President Rutherford B. Hayes: Obscurity, infamy, & partial redemption

Detail from presidential portrait, 1884 (Credit: Google Arts & Culture)

Most Americans know nothing about Rutherford B. Hayes. He ranks among the most obscure of many forgettable single-term 19th-century presidents.

In 20 years of teaching history, I doubt I ever said a kind word about him.

This is what I taught: Suppression of black votes in the South produced disputed election returns in the presidential election of 1876. Political hacks cut a backroom deal — the Compromise of 1877 — where Democrats agreed to let Hayes be president if Republicans promised to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the South. Hayes honored this bargain, shifting the identity of the GOP from the party of racial justice to the party of big business. Since the U.S. Army was no longer protecting the freedmen in Dixie, Hayes deployed them instead to help crush the Great Railroad Strike.

And all of that is true. But there is more to the story.

Born today in 1822, Hayes fought heroically in the Civil War. As a Congressman from 1865–67, he supported Reconstruction and voted for the 14th Amendment to grant citizenship and equal rights to black Americans. In 1867, when he ran for Governor of Ohio, he endorsed a state constitutional amendment to grant voting rights to black men. His opponent made this the focus of the race, but Hayes did not back down, and narrowly won. Later, he helped ensure Ohio’s ratification of the 15th Amendment to ensure voting rights for black Americans.

As president, although Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South, he also vetoed three attempts by Congress to repeal laws forbidding racial voter suppression. Unfortunately, the Democrats outmaneuvered him by cutting off funds for federal marshals to enforce those laws.

In two notable cases, Hayes defended the land rights of Indians against white encroachment. He also vetoed a racist bill to ban Chinese immigration.

Hayes retired rather than seek re-election, and devoted himself to educational reform. He urged federal aid to education and promoted scholarships for African-Americans.

In the years before his death in 1893, Hayes became increasingly concerned about growing inequality. He wrote:

“[F]ree government cannot long endure if property is largely in a few hands and large masses of people are unable to earn homes, education, and a support in old age.”

“The unrestricted competition so commonly advocated does not leave us the survival of the fittest. The unscrupulous succeed best in accumulating wealth.”

“[I]t is time for the public to hear that the giant evil and danger in this country, the danger which transcends all others, is the vast wealth owned or controlled by a few persons. Money is power. In Congress, in state legislatures, in city councils, in the courts, in the political conventions, in the press, in the pulpit, in the circles of the educated and the talented, its influence is growing greater and greater. Excessive wealth in the hands of the few means extreme poverty, ignorance, vice, and wretchedness as the lot of the many…. Let the people be fully informed and convinced as to the evil. Let them earnestly seek the remedy and it will be found…. We may reach and remove the difficulty by changes in the laws regulating corporations, descents of property, wills, trusts, taxation, and a host of other important interests, not omitting lands and other property.”

Hayes wielded little influence in retirement, but the solutions he proposed echoed those of contemporary reformers, and anticipated the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Hayes’ reservations about inequality, corruption, and plutocracy continue to resonate today.

While Hayes clearly failed in the Oval Office, he deserves to be remembered for his heroic pre-presidential career and prophetic retirement.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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