- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

Benjamin Harrison is one of our least remembered presidents, for two reasons. The first is that was charisma-free to the point of seeming dull; the second is that he is one of the few presidents who were chosen by the electoral college while receiving a minority of the popular vote. To the extent that Harrison is remembered, it is as the president who held office between Grover Cleveland’s two terms.

At long last, however, Harrison receives his due from a professor of history at East Carolina University, Charles W. Calhoun in Benjamin Harrison (Times Books, $20, 192 pages). Harrison was an aspiring Indiana lawyer when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He rose to command a regiment that he led with some distinction; by the end of the war he was a brigadier general. He returned to his law practice in Indianapolis and entered politics as a Republican.

But it was not an auspicious beginning; he was twice defeated for governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1880. There, he generally aligned himself with the more moderate faction of his party, supporting regulation of railroads, a protective tariff and generous pensions for veterans. Harrison’s views were sufficiently mainstream, and his state sufficiently important, that the austere Hoosier became the Republican presidential nominee in 1888. To Democrats, Harrison’s only claim to fame was that his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, had served briefly as president nearly five decades before. They sang, to the tune of “Grandfather’s Clock,” “His grandfather’s hat is too big for his head/ But Ben tries it on just the same.”

That November Harrison received 233 electoral votes to 169 for Grover Cleveland, while losing the popular vote by 90,000. The author points out that Cleveland’s edge in the popular vote “came from lopsided Democratic majorities in the Deep South,” where blacks were systematically denied the vote. Nevertheless, the turnout of nearly 80 percent of eligible voters reflected a keen interest in issues that are forgotten today.

Harrison’s term was an eventful one. He began to rebuild the navy, which had been in decline since the Civil War. He sponsored a Pan American Congress that increased economic ties between the United States and Latin America. He signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890, which represented the government’s first, tentative step toward the regulation of big business.

Intensely religious, Harrison may have been our first born-again president. For personal as well as political reasons, he urged protection for black voters in the South. Blacks, he observed, “have their representatives in the national cemeteries, where a grateful Government has gathered the ashes of those who died in its defense,” yet in many places they were denied the right to vote.

The president had problems, one of which was of his own making. He named as secretary of state the personable, ambitious James G. Blaine who spent most of Harrison’s term maneuvering to be his successor. Meanwhile, the president’s reserved manner alienated many party bosses. Although Harrison was renominated in 1892, he was soundly defeated by Cleveland. Mr. Calhoun’s account is a worthy addition to the series of presidential minibiographies being published under general editor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

It’s hard to get a handle on Robert Carter III of Virginia, the hero of Andrew Levy’s somewhat rambling The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves (Random House, $25.95, 311 pages), which reads like a Ph.D. thesis. Like Benjamin Harrison, Carter was uncharismatic, and he sought obscurity to the extent of insisting on an unmarked grave.

Moreover, despite the book’s grand title, Carter was neither the first emancipator nor a Founding Father. As the author himself writes, “Before Robert Carter freed his slaves, small slaveholders across Virginia had liberated almost ten thousand of their black servants, and entire states with significant slave populations, such as New Jersey, were learning how to finance emancipations on a public scale.” And living in the same neck of the woods as Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry does not a Founding Father make.

Robert Carter III’s father was “King” Carter, whose descendants would include William Henry and Benjamin Harrison, five signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Robert E. Lee, “but all the legendary lines would pass through his daughters, not his sons.” Robert Carter III had the distinction of losing two elections to the Virginia House of Burgesses and, in June 1776, he declined an invitation from Richard Henry Lee, on behalf of the Virginia Convention, to join the new state government, pleading “numerous Family?.”

In 1791, however, during the decade and a half that manumission was legal in Virginia (before the invention of the cotton gin made plantations profitable again), Robert Carter III declared his intention to free his 450 slaves over a period of time — and as time passed, he actually freed more than the number specified in his Deed of Gift.

Carter was a self-educated eccentric who accumulated a large library but had no teachers to help him understand the books he read. He married a wealthy Baltimore girl who would bear him 17 children, but most of them died young (three young daughters died of unknown causes in an 11-month period in 1771-72). As smallpox spread toward Virginia, Carter inoculated his slaves and then his family, personally suffering a severe four-day fever during which he believed that he had seen God.

Upon recovering, he “tested every major faith,” discarding one after another before settling on the faith of his slaves and turning his plantation into a revival camp. Although the House of Delegates passed the Act to Authorize the Manumission of Slaves in 1782, he waited another decade before acting on it, meanwhile dealing with multiple family and business crises. He finally began to emancipate his slaves four years after his wife died.

And what happened to his freed slaves? “Their lives were difficult, dominated by menial labor and repressive laws, but none chose to return to slavery. Some ended up in jail, or destitute. Others found themselves and their children working in conditions little different from slavery. Others simply disappeared.” Moreover, because Carter’s schedule freed slaves according to age, not family ties, “There were husbands who were freed but whose wives remained slaves, and there were free parents with slave children.”

All of which would seem to indicate that large-scale manumission was a very complicated issue and perhaps that the Founding Fathers, whom the author constantly compares unfavorably to his biographic subject, understood some of the complexities better than Robert Carter III did. Carter himself moved to Baltimore before freeing his slaves in Virginia, in recognition, the author says, that “public acts” such as his Deed of Gift and “the departure of the author of such public acts from the slaveholding community were inextricably linked.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in Mclean, Va.

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