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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

October 4, 2022: Bad Presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes

[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 why the “corrupt bargain” was just the tip of the badness iceberg.

I’ve written multiple prior posts focused directly on the presidential election of 1876, to my mind the single most destructive in the nation’s history (well, it used to be, anyway). Historians apparently now disagree on whether and how the “corrupt bargain” that was long believed to have overtly resolved that controversial and contested election took place, and to be sure such details are important and worth continuing to investigate (and have a great deal to tell us about such deeply relevant topics as election integrity and protecting democracy). But at the same time, we can’t miss the forest for the trees, and I believe that the forest here is inarguable: whatever the precise mechanisms and machinations by which Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes bested New York Governor Samuel Tilden to become president in 1877, one of Hayes’ first actions was to end Federal Reconstruction, abandoning the former Confederate States—and more precisely the millions of African Americans living in them—to the rule of white supremacist, neo-Confederate, violent extremist domestic terrorists.

If Reconstruction was indeed (as historian Eric Foner defines it in his magisterial book) “America’s unfinished revolution,” then no single figure was more responsible for the unfinished part than Rutherford B. Hayes. That becomes even more obvious and even more frustrating when we compare Hayes to his predecessor Ulysses S. Grant, for whose impressive and frankly under-remembered support of Reconstruction I have recently made the case in this space. To follow up my point in yesterday’s post: Hayes wasn’t responsible for all the conditions and contexts around this contested and conflicted moment (and from what I can tell his personal perspective included genuine concern for African Americans in the post-war South); but his choices and actions, his emphases and policies, could unquestionably have followed much more fully in Grant’s footsteps and continued the federal fight for Reconstruction and African American rights. That he did not do so would, to my mind, be more than enough to make him worthy of this series on bad presidents.

But the end of Federal Reconstruction is in fact not the only thing which earns Hayes a spot on this less than desirable list. In the summer of 1877 the first truly national labor action took place, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which saw strikes and protests by railroad workers in West Virginia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and many other cities. Once again, Hayes was in no way responsible for the conditions and contexts of these conflicts—but as president, he had a fundamental choice to make about how the federal government would respond to them. He chose (in response to requests from governors such as West Virginia’s Henry M. Mathews, but the choice lay with Hayes nonetheless) to send in federal troops to suppress the strikes and protect property, the first time such soldiers had been used to achieve those anti-labor goals. In so doing, Hayes helped create a hugely destructive precedent for such official and violent federal opposition to strikes, labor actions, and the labor movement more generally, one that would significantly affect that movement and all of American history for decades to follow. Not so good, Rutherford; not so good at all.

Next bad president tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other baddies you’d highlight?

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