legislative Stuff" Makes This Succinct Biography A Challenge At Times,
In terms of reading through the American Presidents series, I "got what I came for" with this installment, as I came away with a better understanding of a man (and his times) that I knew absolutely nothing about previously. In that respect, this book achieves its goal in the overall context of the series.
However, be warned that many pages of this book are consumed with legislative goings-on (i.e. Senate votes, committees, back-room deals, nominations, etc.). Whereas I usually more enjoy the books that focus on "the man" more than "the administration", so to speak, this book really got bogged down at times with all the legislative material. I found myself skimming pages at a time because, frankly, the details didn't interest me all that much.
That being said, President Harrison is KNOWN for being one of the most successful "legislative Presidents" of all time, so I can understand why Calhoun wrote the book how he did. Thus, my "final verdict" is that while this is a decent Harrison bio, its attention to the minute details of the legislature of the times turned me off on more than one occasion (and might others if they are not policy junkies). So, at least for me, this one was "three stars" (or so-so) all the way.
8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Benjamin Harrison - decent but obscure,
Charles Calhoun's biography is a good if brief overview of Harrison's life (all the books in the American Presidents series are under 200 pages). Calhoun presents Harrison as a decent, though not outstanding president. Competent in the various positions he held, from lawyer to Civil War general to president, he did an able enough job; fortunately for him (but unfortunately for his legacy), his presidency was a time without major crises. As a result, he lacked the sort of defining moments that distinguish a president for good (Lincoln, FDR, etc.) or ill (Grant, Hoover, etc.).
Few will be motivated to getting this book just out of interest in Harrison; instead, it will be more out of a need for completeness. For me personally, his was the last presidential biography I needed to complete my set. This is an interesting book, an educational book, but for many, it will not be a necessary book.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ANOTHER 19TH CENTURY PRESIDENT WHO'S BARELY REMEMBERED TODAY!,
Harrison was elected for one term in 1888 by defeating incumbent Grover Cleveland. He then lost to Cleveland four years later in a re-match over pretty much the same issues once the president's popularity dropped when the nation's economy tanked in a recession so he was shown the White House door by the voters.
Harrison's time in the White House more resembles the tenure of George Herbert Walker Bush, our current incumbent's father, who was also a somewhat popular president yet got tossed out after one term when it appeared he was out of touch with the public. The younger Bush seemed to have learned the lessons from the defeat of Harrison, his father and other one-term presidents who lost their second term chances by making sure he attacked first on the issues in his re-election contest instead of being put on the defensive to criticism of his administration by Democratic candidate John Kerry in the 2004 election.
Harrison grew up with privilege, just like the current officeholder, being the grandson of a chief executive and a descendant to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He ably served in the Civil War, then entered politics against the advice of his father to rise through the ranks of political positions until he was the Republican Party presidential nominee of 1888.
That contest was a close race and Harrison won the electoral count for the win even though Cleveland actually got more votes from the public in the same manner the younger Bush did in his 2000 election triumph over Al Gore. And he took office with his party controlling both houses of Congress just like our current leader.
But the Republicans of the late 1880's were complete opposites to the GOP politicians of today. Then, they were in favor of tariffs on imported goods from other countries to pay for government services. Today, they encourage open borders and the constant arrival of foreign-made products to power the economy and the elimination of all government interference in global commerce to the detriment of American manufacturers who must now compete with cheap labor outside our country and are forced to keep wages as low as possible to the American worker in order to stay in business.
Most of the money coming into the U.S. Treasury in those years was through the fees raised by tariffs on those imports. Harrison campaigned in the 1888 election against Cleveland to keep those protective tariffs in place since there was no federal income tax on citizens to raise government revenues at that time. His strategy was successful and he defeated the first Democrat to be elected to the presidency since 1856. But things began to immediately go wrong for the Indiana politician upon arriving in Washington and taking the oath of office.
Calhoun makes the argument that Harrison's presidency soured when he tried to please too many special interest groups of his own party as the nation had its first billion dollar peacetime budget and Harrison's Republican Party subsequently lost control of both houses of Congress in the 1890 mid-term contest as a result of voter dissatisfaction. An ill-advised attempt to annex Hawaii as part of the growing nation and the constant fighting between his administration and both parties in Congress led to his sliding popularity as his upcoming re-election approached.
His opponent in the 1892 contest would be former President Grover Cleveland who was trying to win his job back. A lackluster campaign on Harrison's part plus the death of his wife two weeks before Election Day took away all of his interest in keeping the presidency so only got 43 percent of the vote and left office a dispirited man.
Harrison paid the price from a scorned populace by trying to please too many special business interests when the country was becoming less agrarian and relying more on manufacturing to spur economic growth in order to compete with the other nations of the world.
4.0 out of 5 stars A bit short,
Schlesinger's American Presidents Series has been a great help in this regard. Despite the different authors, they have all been very readable, are well documented, and not especially geared to one point of view. One major drawback from my perspective is their brevity - all (so far, and I've read several) are in the neighborhood of 150 pages, this one being 166. Schlesinger himself states brevity as a major goal in his "Editor's note". So DON'T expect significant detail. Do expect a fair representation of Harrison's life, times and administration, as well as the forces that led him to the Presidency. I would have preferred something more in-depth, but with B. Harrison (as with his grandfather William) that wasn't an option.
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Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 (American Presidents (Times)) by Charles W. Calhoun (Hardcover - June 6, 2005)