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The American Presidents
By Charles W. Calhoun, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2005 Charles W. Calhoun
All rights reserved.
"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 his indelible 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.
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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.
Within a year, however, Professor Scott moved his girls' school to Oxford, Ohio, more than twenty miles away. Not long afterward, Benjamin turned to thoughts of transferring to Miami University, also at Oxford. Despite a personal plea from the president of Farmers' to stay until graduation, Benjamin matriculated as a junior at Miami in the fall of 1850. This was a time of emotional turmoil for the seventeen-year-old boy. During the summer, he had witnessed the death of his beloved mother and two younger siblings. "How such events should impress us with the necessity of making our peace with God!" he wrote to Bishop, whom he asked to let him know "whenever you may see anything in my course which you deem reprehensible." His heavy heart would welcome renewed steady company with Carrie at Oxford.
Harrison flourished at Miami. Well prepared by Bishop, he soon distinguished himself for his intelligence and his hard work. As one fellow student recalled, he "excelled in political economy and history" and "never seemed to regard life as a joke nor the opportunities for advancement as subjects for sport." His manifest abilities won him election as president of the Union Literary Society. The society's training in public speaking and argumentation proved nearly as useful as his formal course work. He honed skills at debate and extemporaneous speaking, which served him all his life.
Harrison's essays and speeches at Farmers' and Miami often focused on political subjects, both current events and broader philosophical themes. Although his ideas remained inchoate, they exhibited his fundamental sense that politics had a larger purpose than party advantage and that public service should aim toward bettering the condition of men and nations. Harrison saluted Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850 as a noble work that steered between sectional extremes and saved the country. He denounced intemperance as "a moral, social, and political curse" and defended the power of legislatures to check the depredations of demon rum. In the realm of political economy, he saw commerce as "absolutely necessary to the welfare, happiness, and prosperity of every nation," but he also argued against a government trade policy that made England the "workshop of America." Instead, he said, "our manufactures should be strengthened and built up." In reaction to the liberal uprisings that convulsed Europe at midcentury, Harrison maintained that the United States should exert its influence on other countries not by direct intervention but by example. "Our mission is not to impose our peculiar institutions upon other nations by physical force or diplomatic treachery but rather by internal peace and prosperity to solve the problem of self-government and reconcile democratic freedom with national stability."
Dominated by Presbyterian ministers, Miami hosted frequent religious revivals. At one such meeting during his first year, Harrison answered the call and entered into formal association with the church. Given his training at home, the move was not unexpected, but his father was nonetheless delighted. Nor was the act one of mere momentary youthful exuberance. Harrison remained a faithful communicant for the rest of his life.
For some time, the anxious and ambitious youth weighed entering the ministry against becoming a lawyer. In the end, he chose the law, but that did not mean he had turned his back on doing God's work. In a speech to fellow students, he lamented the seeming dominance of scoundrels in the legal profession but denied the "proposition that no honest or pious man can practice law with success." "Fellow Christians," he said, "if you adopt this Prof[ession], let me effectively entreat you to remember that you are to do all to the glory of God." Moreover, he believed that the profession of politics, no less than the law, should be imbued with moral energy and purpose.
Strange as it may appear there are those who deem their Christian professions at variance with their civil duties, as if the church were the only institution of God's own planting, the only sphere in which they are called to act, whose narrow minds can grasp but one class of duties and but poorly apprehend even those. Yet such is a prevailing notion among many Christians who glory in the shameful boast, "I'm no politician." "I have nothing to do with politics." Such should remember that civil society is no less an institution of God than the Church, that society can in no sense exist without government, and that man is the instrumentality appointed to administer this government. ... The church, as a church, can take no part in the affairs of state but individual members of the church as embodying the only true morality and as members of civil society, owe to that society of which they form an integral part certain duties for the neglect of which God will not hold them guiltless.
Harrison took third honors at his graduation in June 1852. While classmates devoted their commencement orations to subjects such as the death of Socrates and the "Poetry of Religion," Harrison analyzed a question of government social policy in his lecture, "The Poor of England." He began by asking how the old England of virtuous and self-sufficient yeomen had degenerated into a nation with widespread destitution and some eight million paupers. The "common answer," he said, was to blame the country's poor laws, the system whereby the parish government paid a dole to supplement the insufficient wages of workers. He repeated the accepted wisdom that such a scheme had the effect of "sapping the life's blood of individual energy and encouraging indolence." But, he said, far worse in "grossness and deformity," the system allowed employers to shirk their responsibility to their workers and reduce their wages. Thus, the wealthy employer paid a relatively insignificant poor rate, or tax, that left him his "princely magnificence," while "his operatives are paupers and their poverty places them entirely within his power." Under this vicious scheme, Harrison said, the government "absorbs by indirect taxes the honest wages of the labourer and doles out to him again a starving portion." The lesson of England's experience for the eighteen-year-old political economist was not the superiority of laissez-faire but instead the necessity of framing public policy so that it truly fulfilled benevolent aims.
Among those in the audience on that June day at Miami was Carrie Scott. After Ben's arrival at Oxford, their relationship had matured into a firm bond, and before long, they had become engaged. But Carrie had another year of school, and the newly minted graduate was hardly prepared to support a family. Marriage would have to wait while he trained for his profession.
In the nineteenth century, most aspirants to the legal profession did not attend law school but instead "read law" with an established attorney. At his father's suggestion, Harrison sought a place in the office of an eminent Cincinnati lawyer, Bellamy Storer. A native of Maine educated at Bowdoin, Storer was a Henry Clay Whig and a former congressman with a religious enthusiasm not unlike Harrison's. He put Harrison to work copying briefs and doing other office chores, but otherwise the apprentice spent most of his time poring over huge tomes and cramming as much law into his head as he could. He considered the study tedious but necessary, and he quickly came to detest the foul air and confinement of city life in Cincinnati.
Excerpted from Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.. Copyright © 2005 Charles W. Calhoun. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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