Was Benjamin Harrison a More Significant President than Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?
Leo P. Ribuffo teaches history at George Washington University and is writing a history of the Carter presidency.
Teaching the first part of the introduction to U.S. history since the 1870s, as I did this past semester, is always a challenge. For my students, eager to reach Barack Obama or at least Bill Clinton, it seems so long ago. There were all those family farmers who complained that their way of life was being destroyed instead of sinking quietly into the compost heap of history. Not only was there no Facebook or Twitter, but techies like Thomas Edison were only starting to produce silent movies. Plump people were considered sexy.
It helps a bit—but only a bit—to point out to students that we still drive over bridges built during the late nineteenth century and buy light bulbs, sodas, and (if we dare) cigarettes from companies founded way back then. It is less helpful to note that my grandparents were my students’ age when the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth; because, you know, Professor Ribuffo is so old he even remembers black-and-white television.
Trying to figure out how much human life and institutions change and how much they remain the same is one of the most difficult tasks historians face and probably the prime justification for our existence. Moreover, the self-absorption and short historical memories of living human beings in all age groups undoubtedly predate the formal study of history.
Still, this situation continues to grate on me even after turning in the grades—and nowhere more so than in my students’ reflexive dismissal of late-nineteenth-century presidents. Most of these men sported beards (the last president to have facial hair in office was William Howard Taft), a couple of them were pretty plump, and the presidency itself was not even a full-time job year-round. What could we possibly learn from them? This attitude is reinforced by political pundits who like to compare the present to what they think they know about way back then.
For instance, we are much more likely to hear from Chris Matthews on Hardball, while making an ostensibly serious point, that William McKinley was a capitalist tool of reactionary industrialist Mark Hanna, than we are to hear on Entertainment Tonight that Sarah Bernhardt wasn’t such a hot chick compared to Lindsay Lohan. Those historians who feel a compulsion to rate all of the presidents as "great," "near great" and so forth as if they were rock records on the old American Bandstand (initially broadcast on black-and-white television) are almost as ahistorical in their approach.
At the simplest level, thoughtful attention to those plump and bearded men in the White House during the late nineteenth century might help to counteract the self-absorption of contemporary politics. My chief goal here is to increase wariness of “leadership,” the magical mantra chanted incessantly by pundits, presidential aspirants, and more than a few historians—at least when these scholars appear on (now color flat screen) television. Most problems, chronic or acute, domestic or international, supposedly would be on their way to solution if only the president, Barack Obama at the moment, showed more leadership in the mythologized fashion of selected predecessors. The names of preferred predecessors vary among Roosevelt(s), Truman, Kennedy and Reagan depending on the worldviews of the mantra chanters, most of whom conveniently forget that even their favorite presidents made some disastrous decisions.
McKinley, one of the plump ones, will cap my case for learning from late-nineteenth-century presidents; his ability and ideological flexibility were recognized by Margaret Leech and William Appleman Williams way back in the 1950s when I was a teenager watching black-and-white television. But let's start off with an even less familiar figure, Benjamin Harrison.
No, no, not William Henry Harrison, his grandfather who died after a month in office in 1841 (and who is also the subject of mythology, repeated every four years, about death due to a long inaugural address delivered in the cold). “Little Ben” Harrison wasn’t plump but short, and a prominent fellow Republican credited him with all the “personality of a dripping cave.” Nonetheless, in 1890 Harrison signed legislation that even now enriches lawyers and intermittently frightens corporate CEOs. No, no, not the Tariff of 1890 and not the bill providing pensions to a record number of Union Civil War veterans, significant as these measures were at the time. The legislation in question is the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Will any act signed by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama seem as consequential to the proverbial intelligent general reader of political and business news in 2134? I doubt it. The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of President Clinton’s favorite initiatives, will be remembered by some specialists, much as economic historians know that the principle of reciprocity introduced in the tariff of 1890 was an important innovation. President Obama’s health care program, even if fully implemented, will probably be remembered only by other specialists as an incremental expansion of the welfare state, much as some historians now cite Civil War pensions as a social safety net that delayed the adoption of Social Security in the United States.
Is it fair that in 122 years Clinton and Obama will be reflexively dismissed by students, pundits, presidential aspirants, and many historians—all of whom probably will still be chanting the leadership mantra? Of course not. But life is unfair, as Jimmy Carter quipped in 1977 in an homage to John Kennedy—perhaps especially in the case of presidential reputations, as Carter now knows.
But readers may join some of my students in objecting that the United States is much more powerful now than during the late nineteenth century. Won’t the military interventions begun or inherited by Clinton and Obama stand out in popular memory in 122 years? This depends on the long-term consequences of those interventions, but even here there are reasons to be skeptical—and we must turn to McKinley after all to see why.
McKinley's decision, made amid much public and congressional pressure, to lead the United States into a small war against Spain in 1898 yielded dramatically increased American ambitions in Asia, ambitions highlighted by temporary acquisition of the Philippines and permanent annexation of Hawaii. Thus McKinley opened the path to the big war that began forty-three years later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There were many opportunities to turn back along the way if there had been wiser, er, leadership. Unfortunately, McKinley's path was a slippery slope. With the exception of Herbert Hoover, presidential leadership in this case was defined as pressing onward in Asia, not least because the Great China Market seemed to beckon just around the next corner. On December 7, 1941, only specialists recalled McKinley's first steps way back in 1898. Let us hope that the recent interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya did not start us down an analogous slide to an international disaster four decades hence.
In the meantime, as election year ritual raises the leadership mantra to a din, we should try to transcend the self-absorption of contemporary politics. Most presidents are average. Not average when compared to the lives of pundits and historians, but average—for good and/or ill—in comparison to the full run of presidents. Such an admission might feel at first like a narcissistic loss but compensation would come in the form of freedom from delusion and disappointment.
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