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.

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