By Alex Pijanowski
From some of the conversations I have had, it seems clear to me that Kenyon College is not well-known across the nation. I can always list our more famous alumni—usually actors like Paul Newman and Josh Radnor, or writers like John Green—as a means of familiarizing someone with Kenyon. However, if I were to mention that the 19th President of the United States, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, was educated at Kenyon, I am not likely to get anywhere in that conversation, since hardly anybody knows who he was in the first place.
Hayes is one of those group of Presidents that are generally unknown by everybody except history buffs. You can imagine my relief, then, that most students attending Kenyon know a great deal more than average about one of Kenyon’s most consequential graduates.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that this acquaintance with Hayes is often used to ends I disagree with. In my time at Kenyon I have often been rather helpfully reminded, when making a passing remark about Hayes, that he was responsible for the end of Reconstruction in the South and, by extension, the Jim Crow laws, which deprived black southerners of their rights for nearly a century.
Well, this is just a bit off the mark.
Hayes was hopeful that devolving authority to leaders in the South would encourage the passing of laws which would protect black southerners from having their rights violated, and he was reportedly dismayed when this did not happen.
Anyone offering this comment is, of course, referring to the 1876 presidential election. Ironically, given the general obscurity into which Hayes has fallen, this election remains one of the most-discussed and most controversial elections of the 19th century. In the election of that year, the Republican Hayes finished one electoral vote behind the Democratic candidate, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York. According to the Constitution, an election in which neither candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes must be decided by a vote of the House of Representatives. This procedure had previously prompted well-publicized hijinks in the elections of 1800 and 1824.
In proceedings, which were not resolved until just before Inauguration Day, both an independent electoral commission and the House of Representatives elected Hayes the winner. Reports emerged that leaders of the southern wing of Tilden’s party had agreed to vote Hayes into the Presidency, if in return Reconstruction would be ended in the South. If this fact, and only this fact, is examined, it might indeed seem that Hayes had a large share of moral culpability for what African-Americans suffered through in the next hundred years.
Of course, there is more than just this instance of a “Corrupt Bargain” to consider. During the previous 12 years under Presidents Johnson and Grant, the process of re-integrating the formerly rebellious southern states into the Union had already been a failure. The deal which awarded Hayes the presidency ended Reconstruction in only three states—South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida—because it had already ended in every other Southern state. In addition, federal troops had been stationed at the statehouses of those cities not for the purpose of ensuring that racial justice was not violated, but to protect Republicans in the state legislature. There is a substantial difference between ending a failing policy in three states and abruptly terminating an effective program.
There is also little to no evidence that Hayes himself had any role in the negotiation process; given the nature of politics at that time, it is far more likely that powerful party bosses of both parties had arranged the deal. According to the History Channel documentary on the U.S. Presidents, Hayes was a member of the faction of the Republican Party that advocated for the drawing down of Reconstruction. Because the party was fully aware of this fact when giving Hayes their presidential nomination, it is not as if he suddenly switched course in order to win the office. Hayes was hopeful that devolving authority to leaders in the South would encourage the passing of laws which would protect black southerners from having their rights violated, and he was reportedly dismayed when this did not happen. Hayes may possibly be guilty of an excess of idealism, but I don’t think it is fair to assume that he wished for discriminatory laws to take root after the exit of federal troops.
Contrary to the somewhat murky means of his ascent to the office, Hayes was far above reproach while serving as President. He was the first President to advocate for reforms of the way civil service appointments were distributed, which was especially refreshing coming off the heels of the rampantly corrupt Grant administration. At the end of his term, he honored a promise made at the beginning of it, and refused to stand for re-election.
Hayes’ chosen projects were such admirable ends as education reform, racial justice, and economic equality, and he remained dedicated to them until his death twelve years after leaving office.
Hayes was also, after he left office, the founder of the post-presidential philanthropic tradition of which Jimmy Carter is the most noted modern representative. Before Hayes, those who survived their term in office tended almost without exception to retire to their farms or estates; embark on goodwill tours of Europe or the United States; or, in the case of Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore, attempt to secure re-election to their former office.
Hayes’ chosen projects were such admirable ends as education reform, prison reform, racial justice, and economic equality, and he remained dedicated to them until his death twelve years after leaving office. Given the current state of our prison system—according to the NAACP, nearly half of incarcerated Americans are black—I know that I am not alone in wishing that a former President (or any retired public official, for that matter) were as dedicated to prison reform as Hayes was.
I do not mean to discourage anyone from questioning the existing narratives about our nation’s history; in fact, I encourage it. However, our scorn should not be reserved for Kenyon’s own son. In place of Hayes, I would suggest some contemporary myths to debunk. One could take as a cause, for example, bringing an end to the widely-prevailing fable that the Reagan administration was the finest in recent memory. Republicans should be reminded that, thanks to political shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, the party which abolished slavery in the 1860s is not today the champion of civil rights. We are not any less free under President Obama than we were under President George W. Bush, no matter what anyone may tell you. Most of all, it is still a worthy task to take on those revisionists who believe that the official end of slavery in 1865 erased the 400 years of history before that point and the 150 years after.
But, please, respect Hayes for the good man in a corrupt time that he was.
This article first appeared in print in The Kenyon Observer on December 17, 2014.