We here at Back Issues nearly regurgitated our coffee last Saturday morning at the inflammatory news, buried deep inside The New York Times, that only a handful of Americans could name which president, John Tyler or Rutherford B. Hayes, served in office before the eradication of slavery. The amnesia was broader than that: while many could identify those leaders whose visages grace the coin of the realm, the Times reported that Tyler’s reign (1841–45) falls within an era in which popular knowledge of presidents has now “plunged to near zero,” while Hayes’s (1877–81) wallows in “another run of obscurity.”
It is not often that we are aggravated by an unfortunate state of affairs reported in the news that we can directly and individually do something to improve. Everyone can make a difference, and so on, but that tends to require collective action, various layers of mediation, time. So it was exhilarating to find the perturbations of the weekend replaced, come Monday, by a profound sense of empowerment and responsibility. With access to The Nation’s online digital archives—available for free to all subscribers—we could go back into the historical record and recover an immediate sense of what it was like to read about the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes in real time. (Alas, John Tyler, who died in 1862, three years before The Nation was founded, is beyond our ken.) Who was Rutherford B. Hayes? What was going on during his presidency? What, if anything, is worth remembering from that time?
Summarizing the findings, first published in the journal Science, the Times’s Benedict Carey, wrote, “The less a president is ‘used’—seen, heard about, written about, referred to—the less accessible to memory the name becomes.” Join us for a plunge into The Nation’s archives to see how Rutherford B. Hayes might be used.
Hayes, it turns out, is very useful indeed: in a certain sense, Americans today are a lot more familiar with his presidency than they think they are.
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Hayes, a Civil War veteran, was a second-term governor of Ohio when he was nominated for president on the seventh ballot at the Republican Party’s national convention, held in Cincinnati, Hayes’s hometown, in the summer of 1876. The Nation, traditionally Republican but highly disapproving of Ulysses S. Grant’s egregiously corrupt administration, had one over-arching concern in national politics at the time: civil-service reform. E.L. Godkin, the magazine’s editor, thought that a professionalized, nonpolitical administration of the growing federal bureaucracy was a prerequisite for modern democracy and a free and healthy exchange of goods. The Nation worried that Hayes had not yet had to answer to this crucial test.
In a July 20, 1876, editorial, “Things for Mr. Hayes’s Consideration,” The Nation described the candidate as “a man by no means conspicuous in public affairs.” Partisans of civil-service reform, the editorial said, “are willing to support Mr. Hayes as the best man for the place, but, while supporting him, they are not going to shut their eyes to the obvious difficulties and danger of his candidateship, or to fail to keep him in mind of them.” They would keep the pressure on Hayes, should he be elected president, while not allowing their wishes to get their best of their expectations. “His courage and honesty must not be subjected to severer tests when he enters the White House than are absolutely necessary,” the editorial continued, “nor must the public be induced to expect too much from any one man.” The Nation noted that “the corrupt oligarchy who have had charge of the party under General Grant think they have satisfied the public’s demands by nominating Mr. Hayes…. If the Republican candidate is to be elected, he must in some way escape from even the appearance of alliance with ‘the machine.’”