Benjamin Harrison (American Presidents Series)

Benjamin Harrison (American Presidents Series)

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by Charles W. Calhoun

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The scion of a political dynasty ushers in the era of big government

Politics was in Benjamin Harrison's blood. His great-grandfather signed the Declaration and his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president of the United States. Harrison, a leading Indiana lawyer, became a Republican Party champion, even taking a leave from the Civil War


The scion of a political dynasty ushers in the era of big government

Politics was in Benjamin Harrison's blood. His great-grandfather signed the Declaration and his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president of the United States. Harrison, a leading Indiana lawyer, became a Republican Party champion, even taking a leave from the Civil War to campaign for Lincoln. After a scandal-free term in the Senate-no small feat in the Gilded Age-the Republicans chose Harrison as their presidential candidate in 1888. Despite losing the popular vote, he trounced the incumbent, Grover Cleveland, in the electoral college.

In contrast to standard histories, which dismiss Harrison's presidency as corrupt and inactive, Charles W. Calhoun sweeps away the stereotypes of the age to reveal the accomplishments of our twenty-third president. With Congress under Republican control, he exemplified the activist president, working feverishly to put the Party's planks into law and approving the first billion-dollar peacetime budget. But the Democrats won Congress in 1890, stalling his legislative agenda, and with the First Lady ill, his race for reelection proceeded quietly. (She died just before the election.) In the end, Harrison could not beat Cleveland in their unprecedented rematch.

With dazzling attention to this president's life and the social tapestry of his times, Calhoun compellingly reconsiders Harrison's legacy.

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
American Presidents Series
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Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893

By Charles W. Calhoun

Times Books

ISBN: 0-805-06952-6

Chapter One

"A Hard-Earned Loaf"

Few American presidents have descended from lines more distinguished for public service than the one that produced Benjamin Harrison. Beginning in the seventeenth century, a succession of five Benjamin Harrisons figured prominently in the development of colonial Virginia. The last one held extensive tracts of land, the jewel of which was Berkeley plantation, on the James River. Benjamin Harrison V represented Virginia in the Continental Congress, headed the committee that reported the Declaration of Independence, and rounded out his political career as governor of the new state of Virginia.

Benjamin V's son, William Henry Harrison, added even greater luster to the family escutcheon. Born at Berkeley three years before his father signed the Declaration, William Henry entered the army at age eighteen. Posted to duty in the Indian struggles in the old Northwest, he soon distinguished himself both as a soldier and a politician. In 1811, while serving as governor of Indiana Territory, he destroyed the Shawnee chief Tecumseh's project for a defensive Indian confederation at the Battle of Tippecanoe Creek. As a general in the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison won an even more significant victory over the British at the Battle of Thames River in October 1813. It was, however, Tippecanoe that more prominently entered into political lore and lent its victor hisindelible sobriquet.

After the war, Harrison settled on a large farm in North Bend, near Cincinnati, Ohio, but in the ensuing decade, his financial and political fortunes suffered ups and downs. In 1828 President John Quincy Adams sent him as the first American minister to the new Republic of Colombia, but in less than a year he headed home, a victim of the "rotation in office" (or spoils system) launched by Andrew Jackson. He returned to North Bend, and, with scant hope for preferment in the changing political climate, he accepted appointment as clerk of the Hamilton County court to supplement his farm income.

Harrison's emergence from this political desuetude partook of the miraculous. In the mid-1830s Jackson's opponents adopted the name Whig and began organizing a campaign to defeat Vice President Martin Van Buren for the presidential succession. Not yet jelled as a national party in 1836, the Whigs fielded three regional candidates - Harrison, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee - against the Democrat Van Buren in hopes of throwing the contest into the House of Representatives. Many turned to Harrison, a popular westerner whose military exploits echoed Old Hickory's. Though the strategy failed, Harrison emerged as a Whig of national appeal and, four years later, the party nominated him for president. The rollicking ballyhoo of the ensuing "Hard Cider and Log Cabin" campaign touted the Virginia-born gentleman as an apt representative, if not actual specimen, of the common man. The Whigs also hammered away at the prevailing economic depression during the reign of "Martin Van Ruin," and in the end, hard times as much as "Hard Cider" put Harrison in the White House.

On March 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison took the oath of office as the nation's ninth president. Seven-year-old Benjamin Harrison was not on hand for the event, but it was just as well, for his sixty-eight-year-old grandfather took an hour and a half to deliver the longest inaugural address in history to a crowd huddled against a frigid northeast wind. None too well to begin with and hounded to exhaustion by office-hungry Whigs, the new chief executive took a chill in late March. He soon contracted pneumonia and grew progressively worse under his doctors' "care," which included bleeding, blistering, and quantities of arsenic. He died on April 4, one month into his term.

Back in Ohio, William Henry Harrison's third son, John Scott Harrison, had years earlier assumed the management of the North Bend farm. Born in 1804, John Scott had briefly aspired to a medical career, but he was essentially a farmer his whole life. Although he dabbled in politics, The Point, the six-hundred-acre farm he had received from his father, formed the source of his livelihood. Prosperity eluded him, yet he produced enough to feed, clothe, and house his large family, which grew to include nine offspring. Chronically in debt, he was willing to skirt the edge of financial ruin to provide his children a good education.

Benjamin Harrison was born August 20, 1833, in his grandfather's house at North Bend. His mother, Elizabeth Irwin, Scott Harrison's second wife, was descended from Scottish immigrants who had achieved a comfortable life in America, if less distinction than the Harrison forebears. Elizabeth was raised in the strict Presbyterian faith and took a leading part in the religious and moral training of her children.

Despite his father's financial troubles, Benjamin enjoyed a happy childhood. He did his share of work on the farm but had his share of play as well. Early on, he developed an abiding fondness for hunting and fishing, pursuits that became his favorite forms of recreation during his crowded adult life. He liked to read too, and for this appetite his grandfather's well-stocked library was a godsend. There volumes of ancient history, American history, and biography, as well as Walter Scott's Waverley novels and other tales of adventure transported him beyond the semifrontier of the Ohio Valley. At his mother's urging, he also read Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

This latter exercise fit naturally into the devotional duties that marked life in the Harrison household. In the era of the Second Great Awakening, religion loomed large for the Harrisons as for most Americans. Daily prayer and Bible reading nurtured conviction between Sundays, which generally saw the family headed some distance to church. When bad weather prevented the trip, they still kept the Sabbath conscientiously, shunning worldly activity, the better to contemplate the gift of God's grace. Later in life, Harrison remembered the awe he felt at the nightly ritual of his mother withdrawing from the family circle to commune alone with her heavenly Father. She bore as much solicitude for her children's souls as for her own; she once wrote the teenaged Benjamin, "I pray for you daily that you may be kept from sinning and straying from the paths of duty." As a grown man of faith and responsibility, he made this prayer his own.

Benjamin's formal education began in a rough log cabin erected on his father's property. There a succession of tutors delivered the fundamentals of primary instruction to the Harrison children, their cousins, and other children from nearby farms. The first of these teachers later remembered that "Ben was the brightest of the family, and even when five years old was determined to go ahead in everything."

In the fall of 1847, John Scott Harrison scraped together the money to send fourteen-year-old Benjamin and his older brother Irwin to Farmers' College, an institution near Cincinnati that offered both preparatory and college-level instruction. There Ben came under the powerful influence of Professor Robert Hamilton Bishop, a Presbyterian minister and distinguished educator who taught history and political economy. Former students who had gone on to serve in Congress provided Bishop with a steady stream of government reports that he passed on to students as bases for their essays and recitations. By this device, he cultivated not only his students' powers of analysis and composition but also their understanding of contemporary political issues and governance.

Bishop combined those lessons with care for his students' moral and religious development, instilling in them the importance of stewardship and social responsibility in their journey toward salvation. In one of his compositions for Bishop, Benjamin wrote that under God's watchful eye, "one[']s ability shall be the measure of his accountability, hence as persons increase in wealth and their power of doing good increases in the same ratio[,] they will be held accountable for all the good they might have done."

In an essay comparing the life of savage and civilized men, Benjamin argued that a "good criterion" for judging the "true state of society" was how it treated women, for women "are appreciated in proportion as society is advanced." In America, he wrote, a woman "is considered as a superior being, and in the eyes of many as an angel. This, however, is the case only when we behold them through the telescope of love."'

These truths occurred to him not merely as a result of abstract rumination; at Farmers' College the teenaged Benjamin Harrison had fallen in love. The object of his affection was Caroline Lavinia Scott, the daughter of John W. Scott, another Presbyterian minister, who taught chemistry and physics at the college and who also ran a school for girls in Cincinnati. During the spring of 1848, the diminutive freshman - slight of build with pale skin and thin blond hair - began to call at the Scott house. He soon took notice of the petite, slightly plump Carrie with her kindly eyes and profusion of exquisite brown hair. Before long, the serious-minded, ambitious boy found that he much enjoyed the company of this warmhearted and sympathetic girl, ten months his senior, whose vivacity and playful sense of humor drew him out of his solemn introspection. Their friendship quickly ripened into romance.


Excerpted from Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893 by Charles W. Calhoun Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles W. Calhoun is a professor of history at East Carolina University. A former National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, Calhoun is the author or editor of four books, including The Gilded Age, and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He lives in Greenville, North Carolina.

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Benjamin Harrison 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Arminius1967 More than 1 year ago
Benjamin Harrison is the 23rd President of the United States from 1889 to 1893. His early career and family background helped him accelerate to a political thunderbolt. He started out as a lawyer in Indianapolis. While there he developed great writing skills and idea laced inspiring speeches. He also was the grandson of the hero of Tippecanoe. America’s 9th President William Henry Harrison. Old Tippecanoe was still fresh and very popular in the minds of Midwesterners in the 1880s. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Benjamin quickly joined the cause. He raised troops and was appointed to the rank of General. As a military leader he found that he had a natural ability to lead men. And he participated bravely in many battles. In fact, he participated in more battles in one month than his much publicized grandfather had in his entire military career. President Harrison’s accomplishments: He created of a postal subsidy which paid steamships to carry mail to overseas locations. This helped foster trade. He also trumpeted and signed the Forest Reserve Act which set aside 13 million acres of nationally dedicated Forests. Signed a Reciprocal tariff where the U.S. and a trading partner could grant equally advantageous trade concessions to each other. He strongly supported the federal supervision of all congressional elections to protect recently freed slaves right to vote. However they were rejected numerous times by the congress. He protected pelagic seals off the coast of Alaska from Canadian and British fisherman by threatening to use American force. This act preserved a healthy seal population into the 20th Century. He signed legislation to provide pensions to Civil War veterans unable to work and widowers of war veterans. He governed over the annexation of Hawaii at the very end of his term. However the Senate chose to wait until President Cleveland was sworn in to ratify. Where he failed was at playing the political patronage game that was required at the time. Instead of hiring people that the local bosses offered, he hired people according to the quality of the individual. It alienating the people that helped him win the presidency in particular New York’s boss Thomas Platt and Pennsylvania’s political operative Mathew Qyay. There are a number of reasons why he lost reelection despite a vibrant economy and peace. First, the lack of support lost to his mishandling of patronage as mentioned earlier. Second, silver currency proponents sprung up in the West because of large recent Silver discoveries there and the President was an opponent of Silver currency. Third, his ardent support for black civil rights frightened southerners. Fourth, worker strikes broke out in various locations which left an indication that despite higher wages things still were not good. Most importantly however was that his wife had contracted tuberculosis a few months before the election. President Harrison spent this entire time caring for his wife. This prevented him from campaigning which was one of his great skills. My opinion of President Benjamin Harrison is that he was a very good President and an even better man. 1 like flag
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The American Presidents Series is a well thought out and published series. This book presented the life of President Harrison clearly and in a manner easily understood by the non-historian.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Right balance and level of detail for someone wanting an overview of a president's life and time in office.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I knew very little about Harrison before reading this book. This was very informative and well written.