The First Book of the Week is “John Tyler, The Accidental President” by Edward P. Crapol, published in 2006. This wordy, redundant career biography described the ideology and actions of a little-known American president and his times.
Born in March 1790, Tyler was an elitist trained for leadership in his youth. The education curriculum included Shakespeare, Anglophobia and male role models, including his father, with whom he studied law. At seventeen years old, he graduated from the College of William and Mary.
In the early 1830’s, abolitionists created a national anti-slavery organization. They launched petitioning and postal campaigns which were met with verbal harassment, egg and rock throwing, and censorship of the mail. The slave owners spread the vicious rumor that the abolitionists were colluding with the British– who had decided that slavery was uncool and had set free their slaves.
In April 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after one month in office. Tyler, 51 years old, then serving as vice president (rather than other high government officials) became President of the United States because he aggressively convinced the government that he should.
As a point of pride, Tyler was eager to geographically and populationally expand the United States. He boasted about what a great model for freedom America was in the world. To this end, he wanted to welcome European refugees onto America’s shores and promote free trade.
But Tyler was a hypocrite in various ways. He owned tens of slaves in his workforce at his home in Virginia. He used his personal slaves in the White House as butler and valet. He exploited female slaves sexually.
Able to project an image of independent thinking, or have the chameleon-like flexibility of a politician, Tyler refrained from declaring himself a member of the major political parties of the time– the Whigs, Democrats or Liberty Party. He voted against creating a national bank– defying checks and balances of power by keeping his own (executive) and the legislative branch (which was supposed to have financial oversight of government operations), together.
In the early 1840’s, Tyler unwittingly did good by appointing a Navy secretary who appointed a superintendent who believed in scientific research using the Navy’s resources.
Tyler made a diplomatic trade trip to China, arriving in February of 1844. By summer of that year, he truly completed a deal (didn’t just boast about having a deal that was still in progress) to sell to China, America’s excess goods. In the next five years, the total dollar value of goods exchanged, doubled.
Read the book to learn of Tyler’s various territorial, slavery-related, Constitutional and States’ Rights controversies– in Oregon, Hawaii, Texas, and Maine’s Canadian border– on behalf of the United States (in which the president launched a propaganda campaign funded by a secret slush fund (illegally) unbeknownst to Congress), his relationships with Britain, France, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, post-presidency hot-button issues (which he covered in speaking tours, and about which he didn’t shut up until his death), and more.
The Second Book of the Week is “Benjamin Harrison” by Charles W. Calhoun, published in 2005. This is a brief career biography of America’s 23rd president, whose grandfather William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president.
Born in August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio into a big family, Benjamin Harrison studied political science, economics and debating in college, and then studied law, graduating in June 1852. Like his mother, he was a devout Presbyterian.
At the time, the type of capitalism practiced in England involved a vicious economic cycle: robber barons, who– among other exploitative practices– paid starvation wages to workers, who, in turn, required government welfare. The government taxed the workers so that they needed additional welfare.
For the rest of the 1850’s, Harrison established his career practicing law and holding various Republican leadership positions in Indiana and at his church. In summer 1862, he volunteered to fight for the Union in the American civil war. He worked his way up to brigade commander.
The (financial) Panic of 1873 made Harrison more wealthy than ever by giving him copious legal work. But that is not why he viewed the depression as a good thing. It was good because after a time, it put a stop to America’s excesses.
For years, people had been engaging in gambling, thinking they would get rich quick. Excuse the cliche, “The only place ‘success’ comes before ‘work’ is in the dictionary.” He knew that rewards came over time through focused labor and clean living.
Beginning in 1880, Harrison was elected as a Republican senator from Indiana. He believed in equal opportunity for all, including blacks, and integrated co-education. He thought the most important political issue of the day was black enfranchisement.
In 1888, Harrison was drafted by his fellow Republicans to run for president. His opponent went on a campaign tour. “Long tradition called for a presidential nominee to discuss the issues in a formal letter of acceptance but otherwise remain at home and leave the hard campaigning to surrogates.” Harrison stayed in Indiana and representatives from his political network visited him. He made speeches which were printed in all the major newspapers within a day. That’s how he reached voters.
Harrison was super-cooperative with Congress, pushing through 531 pieces of legislation during his administration. In early 1891, he secured trade agreements with Brazil, Central American nations and Austria-Hungary. However, he pointedly avoided a deal with Canada because that country was neither going to stop importing factory products from England to purchase America’s, nor would it purchase America’s food from farms.
Read the book to learn of the hot-button political issues of Harrison’s time (hint– there were contentious arguments on various economic fronts); of why he was a one-term president; and of many more details about his professional and personal beliefs, accomplishments and incidents.