Presidential Biographies: Rutherford B. Hayes #19

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Rutherford B. Hayes, the Nineteenth  President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President by Ari Hoogenboom.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President

Rutherford B. Hayes is one of those Presidents who has disappeared from history. I remember never hearing or learning anything about the man throughout my history classes (hopefully none of my history teachers/professors read this in sorrow–I may have just forgotten, to be fair!). When I got to this biography, I knew only a little more about him, mostly through reading a few works about Reconstruction and the other biographies of Presidents. Hoogenboom’s goal in this work is clearly to show that Hayes ought to be more remembered, both due to his influence on the office of the President and his work throughout his life.

Hayes was raised by his mother, Siphia Birchard–his father died 11 weeks before he was born. The family was closely knit and his mother never pushed him too hard in any one direction. He eventually ended up at Harvard Law School. During his young adult life, his thought and stance on slavery continued to develop, eventually moving towards a decidedly anti-slavery stance. He became an anti-slavery lawyer and defended fugitive slaves with his law practice. He became involved in politics as he became city solicitor–not his first  choice, but a well-paying one for the time. When the Civil War began, he initially stayed out of the fray, eventually entering the war as an officer.

Hayes distinguished himself repeatedly in military service, getting wounded 5 times throughout the War. He commanded several victorious battles and found himself somewhat a genius for war and also discovered he enjoyed what he saw as the thrill of combat. Unlike other letters from combatants I have read, Hayes’s letters as Hoogenboom cites them contain an almost light air–as though the battles were all in good fun, even as he describes people dying and the wounds he received. It’s clear that he had the constitution for battle. Ulysses S. Grant recognized Hayes’s prowess and lauded it.

After the War, Hayes again moved into politics, first as a congressman, then as Governor of Ohio. In Ohio, he helped ensure ratification of the 15th Amendment and worked for black voting rights. His various successes in politics lead to a nomination for President in 1876–a Presidential campaign that would be extremely contentious. There were multiple electors sent from several states and this led to disptue over 20 different electors and which were the valid ones to vote for President. Hayes needed all 20 disputed electors, and after much dispute, Hayes managed to gain them all. His election would be called a massive compromise by many Southern Democrats, but what Hoogenboom points out is that Hayes’s views on the issues that he allegedly “compromised” on were already in place before the election.

These “compromised” positions included Hayes’s belief that he ought to withdraw federal troops from Southern states. This was a hotly contested issue due to the implications for Reconstruction. Radical Republicans wished to keep them in place both to support fair elections and to enforce more strident, punitive measures against Southern states. Hayes continually believed–even before and possibly during the Civil War–that the United States had to be truly united. The way he felt that would best be accomplished was through self-rule by the South, rather than continuing to use federal troops. Part of this may have been pragmatic, as well, as Southern Democrats were pushing to defund military expenditures, leading to many federal troops working without pay for some time. This situation certainly favored some way to attempt to preserve Reconstruction while also moving control to the South. Hayes’s solution may be looked back on as somewhat naive–he believed that if he pulled out federal troops from the South and secured promises from Southern elite leaders, they would honor their word and protect black rights, including voting rights, in their states. This manifestly did not happen, but Hayes did not “compromise” here–instead, he attempted to implement an ultimately unsuccessful policy, trusting white elites to keep their word rather than betraying his trust. This situation would continue to worsen during his presidency as black voting rights began to be suppressed in earnest.

Hayes also faced major economic crises, including a battle over how to get the country out of a depression alongside major labor strikes, particularly related to the railroads. Hayes favored a more conservative gold standard for the dollar, moving it back to something that would be more trusted worldwide to support its value. This strategy ultimately succeeded, leading to the dollar’s value to increase relative to the world once again and help lead the United States out of a depression. The labor strikes were largely centered around railroads, as owners attempted to salvage their stock dividends by cutting the wages of their workers and forcing them to work longer and worse hours. When railroad executives appealed to Hayes, he responded by sending in troops, but only to defend public property. He took a moderate approach, not allowing the government to become a kind of strike-breaker for the railroads. This strategy paid off in the long run, as the railroads eventually raised wages back to more acceptable levels, though only after breaking the strikes with no small amount of violence.

Anti-Chinese sentiment increased across the United States, and particularly in California, during this time. People argued Chinese laborers were stealing American jobs with low-wage work (this ought to sound somewhat familiar to the modern ear), leading to the attempt to pass laws banning all Chinese from immigrating to the United States. Hayes wielded his power to veto here, and instead went directly to the Chinese government to make a treaty that would be amenable to both governments. Though this included a ban and restrictions on Chinese immigration, it is clear that Hayes saw in this anti-Chinese sentiment even worse repercussions for white supremacy. Hoogenboom notes that Hayes spoke at length about white oppression of others and against racism, despite his ultimate concession through treaty with the Chinese to some of this white supremacist thought.

Hayes also saw this thread of “bullying” by whites in the interactions with Native Americans. Specifically, the Nex Perce War, which was started by numerous white settlers invading land that did not belong to them and attempting to rid it even of those Native Americans who wished to live alongside them peacefully. Hayes worked to try to secure the land for the Native Americans, but ultimately caved to some white interests. He did work to suppress railroads and other disruptions of Native land, but had to fight against no small amount of heavy-handed tactics by others as well as the force of military action that had already begun without his authorization. The remoteness of these conflicts made it especially difficult for Hayes to handle, and he attempted to curtail white encroachment in Native lands by ordering them to be expelled, even prosecuting at least one major intruder in Native lands. However, the damage was already done, and less than a decade after Hayes’s presidency, Congress would forcibly and unilaterally allow further invasion of Native lands.

Another conflict in Hayes’s presidency centered around the patronage system for government positions. Hayes ultimately won this battle, facing down numerous senators who attempted to preserve their power to make their favored people occupy key government posts. Essentially, Hayes paved the way for more government posts to be directly controlled by the President and for the senators to issue recommendations rather than simply giving the posts to relatives or patrons without any oversight. Yet another major exercise of Presidential power by Hayes centered around the Enforcement Acts and voting rights for new black voters. Time and again the Senate attempted to pass laws that would effectively gut the 15th Amendment. These included many attempts to set up riders on bills that Hayes may otherwise have favored. Hayes publicly carried out this battle, using the veto over and over and elucidating to the public his reasons for doing so centered around the 15th Amendment. It was a battle he won handily, forcing Congress to back down after multiple defeats. Unfortunately for our country’s history, many states would violate these laws without consequences anyway, usually with the backing or at least intentional ignoring of all three branches of the government.

Hayes favored universal education as well as prison reform, seeing imprisonment as punishment but also the chance to bring reform to someone’s life. He became especially active in these areas after his presidency, leading to at least some minor reforms in that area.

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President is a great biography, though certainly biased towards its subject. Hoogenboom makes no effort to hide that, though. And it seems to be the case that Hayes’ legacy is one that deserves a closer look, even if many of his attempts at wider reform would give in to the grind of elitist, racist rule in the years and decades following his leadership.

Rutherford B. Hayes’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President – Original Ranking #5)- Rutherford B. Hayes was a reform-minded President in an era that needed it. He actively worked to thwart racism against Chinese, Native Americans, and African Americans, but in the long-term, his efforts failed. He naively believed that the Southern elites would hold true to their promises to defend black voters, while also taking the pragmatic path in withdrawing federal oversight from the governance of southern states. Despite these failures, Hayes also had much success. He did manage to thwart some of the rising racist sentiment, going directly to the Chinese government to negotiate a mutually agreeable treaty regarding immigration (despite this being guided by racial bias, Hayes managed to secure a lesser of two evils). He wielded his power to veto with authority to smack down southern congresspeople who tried to gut the 15th Amendment. He worked for prison and education reform and succeeded in bringing at least some of the change he saw as necessary. His administration stopped the depression by backing the dollar while also backing a moderate policy about labor that ultimately secured some small modicum of rights for the laborers. Hayes has undeservedly been forgotten in most surveys of United States history, but his impact is bigger than may be thought. His active work to curtail many of the evils of our country, though not saving it, did manage to salvage it from some of the worst possible turns. Thrust into an unenviable time, he succeeded in at least finding some of the light in the darkness, and doing so in a commendable way.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


Presidential Biographies: Ulysses S. Grant #18

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Ulysses S. Grant, the Eighteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Grant by Ron Chernow.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Grant by Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant is one of those Presidents that I only knew for his Civil War service and drinking problems. Indeed, as I have discussed my reading of the Presidential Biographies, I was often told Grant was one who would be ranked low due to the corruption on his cabinet and his drinking. Yet, as I discovered in this truly excellent biography by Ron Chernow, the story is much deeper and complex than that. Indeed, I don’t think I’m mistaken to say that Grant is certainly one of the most underrated Presidents we’ve had. Moreover, he was an altogether decent man.

Grant was born in Ohio. His father had a tannery business, among other businesses, and Grant detested the smell and sights of he gruesome business. Instead, he joined the military where he distinguished himself as a marvelous equestrian. He distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, though he was personally opposed to what he felt was a poor decision to go to war. He made enemies in the military, and they sought to undermine him by spreading rumors about his drunkenness. These rumors would dog him his entire life, and into the modern era. They were not unfounded. Chernow dedicates no small amount of time discussing both the reality of Grant’s alcoholism and the myth that developed around it. For one, in Grant’s time, alcoholism was seen as a moral failing rather than an addiction that needed treatment to overcome. That misunderstanding continues in part to this day. Due to this view of alcoholism as moral failing, the rumor mill that surrounded Grant about alcohol came up again and again, fed by his political and military enemies in order to undermine his moral and other status. Grant did binge drink. He tended to do so in certain situations: after battles, for example. Yet he also worked hard to fight alcoholism in himself and others, making a pact with his longtime friend and adviser, John Rawlins, to help him keep from drinking. It is also likely he promised his wife he would not drink, and she defended his character to the end of her life. Moreover, he was free of scandal regarding women, and, though a few unsubstantiated rumors arose about this as well, it seems clear Grant was quite loyal to his wife throughout his life. The rumors of alcohol, though, did get him out of the military.

Then, the Civil War began, and Grant was called to defend the Union, which he did with gusto. His political views had, in part, formed in response to his wife (a Southerner who owned slaves) and against his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. The Civil War changed these views as well. He had leaned towards abolition, but through the war this conviction solidified. As he continued to rise in power in the Western Theater of the Civil War, he became agitated by setbacks surrounding logistics. This led to him issuing General Orders No. 11, what Chernow calls the “most sweeping anti-Semitic action undertaken in American history.” These orders stipulated that Jews would be expelled from his military district, which included parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He blamed certain Jewish traders as source of black market goods and transactions, and he felt his actions were justified, not to mention going along with the general anti-Semitism of the time. Grant’s story of interactions with the Jewish people was not over, though, as we’ll see in his Presidency.

Grant continued to thrive in war, and won many hard-fought victories against sometimes larger armies and fortifications. His victory over Vicksburg catapulted his fame, and Lincoln ultimately placed him in charge of the armies fighting Lee. Grant’s reputation as a butcher is unsupported by his actual actions on the battlefield and after. In victory, he was cordial and even kind towards the defeated enemy. He was a grand strategist who burst fortresses with tactics rather than a sea of bodies, though the latter was often the result of the type of battles that were being fought. Grant ultimately defeated Lee and the South, of course, leading to a Union victory.

Next, Grant dedicated himself to healing tensions in the country, though he also felt that the rights of the newly freed slaves would need military protection. He and Andrew Johnson repeatedly clashed as the latter’s policies undermined what Lincoln had done and what Grant hoped Reconstruction would accomplish. Grant ultimately decided to run for President and won against Horatio Seymour. Several states were still ineligible to vote in this election.

Grant’s Presidency was certainly not perfect. It is true that his administration was marred by several scandals. Many of these were due to Grant’s nature as a person: he simply trusted his associates far more than he should have, and this would come back to truly bite him in later years. The list of scandals is long, ranging from monopolies on gold, to custom houses, to tax evasion scams. Almost all of these were done by appointees of Grant, his cabinet, or people he trusted. Lingering attacks on Grant about his alcohol use continued throughout both of his terms, as well.

Moreover, Grant’s attempts to deal fairly with Native Americans failed badly. He attempted a policy he called the “Peace Policy” in which he would honor treaties the United States had made with Native American groups. He even worked to get citizenship for Native Americans. He believed that Native Americans were largely provoked by whites who then attributed any conflict to the Native Americans (658). He appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca, as the Commisioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that position. Grant and Parker planned for a gradual granting of citizenship to Native Americans. Of course, part of this plan was absorption of Native Americans and this would involve effectively “robbing Indians of their rightful culture” (as Chernow puts it, 659). Native Americans largely rebuffed Grant’s plan for them, not wishing to be made into white people’s idealization of “civilized.” Unfortunately, during this time period, the slaughter of buffalo herds by white men, in addition to continual incursions by white people on Native lands, and the greed of people for gold in Native lands led to conflict. The Peace Policy devolved into a series of raids and wars against Native Americans, including the infamous “Battle of Little Bighorn” in which Custer, whom Grant had dispatched, was killed and made into a folk hero–a status undeserved, to say the last. Grant’s Peace Policy was perhaps well-intentioned, but it was also a failure. He wished to see Native Americans integrated into the United States, not particularly aware of whether this was something they desired or not; and he ultimately dispatched troops to fight those same people. It is tragic in a number of ways, because Grant, unlike many of the Presidents we have already looked at in this series, truly did seem to view all people as… people.

In the South, the Ku Klux Klan rapidly arose to try to suppress black voters and power in these states. Unlike Andrew Johnson, who practically encouraged such violent terrorism, Grant responded to these militaristic racists by fighting them. He and his attorney generals–though largely the first, formed a Justice Department that would expand federal powers to prosecute criminals in states. As part of his enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments, Grant charged his attorney general, Amos T. Akerman, to vigorously defend black voters. Grant worked to pass additional enforcement acts specifically targeting the KKK and other groups that were terrorizing blacks trying to vote. This gained him praise from such luminaries as Frederick Douglass. Grant then went to the length of suspending Habeas Corpus when he was told that the KKK was murdering people before they could testify against them. He and Akerman managed to convict more than 1000 members of the Klan, ultimately leading to what was truly a massive, militaristic, terror organization to losing much of its power. After the Colfax Massacre, Grant worked to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. When the Supreme Court overturned the few convictions Grant managed to get, he was enraged and, in an eloquent condemnation of the moral state of the country, said:

Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime. (quoted on p. 759-760)
Grant saw this and many other instances as evidence the Federal Government needed the power to intervene in the states in order to enforce the law. Just as they’d done before the Civil War and into certain issues today, people cried out for “states’ rights” in response. Grant oversaw the passage and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875, helping ensure this federal intervention, but the Supreme Court would ultimately strike this Act down. In short, Grant’s Presidency was characterized by the fight for civil rights of the newly freed African American population. It was a battle that gave him many victories, though also some defeats. And, ultimately, that battle continues to this day. We do have to thank Grant, though, for his effort to undo much of the damage Johnson did to black civil rights.
Grant also worked to heal his schisms with Jewish people. He became the first President to attend a synagogue congregation, following the traditions of those in attendance despite being told he did not have to. Moreover, “Mortified at memories of General Orders No. 11, Grant compiled an outstanding record of incorporating Jews into his administration…” He nominated Jews to numerous positions, leading to contemporary Jewish leaders o state that he had overcome the blight on his name from his General Orders (642-643). Moreover, he worked to protect Jewish citizens abroad. When Russia was revealed to be relocating Jews, Grant spoke with some American Jewish leaders, telling them “It is too late, in this age of enlightement, to persecute any one on account of race, color, or religion” (quoted on 643). He then made a formal protest to the czar and directed the American ambassador in Russia to make a state paper to document coercion against Russian Jews (here I largely paraphrase Chernow on p. 643). Chernow notes, quoting a scholar writing in Woodrow Wilson’s era, that Grant did more for the Jewish people in the United States than any other President before or since (836).
Grant’s Presidency ended, but he continued to have influence in the political arena, including working actively for Garfield in particular. His tendency to trust others would have one more disastrous consequence late in life, though, as he trusted a young Ferdinand Ward with all his fortune and that of many family members. Ward, however, was running nothing but a Ponzi scheme, and ultimately left Grant and many others effectively penniless. This would lead, however, to Grant finally deciding to put pen to paper and write his memoir, which Mark Twain eventually purchased to publish. Grant had gone from thinking he was next to a millionaire to seeing Twain’s advance check of $1000 as a massive windfall. It was a miserable state for such a man to fall to, and Twain recognized it as well. Moreover, Grant was horribly ill as he wrote his recollections, but as through his life, he soldiered through and completed them at cost to himself. The memoir would become a massive commercial success and go down as a major event in American history. Grant used the last months of his life to speak with friends and even enemies, making amends with several. He died, surrounded by friends and family. His casket bearers included soldiers from both the North and South, signifying his lifelong battle for Union.
Truly, Grant was a phenomenal man and President. He is massively underrated on the latter score. Chernow’s biography, Grant, is a fantastic work as well. I highly recommend it, and I recommend learning more about this President.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Ulysses S. Grant (18th President – Original Ranking #3)- Often dismissed as a footnote for his Presidency and talked up as a General instead, Grant was, in fact, one of the more effective Presidents when it came to some areas where it mattered most. A principled man, when he identified an evil, he worked vociferously to attack it. His war on the KKK was effective and waged with as much acumen as he dealt with troops on the battlefield, helping to end at least some of the terror levied against black citizens. He worked to rebuild relationships with Jewish citizens after making a poor choice earlier in his career. He tried (but failed) to walk a line between honoring treaties with Native Americans, bringing peace, and pleasing whites intent on expansion.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!