Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Virtues of Rutherford B. Hayes

I looked forward to Ari Hoogenboom’s Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President for several years. Sometimes long anticipation diminishes the enjoyment of the prize, especially if the imagination exaggerates its goodness. But this book hasn’t disappointed me at all. I had heard a little about this late-nineteenth-century President with a vision of racial equality in American education, and the biography has shown me a man with many admirable qualities. Where I once knew him only as one of several indistinguishable bearded Chief Executives, he’s now a three-dimensional personality to me.

The first thing that struck me about Hayes as portrayed by Hoogenboom is that he was a man of principle whose principles could be changed by a good argument. A friend has been telling me recently about studies that show that an argument against a held belief usually tends only to make a person defensive. Perhaps Hayes showed flexibility because he understood the difference between ideals and practicality and between means and ends. Concerning the first distinction, he once told supporters disappointed in his slowness to address their favorite issue that a politician can only fight one or at the most two battles at one time. This insight may have come from his experience as a colonel and then general in the Civil War as much as it came from his political experience. As an indication of the second distinction, Hayes disapproved of the Mexican War in the 1840s, even though he favored expansion of U. S. territory.

Hayes’s goals for his term in the White House included a return to a gold standard to pay off the paper-money debt from the Civil War. How weird it was to read about a time when pieces of paper currency were seen as little IOU’s from the federal government! After meeting this goal, Hayes saw the value of the paper dollar rise from seventy-something cents worth of gold to ninety-something cents worth. And by the way, he saw this economic reform through even though he owed a lot of money himself and would have benefitted personally from being able to pay off his debts with lower-value paper dollars.

Hayes also wanted to assure that national elections could be protected from fraud, not only because of his concern for the rights of southern Blacks and Republicans (who were pretty much the same people), but also because he had won his office in the most controversial presidential election in U. S. history. I’m sorry to say that recounts in Florida played a part in the story, but South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon were also involved, and two of those states ended up with two election boards apiece, each sending its own slate of electors to Washington for the electoral college. Hayes was declared President just two days before the inauguration, which took place in March in those days. Clearly protection of the integrity of elections was needed, and Hayes provided some means toward that end. When, near the end of his term, Democrats tried to repeal his election reforms by including their countermeasures as riders on appropriations bills, Hayes saw it as an attack on the constitutional rights of the President. Hayes, having never seen the twentieth- and twenty-first-century art of Congressional riders, saw the Democrats in essence taking away his veto power by making him choose between approving their changes in election policy or (by vetoing the bills) watching the federal government and army go out of business from lack of funds to pay the employees. But Hayes, who continued to fight in the Civil War despite receiving wounds on four separate occasions, called the their bluff and vetoed the bills anyway. His brave stance unified the squabbling Republicans and garnered enough national support to make the Democrats back down. 

His most heartfelt goal for his Presidency, though, was civil-service reform. Believing that postmasters and customs collectors should be appointed and retained on the basis of competence rather than political affiliation, he sent new rules to supervisors across the country detailing the kind of competitive exams they should give to prospective workers. He wanted the best people to get the jobs and, when the party in power changed, to retain the jobs. In another forward-thinking move, he appointed at least eighteen women to Postmistress General positions in cities as large as Louisville, Kentucky. Just as he didn’t want the party affiliation of the President to determine the holder of civil-service offices, he didn’t want the holders of civil-service offices to determine the outcome of Presidential elections. In order to promote that end, he prohibited anyone working for a post office or customs house from organizing conventions or running campaigns. And to assure that end at least once, he vowed that he would serve only one term.

After many struggles over the last sixty years – some famous and multitudes not so famous – of young African Americans trying to gain access to American education, we’ve come a long way. But we still haven’t achieved total racial equality, and, what disturbs me as much if not more, the education that we’re offering young Americans of all ethnicities continues to decline in quality rapidly. If Hayes were miraculously alive today (he would be 189!), would he be happy to see his vision for the most part realized? Would he be disappointed to see how long it has taken, how far we still have to go, and how low educational standards have fallen? Would the long anticipation have diminished the enjoyment of the prize?

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