Rutherford B. Hayes

In going through the presidents, I have reached the Gilded Age. Or, as I like to call it, the Anonymous Facial Hair Period. Starting with Grant, who is more famous for gaining Lee’s surrender than his tenure in the White House, we have a series of presidents who are largely anonymous to most people today. Millard Fillmore may be the president who is famous for being anonymous, but drop the name Chester Arthur in a conversation. Or Benjamin Harrison. Watch the eyes glaze over as, more often than not, people will say, “Who?”

Garfield’s claim to fame is getting shot. Grover Cleveland is remembered for being two presidents (the 22nd and 24th) and for sharing a name with a city, ironically Garfield’s hometown. All these men seem to be remembered for their mustaches and beards than their leadership.

Not that they weren’t any good. Arthur attacked the very corruption in civil service that made his political career. Harrison signed a bill that gave Standard Oil, IBM, ATT, and Microsoft fits: The Sherman Anti-Trust Bill.

And then there’s our 19th chief executive, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, he of the three last names. “Rudd,” as he was known (I always wondered about that), was a lawyer from Ohio who found his way into politics in the years before the Civil War. Starting out as a Whig, Hayes soon joined the new Republican Party. His attitude prior to Ft. Sumter was to tell the Southern states leaving the Union to not let the door hit them on the way out. Ft. Sumter changed his mind. A rising star in Cincinnati politics – one of three Ohio cities where he established himself – Hayes dropped everything to enlist in the Union Army.  He soon found himself under the command of John Fremont fighting on the West Virginia front. During the war, he was nominated for Congress. When encouraged even by his commanders to drop everything to campaign for the office, Hayes refused, pointing out that there was a war on, and he’d resign his commission if elected.

He needn’t have worried. The war ended before Hayes had to take his seat in the House.

Hayes became governor of Ohio, a job he held when he was nominated for president in 1876. And it’s the election of 1876 where Hayes draws his most common comparison to a more recent president: George W. Bush. The contest between Hayes, a Republican, and his opponent, New York governor Samuel Tilden, came down to Florida. And the vote was called into question. By the popular vote, Tilden had won, but presidents are elected by the electoral college, not the popular vote. So, did the vote go to the House of Representatives?

No, it went to a bipartisan commission setup by the House to avoid endless votes, revotes, and filibustering. The commission picked Hayes, who said he would only serve a single term and end military occupation in the South. However, whenever someone enters the White House without a popular vote victory (like John Quincy Adams), no matter how legal, there are howls of outrage. Indeed, the new president found himself with the rather unflattering nickname “Rutherfraud B. Hayes,” a moniker that dogged him until his death.

The good news is no one blew up any iconic buildings on his watch, nor was the US embroiled in any major foreign adventures. Unfortunately, like Martin Van Buren before him, Hayes began his term with a major depression. How bad? At the start of the Great Depression, the Panic of 1877 was referred to as “The Great Depression.” However, unlike Herbert Hoover over fifty years later, Hayes was relentless in shoring up the Treasury by forcing the country to use gold to back its currency. (Fiat money, what nations use today, was still a long way off from being ready for prime time.) Hayes also attacked the spoils system, a treasured Washington tradition since the days of Andrew Jackson.

His record on labor was mixed. He broke up a railroad strike with federal troops, but then turned on business demanding that they treat the cause of the problem now that he treated the symptom.

One of the things Hayes did that was not nearly as controversial as it was in pre-Civil War America was the use of the veto. His opponents, many of them in his own party, attempted to force Hayes to enact their policies by attaching riders to bills the president found palatable or necessary. And Hayes stamped his veto on them until the offending riders disappeared. For that, the man accused of fraudulently taking the White House was given respect by many of his accusers.

Many people compare Hayes to his successor a century later, Jimmy Carter. It’s probably not a bad comparison in some ways. Carter’s low-key, unpretentious style restored a damaged Oval Office after the debacle that was Watergate. Similarly, Hayes, with his vivacious – if temperate – First Lady “Lemonade Lucy” Hayes, brought an affable, relaxed atmosphere to a White House still reeling from Grant’s scandal-ridden administration. Though Carter’s administration is seen as a failure, the public rewarded Hayes by electing his anointed heir, James Garfield. To take it a step further, Hayes’ one-time rival Chester Arthur took up the cause of civil service reform upon Garfield’s death, a pleasant surprise for Hayes, who once fired Arthur as customs collector for New York because of his ties to party boss Roscoe Conkling.

So it is true that Rudd Hayes was not our most spectacular president. Indeed, his biggest regret, failure to protect the newly freed blacks of the South after the end of Reconstruction, remains a blemish on his record. But America did not need a Lincoln in the Gilded Age. It needed an honest, likeable guy to basically keep the country from flying off the rails. No 10-Point Plan, New Deal, New Frontier, or trickle-down economics. Hayes simply plugged away for his single term, then retired quietly.

Not seeing anyone like that running for 2012, but we live in a jaded time.

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