Term in Office: 19th president, 1877-1881
Political Party: Republican
Home State: Ohio
A fair warning to my gentle readers– choices #15 and #16 on my list may surprise you. These two slots have been earned by two somewhat obscure one-term presidents, each of whom forces us to look closely at what makes a presidency successful, and challenges some of the conventional answers. This might be a puzzlement; the truth now– you weren’t expecting to see Rutherford B. Hayes this high, were you? That Hayes ranks so highly on this list owes more, in some ways, to the flaws of the presidents that rank under him than because of Hayes’ intrinsic strengths. But those intrinsic strengths of the Hayes administration surely count for something. As I stated in my criteria, this is a ranking that elevates competence and social justice over “having an ambitious agenda and getting what you want” heedless of the consequences. Running an honest, workaday administration is an act of considerable effort and concentration, and should never be taken for granted. It was never a greater challenge than in the Gilded Age, when such an administration was needed most.
Nevertheless, I argue uphill; Hayes is usually in the third quartile of presidents in nearly every historians‘ poll in the last thirty years (meaning that somewhere between 50-75% of presidents are considered better). I suspect that three factors are involved in this low ranking, beyond Hayes’s relative obscurity. 1) the shady circumstances of his election in 1876, 2) the end of formal Reconstruction at the beginning of his term, and 3) an assumption that one-term presidents are not successful. The trouble is that none of these circumstances were within Hayes’s control or the legal authority of his office by the time he became president. (An exception can be made, perhaps, for the last point- Hayes pledged to serve only one term, although I doubt he would have been renominated if he had sought re-election.) The very fact that Hayes got through four years without scandal, uproar, or insurrection matters a great deal for a country only a dozen years from its greatest crisis. In more foolhardy hands, a president who served during his time could have presided over four years of violent chaos, fighting off sometimes violent challenges– lots of people were willing to come to blows over the 1876 election that brought Hayes to power. In more corrupt hands, (and remember, this was a golden age of swindling, insider trading, bribes, kickbacks, and nepotism), the presidency would have become solidified as a national joke after Andrew Johnson’s terrible term, and Grant’s freedman-friendly but dreadfully administered presidency. Instead, Hayes became the first president since Lincoln to leave his office stronger than he found it.
If history turned out the way I wanted it to, Rutherford Hayes’s write-up would go like this: “Despite losing the popular vote and winning election under dubious circumstances, Rutherford Hayes owned the presidency like a boss. Despite bargains made in good faith, Hayes ruled the Reconstructed South like a bearded, midwestern Hannibal, restoring freedman rule, smashing down every “Restorationist” attempt to put ex-Confederates in power. Hayes confiscated each planation in Dixie, distributing a fair share to each former slave, and shot down any Johnny Reb that resisted, earning the sobriquet “Ruthless Rutherford.” Having spent four years maxing out his power as commander-in-chief to subdue all vestiges of systemic racism, Hayes relaxed and sipped a refreshing mint julep, served in Jefferson Davis’s skull.”
Obviously, my dream scenario didn’t happen. For one thing, Hayes was a teetotaler, and would have refused a mint julep. For another, before he even took the oath of office, Hayes was bound by a set of circumstances out of his control, and backroom deals in which he was given no voice. To explore this, we need to take a look at the election of 1876, which is probably the most farcical in American history. There have been multiple instances where the top vote-getter didn’t get the presidency: Jackson in 1824, Cleveland in 1888, Gore in 2000. But 1876 is the only time where someone with an absolute majority in the popular vote– his opponent, Samuel Tilden, approached 51%– did not become president. Southern states, both those that had already returned to civilian rule and those that remained under military supervision, had already begun using terror to suppress the black, and at this point, almost entirely Republican, vote. In the end, the results from four states– Oregon, Mississippi, Louisiana, and of course, Florida, were sufficiently close or sufficiently suspicious to deny both Hayes and Tilden the 185 electoral votes they needed to become president. What followed was without precedent, and was, frankly, made up as it went along. With no one knowing exactly who had been elected, an ad hoc commission was established- with five members of the House (all Democrats), five members of the Senate (all Republicans), and five Supreme Court Justices (3-2 edge, Republicans) sorting out the matter. On a party line vote, all disputed electoral votes were given to Hayes, and with them, the presidency. No one knows exactly what deals were made, but it is widely suspected that in return for acquiescing to this very suspicious decision, the Democrats bargained for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
But what did this withdrawal mean, exactly? Given the weak start Reconstruction had enjoyed under Johnson and Grant, there was very little left of it to preserve by 1876. In most of the South, so-called “Redeemer” governments had already restored white rule. This quid-pro-quo between Democrats and Republicans merely snuffed out the last remaining embers of the noble experiment held for a few short years where freedmen enjoyed the benefits and responsibilities of full citizenship. The withdrawal was not Hayes’s fault, yet still, the stigma of sending the last soldiers home sticks with Hayes, unfairly so.
In fact, Hayes was something of a visionary on race issues in his younger days, practically radiated goodwill toward the country’s African-American population. He ran for governor of Ohio in 1868 on the platform of universal male suffrage (and remember, there are lots of Kentucky-ish parts of Ohio that were not receptive to this sort of talk.) As governor, Hayes played a key role in managing the state’s passage of the 15th Amendment. Nevertheless, Hayes was eager to believe that racial tension was a thing of the past. (No Civil War president had been shot as often as he during the conflict, and it can be argued that Hayes wanted dearly to believe that the war in which he had spilled so much blood had fundamentally changed his country for the better.) Rather naively, Hayes thought a new day had come to the South. But even if he believed differently, there was very little to be done about enforcing the rights of freedmen. The House, in Democratic hands, was disinclined to pass any bills funding the military rule of the South, and one cannot do very much without the power of the purse. Beyond even this, I regret to say that there just wasn’t very much public interest in black Americans when Hayes took office; the country was now primarily concerned about the economy, which had been reeling since 1873. The nation’s gaze collectively turned inward after the brief spasm of schoolmarms, reformers, soldiers that migrated to the South after the war.
So, if Hayes was a good, solid president, it was on the grounds of wise administration rather than as a righteous, guns-blazing, swinging-from-the-chandeliers crusader. In particular, Hayes had three outstanding cabinet officials: William Evarts (State), John Sherman (Treasury), and Carl Schurz (Interior). I know this is not terribly exciting, folks, but stay with me. No duty of the presidency is more ruinously underrated than the responsibility to wisely select loyal and competent subordinates. Evarts retooled the Monroe Doctrine to avert an isthmian canal built by the French, seeing such a project as a stealth-revival of colonialism in Central America. Sherman, meanwhile, attempted to return the country to the gold standard by redeeming greenbacks for hard currency. Schurz cleaned up the rampant corruption within the Department of the Interior, which was responsible for the government’s dealings with Native Americans. Schurz eliminated with a vengeance the rings of fraud, bribery, land-squatting, and corruption that made the department tantamount to evil in years past. The Grant administration had let such corruption and violence go unchecked, but Hayes and his subordinates were able to affect a turnaround. Still, the Hayes policy was still one of gentle, but persistent, assimilation of America’s first nations, with little regard for their culture. While all presidents from this era treated Native Americans in something resembling a condescending fashion, Hayes’s policy was the closest approximation to justice in this bad lot. After the sabotage of Andrew Johnson’s cabinet, and the revolving doors of Grant’s administration, Hayes did a very good job of appointing good individuals to the most powerful posts in his keeping.
Hayes also deserves credit for bringing some semblance of order to the mess that was civil service. Each post-Jackson president was beset by greedy office-seekers , and was compelled to waste countless hours assigning friends-of-friends, friends-of-friends-of-friends, and assorted special cases to jobs within various executive departments. Grant, as I discussed in my write-up, handled this job with remarkable incompetence, and his administration became a laughingstock. Hayes insisted that qualifications came first, and that department heads- not Congress- had the prerogative to choose who would be chosen for these plum jobs. In doing so, Hayes strengthened the presidency by restoring the right to nominate whom one chose for federal posts, superseding the bad precedent of requiring approval from a given state’s senators. Successive presidents, spared the countless hours of interviewing applicants for every manner of job, have Hayes to thank for this development. Perhaps the capstone of Hayes’s efforts at civil service reform was the Jay Commission, which discovered massive graft coming out of the Custom House of New York, with hundreds of Senator Roscoe Conkling’s allies being paid without any sign of work. Hayes did, momentarily, become the angry Hannibal I evoked a few paragraphs, and fired the worst offenders, including Collector of the Port Chester Arthur, who would be sitting in his chair only a few short years later. Hayes set high and exacting standards for himself and those who worked under him.
He even sought advice from his vice-president William A. Wheeler, when virtually every other 19th century president treated the veep as a cypher. (Wheeler, I think, deserves a shout-out as the only Adirondack man who was ever in the presidential line of succession. Not bad, when you consider that when Hayes was informed Wheeler was his running mate in 1876, he inquired, “I am ashamed to ask…but who is Wheeler?”)
In the end, Hayes accomplished a great deal in only one term, and with little fanfare and bombast. Out of all the presidents who won without prevailing in the popular vote, Hayes ranks highest on this listing (and, for that matter, most rankings I have seen)- beating JQ Adams, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush. We may never know who would have won a completely fair election in 1876 election, but we cannot hold the suspicious circumstances and ad-hoc committees that determined the result against this gentle Ohioan. With a weak mandate and little congressional support, Hayes acquitted himself honorably and strengthened the dignity of his office. Although he had good intentions toward marginalized Americans, Rutherford Hayes was not a champion of justice by any stretch of the imagination. Because Hayes seemed to give up the ship on the matter of the South, and didn’t instinctively side with labor in conflicts such as the 1877 rail strike, progressives like myself tend to look at someone like Hayes dismissively, part of that nebulous litany of toadies serving between Lincoln and Teddy. In a way that’s precisely the point of this project, to reconsider the way we evaluate presidents. Hayes shows that good leadership recognizes, rather than obfuscates, limits to one’s power, and works quietly and cleverly where it can. For Hayes, his quiet competence and his preference for substance over flim-flam stands out, and in my opinion, earns a spot in the teens.