Wednesday, March 3, 2010

1890s: Benjamin Harrison

The unlikely subject of my next reading assignment came about not because of my personal interest in Indiana history, but because his name appeared in several of the previous books, even if ever so briefly. And yes, his house in Indianapolis is next on my visit hit list of homes of obscure presidents. Hello, Benjamin Harrison.

Between the author's obligatory introduction and conclusion that make the case of Harrison as the first modern president and least appreciated, there is a surprisingly contemporary story of national politics, economics, and personal toll. Similar to Lincoln, Harrison was not the favorite candidate entering the nominating process but he emerged as the least objectionable and possibly the most winnable Republican. And like Lincoln, once elected he struggled with the selection of his cabinet, eventually convincing his biggest rival to take the secretary of state position. While we heard many comparisons to Lincoln when Obama chose Clinton for this position, Harrison's choice of James Blaine may be the better parallel. And unlike the amazing relationship formed between Lincoln and Seward during a unique, wartime situation, Harrison and Blaine continued to be rivals, one of the causes of their eventual downfall.

Also strikingly similar to modern political patterns was how similar 1892 was to 1994 and to what is expected in 2010. After several years of Democratic power in the 1880s and a down business cycle, the Republicans swept the presidency and both houses of congress in 1890. Seeing a mandate for significant change, they immediately pushed for large, expansive legislation to increase the services provided by the federal government, along with its budget. While several of the issues were clearly progressive and great with historical perspective (ie enforcing black, southern suffrage) and some are possibly as debatable now as they were then (pensions, anti-trust, monetary policies), internal party politics limited the effectiveness of a seemingly unstoppable platform. Senators and congressmen were more likely to vote based on what would get them re-elected and strike deals than just go with the president's favor. Yet still in the midterm elections of 1892, the Republicans lost control of Congress due to public dissatisfaction, and Harrison finally lost re-election two years later.

The foreign relations and economic monetary issues of the early 1890s are clearly primitive to the US and global economy of today. However, the questions and decisions made at this time were beginning to move the country's role from a self-contained, decentralized nation of states to an industrialized national power.

Here comes the Spanish American War and the battle of Populists and Progressives.

The book itself is good and typical of this solid series: 3/5 stars.

But before continuing on I realize I have skipped over some important subjects so I am going to go back a little. Primarily I need to read up on Reconstruction in the South.

(Read March 2010)