The Understated Greatness of Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

Rutherford Hayes is like other presidents of the Gilded Age — easily forgotten, and dismissed as an executive placeholder who supposedly didn’t do much. The C-Span historians rank him in the bottom quarter of their list. I rank him in the top four (for a place on Mount Rushmore, no less), and agree entirely with Mark Twain, who, usually contemptuous of politicians, pronounced Hayes a great president.

Hayes took office during a stormy time, on the heels of the “Civil War aftermath” presidents (Johnson and Grant), and he steered the nation into a period of immense peace and prosperity, while holding his ground against a pernicious and racist Congress. This is the kind of president enlightened Americans want and love.

The End of Reconstruction

The most controversial part of Hayes’ presidency was his first action: to end the military occupation of the south. Historians are divided on the question. The objectors say that Reconstruction shouldn’t have ended, and that Hayes’s decision to pull out gave us 80 years of Jim Crow and the racial traumas that continue today.

That’s actually backwards. It was precisely the harshness of northern military rule (beginning in 1867) that caused a backlash in the South, and the KKK to evolve into a political terrorist group. By 1877 Jim Crow was waiting in the wings. The North had won the war, but the South won the peace. This is the pattern we see anywhere in the world where the U.S. tries nation-building strategies — “building democracy” at gunpoint — like in Vietnam and Iraq. It’s always bound to fail.

What should have happened after the Civil War is something between Lincoln and Johnson’s overly benevolent attitude to the South, and the severity of radical Reconstructionism — a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash against African Americans. For example, if southern states had respected the repeal of slavery, black voting rights, and civilian (not military) federal officials carrying out federal functions in the south, then (and only then) they could have been restored to representation in Congress. And instead of confiscating land belonging to Southerners, Johnson and Grant could have identified huge portions of unowned land in the south and distributed it to African Americans. Basically, military rule, social re-engineering, and confiscation of land could have been avoided in favor of other measures. Had the government gone that route, there may not have ever been the KKK or Jim Crow.

The military occupation of the south had to end, and in any case, Ulysses Grant had already withdrawn the support from most of the southern states before Hayes took over. Only Louisiana and South Carolina maintained a northern military presence by Hayes’s term. It wasn’t a question of if but when the occupation had to end — and the sooner the better. Hayes may have been a bit naive in accepting the Democratic pledges (to protect the voting and civil rights of African Americans, which of course they didn’t), but he had no viable alternative. He should be applauded for ending Reconstruction. He did what was long overdue.

The Indians

Hayes tried his damnedest to treat the Native American Indians fairly and avoid excessive military action against the tribes. By 19th-century manifest destiny standards, that’s a tall order, and in the first part of Hayes’s term, unfortunately, several Indian wars could not be prevented. To his credit, he prevented the War Department from taking over the Indian Bureau. His Secretary of Interior, Carl Schurz, took a more enlightened view than the army’s that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian”. Of course, by today’s standards, Hayes’s and Schurz’s views don’t seem very enlightened: they supported the assimilation of the Indians into mainstream America by ignoring racial barriers, and also supported Christianizing the Indians through cultural laws which suppressed their native traditions. Still, this was better than genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Schurz routinely castigated the greed of frontiersmen that he felt was responsible for so much Indian bloodshed, and he refused to give up the Indian prisoners of the Nez Perce War (June-October 1877) to be executed, for which he was blasted by journalists. Later in 1879, a Ute uprising had to be out down, and Schurz again saved an explosive situation by negotiating with the Utes to prevent the citizens of Colorado from taking murderous revenge on the Indians.

Hayes must be docked, however, for the treatment of the Cheyenne tribe in January 1879: when the Cheyennes tried returning to the Black Hills in South Dakota, they were massacred by the army under General Philip Sheridan. The government had promised the Cheyenne that they could return to the Black Hills if they didn’t like the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, but Sheridan broke that promise. Hayes was outraged by this, but he still bears the responsibility.

When the Ponca Indians were removed from their lands in northeastern Nebraska and southeastern Dakota territory, Hayes tried to stop the removal policy. He also announced (in April 1879) that any whites attempting to settle in Indian Territory would be evicted — and when Captain David Payne led a bunch of white settlers to do exactly that in April 1880, Hayes had him prosecuted.

Finally fed up, Hayes presented a report to Congress in 1881, on behalf of the Indians, saying:

“Nothing should be left undone to show the Indians that the Government of the United States regards their rights as equally sacred with those of its citizens. The time has come when the policy should be to place the Indians as rapidly as possible on the same footing as the other permanent inhabitants of our country.”

Hayes could only be so effective by these measures, but he was far better than most 19th-century presidents on the Indian question.

Foreign Policy

Of the two major foreign policy issues Hayes had to deal with, he handled both well. He gave the U.S. army power to pursue Mexican bandits even into Mexico, which almost led to an international incident with the Diaz government, but thanks to Hayes’s diplomacy and shrewdness, the U.S. came out ahead. Hayes resisted going to war, recognized the Diaz government, restored order to the border, eventually revoked his hot-pursuit order, and developed trade and rail service links with Mexico during the peace that followed.

His other accomplishment was the arbitration of a territorial dispute between Argentina and Paraguay. He awarded the land to Paraguay, and the Paraguayans still honor him for it today.

Hayes’s foreign policy record isn’t spotless though. He declared any canal in Central America to be under U.S. protection, which I take to be a perversion of the Monroe Doctrine. Teddy Roosevelt would run riot with the perversion, but the seeds of it go back to Hayes.


Thanks to Hayes’s hard money policy, his term was one of the highest growth periods in all of American history. First, he supported the Specie Resumption Act of 1875 which called for all greenbacks to be redeemed in gold, and then second, when Congress overrode his veto to the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 (he had vetoed it rightfully fearing inflation), he controlled the damage by instructing his treasurer to coin the least amount of silver possible.

On other domestic fronts, he took the first steps to converting a partisan civil service into a non-partisan one. The spoils system had been entrenched since Andrew Jackson, and Hayes was determined to get rid of favoritism by which politicians “took care” of each other. Chester Arthur would perfect on these reforms when he took office next.

Hayes also served as an excellent model of how an executive should deal with labor unrest. In the worst railroad strike in U.S. history (extending from July 14 -September 4, 1877), Hayes waited for the governors of the various states (West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Missouri) to ask him for help, and only then did he send in the federal military. He acted properly this way in ending the riots and restoring law and order. The federal troops didn’t suppress a single rioter, or wound or kill anyone.


Hayes held his ground against Congressional Democrats, first when the Democrats passed an army appropriation bill with a rider on it that was designed to destroy laws enforcing civil rights and voting rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, and which repealed the Enforcement Acts (which had been used to suppress the KKK and other supremacy groups in the south). Hayes vetoed the toxic bill and congress failed to override it. The Democrats passed another bill with the same rider in it, Hayes vetoed the new bill, and the process was repeated three more times, until the racist Democrats finally relented and passed appropriations bills without the riders.

Although Hayes’ policy failed to secure obedience to the Reconstruction amendments (again because of congressional hostility), he never abandoned his commitment to civil rights, and to equal educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. As we saw above, he did his damnedest for the Indian cause. He was very humane individual, and petitioned that federal subsidies be given to poor states and territories so that children everywhere could receive quality education.

He also stood against the Democrats in Congress when they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in violation of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, which allowed unrestricted Chinese immigration. He commendably vetoed the bill, though his follow-up wasn’t so admirable: he negotiated a new treaty with China which allowed the restriction (though not end) of Chinese immigration.


In sum, Hayes was an excellent president, because he ended the military occupation of the south as it needed to be, intervened abroad only when necessary and did it well (save in Central America), pursued outstanding economic and domestic policies, and aside from waffling a bit on immigration, served the cause of liberty extremely well, passionately defying Congress on behalf of African Americans, Native American Indians, and poor children.

In this case, my scoring is basically the same as Ivan Eland’s. For peace I dock Hayes for his presumptuous assertions over Central America (-2) and for Sheridan’s treatment of the Cheyenne (-2). For prosperity he gets a perfect rating. And for liberty, I dock him for allowing Chinese immigration only to restrict it (-3).

Peace ā€” 16/20
Prosperity ā€” 20/20
Liberty ā€” 17/20

TOTAL SCORE = 53/60 = Excellent

No surprise that Mark Twain esteemed Hayes so highly. The time has come for Rutherford Hayes to take his place among the very top presidents. For me, he ranks in the top 4, and I would place him on Mount Rushmore.

2 thoughts on “The Understated Greatness of Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

  1. “and developed trade and rail service links with Mexico during the peace that followed.”
    I’ve been trying to look this up but I can’t find it. Can you link a source relating to this?

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