“The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison” by Homer Socolofsky and Allan Spetter was published in 1987 and is part of the American Presidency Series (from the University Press of Kansas). Socolofsky was a history professor at Kansas State University for more than four decades; he died in 2005 at the age of 83. Spetter is a retired professor at Wright State University.
As its title suggests, this biography is far more focused on Benjamin Harrison’s presidency than any other aspect of his life. But while the book opens with Harrison’s inauguration, it does quickly review his road to the White House including his youth, Civil War service and nascent political career. Though far too brief a summary to form part of a comprehensive biography, this survey of his pre-presidency is excellent.
The book’s core mission is the critical analysis of Harrison’s presidency, and from its earliest pages it is abundantly clear the authors are up to the task. Socolofsky is responsible for the discussion related to domestic affairs and Spetter tackles foreign affairs. They weave together a consistently compelling and often interesting review of Harrison’s term in the White House.
The authors systematically dissect Harrison’s presidency and are usually careful to supplement key points with an abundance of historical context. They review and appraise his performance broadly: in directing domestic policy and foreign affairs, in his role as Republican party leader and in his role making federal appointments (principally patronage- and judiciary-related).
The authors clearly did not set out to write a narrative or popular history of the Harrison administration and there is little flowery language or descriptive scene-setting to enhance the journey. But neither did they draft a stiff, academic text designed to appeal only to PhD candidates.
This 208 page biography is concise and impactful; points are made clearly and directly (even when the underlying issue is complex) and in few chapters is there a superfluous sentence. As a result, readers of nearly any background will come away with an excellent sense of Harrison’s strengths and weaknesses as president – even if the journey is less colorful than had Chernow or McCullough authored the book.
Because the text relies on contributions from two authors, the possibility exists that divergent writing styles could impact the reading experience. Fortunately that is not an issue; transitions between sections, though not always perfect, are generally seamless.
It is quickly obvious that the authors chose to analyze Harrison’s presidency topically rather than chronologically. If haphazardly executed, this approach can prove frustrating as the reader attempts to mentally place major historical events into proper sequence. In this case, however, the presentation is clear and the opportunity for confusion is limited.
The most disappointing aspect of this biography is that, by design, it fails to provide a comprehensive review of Harrison’s life. But supplementing this text with a thorough review of Harrison’s early life is straightforward – several biographies exist which can fill this gap. (The first two volumes of Harry Sievers’s series immediately spring to mind!)
Overall, “The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison” proves a useful and surprisingly interesting review of Benjamin Harrison’s presidency. It lacks the narrative appeal of many popular biographies and its coverage of Harrison’s early life, though valuable, is quite brief. But this biography performs its principal mission extremely well; its coverage of Harrison’s presidency is smart, efficient and rewarding.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars