Rutherford B. Hayes: America's Worst President?

A man named Rutherford B. Hayes wants to run for president in 2012:


Hayes offers little information about himself, writing that he is from Arkansas, has a G.E.D., and is interested in "restoring" the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which he says "came under assault." He says he has work experience in "the manufacturing industry" and has "managed a large team." Hayes cites his military experience, boasting that he served "during the Gulf War" but admitting in the next sentence that his service was limited to four years in Hawaii. He concludes his bio, "Rutherford is a man of the people not a Politician, Wallstreet type or one of the Elite he is a working man that truly knows what Americans are going through and will do what is necessary to bring our Nation back to Greatness!"

I honestly don't see how this Rutherford B. Hayes could be worse for America than the original Rutherford B. Hayes. As two-time governor of Ohio, Hayes was a thoroughly unremarkable politician, and unoffensive enough to become the Republican nominee for president in 1876, given the scandal-ridden -- but substantively good -- presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Hayes' opponent was the reform-minded governor of New York, Democrat Samuel Tilden, who was widely expected to win the election.

Unfortunately for Tilden, his 250,000 popular-vote margin wasn't enough to carry the day; he was one electoral vote short of the 185 needed to win, and election results in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon were suspect, due to widespread fraud and reports of voter intimidation against Republican voters. Eventually, despite results that favored Tilden, all four states awarded their electoral votes to Hayes, giving him a one-vote margin over Tilden. Democrats were outraged and pushed Congress to count the votes, throwing out any that were suspect, a process that would almost certainly deliver the presidency to Tilden.

In order to avoid a constitutional crisis, Congress formed a bipartisan 15-member Electoral Commission to settle the result. And in an effort to bring the dispute to a quick end, Republicans and Democrats on the commission agreed to a deal; Democrats would accept the election results if -- upon entering office -- President Hayes included a Democrat in his Cabinet, built a second transcontinental railroad using the Texas and Pacific Railway, invested in the industrialization of the South, and removed federal troops from the South.

More than anything, the election of 1876 and compromise of 1877 marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of a long nadir for African Americans, who would be left to fend for themselves against a host of neo-Confederate governments. Hayes quickly fulfilled his part of the deal, removing troops from the former Confederacy. Now free from federal intervention, whites across the South engaged in a campaign of brutal violence and intimidation; black businesses were destroyed, black towns burned down, and black officials driven from office. To enforce this new status quo, white leaders used harsh laws and violence to keep blacks isolated, segregated, and removed from the mainstream economy.

Jim Crow isn't entirely Hayes' fault, but it couldn't have happened without his willingness to go along. By my lights, he should fall squarely into the "worst president" column.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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