Of the forty-three (and counting) presidents whose biographies I’m reading on this journey, none have caused me quite as much apprehension as Benjamin Harrison.
I expected to meet an extremely decent man with all the personality of a napkin holder whose presidency was unremarkable…but tedious to re-live. Oddly enough, that’s almost exactly what I got.
I might well have described Rutherford B. Hayes similarly (and approached him with equal anxiety) but where Hayes provided me with just two books and 700 pages, Ben Harrison came to the party with five biographies totaling almost 1,400 pages.
Fortunately, although Harrison’s presidency was no more interesting than I feared, his biographies provided a better reading experience than I had expected. And while nothing leads to a pleasant surprise like setting expectations low from the beginning, Harrison is fortunate to have attracted a small but worthy band of biographers.
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* My first biography of Harrison was “Benjamin Harrison” by Charles Calhoun. As a member of the American Presidents Series, this comprehensive but brief biography of Harrison seemed a great place to start. And I was right; this biography is not flashy but does provide a fairly painless and occasionally interesting introduction to a president few people really know.
Calhoun’s main contention is that Harrison was an “activist” president who paved the way for the modern presidency. And while providing a reasonable introduction to Harrison as a young man and budding politician, this biography takes every opportunity during his presidency to validate that thesis. But Harrison comes off as a flat, two-dimensional character and I was left wishing the author had given me a richer perspective on Harrison’s legacy. (Full review here)
* Next I read Harry J. Sievers’s three-volume biography of Harrison, published between 1952 and 1968. This monumental effort represented the first major biography of Harrison and remains the most complete, penetrating look at this president.
The first volume was “Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior.” This volume covers Harrison’s life from his birth through his Civil War service. The first two-thirds of the book (covering his life before the war) is particularly interesting, humanizing Harrison and providing balance between his public and private lives. The last part of the book (dedicated to Harrison’s Civil War service) is largely a day-to-day account of his military life. It provides almost none of the “big picture” and proves far less interesting. (Full review here)
The second volume was “Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Statesman.” This volume covers the next two decades of Harrison’s life, ending with his election. This period includes much of his legal career, his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign and his term as U.S. Senator. This volume provides a nice equilibrium between his personal and public lives and maintains a high level of objectivity with respect to his politics. (Full review here).
The final volume was “Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President” covering the last dozen years of Harrison’s life: his presidency, his unsuccessful campaign for a second term, his retirement from politics and his death. The shortest of the three volumes in the series, this volume is also the least satisfying. While the description of Harrison’s presidency proves delightfully tolerable, it is far less analytical and offers less historical perspective than I would like. And rather than finishing on a high note, one can almost sense the author’s fevered rush to get to the finish line. (Full review here)
* I finished Benjamin Harrison’s biographies with “The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison” by Homer Socolofsky and Allan Spetter. Published in 1987, this member of the American Presidency Series (from the University Press of Kansas) is almost exclusively focused on Harrison’s presidency, but the authors do provide an excellent (if brief) review of Harrison’s early life.
Although the writing style is sober and serious, it is also straightforward and incredibly efficient. Contrary to my initial expectations, this is not an unapproachable college history text. And, overall, this review of Harrison’s presidency proves far more interesting and meritorious than one might expect. Surely I can’t be the only person to notice this would serve well as the third volume in the otherwise excellent series by Harry Sievers? (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Benjamin Harrison: Harry Sievers’s three-volume series
Best Reading Plan for Benjamin Harrison: Vols 1/2 of Sievers’s series followed by “The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison” by Socolofsky and Spetter