Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President — Ari Hoogenboom

Hayes was many things in his life: lawyer, general, congressman, governor, president, and education reformer, but one thing he failed to be while reading Hoogenboom’s biography was interesting. Which is a shame, since there’s clearly potential.

Hayes is one of the more forgettable presidents: the pre- and post- civil war presidents have relatively poor reputations, were presidents during a time when executive power was not particularly strong, and Hayes is no exception. Hoogenboom makes the relatively predictable claim in his biography that Hayes deserves a little more consideration. Which is almost certainly true, without even needing to read why.

Hayes acceded to the presidency at an important time. Reconstruction had suffered setbacks under Johnson and Grant and the South needed attention; widespread corruption under the Grant administration had weakened public faith in the executive; and the currency was in a state of uncertainty. Hayes appeased Southerners and Democrats by allowing home rule in the South, he committed himself to civil service reform (although achieved relatively little of it, largely managing localised experiments in merit-based appointments), and supported a single gold-backed currency.

Hayes also experienced a number of significant events outside of his presidency. He was promoted to brigadier general for his service in the civil war and brevetted major general, a brevet he had earned from the trust his men clearly put in him and his persistence (he was shot twice and had four horses shot out from under him). His faith in the transformative power of education is remarkably modern and he spent his later days promoting public education, as well as prison reform. And his election in 1876 is particularly interesting as Samuel J. Tilden probably won it. After the votes had been counted, Tilden had 184 votes (1 short of a majority) and Hayes had 165, with Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and one vote from Oregon in doubt. Both parties claimed the votes were theirs, and both parties had used fraud in those states to try to win (fraud was shockingly widespread in this election). But when a commission was created to investigate, the remaining 20 votes all went to Hayes. Which was probably linked to the commission’s Republican majority.

Hoogenboom could have done much with this. But his prose feels more like a catalogue of events than an attempt to inject some life into Hayes’s … life. Even his analysis is largely removed from the text, reserved for brief chapters at the beginning and end. This doesn’t mean the biography is bad, and as a historical work it does its job well. But having read a sequence of excellent biographies this stood out as ploddy, which is a pity.

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