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.’”

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In its article, the Times framed our lack of cultural knowledge about Rutherford B. Hayes as some kind of forgetting, but the fact is that few of us ever had any such knowledge to lose. All any of us likely ever knew is that Hayes was involved in the disputed presidential election of 1876 (forerunner to the disputed election of 2000), which had something to do with the end of Reconstruction.

The results in three states were in doubt, with partisans of both the Republican Hayes and the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden of New York, blatantly committing electoral fraud—this was a time when such a thing actually existed—and accusing the other side of the same. The uncertainty stretched deep into the winter. In a December 14, 1876, editorial, “The Political Situation,” The Nation sounded exasperated:

What the public is now most interested in is the election of somebody in a manner that will command general confidence. A technical victory would therefore do the Democrats no good…. No man can afford to take the Presidency on any quirk or quibble, or in virtue of any merely technical rule.

Neither Hayes nor, almost 125 years later, George W. Bush took the hint, however, and in January of 1877 a bipartisan commission of fifteen eminences grises, including five Supreme Court justices, was formed to settle the dispute. By a party-line vote of eight to seven, the committee threw the election to Hayes, thus, in The Nation’s eyes, perhaps sullying the respectability of the Court for a long time to come. In an editorial titled “The Provision for Future Presidential Disputes,” The Nation wrote:

Now that the Presidential controversy is over, it is none too soon to think of the means to be adopted to prevent any recurrence of the great danger through which we have just passed. The crisis has brought home to us in a most impressive way the fact that the Presidency has become so huge an affair that our own judicial resources will not enable us to dispute over it without great peril. It is, in other words, so great a prize that it would be almost impossible for us, probably before very long would become wholly impossible, to erect judging machinery strong and steadfast enough to try the title to it…. The settlement has been made with some damage to the Supreme Court—not grave damage, perhaps, but grave enough to make it clear that we could not safely resort to it again in a like case.

One possible reform, the magazine argued, would be to get rid of the Electoral College entirely. Its electors “serve no useful purpose, and they furnish, as we have recently seen, an occasion of much sin and sorrow.”

The Democrats refused to accept the electoral commission’s findings until Hayes agreed to end the federal military occupation of the South, which had helped prop up Reconstruction.

The Nation, to its shame, had by this point cast off its founding radicalism, and was greatly in favor of ending Reconstruction, which it thought had only led to corrupt governments in the South. In our April 5, 1877, issue, an editorial heralded “the dissolution of the last sham government at the South.” Then, alas, this:

We believe the proposition to be almost self-evident, indeed, that hereafter there is to be no South; none, that is, in a distinctively political sense. The negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him. He will undoubtedly play a part, perhaps an important one, in the development of the national civilization. The philanthropist will have still a great deal to do both with him and for him, and the sociological student will find him, curiously placed as he is in contact and competition with other races, an unfailing source of interest; but as a “ward” of the nation he can no longer be singled out for especial guardianship or peculiar treatment in preference to Irish laborers or Swedish immigrants.

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By the fall of 1877, The Nation was beginning to serious doubt whether Hayes had enough spine to finish the job of civil-service reform. Earlier in the year Hayes had issued a vague executive order prohibiting government employees from taking part in political campaigns or conventions; it stirred up severe agitation in Congress and in the civil service itself. The Nation, in a November 1 editorial, cheered the president on and urged him to go even further still. Surveying the opponents of reform, the editors noted, “If the civil service is not to be reformed until they and such as they agree to it, and decide in what manner it shall be done, we shall certainly never see it reformed.” The Nation appreciated the president’s executive order, but worried about his ability to see it through to execution:

It is, of course, for the President to judge what are the practical difficulties in the way of executing the order, and to judge of his own ability to overcome them. There is one thing we can tell him, however, which is, that if his heart fails him before any difficulties which are as yet apparent, he is not the man for the place he fills or the times he lives in.

The most interesting appraisal of Hayes offered by The Nation during his presidency came in the August 15, 1878, issue. It could, with certain tweaks, be written today:

Let us observe…that thousands of those who supported Mr. Hayes most ardently, and most confidently promised “thorough, radical, and complete civil-service reform” in his name, have not only got over the shock of seeing the civil service used immediately on his accession to power to reward the set of bad characters at the South who were engaged in the electoral count, but point triumphantly to the fact that no participation in their frauds has been brought home to the President, as if this of itself proved the success of the Administration. Nor is this the only curious illustration of the readiness of public opinion, if not constantly restrained and enlightened, to accommodate itself to circumstances however mischievous and unwholesome. It is only two years since General Grant left the Presidency, after having given the country at least four years of unparalleled corruption and disregard of law. His faults as a civil ruler were so glaring that he had in 1876 neither a defender nor an apologist who dared to open his mouth. But at this moment “the guilty men” who figured most prominently in his regime have emerged from their hiding places….

All this is the not unnatural result of the extravagant, and indeed absurd, expectations about Mr. Hayes raised by his friends in 1876. The reaction of the disappointment is like the buoyancy of the hopefulness—a little grotesque in its manifestations. But it is more than ever necessary that the sober-minded and rational, by whose labors the Government is to be reformed—if reform be possible—should now neither give way to disappointment nor relax their exertions for a better result next time. Something has been gained by Mr. Hayes’s Administration, and in the two remaining years of it we have no doubt its influence will furnish support to those who seek to prevent our being presented with a choice of evils in 1880. It will be a great misfortune (in the present state of the country an incalculable one) if in the next Presidential canvass prominent reformers have no better work to do than running about showing what a rascal the other candidate is.

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In July of 1880, The Nation published an editorial on “General Garfield and the Civil Service,” which expressed the hope that the Republican nominee for the presidency—Hayes had, during his first campaign, pledged to serve only one term—would act more aggressively than the sitting president had. Hayes’s meekness, the editors complained, was inexplicable: “Nobody is competent to explain it but himself, and no explanation of it is likely to come from him,”

Perhaps not publicly, at least. Hayes’s diary entry of July 11, 1880, began: “In the Nation of the 8th there are criticisms of my course on the reform of the civil service. Agreeing generally with the Nation on this subject, I would like to make it clear to all such friends of the reform, that public opinion and Congress must be right on the question before we can have a thorough and complete reform.” Hayes went on to “frankly admit my own shortcomings,” adding parenthetically, “albeit they are not what the Nation supposes.”

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The Nation of March 3, 1881—the day before Hayes’s successor, James Garfield, was inaugurated—included an editorial titled “Mr. Hayes’s Administration,” which began: “By the time this reaches our readers Mr. Hayes will have retired to private life, after an Administration in some ways the most remarkable and trying in American history, because he is the only President who has held office under a disputed title.” Tragically, the editors reported, Hayes had not followed through on his promises of civil-service reform. “In fact,” the editorial lamented, “the battle was lost before a shot had been fired.” Hayes had done some good, The Nation admitted, adding that “it is one of the misfortunes of a President’s position, as it is of a clergyman’s, that when he sets up as a reformer he cannot afford a single lapse from virtue.” The United States was at a point of crisis, and Hayes, unfortunately, had failed:

We have reached a stage in the history of the country when, owing to the great strides made in population and industry, we are threatened with a distinct change in the form and spirit of the Government…. The movement can only be arrested by a President of indomitable energy and strength of will, who relies on and is supported by an aroused public opinion. We shall probably see more than one offer himself for the task and lose heart after putting his hand to the plough; but the right man will at last appear, and when he does people will be surprised by the ease with which he will do the work.

Americans today may not be able to distinguish Rutherford B. Hayes from John Tyler any more than future generations, as the Times article suggested, will know the first thing about Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. Even so, the Hayes era is not nearly as distant as we might think. The themes and rhythms of those times are still present in our own—buried, perhaps, but there. With Elvis Presley, we’ve forgotten to remember to forget.

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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.