Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President
Author: Ari Hoogenboom
There was, Sherman detailed “a very decided opposition to the Administration in both Houses of Congress, among the Republican members.” Specifically, they objected to Evarts, Shurz, and Key in the cabinet, to making the civil service nonpartisan, to the pacification of the South, and most bitterly, to any attempt to “deprive Congressman or all control and share of the patronage of government.” Pg. 352-353
Finishing up Ron Chernow’s awesome biography on Ulysses S. Grant, Hayes had an uphill climb out of Grant’s shadow in this reader’s mind. Much like how Andrew Johnson looks like one of the worst presidents for bungling the gains made by the North and Lincoln in the Civil War, Hayes’s followup of Grant’s handling of reconstruction looks worse in comparison. Here Hoogenboom tries to excuse Hayes handling of reconstruction by saying Republican fatigue and Southern willpower made any further military enforcement in the south impossible. However, Hayes and Grant were both military men and Grant was willing to force an unpopular issue while Hayes was not. That single issue was the major downfall of Hayes in the eyes of historians, rightfully so. However, a man is more than just one bad decision that affected an entire population of people negatively for the next hundred years, so let’s look at the Hayes decisions in the context of who he is and my presidential rating rubric.
Born into – When Hayes was born, his mother was a pregnant widow with two other children, and his father died of Typhus while she was pregnant him. His older sister was two years older and his brother was seven years older. The older brother drowned while ice skating at the age of nine. His mother’s youngest brother was the “man of the house.” The money and house left over from his dad in Ohio were sufficient for the era (he co-ran a successful shop prior to his death). Hayes’s mother supported the family by renting space to lodgers or taking 1/3 of crops raised by farmers on her property.
Hayes was not a great student until he went to Kenyon College. At that time he got interested in political questions and debating. By Senior year, he was president of different organizations and ended up Valedictorian. Following college he studied law as an apprentice for a year, then went to Harvard Law to continue his education. Tragedy continued to follow his family, as his sister Fanny’s first child died less than a year after birth, and she suffered from what was likely post-partum depression after the birth of her second child and was committed to a Lunatic Asylum for several months. 4.5 out of 5.
Pre-President – Hayes tried to enlist for the Mexican American War but was dealing with a throat illness that his doctor convinced him going south would exacerbate. He did this even though he was a Whig and felt the war was improper. Hayes argued against the death penalty to the Ohio Supreme Court for two cases, as well as the Rosetta Armstead runaway slave case which he argued successfully, gaining regional notoriety. Hayes claimed he helped form the Ohio Republican party, but in actuality he was a grumbling Whig for the first few years who denied membership with the Republicans.
Hayes was appointed the job as Solicitor, which was a prestigious position, just prior to the Civil War. Continuing his family tragedy, his sister died in 1856 after her six year old son had died and her twins did not survive childbirth. Hayes enlisted in the Civil War and began as a major, despite no military experience. He was successful, doing lots of reading on the job and was elevated to Lt. Colonel, then Colonel. Hayes claimed he would rather stay a good Colonel than be a poor General, so he didn’t try to climb higher. Even at the end of the war when he became Brigadier General, he preferred to boast of his claims as a Colonel as he never went to battle as a General. Hayes was shot in the arm at the Battle of South Mountain, caused him to miss out on the Battle of Antietam. His numerous exploits in the war included raids on supplies, rail roads and salt mills. My impression is he was cautious when in charge (suffered few losses, only battles tended to be lopsided victories) but was willing to fight with his men when ordered into battle by others. He was wounded five times in battle altogether, with his biggest battles being the Battles of Winchester and Cedar Creek.
Hayes was elected to Congress while the war was still going on, and he continued to serve and did not report until after the South surrendered. Once in Congress, the big issues were how to deal with the south’s population totals and black voting rights, two issues that were intertwined. Hayes sometimes supported literacy tests for a right to vote, and later supported universal suffrage, but seemed to settle on tying the population (for representatives in congress) to how many people were actually allowed to vote. He was appointed the Chairman of Joint Committee on Library in Congress, acquiring many books of the Smithsonian. Hayes resigned from Congress to run for Governor. He supported black suffrage, had the reputation of a war hero, and won his first two elections handily. He showed a willingness to compromise on his morals (downplaying black’s voting rights when running for second term) when he believed it would help get him elected. Hayes founded what later became Ohio State University while he was Governor. He served two terms as governor initially, seeming to take the non-controversial Republican party line on most issues.
After serving two terms as governor, he took a few years off where he worked as attorney, got his affairs in order, spent more time with family (including his older sons who had discovered baseball). He also spent time and money getting a library off the ground. He was lured into running for Governor again with the idea that he would be put forward as a presidential candidate if he was elected. Despite his pessimism at his chances, he won by several thousand votes. At the republican convention he was an early favorite as a compromise candidate, being from an important swing state and always having been successful at elections without controversy. 3 out of 5.
Presidential Career – The initial election was very close, with it appearing Hayes had lost. However several states (Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, Oregon) were either two close to call or in dispute. The result was Democrats wanting every vote recounted and Republicans wanting as many votes thrown out for impropriety or coercion as possible. Hayes removed forces in Lousiana and South Carolina shortly after election; utilizing them long enough to get in the White House but conciliating the south after taking office.
Morality appeared to be a big issue with the Hayes administration. Hayes banned alcohol (and stopped drinking himself) after a party for Tzar’s 2 sons got out of control. After the excesses of Grant nepotism, Hayes refused to give any position to somebody related to him by blood or marriage. He also appointed many women to Postmaster positions, which was not popular in many areas at the time. Historians will enjoy the celebrity occurrences at the White House, with the first presidential telephone installed and guests like Thomas Edison and John Phillips Souza sometimes in attendance.
The first large crisis Hayes had to deal with was a Railroad strike in several cities. Hoogenboom praised Hayes handling of the military during this time, only using them to protect property from destruction and not attacking/arresting protestors, but Hayes also encouraged Federal Judges holding protestors in contempt of court, setting a long term precedent that was anti-labor. The Nez Perce War in 1877 was another big conflict, leading to the famous Chief Joseph statement “I will fight no more forever.” As with most Indian conflicts, it originated when white settlers encroached and/or outright stole Indian land. It resulted in about 60+ casualties for Nez Perce and 180 for white Settlers and soldiers.
Hayes was a big fan of pardons, as well as prison reform. His handling of Chinese Immigration was better than most racist sentiments of era, but was couched in language to make it appear that it was all based on preserving American trade interests. His best moment was probably using a Veto to keep Southerners from repealing Federal Voting law protections; while he kept the laws on the book there was no enforcement for them. Hayes also opposed construction by a French businessman of the Panama Canal, which was an extension (or contradiction) of the Monroe Doctrine depending on your point of view. Additional controversies involved dealing with Mormon disregard for law in Utah and a West Point African American cadet who was found tied up and cut in his room and accused of faking the incident. Both events generated headlines but did not get resolved until after Hayes was out of office.
While in office, the national debt was reduced by nearly 100 million, and Hayes can certainly claim some of the credit for that. The only major controversy was the Star-Route frauds, which involved mail carriers having much larger revenue for routes but then using the money for political contributions instead of service. This didn’t really come to light until after her was out of office, but lack of oversight and key players all in place while Hayes was in office. While he supported Civil service reform (having government positions awarded for merit instead of patronage) he was unsuccessful on pushing it through aside from at the New York Custom’s House (which was the main port of entry and revenue generator for all of U.S. Customs). Hayes kept his promise of not running for reelection and seemed to quit doing anything of historical note once Garfield was elected. 2 out of 5.
Vice President – Congressman William Wheeler from New York (another important swing state) was picked as his running mate. Like most vice presidents of the era, there was little involvement in actually running the administration or setting policy. However, Wheeler became a family friend and confidant once in office, stayed in touch with Hayes family after their terms was over. It was even considered odd how frequently he would be at the White House while Hayes was in office. 3 out of 5.
First Lady – Hayes first met Lucy Webb when she was 16 and he was 26, his mom was trying to set him up. He visited her a few years later when she was in college, and she didn’t remember him at first. (When somebody commented on how young she was, Hayes indicated that was a problem that every day she was getting further away from.) Lucy was for no alcohol and abolition, and was also religious (much more so than Hayes who never joined a church). The two had several children together, son Birchard in 1853, son Webb 1856, Rutherford Jr in 1858, then “Little Joe” who died after 18 months. Little George also died while he was serving in Congress and away from home. Daughter Fannie was born while he was Governor. Two more sons arrived later on, Scott and Manning, the latter of which died at one.
Lucy helped establish Soldier and Sailor’s Orphan’s home in Ohio. She also loved having music in the White House, and was respected for being a good host for events. 3 out of 5.
Post Presidency – After office, Hayes kept up with Ohio State University responsibilities, worked on a number of community issues and focused a lot of his time on the Slater and Peabody Funds. These both focused on providing money for education of poor southern whites and blacks. Hayes was still very liberal on prison reform and wealth redistribution, and spoke out on both accordingly. Hayes remained naïve on southern sentiment toward blacks for the rest of his days believing that sentiments were shifting toward acceptance among the white populace. 4 out of 5.
Book itself – History repeats itself. Much like how Zachary Taylor reminded me a lot of William Henry Harrison, I (and Hoogenboom) noticed many similarities between Hayes and John Quincy Adams. Both were abolitionists who tried to do a lot of the right things in office, however their initial elections were accomplished by scandal (JQA’s deal with Clay, Hayes’s votes suppressing debacle) that tained their one term presidencies. After leaving office, they continued to be involved in numerous causes and work, though Adam’s was much more formal. I enjoyed the comparisons the author drew in this book, and feel like I had a good idea of who Hayes was by the end of it. Unfortunately that was mainly a guy who stayed middle of the road as much as possible in order to remain a candidate that all didn’t offend anybody. 3 out of 5.