William Dean Howells and other Early Biographers of
Rutherford B. Hayes


Volume II, Number 2
Fall, 1978

Of the early biographies of Rutherford B. Hayes, three were written in haste during the summer of 1876 as campaign documents. Not until 1914 did a substantial life and times treatment finally appear, only to be followed in 1930 by still another hastily assembled and poorly researched political biography.

To appreciate more recent scholarship concerning Hayes, it is interesting and necessary to review the nature of these five early works on the nineteenth President. Because I have devoted years of scholarship to the study of William Dean Howells, I shall concentrate on his biography of Hayes. But first, let us survey the work of the other four biographers who published between 1876 and 1930.


The purpose and slant of Russell H. Conwell's study is evident in the title - Life and Public Services of Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, Dedicated to the Republican Voters of the State of Ohio Whose Vigorous and Persistent Warfare for Freedom and for the Vindication of our National Honor has Won the Plaudits of Every Lover of Humanity Throughout our Broad Land.

That is only the title! Stylistically, the last paragraph of the "Preface" speaks for itself. After indicating that he did travel throughout Ohio in search of material and that "even the newsboys are gentlemen in Ohio," Conwell closes, "Noble, industrious generous people! Your smile of welcome, your brotherly and sisterly attentions, your sweet goodby, will strengthen our love for humanity, and will echo in our heart long after many nearer to us will have been forgotten. We can understand now, as never before, why Ohio has reared so many statesmen and soldiers, and why her influence is so potent everywhere in the nation."1

The body of the book consists of numerous Hayes quotations, following one upon the other, with no attempt to unify or to distinguish between those which are important and those of little consequence. It would be of dubious value to a modern scholar because, except for letters, there is no indication of where the original statements may be found.

Chapter XXII, "Political Texts," is an example of the generally unrealized potential. A total of 42 quotations are strung together and presented to the reader as being inserted "for such as may desire to study more carefully his character in a political light." Despite the intrinsic value of separate items, the effect is chaotic. Later I shall compare William Dean Howells' treatment of the same materials. The reader may understand the cause of many of the difficulties when he reads in the concluding paragraph of the Conwell biography:

Thus ends our story of a life which is full of instruction for every reader. . . .we lay down the pen with a consciousness of having written this biography under the inspiration of an earnest desire to extend a knowledge of a good and great man, and we feel that perhaps our work is as complete, and as free from errors, as any book would be, written, as this has been, in less than ninety hours.2

Note the desire to instruct - so typical of almost all publications of the time.


The second campaign biographer was James Q. Howard, whose volume was titled The Life, Public Services, and Select Speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes. Of particular interest is the fact that Howard was that young graduate student whom a reticent William Dean Howells sent to Springfield to collect material for the Howells campaign biography of Lincoln, which earned the author a Consulship at Venice. Howard then also wrote a Lincoln campaign biography. For his book he obtained the Consulship at St. John's, New Brunswick. This may or may not represent a critical judgment of the part of Lincoln.

The Hayes biography by Howard strikes one as fairly pedestrian, proceeding on strictly chronological lines, filled with lengthy quotations of messages and speeches. It is highly laudatory as shown by a brief sample:

In the interests of learning, higher education, human benevolence, and equal rights, Hayes has accomplished more than any governor Ohio has yet had.3

Howard's final summation is sprinkled with such descriptive terms as: "square-built; absolutely nothing vulnerable in his character; Lincoln-like soundness of judgment; inexorably just as old John Marshall." One of his most telling statements is - "His election will give us, not a 'solid South' or a solid North but a solid Union."4

It is interesting in 1978 to note that the final three paragraphs of the text are devoted to Mrs. Hayes as "representative of all that is best and most elevated in our social life" with stress upon "the sacredness of the family and the holiness of home." This biography of Hayes closes with a letter from the president of Ohio Wesleyan University testifying to the "cultured goodness" of the future first lady. The final one hundred pages are devoted to six Hayes speeches, perhaps valuable for the scholar, but rather heavy going for the ordinary reader.


Thirty-eight years elapsed between biographies and the next full-length study. The reasons for the lapse? One might surmise the too ready acceptance of the supposed "mediocrity" of Hayes; the relegation of the Reconstruction Period to the background with the increased involvement in world affairs; the "strenuous" years of Roosevelt; or many others. In 1914 the respectability of scholarship, embodied in the presidential incumbent, combined with the interests of Charles Richard Williams, led to The Life of Rutherford B. Hayes, in two volumes, following in 1920-25 bythe five volume Diary and Letters.

Williams brought to his task a classical education combined with an active life as a newspaper editor. He earned his A.B. in classics from Princeton in 1875 and after study abroad he completed his M.A. at Princeton, 1878. His active career broke into two disinct parts: 1881-83, professor of Greek language and literature at Lake Forest University, Illinois; and 1892-1911, editor of the Indianapolis News, which he built to national influence. He was granted honorary doctorates from Princeton, Wabash, Ohio Wesleyan, and Kenyon and wrote volumes of poetry and classical commentary. In 1911 he retired from journalism to devote himself to writing, choosing as subject the President who would have empathized with his interest in both literature and politics.

I share the opinion of Kenneth Davison, our most recent Hayes biographer, that there is much value in the first volume of Williams' biography. The "Preface" reveals that William Henry Smith, close friend of Hayes and father-in-law of Williams, had begun the work. After Smith's death, Williams undertook the project. The material on slavery, already completed, was published as The Political History of Slavery under Smith's name. Williams then devoted himself to the life of Hayes, stating that he drew his information "entirely from the sources and that I have relied for my conclusions hardly at all on what other men have written of the period."5

In a way, the study might be called revisionist for Williams had, as a Democrat, accepted the party's assumptions regarding the disputed election. In the process of research the author concluded not only that the decision was legal and "in accord with the eternal equities of the situation," but that the Hayes Administration was "vastly more beneficial to the South, to the peace and reconciliation of the country, than any course of conduct that can reasonably be thought of as possible to Mr. Tilden, could have been."6

The Williams biography is the first to be documented and the reader cannot doubt that the author made extensive use of primary sources, as he wrote much of it in the Hayes home. The classical ideals of order and reason as evidenced in Hayes are those most praised by this editor-classicist. The lengthy detailed treatment makes it less available to the modern reader but it cannot be neglected as an important contribution to biographical study of Hayes. And as Williams says in the conclusion of his "Preface," "something of the spirit of simple, wholesome Christian living which I had felt still pervading the great house" was imparted to what he called "this labor of love."7


Since I teach graduate seminars dealing with the 1920s and 1930s, I found H. J. Eckenrode's Rutherford B. Hayes, Statesman of Reunion (1930) particularly enlightening. The "Preface" reveals several interesting facts. The work was obviously triggered by Claude Bower's The Tragic Era (1929) which indicated the need to re-write the history of the post-Civil War period of adaptation to new influences such as industrialization and immigration. The biography's flawed structure is partially explained by the fact that Eckenrode was solely responsible for "the political portion of the book" while his assistant Pocahontas Wilson Wight came to Ohio, examined the Hayes Papers and wrote "several chapters dealing with Hayes' personal life."

Not only are there two authorial points of view but the work reveals an ambivalence typical of the time period. Early in the book, Hayes is described as largely a party man, one who used party power for good but "saw no use in martyrdom." The author concludes Chapter II:

The wages of moral mediocrity is life. Criminal and saint alike go to the scaffold; the average man is safe. Criminal and saint alike are ineffective; he who compromises accomplishes. Rutherford B. Hayes, whose cool brain knew not the meaning of fanaticism, talked against slavery because it was natural and expedient to do so, and later in Congress he voted for the excesses of his party because to vote against them meant political ruin; yet when, as the result of such compliances, power came to him, he wielded that power for the public welfare. And in so doing he served the country better than the rigid moralists who make no trades with conscience.8

Could such a passage have appeared in 1876? I doubt it. It belongs with Lewis and Mencken.

Despite this ambivalence, Eckenrode, in his "Epilogue," characterized Hayes as the first modern President, living in the Civil War period but not belonging to it, not hating the South but rather saving his reform enthusiasm for Civil Service and the gold standard. The biography concludes, "After the hate and heat of the Civil War and the wholesale corruption of the Reconstruction, he came as a healer and as a guide to a better future."9

Unfortunately, the biography gives the impression of unsupported subjectivity. The short bibliography includes Conwell, Howard and Williams, but does not include Howell's campaign biography. The bibliographical note on Williams' 1914 work is interesting in view of what I have noted above. "It is very valuable, printing many of the letters in the Hayes collection, but it is utterly non-critical and unscientific. Hayes is pictured as right in every incident of a long life."10 Yet Eckenrode's book does not contain any documentation. What it does clearly contain is the point of view and the values of the year 1930.


The campaign biography written by William Dean Howells is, in my opinion, quite different from those which I have described. It is primarily a work of literature, as evidenced by the title, Sketch of the Life and Character of Rutherford B. Hayes. The book is in keeping with Howells' Critical Realism, which would reach its most influential phase in the 1880's but which was in process in 1876. First of all, Howells felt that his writing must be experiential. Even though he deeply regretted not going to Springfield to meet Lincoln, when writing that campaign biography, and called it missing "the greatest chance of my life," he was only at home with the material which Howard had collected when he could relate it to his own experience. "When he [Howard] brought it back, I felt the charm of the material, the wild charm and poetry of its reality was not unknown to me; I was at home with it for I had known the belated backwoods of a certain region in Ohio; I had almost lived the pioneer; and I wrote the little book with none of the reluctance I felt from studying its sources."11

Howells felt no such reluctance in undertaking the Hayes biography. They were many experiential elements: as a boy of nine he had begun to set type on his father's newspapers, always centers of political conflict; he had served as legislative reporter in Columbus; the family's Ashtabula Sentinel had first presented Hayes as a Presidential nominee, and the elder Howells was known as the President-maker of Ohio. There was also a personal relationship between the Hayes and Howells families. When Birchard A. Hayes went to Harvard Law School in October, 1875, his father requested Howells to go bond for him - that is to provide financial recommendation. A lonely Birchard shared Thanksgiving dinner with the Howells family.12 In March, Birchard reported, "Cousin Elinor [Mrs. Howells] is now taking great interest in politics, that is national politics."13 He went on to ask his father to clarify their relationship to the Howells family, and five days later Hayes replied, "Mrs. Howells' mother was my first cousin."14

Probably most important was the moral kinship which Howells felt between himself and Hayes. On June 18, 1876, he wrote:

Dear General Hayes:

Elinor and I wish to offer you our very cordial congratulations. We knew all along that you were going to be nominated, and we feel that this prophetic consciousness has somehow promoted the result. At any rate we are most glad and happy in it, and are aware of a very distinct growth of the family affections. Elinor sends her love, in which the children all join, to her favorite cousin Lucy, and I beg to be most respectfully remembered. I dare say she may not recall me personally, but then even you may not - and you have seen me.

We understand perfectly that the country has the best of it in the honor done you.15

On July 13, Howells expressed his enthusiasm concerning Hayes' acceptance letter: "I can't forbear telling you [how] much I like your letter of acceptance. It's the manliest thing done in politics since the Declaration, on which it's an improvement in some respects."16

A week later Howells wrote again, enclosing a letter from Houghton:

I have just received this letter from my "owner," proposing something that I confess I felt tempted to propose to him the instant you were nominated. The objection is "nepotism," not to say "Caesarism." I desire your election for more than any profit the book would bring me; but if you think a biography from my pen would help, and not hurt the good cause, I will gladly go on and write it . . . . My book could not be long, and I should try to make it good otherwise. -- If you have any reluctance about this, pray deal frankly with me. Heaven knows I would not give any dirty rogue grounds to bespatter a reputation for highmindedness which the nation will be proud of in you, whether you're elected or not.17

Hayes replied promising to send:

. . . a half barrell of stuff, letters, speeches, mem., Diaries &c &c can be sent you, out of which you would get up a romance that would be taking.18

On August 5, Howells wrote to Samuel Clemens, " I am about to begin a campaign life of Hayes which Mr. Houghton wants to publish. (You know I wrote the life of Lincoln which elected him.) I expect that it will sell - at any rate I like the man, and shall like doing it. General Hayes is Mrs. Howells' cousin, and she thinks that anyone who votes for Tilden will go to the Bad Place."19Clemens' typical reply was reported in Howells' letter to Hayes on August 13:

. . . I have just got a letter from Mark Twain, - who is one of the best political thinkers I know, - in which he says: "I shall read that biography, though the letter of acceptance was amply sufficient to corral my vote without further knowledge of the man. Which reminds me that a campaign club in Jersey City wrote a few days ago and invited me to be present at the raising of a Tilden & Hendricks flag there and take the stand and give them some "counsel." Well, I could not go, but gave them counsel and advice by letter, and in the kindliest terms, as to the raising of the flag, advised them 'not to raise it.' Get your book out quick, for this is a momentous time. If Tilden is elected I think the country will go pretty straight to - Mrs. Howells' "Bad Place."20

In his "Preface" Howells claimed that his biography differed from others "in the large use made of original letters, notebooks, and scrapbooks placed at my disposal without restriction, and without instruction."21 Among the Hayes papers is a list, dated August 8, detailing the materials taken by W. K. Rogers to Howells in Cambridge. Their number supports Howells' claim.

Howells immersed himself completely in the task. The only Howells manuscript in the Boston Atheneum is a letter to Horace Scudder protesting over having to check a publication list for, "I am working on a life of Hayes." The date was August 13. By August 20 Howells could report to Webb C. Hayes,

The fact that I'm making history at the rate of 30 of these pages a day must be my excuse to your father's son for my neglect of his letter. . . .

Elinor is copying out from your father's book the whole Hayes pedigree. It makes me almost sick, and I'm going to vote for Tilden, after all, I believe.22

On September 2, Hayes had evidently seen part of the first version, for Howells wrote agreeing to cut some personal extracts taken from the journals during Hayes' law school period. He added, "I'm not sure now that every word wouldn't have added to people's liking for you. Your life has needed no reservations from your biographer."23

There were moments of difficulty, as evidenced in an August 23 letter to Webb:

One thing I should like to give him his choice about: after he is wounded at South Mountain, does he prefer to lie twenty feet before or twenty feet behind his men, who continue fighting? His diary says behind; his short-hand statement says before. I'd have made it behind, for a Presidential candidate is always corrupt and unreliable; still, if I'm wrong, perhaps he'd better telegraph me. I'm now writing up his battles, and the work interests me immensely.24

Sometimes the candidate did interfere as shown in his letter of August 24:

No quoting of anything on political or semi-political topics capable of being turned to account by the adversary. For instance, Mr. Howard mentions that I was a member of the Sons of Temperance. This should have been omitted. That subject in not safe. Prohibitionists and liquor men are alike croctchetty and sensitive. Keep all on that score out of the book, or if in, strike it out.I am a liberal on that subject, but it is not to be blabbed. I am sure you are going through safely and prudently. Don't be disturbed by what I say. Be careful not to commit me on religion, temperance, or free-trade. Silence is the only safety. . .

Lord how I pity you! Do forgive me. I wouldn't have done it if I had thought it possible that I should become such a nuisance to my friends.25

Howells worked under great pressure, writing the book in four weeks from the time he received the materials and apologized on September 7:

Dear General Hayes:

I have this afternoon finished my book, and am a free man once more. As soon as it's printed and bound, of course copies will go to you and Mr. Rogers. What its fate or mission will be, heaven knows; but I can't help believing that it will receive vastly more notice than the other lives.

. . . It's horribly crude, I feel; and the haste with which I worked was subversive of all my literary principles and habits. I've done the work in twenty-eight days, and have made a thorough use of the material.26

Hayes, however, was delighted. He wrote on September 15, "I am almost ashamed to confess how much I am delighted with your book. Of course it is due to your partiality for the stock, your Buckeye feeling, and your party preference. But at any rate it is so beautifully done that I can go through the cannons to defeat, if necessary, feeling that I have been honored so immensely beyond my merits that I must be happy in any event."27

Howells' reply on September 20 reflected his usual diffidence but also hinted at his very real creative involvement. "Your letter gave me the very greatest pleasure, and I shall always treasure it. I was afraid that perhaps my work had not satisfied you. I knew how crude it was in many ways; but I was more than wishing that it should seem to you better than it was."28

In many ways it was better, for the study was prophetic of Howells' later great fiction. First of all it displays unity. The first paragraph begins, "The name of Hayes began by valor," and goes on to detail the aid given to the Scots in defeating the Danes, as Hayes early ancestors dismantled their plows to use as weapons. The book ends:

Among the escutcheons of the old Scottish borderers which hang on the walls of Sir Walter Scott's library at Abbotsford are those of the Rutherfords and the Hayes. The arms of the Hayeses are shield with the Greek cross and four stars, surmounted by a dove, and having for legend one word - a word which has always been the instinct and the principle of the man whose life we have so imperfectly portrayed - RECTE29

Between the first and last pages, letters and excerpts from journals are woven into a patterned presentation, quite different from the listing of Conwell, all leading to that final judgment.

Even more in keeping with Howells' literary tenets is the fact that he created a persona rather than a factual portrait of a man. Character always superseded plot and setting in Howells' fiction. This persona is that of a common man, not an exceptional man, and thus the reader could identify with the moral crises, the pressures of "crowd" opinion, and the experiences in war and Reconstruction. In a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, Howells clearly described this personality.

I'm exceedingly glad you have read my book with a good opinion of Hayes, who merited a better book than I could make in three weeks. My work does not at all represent the richness and beauty of the material put into my hands; but if I'd had six months for it, I could have given it the color I wanted. However, if you've got from it the notion of a very brave, single-hearted, firm-willed, humorous, unpretentious self-reliant man, I haven't quite failed. As I studied the material I had to check myself in the claims I wished to make for him; I had to remind myself that if I praised him so much, I should inflict a real discomfort upon the man personally, which I had no right to do. Some lines of Lowell's from the Elm-Tree ode-

Soldier and Statesman, rarest unison,
High-poised example of great duties done
Simply as breathing-

embodied my conception of him better than anything I could have said (of course!),
but I took them out of my title-page where I had them, because I felt that it was better to understate than
to overstate such a man.30

Partially because of Hayes' desire for privacy, partially because of Howells' own literary purpose, there are few first names, few private revelations, but instead the three-dimensional portrait of what Howells described as "a true and good man."

The qualities of this ideal American are repeated in every context: family life, law career, war, politics, and scholarship. They are: love of letters and arts; careful self-study before action; wide knowledge of men and books; bravery in war and peace: highest political principles; irreproachable performance. Thus he is the antidote to the corruption of the Reconstruction and Grant eras. Hayes early formulated the principles of his political life in a journal entry: "Give me the popularity that runs after, not that which is sought for."31 While the 1920s might accuse Hayes of Puritanism, Howells, who was often prophetically perceptive, saw the truth:

The ancestral tendency to examine, consider and accuse, approve or blame the spring of thought and action is here in accumulated force . . . so much duty to God but duty to one's self and other men; the standpoint is moral, not spiritual; the aim is to be a good man of this world.32 These are qualities which were needed in an America which could no longer find answers to moral dilemmas in established institutions or in its past; the solutions had to be immediately realized, personally.

Although it is obvious that Howells' biography was written to "sell" a candidate for the Presidency, the fact has been overlooked that it represents an early attempt to personify a set of values along with the duty to realize oneself in service to other men, which became central to Howells' later literary work. Thus the shadow of Rutherford B. Hayes points ahead to such fictional figures as Silas Lapham who also must fight the lonely battle for moral integrity.


1Russell H. Conwell, Life and Public Services of Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes (Boston: B. B. Russell, [1876]), 8. 

2Ibid., 308. 

3J. Q. Howard, The Life, Public Service, and Select Speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1876), 163. 

4Ibid., 164. 

5Charles Richard Williams, The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1914), I, viii. 


7Ibid., ix. 

8H. J. Eckenrode, Rutherford B. Hayes, Statesman of Reunion (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1930), 39. 

9Ibid., 344. 

10Ibid., 349. 

11William Dean Howells, Life of Abraham Lincoln (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960), xiii. 

12Birchard A. Hayes to Rutherford B. Hayes, November 28, 1875. R. B. Hayes Library, Fremont, Ohio, hereinafter cited as RBHL. 

13Birchard A. Hayes to R. B. Hayes, March 20, 1876. RBHL. 

14R. B. Hayes to Birchard A. Hayes, March 24, 1876. RBHL. 

15W. D. Howells to R. B. Hayes, June 18, 1876. RBHL. 

16W. D. Howells to R. B. Hayes, July 13, 1876. RBHL. 

17W. D. Howells to R. B. Hayes, July 20, 1876. RBHL. 

18R. B. Hayes to W. D. Howells, July 23, 1876. Microfilm copy, RBHL, from original in Harvard College Library. 

19W. D. Howells to Samuel L. Clemens, August 5, 1876 in Mark Twain-Howells Letters, edited by Henry Nash Smith and William M. Gibson (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1960), 142. 

20W. D. Howells to R. B. Hayes, August 13, 1876. RBHL.

21William D. Howells, Life and Character of Rutherford B. Hayes (New York: Hurd and Houghton 1876), iii. 

22 Howells to Webb C. Hayes, August 20, 1876. RBHL. 

23Howells to R. B. Hayes, September 2, 1876. RBHL. 

24Howells to Webb C. Hayes, August 23, 1876. RBHL. 

25R. B. Hayes to Howells, August 24, 1876. Microfilm copy, RBHL, from original in Harvard College Library. 

26Howells to R. B. Hayes, September 7, 1876. RBHL. 

27R. B. Hayes to Howells, September 15, 1876. Microfilm copy, RBHL, from original in Harvard College Library. 

28Howells to R. B. Hayes, September 20, 1876. RBHL.

29Howells, Life and Character of R. B. Hayes, 195. 

30Howells to Charles Eliot Norton, September 24, 1876 in Mildred Howells (ed.), Life in Letters of William Dean Howells (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1928), I, 226-227. 

31Howells, Life and Character of R. B. Hayes, 19. 

32Ibid., 18.