Marching onward in my quest to read a biography of every U.S. president, I finally made it through Ari Hoogenboom’s Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. I confess to having held the same vague notions of Hayes that Hoogenboom writes he’s commonly known for: that he won the disputed 1876 presidential election, ending Reconstruction, and that he was just another forgettable (yet unforgettably bearded) president who fell through the cracks between Abraham Lincoln and the twentieth century.
But Rud, as he was known, is a perfect exemplar of the purpose of my biblio-presidential journey: to fill in the gaps of my U.S. history knowledge and give the lesser-known figures a fairer shake than high school textbooks give them. In the end I found Hayes to be a fascinating figure, whose presidency was as bland as his pre- and post-presidency years were compelling.
Hayes was raised in Ohio by a widowed mother and a strong-willed sister who both felt very protective of him. When twentysomething Rud was in Boston attending Harvard Law School, both women would constantly needle him about studying and finding a woman. I’m sure he was glad he took his time looking for a mate because the woman he married, Lucy Webb (the first First Lady to graduate from college), helped sway him away from his social-issue indifference toward support for abolition, temperance, and Christianity (though he could only latch onto very liberal Christian orthodoxy).
His newfound moralism continued into the Civil War, which he entered as a major in the Ohio 23rd infantry (fighting alongside future president William McKinley, who was a private in the 23rd, and James Garfield, a brigadier general and another eventual POTUS). In the Battle of South Mountain, Hayes led a charge and got shot in the left arm, fracturing his bone, but in a total Teddy Roosevelt move he stanched the wound and continued on in battle, eventually getting stranded between the lines. Seeing the end, he left notes for his family with wounded Confederate soldier nearby, only to be scooped up by his troops and brought to the hospital. Later in the war, Hayes earned plaudits from General Ulysses Grant that Hayes would brag about for the rest of his life: “His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring.”
After the war, Rud served in Congress and then as Ohio governor for two non-consecutive terms, the later of which he parlayed into the Republican nomination for president in 1876. Support of the 14th and 15th amendments and reform of the civil service/appointments system were Rud’s bread and butter during the campaign, which culminated in the “Compromise of 1877,” a.k.a. the most controversial election before 2000. The compromise boiled down to this: If Hayes were awarded the disputed presidency, he would agree to remove all remaining federal troops from the former Confederacy, thereby abandoning the fledgling Republican state governments in the South to the reemergent (erstwhile Confederate) Democrats. In exchange, the Democrats wouldn’t violently storm the inauguration in protest. Some deal. However, Hayes and the Republicans chose the presidency over the already withering GOP governments in the South and have earned scorn for ending Reconstruction ever since.
Rud’s presidency continued on, mostly filled with drama over Hayes’ attempted reform of how political appointments were dolled out (Hayes: “The president should make appointments instead of Congress!” Congress: “No.”) and more drama over returning to the gold standard, in addition to the drama over the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Two fun bits of trivia: Lucy Hayes hosted the first White House Easter Egg Roll in 1878 after Congress banished it from the Capitol grounds, and Rud hosted the 30-year-old Thomas Edison and his new phonograph.) But why the flippancy over Hayes’ single term? Because what he did after it was way more interesting.
In a nod to the third act of John Quincy Adams’ storied career, Hayes unleashed his very progressive views on race, education, and big business and became social justice crusader way before it was trendy. Among other things, he advocated for universal education as a means to ensure the suffrage and advancement of the recently freed yet woefully unsupported slaves. He served on the National Prison Reform Association board with the young New York state assemblyman Teddy Roosevelt and railed against income disparity and the plight of the poor that corrupt monopolies exacerbated. He was a trustee of Ohio State University (a school he helped to found as Ohio governor) and endorsed the 24-year-old W.E.B. DuBois for an educational scholarship.
Judged strictly on his presidential tenure, Hayes doesn’t inspire much praise. He came about during a time when the party bosses held as much if not more political power and control than the presidents did. I don’t think all forgotten presidents deserve to have their low reputation reconsidered (I’m coming for you, John Tyler), but viewed holistically I’d say Hayes deserves more than the middling (and slowly dropping) rank he often gets.