Rutherford B. Hayes: "Real & Substantial Greatness"


Volume VII, Number 3
Spring, 1988

In celebrating the birthday of Rutherford B. Hayes, we celebrate the life a good man and an able president. No one would have enjoyed the festivities here at Spiegel Grove today more than he. Hayes and his family loved birthday celebrations and made much of them. In 1880, prior to their exciting trip to the West Coast, they came here to Spiegel Grove from the White House to celebrate Lucy's forty-ninth birthday. Hayes especially loved watching his boisterous children at their birthday parties. During Scott's seventh birthday celebration, while a "noisy happy party of thirty" played "blindman's buff and other sports in the East room and halls," Hayes stood nearby, enjoying it all, and talking "country and religion" with a governor, a general, and a bishop.

Hayes was, as I said, a good man and an able president. His administration of that office contradicts the widely held view that he was an inept politician and an ineffective leader. Other chief executives have confronted greater crises upon entering office, but no other president began his term with a vast segment of the population convinced that he had been elected by fraud and that, despite the actions of Congress, he was not legally entitled to reside in the White House. In addition to that severe handicap, Hayes had to govern with the opposing Democratic party in control of the House of Representatives and after the midterm election of 1878 in control of both houses of Congress.

Hampered by a hostile Congress, Hayes faced serious problems. Northern support for Radical Reconstruction had eroded during the preceding Grant administration, while southern opposition to it had grown violent. When Hayes took office, Radical Reconstruction in the South had virtually ended, with Republican governments remaining only in Louisiana and South Carolina, where they were challenged by rival Democratic governments. Hayes had to determine quickly whether he could or should support these Republican governments.

In addition, many citizens urgently demanded civil service reform to eliminate the corruption that seemed to permeate the federal government under Grant. But most Republican politicians were convinced that reform would destroy party organization and were hostile to the reformers, whom they thought were impractical, and their program, which they thought was visionary.

Further problems were engendered by the severe economic depression that followed the panic of 1873 and enveloped Americans from coast to coast. For those who suffered from the depression, Reconstruction and corruption were issues of little importance. Besides hurting the Republican party, which was in power when it occurred, the panic led to the Great Strike of 1877, to increased agitation against Chinese laborers in California, and to strident demands for currency expansion.

In dealing with these problems, Hayes was principled but practical, cautious yet courageous, open to the advice of cabinet and friends but decisive. Diligent, conscientious, consistent, and steady, he did not panic under stress, bore criticism and hostility with little complaint, was slow to anger, and bore few grudges. He was a patient reformer, confident that ultimately his modest goals would be attained.

Hayes was as successful in handling these problems as the circumstances of his presidency would allow. If he was not one of the country's greatest chief executives, he was well above average. Against great odds, he defended the prerogatives of office and enhanced its power and prestige. He defeated congressional attempts to force him to make appointments and to approve legislation against his will. He fought the Senate over the issue of senatorial courtesy (that is, controlling federal civil service appointments in senators' home states), and by the end of his administration, senators, as well as anyone else, could suggest appointments to Hayes, but no one could dictate them.

Hayes fought hard and successfully to keep the election laws. Sensing correctly that northern public opinion would rally to support federal supervision of congressional elections, he forced the Democratic Congress to back down. He courageously vetoed appropriation bills containing riders that would destroy laws enforcing voting rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Ultimately Congress, under the lash of public opinion, passed the money bills without the obnoxious riders.

Hayes also courageously vetoed popular legislation that would expand the currency and exclude Chinese laborers from the migrants allowed into the United States. Congress overrode his veto of the Bland-Allison silver coinage bill, but Hayes minimized its inflationary effect. Near the end of his administration, he claimed that his currency policies - his hard money stance and especially the resumption of specie payments - had restored the confidence of investors in particular and the business community in general. With abundant capital and low interest rates, industries were thriving, railroads expanding, and foreign trade increasing. In fact, Hayes boasted, that the state of the American economy "is more favorable than that of any other country of our time, and has never been surpassed by that of any country at any period of its history."

This is no doubt an exaggeration of the effect of his monetary policies. The business cycle brought recovery, but Hayes did not hamper it. The fact remains that his currency notions prevailed during a stunning business revival, even though his inflationist opponents were closer to the twentieth century concept of a managed currency than was he, with his almost mystical faith in the gold standard. One may quarrel with his monetary theory, but it is difficult to dispute its success.

Hayes was a man of moderation in addition to being a man of principle. His restrained, legalistic response to the Great Strike of 1877 on the nation's major rail systems probably saved lives and property. Despite unprecedented rioting and bloodshed, the Hayes administration remained calm and cool. Although the cry for volunteers to suppress the strike was widespread among railroad and business leaders, Hayes and his cabinet withstood the pressure and avoided an action that many feared would provoke a revolution. The administration was in most respects served well by its legalistic response to the strike. Observing proper procedures meant that federal troops neither provoked nor suppressed rioters and neither killed nor wounded them. By not calling up additional troops, by ignoring the importunities of Tom Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and by not operating the railroads under a dubious interpretation of the Commerce Clause, the administration avoided a row over the constitutional powers of the president and avoided a confrontation between strikers and federal forces.

Hayes was also a moderate civil service reformer. In his efforts to root out corruption, he wisely did not attempt the impossible task of reforming the entire civil service. Instead, he supported the merit system in the New York Customhouse and Post Office, where it achieved excellent results. The much advertised New York experiments caused the public to perceive civil service reform not as the hobby of impractical visionaries, but as a necessity demanded by the growing complexity of the nation's bureaucracy. The Civil Service Reform Act passed in 1883 not only because reformers exploited the circumstances of Garfield's assassination, but also because the Hayes administration had demonstrated the value of the merit system.

Despite the success in New York, Hayes admitted, "I have not done as much to improve the System and methods of the Civil Service as I hoped and tried to do, but I have improved the Service in all of its branches until it is equal to any in the world - equal to that of any previous administration."

In fact, Hayes had done all that he could do for civil service reform. The experiments in New York were a success because Silas Burt in the customhouse and Thomas James in the post office believed in them, and carefully and persistently enforced reforms. Had Hayes instituted reform on a grander scale, it would have been administered by the uncommitted and have had indifferent success, which would have discredited it in the eyes of the public. As it was, local collectors and postmasters generally frustrated Hayes's low-keyed attempts to achieve wider application of the New York rules.

Indeed in his own cabinet, only Carl Schurz was a civil service reformer, while, in contrast, John Sherman used the vast patronage of the Treasury Department to further his presidential ambitions. Hayes's civil service policies damaged Roscoe Conkling's New York machine and reduced the blatant political activities of prominent civil servants, but did not destroy the Republican party organization. In short, Hayes's moderate approach, which dissatisfied both spoils politicians and ardent reformers, left the organization essentially intact but also demonstrated the value of the merit system.

Hayes was realistic, as well as courageous and moderate. His decision to withdraw the federal support of Republican governments in Louisiana and South Carolina was based on harsh political realities. He had inherited a situation which doomed any policy seeking to preserve the civil rights of Blacks and the Republican party in the South. Guerrilla war by southerners on Black and white Republicans had destroyed their party before Hayes took office. The surviving Republican governments in South Carolina and Louisiana could only be maintained by a military force, and the Democratic House of Representatives would not appropriate money for such a force nor would northern public opinion sustain such a policy. Hayes, furthermore, believed that military intervention which he had supported earlier, had exacerbated racial tensions and accentuated the color line between the Republican and Democratic parties in the South.

Hayes audaciously took the course that offered hope. He attempted to revive the Republican party in the South by dispensing patronage among former southern Whigs, and he extracted promises from the Democratic redeemers of South Carolina and Louisiana, guaranteeing the civil rights of Blacks (including the right to vote), before ordering the army to cease its support of Republican governments in those states. Since white southerners neither kept their promises nor joined the Republican party, Hayes gained nothing by these moves. But, on the other hand, neither did he lose anything that was not already lost. He could not have maintained the footholds that he gave up in South Carolina and Louisiana. Perhaps he was naive in accepting promises at face value, but he was in a no-win situation.

Although Hayes had to abandon these Republican governments, he did not abandon his commitment to civil rights and equal educational and economic opportunities for all. And he remained conscientious, humane, and fair, whether he used the pardoning power, sought justice for Native Americans, or promoted education for poor Black, Red, and white children.

In keeping with his faith that education and training could cure social ills, Hayes in 1883 accepted the presidency of the National Prison Association. In 1870, when governor of Ohio, he had presided over the first National Prison Congress, which was held in Cincinnati. He had long corresponded with prison reformers, and his interest in that cause had been heightened by his experience, both as a criminal lawyer and as an executive armed with the power to pardon. For the remainder of his life, Hayes continued as president of that association and worked for a penal system that would be just, rational, and humane.

Above all, in public and private life, Hayes worked for universal education, making it what he called his "hobby." Concentrating where there was the greatest need, Hayes was the most interested in providing a decent education for Blacks. He wished to make the ideal of equality of economic opportunity a reality through education, which would pave the way for political equality. Even when president, he was a conscientious trustee of the Peabody Fund, which helped educate both Blacks and whites in the South, and he also worked diligently to educate Blacks as president of the board of trustees of the Slater Fund, from its creation in 1882. Not only did Hayes attend all meetings of these organizations, he also wrote numerous letters in their support, made inspection tours, and continued to urge the federal government to underwrite the education of poor children. In a very long run, particularly after the Supreme Couth outlawed segregated schools in 1954, this approach bore fruit.

Hayes was an excellent administrator. He was proud of the honesty and quality of his appointees. He believed that his unswerving determination to serve only one term promoted sound administration, since he was not tempted to use his power of appointment to secure a second term. Adherence to the one-term principle, however, prevented him from continuing his reforms into a second administration, and declaring himself a lame duck from the start of his term hampered his political effectiveness.

In contrast with the preceding Grant administration, Hayes boasted that "able gentlemen free from Scandals" comprised his cabinet. He made only three changes in it, bringing additional stability to the administration of an extremely stable president. Secretary of State William M. Evarts, Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz were excellent advisers, and, while all the cabinet members proved to be competent department heads, Sherman and Schurz were outstanding.

Sherman managed the resumption of specie payments with such skill that the nation's return to the gold standard was accomplished without a ripple. Though Schurz made mistakes in moving the Ponca tribe of Native Americans, he admitted those mistakes, abandoned the policy of removal, and improved relations with Native Americans. He also rooted out corruption in the Indian Bureau and backed the innovative idea of Native American police. In addition, Schurz pushed for the conservation of resources, reorganized the Geological Survey, was partly responsible for the superb tenth census, and was wholly responsible for instituting civil service reform in the Department of the Interior.

Hayes's appointments to judgeships and foreign missions were, as he believed, "successful in a marked degree." Among his judicial appointees, John Marshall Harlan was the most distinguished. In his thirty-four-year career on the Supreme Court, Harlan became its great dissenter in defense of civil rights and in opposition to the power of giant corporations. The men Hayes appointed to the principal ministries abroad occasionally were deserving politicians or personal friends and usually were ornaments of American society and culture.

Hayes's lesser appointments were as good as his star ones. He believed correctly that their high quality resulted from firmly adhering to certain principles including; no nepotism in presidential appointments against congressional dictation, and making nonpartisan appointments "in greater number than any president since Washington."

Hayes was able and lucky. Although he ignored and offended many party leaders, he was a shrewd judge of what rank-and-file Republicans thought, and his policies attracted the voters. Prosperity returned to the nation, and the Republican party, with its tarnished image newly polished by Hayes, triumphed in 1880 with a Hayes lieutenant, James A. Garfield, at its head. If a politician is to be judged by victories at the polls, Hayes was phenomenally successful.

Hayes's political genius lay in his moderation, in combining old virtues with new ideas, in mixing sensible proportions of principle and pragmatism. By exploiting issues and appealing to a broad range of public opinion rather than relying on state and local political organizations led by senators and congressmen, Hayes exercised presidential leadership.

He embraced the politics of reform and took a modest step on the path later followed by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the great presidential leaders of the twentieth century. Yet his honesty, simplicity, and decency echoed the pristine values of the early American Republic.

Mark Twain, who captured the essence of the Gilded Age, grasped the importance of the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. A year after Hayes retired, Twain, his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, and a few old friends, while discussing the Hayes administration, "arrived at the verdict that its quiet & unostentatious, but real & substantial greatness, would steadily rise into higher & higher prominence, as time & distance give it a right perspective, until at last it would stand out against the horizon of history in its true proportions."