Category: Petty Imperialist
Term in Office: 23rd president, 1889-1893
Home State: Indiana
“God damn the president! He is a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid, old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.” That wasn’t the first time Theodore Roosevelt had talked smack about a fellow president, and it wouldn’t be the last. (He saved a special reserve of ire for Woodrow Wilson, but Taft and McKinley did not go unscathed either.) While I don’t always agree with TR, it is hard to argue with his assessment of Harrison. The stale luncheon meat sandwiched between Grover Cleveland’s two nonconsecutive terms, Benjamin Harrison is often overlooked; there are entire American history textbooks in which he is the only president not mentioned by name. A shame, really, because he is a first-rate example of what happens when politicians lose control over their administrations. Harrison could not be bothered to overcome structural impediments to his success, and often forfeited control of his term to Congress, to powerful cabinet members like Blaine, and to business interests with imperial ambitions.
Accordingly, it is here that we begin our exploration of our ten worst presidents in this ranking, and Harrison is not a bad place to begin as the least offensive of the lot. One of the big recurring themes of this series is that there are many ways to be a good president, and many ways to be a poor one. Harrison’s administration has little malice, but a great deal of bloodlessness, little violence directly on its hands, but much strong-arming and crossboarding between business and government, little that is damnable, but even less that is inspiring. Harrison, through his inaction more than his intent, tied the Republican Party even closer to big business, abandoning the last semblance of its free-labor roots. And more than that, he was the lynchpin for turning the U.S. into an imperial republic, laying the groundwork for McKinley and others like him. Speaking of the man, McKinley was also a petty imperialist with chummy ties to various industries. It made McKinley a below average president in my estimation, but he ranks higher than Harrison by winning over the American public, innovating the presidency, and behaving like the first citizen among equals. Harrison, in contrast, was petulant, unlikeable, icy, a born aristocrat, and seemed to dislike every minute of his job, and every last person whom he encountered.
Benjamin Harrison entered public life with considerable political gifts. He had a first rate pedigree; his grandfather, William Henry, was the ninth president, and his great-grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence. He served as a senator from Indiana, one of only a small handful of so-called doubtful states in the late 19th century (although we call them swing states today.) More than that, Harrison was a compelling orator with a fine voice, a lawyer with a sharp mind that skillfully arranged and organized his thoughts. What held Harrison back was an inability to connect with subordinates or average voters. He was notorious for his cold, forbidding, and frigid demeanor. It was said he could rouse an audience with a stirring speech, and then alienate them, one by one, with his limp handshake and impatient manner. His handlers encouraged Harrison to move on after giving a whistlestop train speech, to make sure that the public’s last impression of the candidate was a ringing exhortation, and not a disinterested, perfunctory, cold-fish handshake. Such was the case when the Republicans nominated him in 1888, with James Blaine having lost last time and no other candidate seeming much better. Harrison, at least, had a familiar name that many voters would recognize.
Let’s start by picking apart one of the first big decisions a president makes, his cabinet. Harrison was unable to exert himself here, and disinclined to try. In order to get Harrison nominated, party managers had promised away most of the major offices that were Harrison’s to give. He appointed a cabinet unusually rich in businessmen or politicians close to one industry or other. Most notably, there was James G. Blaine (whose sordid ties to the railroad industry probably kept him from becoming president himself), coal magnate Stephen Elkins, marble manufacturer Redfield Proctor, and John Wanamaker (the sales genius behind the modern department store) served in his administration. Any friend of labor or advocate for the working man found himself or herself on the outside looking in. The Senate was seen at the time to be a collection of trusts, with very little true statesmanship involved, and Harrison’s cabinet fell prey to the same tendencies.
Harrison spent his presidency during the era where making federal appointments took up much of his time; quite often 4-6 hours of the presidential workday were spent reviewing requests for employment and meeting with office-seekers. Worse for him, in making appointments, he ignored senatorial courtesy (giving the senators from the appointee’s state the right to informally veto the choice), and quickly alienated Orville Platt, Thomas Reed, and other Republican heavyweights of the day. Friendly to business over labor, he usually acceded to the demands of the former, culminating in the McKinley Tariff of 1890, signed into law with Harrison’s support.
Now, under a certain set of conditions, I’m a fan of tariffs; they helped promote new industries and were, indirectly, job creation measures that paid off in the long run. But at a certain point, innovation becomes staid and institutional, and reform becomes a racket— and that is exactly what that tariff was. The McKinley Tariff raised import duties to an absurdly high 50% on many commodities. Nathan Miller called the Tariff a “free lunch for monopolists” and an artificial disincentive to international competition, and a probable factor in the devastating 1893 Depression. In other words, it allowed American business leaders who were already doing well to do even better, with no need to keep their prices accountable to competition from abroad. When added to lucrative Civil War pension bills designed to curry favor from the Grand Army of the Republic, and countless pork projects, Harrison and members of his party in the House and Senate earned the derisive title of the Billion Dollar Congress for its freewheeling (by 1890 standards) ways. His party faced devastating losses in 1890 in Congress, and Harrison faced the biggest shellacking of any Republican presidential candidate of the late 20th century when running for re-election in 1892.
Why, then, is he placed with the Petty Imperialists, and not with the Empty Carriages? Well, put on your straw hat and slather on some suntan location; we need to visit Hawaii. In the final year of Harrison’s presidency, a number of American planters and fruit manufacturers succeeded in removing Queen Liliuokalani from the throne of Hawaii. While pretenses were made suggesting that this was an American-Revolution-style overthrow of monarchy, the truth was very much on the contrary; the Hawaiian people generally supported their monarch. Instead, the revolution was masterminded and manned by American planters eager to make use of, and profit from, Hawaii’s tropical climate. The puppet government that was formed soon after then requested that Hawaii be annexed. (To give you a clue as to how crooked and corporate this takeover was, the leader of this regime was Sanford Dole. Of the Pineapple company Doles.) That Harrison tried to negotiate a treaty of annexation within two weeks of hearing this news suggests unseemly haste, and possibly the administration’s cooperation with, and foreknowledge of, this psuedo-revolution. Harrison’s defenders, such as Big Mo, point out that he helped to build up the navy- but I ask you, at what cost, and for what purpose? Building up a big navy is more of a problem than anything if there is no serious threat of attack and you are only using it to keep Hawaii (or Puerto Rico, or Cuba or the Phillipines) from true self-government, right?
In some ways, Harrison is the ur-Dubya, with less disastrous consequences but a less avuncular personality as well. The man who was propelled into the presidency with a famous last name and only six years in high office. The man who won the presidency under dubious circumstances despite the Democrat getting more votes. (Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania remarked with astonishment that the president would “never know how many men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president.”) Harrison was the man whose private family life was one of unquestioned virtue, but was tone-deaf to social implications and demands that Christianity makes. He was the neophyte who surrounded himself with crony capitalists looking to make a fortune from territorial acquisitions abroad.
Harrison also earns some serious demerits for being below average on his Native American policy. He allowed millions of acres for Sioux land in the Dakotas to be settled by white pioneers, and his Secretary of the Interior supervised a number of unfair dealings that sent Navajo and Sioux to badly maintained and poorly supervised reservations. The Battle of Wounded Knee took place on his watch, and Harrison’s disappearing act, during and after the massacre, does not reflect well upon him.
I do need to note that there were some praiseworthy elements of Harrison’s presidency, but many of them come with caveats and asterisks. He helped to organize a key pan-American conference during the first year of his presidency. It was a terrific forum for international exchange, but his saber-rattling in the Pacific probably did more to worry Latin America than signing onto a neat exhibition. He appointed Frederick Douglass as Minister to Haiti, a rare boon at a time when a black man could not even dine socially with the president without raising hackles. But the beginning of Jim Crow segregation began around 1890. (Many people believe it began as soon as the Civil War ended, or when Reconstruction ended, but historians like C. Van Woodward have demonstrated that it began around 1890 as a consequence of the South urbanizing and modernizing. You can’t segregate theaters and sidewalks and streetcars if you don’t have theaters, sidewalks, and streetcars, right?) For the most part, Harrison did nothing to stop it or at least raise public awareness of these atrocities. He did, though, try to pass a Force Bill that would allow the federal government to enforce voting rights in the South, but it stalled in the Senate.
He worked hard, but he worked hard in the wrong ways, willing to put long hours into his desk work, but suspicious of subordinates and too distrustful to delegate major responsibilities to them. Instead, he soldiered on alone, with a stubborn Presbyterian work ethic. And yes, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed under his watch, but Harrison didn’t lift a finger to get it through, and even then, it did little to actually limit trusts. In fact, it was more often used in the years to come, to fight against organized labor, as the bill grotesquely interpreted labor unions as an illegal “trust” against the employer.
So, Benjamin Harrison’s charmless personality, his dearth of charisma, his total lack of imagination make it difficult to commend him highly in any assessment of the American presidents. But it is his work to cast American foreign policy with a lecherous eye toward the Pacific Ocean that makes him especially problematic. In some ways, he represents the worst of many worlds– McKinley’s spineless acquiescence to foreign adventurism, the Adams’ lack of warmth and bonhomie, and the inability of Arthur to elevate the presidency above a mere functionary position. Small-government conservatives might be happy with that model, but I expect better. Harrison is an instructive and illuminating place to start off our look at our ten worst presidents. Like the winner of a German sausage cook-off, he is veritably the best of the wurst.