Rutherford B. Hayes: Impact and Legacy

Rutherford B. Hayes: Impact and Legacy

After finding “the country divided and distracted and every interest depressed,” Hayes was proud that, upon leaving the White House, he “left it united, harmonious, and prosperous.” He had found the Republican Party “discordant, disheartened, and weak,” and left the organization “strong, confident, and victorious.” Hayes believed he had successfully confronted many issues: "The Southern question; the money question; the hard times and riots; the Indian question; the Chinese question; the reform of the civil service; the partisan bitterness growing out of a disputed election; a hostile Congress; and a party long in power on the verge of defeat." Apart from Lincoln's administration, Hayes boasted, "it would be difficult to find one which began with so rough a situation, and few which closed with so smooth a sea." 

Contemporaries were inclined to agree with Hayes. Henry Adams, a caustic critic of politicians who had dismissed Hayes in 1876 as "a third-rate nonentity" and voted for Tilden, acknowledged by 1880 that Hayes had conducted "a most successful administration." However, Mark Twain's prediction that the Hayes administration "would steadily rise into higher & higher prominence, as time & distance give it a right perspective," has not come to pass. Historians have blamed Hayes for the end of Reconstruction, for breaking the Great Strike of 1877, for championing the gold standard, for a Native American policy that aimed at acculturation, for negotiating a treaty that led to Chinese exclusion, and for being an inconsistent civil service reformer. 

Yet, it remains hazardous to dismiss Hayes so summarily. Too often scholars have measured him against the ideals of a later era. Historians have not adequately understood his limited options, nor have they always interpreted his actions fully, or even fairly. He did not break the Great Strike, for example, and only sent troops to stop riots when state and local authorities legally requested. 

Additionally, for all practical purposes, Reconstruction was over when Hayes took office. His only real choice was not whether but when troops had to cease protecting Republican governments in South Carolina and Louisiana. His opposition to inflation and support of the gold standard—policies supposedly against the interest of workers and farmers—were accompanied by the return of a general prosperity. His Indian policy was indeed paternalistic and did aim at acculturation, but he stopped the removal of some Native Americans to the Indian Territory. At the same time, he embraced a policy of peace, which had its beginnings under Ulysses S. Grant, and not one of annihilation. 

The treaty with China accommodated the racist temper of Californians and of Congress, but its aim was restriction, not exclusion. Reformers were not entirely happy, and spoilsmen were angered by Hayes's civil service policy, but he left the party machinery sufficiently intact to win in 1880. In addition, the experiment with the New York customhouse proved the feasibility of reform and made possible the passage of the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

Hayes is also significant for the strikingly modern actions he took to enhance the power of the presidency. He defeated Republican senators over the so-called "courtesy of the Senate" convention and did not let them dictate appointments in the field service. He also defeated the Democratic congressional majority's stance toward the President's legislative role by not letting it destroy his veto power. In defeating the Democrats in the "Battle of the Riders," he relied on the power of public opinion, which he aroused in his stirring veto messages. Hayes traveled more widely than any previous President and, although he did not electioneer, he used every opportunity to speak on issues close to his heart. In this manner, he bypassed Congress to appeal directly to the people.

A Successful Politician

Historians have tended to echo the views of Republican Party leaders in the House and Senate that Hayes was an ineffective politician. Anything but inept, Hayes shrewdly played presidential politics. He exploited issues and appealed to public opinion (which he viewed as the real government) by traveling widely and speaking often and briefly. Hayes knew that newspapers would pick up these talks and publicize his views. He also wrote his vetoes more for the public than for Congress, and by doing so vanquished the Democrats in the Battle of the Riders. 

Hayes was far more clever than the Conklings and Blaines, who turned on him when he refused to appoint their lieutenants to his cabinet and would not let them dominate his administration. They, especially Conkling, believed that organization based on patronage was the key to political success, while Hayes relied on what Theodore Roosevelt later called the "bully pulpit." 

Hayes was reform minded, but even more he was aware of what was possible and avoided the impossible. His middle-of-the-road positions on issues such as civil service reform and temperance kept the Republican Party together and strong enough to win in 1880, even as  reformers grumbled that he did not do enough, and spoilsmen howled that he was destroying their organizations. In fact, Hayes introduced about all the reform that could be administered successfully without destroying Republican Party organizations. The fact that he restored integrity to the White House is itself a major achievement after the corruption and scandals of the previous Grant administration.

Hayes's attitude toward temperance is a good example of the shrewdness of his middle path. Both Hayes and Lucy believed that, rather than coerce society not to drink, the public should be persuaded that drinking to excess was disreputable, if not dangerous. But he (not Lucy) banned liquor from the White House as much to gain political advantage as to set a good example and curb boorish behavior. He realized that temperance advocates in the Republican Party would applaud his move and not flock to the Prohibitionists—a third party he disliked—and he knew that the wets would stay in the party since his symbolic act did little to hamper them. 

Hayes proved to be most perceptive on this point. His successors, James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, brought wine back to the White House. The advocates of temperance then deserted the Republicans for the Prohibitionists and, because of their defection, the Republicans lost New York and the election to the Democrats in 1884.

Hayes did make a serious mistake, however, in refusing to run for reelection. With the economy rebounding and the Republicans united by the Battle of the Riders, he might well have won—if he had been able to garner the nomination in a much-divided Republican Party. Presidents who serve only one term are usually written off as mediocrities, while those acclaimed as great have been reelected to a second term, especially as a second term enables Presidents to implement more fully their policy initiatives. Four more years would have allowed Hayes to widen the application of civil service reform principles beyond the important New York offices. With a Republican Congress, he might well have enforced the election laws and protected black voters in the South. He was, after all, the last President in the 19th century who was genuinely interested in preserving voting rights for blacks.

Hayes was a respectable, dignified, and decent egalitarian. He had a sensitive nature, a judicious temperament, and a pragmatic attitude. He was a patient reformer who attempted what was possible. A good friend remarked that Hayes’s best feature was “his intuitive perception of what at the moment is practicably attainable.” Ultimately, he was optimistic that education of the public would accomplish in the future the present-day impossibility. Shortly before he died, Hayes concluded "I am 'a radical in thought (and principle) and a conservative in method' (and conduct)." Hayes’s policies and politics were, ultimately, not up to preventing the coming of a new and bitter age of racial and economic inequality in late 19th-century America. That said, he deserves much more of our consideration than simply adding him to the long roll of supposedly dismal Gilded Age Presidents.