In his general introduction to The American Presidents series, the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote that “it is the aim of the American Presidents series to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar. Each volume offers a distillation of character and career.” By this measure, my current sampling of the three volumes on Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, and now Rutherford B. Hayes would be positive. I have certainly found these three books to be compact, lucid and authoritative within the limits imposed by the project’s objectives. This is no less true of Hans L. Trefousse’s 150-page study of Rutherford B. Hayes than of the other two works. It is written with clarity and elucidates the character and policies of its central figure effectively, while preserving a keen awareness of the historical milieu. It is a sympathetic but objective portrait. Keep in mind, however, that like the other books in the series, it is not intended to be an exhaustive and definitive biography.
While long relegated to the obscurity of ‘those drab one-term presidents of the nineteenth century,’ Hayes is probably more familiar to contemporary readers than others with whom he shares that rubric, if for no other reason than that his disputed election in 1876 bore certain rough but intriguing similarities to the disputed outcome of the election of 2000. Hayes received fewer popular votes than his Democratic opponent, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York, and won by a single electoral vote when the electoral votes of three Southern states – including, uncannily, Florida – were, after much controversy and delay, ultimately awarded to the Republican. That controversy and its denouement, along with serious divisions within his own party, vexed Hayes’ entire term as president. Nevertheless, his presidency is most frequently appraised as modestly successful (with the emphasis more often placed on the modesty than on the success), and by no means as an abject failure. He concluded the military occupation of the South and thus ended Reconstruction, but at the price of frustrating his own sincere desire to preserve the liberties and rights of blacks. He also began the first tentative steps toward civil service reform. And despite the persistent taint of his disputed election, his character and the dignity with which he performed his duties restored much of the respect accorded to the office in which he served.
If you’re seeking a voluminously detailed intimate biography of Rutherford B. Hayes and his era, look elsewhere. But if your objective is to read a good, solid, workmanlike, compact history, Trefousse’s Rutherford B. Hayes would serve you well.