home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

rutherford b hayes

25 august 2008

He probably wouldn't have used this exact terminology, but President Rutherford B. Hayes seems to have been perpetually high on life. In Hans Trefousse's brief study for the Times Books American Presidents series, Hayes comes across as someone who was delighted by almost everything and everybody he encountered. He even seems to have had fun commanding an infantry unit in the hairy West Virginia theatre during the Civil War. We don't usually think of the bearded Victorian set of the American Presidency as a great well of joie de vivre, but Hayes's motto might have been "life is good."

Of course, much of the source of Trefousse's no-worries Ruddy Hayes is in the general's wartime letters home to his wife Lucy. And Hayes was not the kind of guy who would unnecessarily freight his wife with news of the existential horrors of war. But Hayes, who wrote constantly, seemed to present the same sanguine view of the world to all his correspondents. He was a born optimist. His optimism lay behind his greatest failure as President: the na´ve notion that white-supremacist Southerners would endorse the rights of freedmen if federal officers weren't standing by with small arms at the ready.

"What was the significance of Rutherford B. Hayes?" asks Trefousse at the end of his study (149). He lists several good qualities of the 19th President, calling him intellectual, courtly, conciliatory. Which is fine, but what did he do? My old mnemonic rhyme mentions that "Hayes resumed specie payments," which is undeniably thrilling but an unmixed good only if you were a creditor in the Gilded Age economy. Hayes also fired Chester Alan Arthur, the bloated Collector of the port of New York, an emblem of all that was corrupt in the 19th-century federal government (and by a bizarre turn of events, Hayes's successor as President, after James A. Garfield was assassinated).

But Hayes also removed federal troops from the South, leaving the African-American population defenseless against unrepentant Confederates who were determined to deny their civil and political rights. What was the significance of that action (an action widely rumored to be linked to the agreement that put Hayes in the White House in the disputed 1876 election)?

Hayes's opponent Samuel Tilden would have removed troops from the South as well. It was more or less the Democratic platform. The only real difference was that Hayes, with undeniable Union credentials and a strong Radical record during the War and Reconstruction, had a better chance of weathering radical opposition to such a move. In an only-Nixon-can-go-to-China way, only a staunch Republican could have removed troops from the South.

Despite Hayes's integrity, despite his admirably independent policies that irked both wings of his own party as well as the opposition Democrats, one has to ask if his Presidency was worth its cost: the abandonment of Reconstruction.

But there are other, more trivial things of interest that Trefousse's somewhat mild book brings into focus. Hayes entertained lavishly (though of course, at Lucy's insistence, without booze). He traveled and gave speeches constantly; he was the first sitting President to visit the West Coast, for instance. His was a high-profile, proto-imperial Presidency that helped shape the role of the 20th-century President as a visible, voluble head of state.

Trefousse is unconvincing, however, in his characterization of Hayes as an "intellectual." He was nothing of the sort, unless your definition of "intellectual" is fairly broad. Hayes was a cultured man: a college graduate who liked to read good fiction, who subscribed to middlebrow cultural organizations, who was interested in history, geography, genealogy, who went to hear the best lecturers on the circuit.

But "intellectual," no. Hayes doesn't seem to have had an original idea in his head, and no great interest in exploring the depths of thought. Intellectuals have been rare in the White House, and there is no special reason for the President to be one. The Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson were certainly intellectuals, and Lincoln maybe (a strong wing of Lincoln scholarship sees him as a profound and original thinker, though it may just be because he was so historically crucial as a leader). Hayes, though interested in many serious topics, was instead in the next rank of cerebral Presidents: people of some culture and education who knew something about ideas without having many of their own (Garfield, Hoover, FD Roosevelt, Kennedy, Carter). Such people can be great Presidents, and if Hayes wasn't, it wasn't for lack of knowledge or academic curiosity.

Trefousse, Hans L. Rutherford B. Hayes. New York: Times Books, 2002.