My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun
Benjamin Harrison’s Presidency, argues Calhoun, ought to be seen as one of the primary stepping stones to the modern Presidency. Why? Chiefly, because Harrison took the reins of leadership and did not let go, putting himself squarely in the middle of the nation’s domestic and foreign policy, becoming essentially the mover and shaker in the country. How did that play out in his Presidency? Honestly, in a kind of surprising fashion, but one tied to a debate that seems kind of silly from afar until one looks at the complexity of the issues. Calhoun does a great job in this biography of showing us what Harrison did as President and why he should be considered a “modern” President, but nothing can make endless bickering over silver or gold as the standard for the dollar more interesting than it is. It is with that silver/gold standard question we must begin, before getting into other aspects of Harrison’s Presidency.
Silver or gold? Why does it matter? Can’t we just sing the Burl Ives song and say silver and gold? Okay, forgive the joke. Really, it was more a question of whether the dollar would be backed by silver and gold or whether it would just be gold. It mattered so much for a number of reasons, such as the heavy influence some of the silver mining lobbyists had with various voting blocs. Another reason it mattered is because silver is not worth as much, so by having both silver- and gold-backed currency, it allowed a kind of inflation of value of the silver-backed dollars, thus allowing people to pay back government debts in silver and increasing the spending power of the poor. Internationally, countries demanded payment in gold because that was the higher value currency. Harrison favored a system that set the value of silver on its own rather than against the value of gold, thus essentially giving a possible compromise to both sides of this debate. That was important, because the debate wasn’t on party lines; instead, Democrats and Republicans united in different regions based on preference for one or the other option. Harrison ultimately signed into law a bill that he thought would end the debate by being this kind of compromise, but it basically just led to another financial crisis that wouldn’t be resolved in his Presidency.
If the foregoing discussion about gold and silver sounds complex, it is, and that meant that it absorbed much of Harrison’s time and energy as President, which is unfortunate, because other things were happening. In Hawaii, American businessmen effectively recognized a coup as the de facto government and insisted on its recognition (as far as I can tell, because it meant they could do business more cheaply). Native Americans suffered immense horrors under Harrison’s regime, not because Harrison intentionally targeted them (so far as I can tell), but Harrison’s somewhat distracted dealings with various groups led to perpetuation of violence. Most notable is his (mis)handling of Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance. Basically, the Lakota Sioux were targeted because white settlers were spreading fear about their alleged militarization as the Sioux rallied around Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. The US Military then massacred 146 (or more) Sioux, including women and children, at Wounded Knee. Harrison’s response was to send in thousands of soldiers and try to launch an investigation, but as Calhoun describes it, Harrison was quickly distracted by crises related to the silver/gold standard and the investigation was not nearly as thorough as it should have been. Harrison’s favoring of “assimilation” of Native Americans (at the time, the moderate or reforming policy–as opposed to outright genocide) can be seen historically as an attempt to prevent violence against Native groups, but ultimately resulted in misunderstanding and more violence, as well as displacement.
One of Harrison’s goals as President was to modernize the Navy, and during his tenure in office, he largely succeeded in that regard. In Chile, a brawl that left some American personnel dead lead to much political maneuvering as tension rose and fell, ultimately resulting in Harrison’s preferred outcome of Chile apologizing and giving concessions, backing off war.
Charles W. Calhoun’s biography, Benjamin Harrison, does a fine job introducing us to this President, as well as defending his place in history as the first modern President (a title often given to someone later). Harrison’s Presidency had its share of ups and downs, and it is hard to say his heart was in the wrong place.
Benjamin Harrison (23rd President – Original Ranking #12)- Benjamin Harrison was an important stepping stone on the path to the modern presidency, for better or worse. He took it upon himself to increase the authority of that position, but he did so in a frankly rather boring fashion, particularly related to extensive debates back and forth about gold and silver standards. During his tenure, foreign affairs in the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and Chile were dealt with in a sometimes deft, sometimes blundering manner. His policy towards Native Americans was that of assimilation, and despite massacres on his watch, he apparently felt himself successful. He wasn’t the most exciting President, and certainly not the best, but for whatever faults he had, he can be endorsed by the underwhelming stamp of approval called “not the worst.”
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