Today’s presidential trivia:
Which United States president was grandson of another president?
Which president was followed in office by the man he replaced?
The answer: Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President, born 180 years ago today. The grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, his 1889-1893 term of office was sandwiched between Grover Cleveland’s two terms.
Benjamin is a Biblical name. The first Benjamin was the 12th son of Jacob and second son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. At his birth, his dying mother called him Benoni, Hebrew for “son of my sorrow.” Joseph changed that to Benjamin, “son of the right (hand)” or “son of the south.” Ancient Israelites thought of the directions from the view of someone facing east, and used the same word for “right” and “south.”
In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Benjamin features prominently in the story of his older full brother, Joseph. Sold into slavery in Egypt by his other brothers, Joseph became Pharaoh’s highest official.
When Joseph’s other brothers came to Egypt for food during a famine, they didn’t recognize him. After questioning them about their family, Joseph insisted they bring Benjamin to Egypt to prove their honesty.
When they complied, Joseph planted a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack to accuse him of theft so to have an excuse to keep him. After brother Judah pleaded with Joseph to keep him as a slave instead, Joseph revealed his true identity. Jacob was then reunited with Joseph in Egypt.
Benjamin became the ancestor of one of Israel’s 12 tribes. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul belongs to the tribe of Benjamin.
In 424, Emperor Bahram V of Persia had a Christian deacon named Benjamin tortured and killed. As St. Benjamin, he is the patron saint of Persia and preachers.
Boys named after the saint may be one reason why Benjamin turned up as a surname in England before 1250. Benjamin was also used in medieval France and England as a nickname for the youngest son in a large family. The word “benjamin” has that meaning in modern French.
Still, Benjamin was rare until the Reformation made Old Testament names popular. In 1500, Benjamin ranked below the top 50. By 1700, it was 15th in England and Wales.
There were many Benjamins among the original English settlers of America, including the first Benjamin Harrison (1594-1648), five-greats-grandfather of the president, a clerk at Jamestown, Va.
The most famous American Benjamin is of course Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the politician, author, diplomat and scientist whose face is on the $100 bill.
Boys named after Franklin helped keep Benjamin popular during the 19th century. In the 1850 U.S. Census, almost 12 percent of the 86,583 Benjamins are listed as “Benjamin F.”
After 1850, Benjamin slowly decreased — except during Harrison’s presidency. Back then it was still fashionable to name boys after presidents. The number of Benjamins born in 1889 was almost 50 percent higher than in 1887. Benjamin’s 1889 rank of 21st would be its highest for over a century.
The name continued to recede after Harrison’s term, dropping below the top 100 in 1927. In 1959, it ranked 150th.
“Bonanza” saved Benjamin — though no one expected that its first season. The TV Western, starring Lorne Greene as Nevada rancher Ben Cartwright, was broadcast opposite “Perry Mason” when it premiered in 1959. Its ratings were so low that it was almost canceled, and in 1960 the name Benjamin had its lowest point at 155th.
The next year, “Bonanza” was moved to Sunday nights and became a huge hit. The top-rated TV show between 1964 and 1967, it didn’t leave prime time until 1973. Reruns are still shown on cable.
Once Benjamin started rising again because of “Bonanza,” the Hollywood feedback loop kept it going. In 1967 Dustin Hoffman played Benjamin Braddock in the film “The Graduate.” The next year, the name jumped over 20 percent to 99th place.
In 1973, Michael Jackson sang his hit song “Ben” at the Oscars. “The Waltons,” which came in second in ratings in the 1973-1974 TV season, saw with Eric Scott playing Ben Walton, one of seven kids in a Depression-era Virginia family.
The 1974 film “Benji,” where stray dog Benji rescues two kidnapped kids, premiered in October as a critical and box office smash. Emmy-winning TV miniseries “Benjamin Franklin” was broadcast in November 1974.
It’s no surprise that 1974 saw Benjamin boom, with an increase of 36 percent to 46th place. It continued surging until 1977, when the 12,106 newborn Benjamins ranked it 29th.
Ever since, Benjamin’s popularity has been remarkably steady. Since 2000, its rank has actually risen.
Benjamin did that by being one of the top “traditional” American names in an era when most parents are looking for something “different.” Benjamin’s best year as a percentage of newborns was back in 1981, when 77 out of every 10,000 American boys received it. In 2012, only 63 out of 10,000 were named Benjamin — but its rank was 16th, its highest ever.
Benjamin’s status as a traditional name is also shown by its big difference in use across social classes. In 2008 in Nebraska, the last year for which data is available, Benjamin ranked seventh for boys born to college graduates but just 70th for mothers with only a high school diploma. The college-educated usually prefer names with historical connections, especially for boys.
Franklin and Harrison would surely be proud to know how beloved their name still is in today’s United States.