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The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (American Presidency Series) (American Presidency (Univ of Kansas Hardcover)) Hardcover – May 27, 1987
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From Library Journal
Students of American history at last have a full interpretive study of an (until now) obscure administration. Harrison has long been treated as a cipher; this study rescues him, portraying him as a confident, hard-working, and even visionary leader. Huge GOP losses in the 1890 election stymied a domestic program that had produced landmark laws in the Sherman Antitrust Act and the McKinley Tariff. Thereafter the president concentrated on foreign policy. Harrison, the authors argue, personally laid the groundwork for later American acquisition of Hawaii and expansion in the Far East. Although Harrison has been the subject of a detailed three-volume biography by H.J. Sievers, this book is the first to provide a critical assessment of his presidency. Essential for scholars. Thomas E. Schott, Office of History, Engineering Installation Div., Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"This thorough and well-researched volume should stimulate new scholarly interest in an underrated and complex occupant of the White House." --Journal of American History
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Top Customer Reviews
That said, Harrison was a man of undoubted integrity. He formed his own military regiment and served selflessly in the Civil War. As president, he was loath to take advantage of the spoils system by appointing cronies and campaign supporters. Refreshingly, he made appointments on merit rather than party affiliation. His cabinet appointments consisted of six lawyers and two businessmen. His first two years in office was distinguished by landmark legislation—the first Anti-Trust Act, the Forest Reserve Act, the Silver Purchase Act, and the McKinley Tariff. Admittedly, Harrison had little actual involvement with these bills, but he met regularly with congressional leaders and other members of Congress to assure passage. Unlike his predecessor and successor, Grover Cleveland, he seldom used the veto power. William McKinley, in his own way, would use Harrison as the role model for a meaningful presidential role in legislation and would establish the foundation for the power of 20th-century presidents.
As much as any president in the 19th-century Harrison wrestled with the question of civil rights for African Americans. He was conscious of race and race prejudice both North and South, and exhibited a decided absence of the usual political hedging. According to one historian, he “exerted greater leadership in matters of race, no matter how unsuccessful than any other of the post-Reconstruction Presidents, not excluding Theodore Roosevelt.”
Harrison oversaw the overhaul of the navy with the replacement of wind-powered wooden ships with steam-powered steel ships. After losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats in the 1890 election, the second two years of the Harrison presidency concentrated more on foreign policy. It has been only in the past 50 years or so that Harrison has received recognition for his expertise in handling various foreign affairs issues.
Where Harrison stumbles as president is with the many scandals that plagued his administration. It didn’t help that Harrison was a loner and worked with a small presidential staff, and therefore had little time to be a crisis manager. He did what he could but too frequently crisis overwhelmed his administration and reduced his effectiveness as chief executive. The coup de grace for Harrison occurred when the economy nose-dived into the nation’s second worst depression less than a year after he proclaimed, “There never has been a time in our history when work was so abundant or when wages were as high. . . .” How’s that for bad timing? The end for Harrison was not political but personal—the death of his wife, Caroline. His grief dominated his thinking throughout his final five months in office and rendered the election in November of his adversary Grover Cleveland of little consequence.
Bottom line: Harrison had the integrity but not the force of personality to lead the nation. And circumstances offered little opportunity for this quiet man to really shine. Among the bland and bearded Gilded Age presidents, Harrison’s modest legacy has little to distinguish it. Four stars.
The General Editor of this series is Homer E. Socolofsky. However, with regard to this particular book on Benjamin Harrison, Socolofsky also undertook a major piece of the writing of the book with Allen B. Spetter. Thus, the organization of this book is the best evidence of the the way that the General Editor of the series wishes each book in the series to be organized. Nearly every book that I have read in this series has the same type of organization that is evident in this book. This makes each new book in the series that I collect, a particularly welcome part of my library.
The University Press of Kansas began its presidency series with a treatment of George Washington's tenure in 1974, and as of this writing has brought the series as far along as the presidency of George Bush, Senior. A survey of the series indicates that coincidentally or not, all the volumes to date are remarkably similar in length, just under three hundred pages in most cases. Critics may argue that presidencies such as Lincoln's or FDR's might merit more ink than, say, Franklin Pierce or our subject at hand, Benjamin Harrison. Having read several volumes, I would say that the success of the series to date has been bringing the achievements of the lesser known presidents to more public prominence. Presidents such as Hayes and the second Harrison have done better by this series than have Nixon or Kennedy, whose volumes naturally have had to compete with the products of the likes of Sorensen, Manchester, Caro, Dallek, etc.
The University Press has attempted to stay focused upon the presidencies themselves, which has had the effect of dulling some of our more charismatic leaders and their colorful pasts. [One wonders how the editors will come to grips with Monica Lewinski, when that day inevitably arrives.] Diminishment of charisma is not a problem when treating of Harrison. He was Robert Taft before there was Robert Taft, a tweedy Midwest lawyer who successfully put the excitement of war behind him and nurtured a competent, unflappable, and predictable personality. He won and lost a senate seat prior to the Republican convention of 1888, and became an eighth ballot nominee when it became clear that his party's reigning Hamlet, James G. Blaine, would not run, apparently for reasons of health.
Harrison's pragmatism led him to undertake the formation of his cabinet as an exercise in party unity. One can probably argue that Harrison's presidency never really survived the selection process, for Harrison, in a gesture of perhaps insecurity and stubbornness, refused to allow state party bosses their traditional say in cabinet appointments. Harrison chose a cabinet of men like himself: Midwesterners, brevet generals, Presbyterians. And, until the very last moment, no Blaine. Maine's favorite son assumed himself a shoo-in as Secretary of State. Blaine, a master of denial whose illnesses compromised his effectiveness in Harrison's cabinet, and Mrs. Blaine, put out by her perception of Harrison's lack of reverence for her husband, were simply two of many disgruntled forces in the Republican Party. That the Democrats would storm back in the 1890 congressional elections--aided by a distinct lack of Republican enthusiasm--was predictable early in the Harrison presidency.
Harrison's domestic policy prior to 1890 focused upon issues which, to one degree or another, had been problematic since the Civil War. Tariff restraints, currency debates, civil service reform, civil rights, management of western territories, Indian affairs [including the battle at Wounded Knee], immigration, labor issues and safety were regular staples of government debate. With the House and Senate nearly evenly matched till the 1890 elections, there were no spectacular federal breakthroughs for which Harrison could claim victory. The authors do note that the president deserves more credit for his efforts to establish federal land reserves in the teeth of opposition from the lumber industry. It is also worth noting that more states were formed under Harrison's administration than under any other president; the northwestern alignment of states, as we know them today, took shape with apparently minimal controversy.
Harrison's alienation from party leaders, an unremarkable first two years, his administrative inexperience, and a rather cold demeanor did not augur well for a long tenure in the White House. The disastrous [for Republicans] returns of 1890 assured that Harrison in all likelihood would not lead the ticket in 1892. [His wife's illness and death in that year would make such considerations irrelevant when the time came at any rate.]
Harrison turned his attention to foreign affairs in the last half of his presidency. By 1890 it was beginning to dawn upon politicians of both parties that affairs in Central and South America were taking on an added importance in this country's commerce and defense. For most of the century America's chief concern had been the designs of foreign powers from across the sea. Now the necessity of an ocean-to-ocean canal involved this country more deeply into the relations of South American countries themselves. Harrison was not the first, and certainly not the last, president to assert American hegemony on the South American continent, and his warlike gestures toward Chile were of a cloth with McKinley and certainly Roosevelt, who admired Harrison's belligerence. Harrison also saw the importance of American military and fueling bases in the Pacific in the face of growing German interest in the region. It is not clear that Harrison fully appreciated the unfolding of the new international military order in the way that an Alfred Thayer Mahan or Theodore Roosevelt would, but he can be commended for fidelity to a policy that made the American position in South America and the Pacific much more tenable. And, it should be noted, Harrison conducted his foreign policy without the help of Blaine, who was too ill to assist and too proud to step aside.
Harrison was re-nominated by the anti-Blaine forces of his own party but without wholesale Republican support. The death of his wife during the campaign presaged the elector outcome and Cleveland's re-emergence.