January 18, 2013

Benjamin Harrison: General Thoughts

I am ready to resume my writing about Presidents with Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President, and the only from our home state of Indiana.  Most of our Hoosier readers will do a double--or even spit-take at the information that there has been just the one President from Indiana.  We tend to be uncommonly proud of our granfalloon.  But rather than write about the dearth of Indiana denizens in the White House, I'll instead devote this post to Harrison's more meaningful label: the ex-General President.

We are now accustomed to Commanders-In-Chief who did not attain a high military rank.  Indeed, a generation of Americans (those aged 21 and younger) have never had a President who served active duty at all.  But time was that a generalship was the surest step toward the presidency.  Of the first 23 Presidents, Harrison inclusive, 11 had served as generals.  Six(!) of these Generals served in the Civil War alone.  After Harrison, the country waited 60 years for Eisenhower to be elected, and has been waiting 52 years since then, and counting.

This biography is unusual in our series because it focuses only on Harrison's pre-Presidential years.  The middle of a three-part series, this volume covers Harrison's time between the Civil War and the Presidency.  At times interesting, this close-up of a young man's transition to middle age allows us to study his attendant transition between military and civilian service.  This topic certainly interested Harrison and his fellow Hoosiers.  Harrison received a hero's reception at his welcome home parade in Indianapolis, but sensed "the hidden fears of some who anticipated riot and bloodshed from the returning veterans."  He assured the crowd that the returning soldiers would expect no preferential treatment, but promised that "you will have to brighten your wits and quicken your pace," because "we mean to be felt in politics as well as business."

The first third of the book is devoted to Harrison making good on his promise in the business arena.  He  quickly established himself as the best trial lawyer in Indiana and found a niche collecting and analyzing Supreme Court argument and decisions (big business today).  Thus far it would seem that his General tendencies translated to business life in his demands for obedience and perfection: "He hated stupidity, expecting of subordinates the same high level of workmanship of which he himself was capable.  Small talk and unnecessary intrusions annoyed him most."

His prickliness extended to the homefront.  When his daughter wished to take dance lessons, Harrison's wife Carrie had to conspire with other mothers to work around the General's objections.  "I don't know what to do," she despaired, "Ben would never allow an ungodly fiddle in the house."

I set the book down just as Harrison began to be felt in the public arena, and I'll be curious to see how his rigid personality plays in personal politics.

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