[October 4th marks the 200th birthday of Rutherford B. Hayes, a good-looking young man who went on to be a very bad-governing president. So this week I’ll contextualize Hayes and four other under-remembered bad (in the least good sense) chief executives, leading up to a weekend post on the worst we’ve ever had.]
On a bad president who helps us resist destructive narratives of historical inevitability.
One of the more complicated but more crucial arguments at the core of my new book project concerns the importance of resisting the idea that history was always, inevitably going to unfold in the ways that it did. The specific context for that argument in this project is the hugely frustrating way in which Irish Americans, themselves the subject of pretty intense xenophobia and discrimination in the early 19th century, became by the mid- to late-19th century one of the communities most consistently and fully upholding white supremacy in America, often through violence like the New York City draft riots, the Rock Springs massacre, and many more events. Moreover, the Irish American immigrant on whom that half of the book focuses, labor leader turned face of the anti-Chinese movement Denis Kearney, embodies that shift even more blatantly: not only as an immigrant who became a leading anti-immigrant voice, but also as someone who briefly fought to protect San Francisco’s Chinese American community and then became its most aggressive adversary (for more, read the book!).
Those histories happened, and it’s certainly crucial that we remember that they did, not least so we can explore and understand why and how they did. But I believe a corollary goal is to recognize that they could have gone differently, that history is contingent upon countless actions and choices, that individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole have distinct paths in any and every moment (and thus in our own). Otherwise, if we give in instead to a sense that the way our history went was inevitable, it becomes almost impossible to resist pessimism or even fatalism, to imagine the possibility of such alternative paths, such choices and changes, in our own moment. One of the most striking historical tests of this perspective has to be the Civil War—not only because in hindsight all the events that led up to it seem so inevitable (and perhaps rightfully so, since despite the war’s tragedies and horrors its most crucial outcome was the end of slavery), but also and especially because even in the contexts of their own era it’s quite difficult to see how things could have (or, again, perhaps even should have) gone differently.
There’s a lot more to those questions and ideas than I can address in one blog post, of course. But I think it’s pretty important to note that the president whose term directly preceded and in many ways precipitated the Civil War, James Buchanan, wasn’t just a bystander to unfolding histories. In his March 1857 Inaugural Address, Buchanan called “the territorial question” (whether newly admitted territories would be slave or free states, that is) “happily, a matter of but little practical importance,” as the Supreme Court was about to resolve the issue “speedily and finally.” When that truly awful 1857 Supreme Court decision did not in fact resolve any of the issues or debates around slavery, Buchanan took the further step of putting the full force of the presidency behind admitting Kansas to the United States as a slave state, directly exacerbating the unfolding conflicts and violence in that territory. Buchanan wasn’t responsible for any of those issues, but each of those statements and positions, actions and policies, he and his administration both supported the slave South and fueled the fires that would become a full conflagration by the end of his disastrous term. None of that was inevitable, making James Buchanan a very bad president indeed.
Next bad president tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other baddies you’d highlight?