As a history teacher, discussing modern political figures always presents a unique problem in the classroom. Because of the hyper-political era in which we live, any criticism or praise of a living president immediately results in charges of bias or partisanship. Yes, I have my political opinions All teachers do. But that shouldn't take away from our ability to fairly and accurately assess the successes and/or failures of politicians and policies, regardless of our political leanings. Some will immediately dismiss my low ranking of our 43rd President as "liberal propaganda", but I hope that you will find that my arguments are based upon historical trends and observable truths. That being said, please feel free to share your thoughts if you disagree with anything I've written.
First, let me start by saying "I like George W. Bush." To my super liberal friends, I'm sorry. To my ultra-conservative friends, I'm serious. I find George W. Bush to be an engaging, likable, and honorable man. Whether it be through his inarticulate speaking style or his Texas confidence, Bush has a way of connecting to voters. At no point, even during my more liberal college years, did I ever find George Bush to be anything other than genuine. I have never doubted George W. Bush's patriotism or sincerity. When he would give a speech, support an policy, or sit for an interview, I never questioned that he truly believed the ideas he supported were in the best interest of the country. I believe George W. Bush is a man of principle and his brand of "compassionate conservatism" is something the current GOP could certainly benefit from.
All that being said, George W. Bush entered the White House under less than ideal circumstances. He like 3 Presidents before him, was elected without the consent of the governed. That is to say, he lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore. This fact has hampered every administration that has entered office under such circumstances. Bush would be no different. Of course, given the disaster that was the 2016, in which Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots, the roughly 500,000 that separated Gore and Bush seems laughable. Bush's inability to win a majority of votes wouldn't have been as serious an issue had it not been for the state of Florida. Bush's brother, Jeb, was the governor of Florida and elected officials in the Sunshine State had close ties to the Bush campaign. Because the vote was so close, state law required a recount. Of course, before all ballots were recounted, the Supreme Court intervened. Voting along ideological lines, the high court ordered that the recount stop. To interfere with a state issue like election administration is certainly an odd thing for conservative judges to do. Nevertheless, the court awarded Florida and the election to Bush. Did George W. Bush actually win the state of Florida? Probably. However, the optics of the scenario looked very bad. In the end, George Bush was elected, took the oath of office, and the country moved on. The peaceful transition of power, even in the midst of so much controversy, is a testament to our nation and our Constitution.
George W. Bush took office and began moving forward with a strong conservative agenda. He had big ideas: a huge tax cut, education reform, and entitlement reform. Some of these policies he was successfully able to implement. However, Bush's presidency will always be defined by the events of September 11, 2001. When Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and thanks to heroic passengers, into an empty field in Pennsylvania, the world forever changed. Suddenly, the singular focus of the United States government became keeping Americans safe from terrorism.
I was a junior in high school, living in rural Ohio on September 11th. I remember being very confused as my classmates and I spent the entire school day watching coverage of the attack. The first thing my dad said to me when he walked through our front door that afternoon was "This is the worst thing that has ever happened." Truth be told, he was probably right. No single day in American history had ever been worse. Later that evening, my parents and I rushed out to the fill our cars with gasoline. When we arrived at the gas station we found long lines and police officers. Older Americans, remembering the 1970s, were worried that renewed struggle in the Middle East would lead to an oil embargo and economic catastrophe. I was confused. The story seen in my hometown played out in small towns across the country. In large cities, families worried that their city might be next. I can't imagine the horror, fear, and uncertainty that played out in New York and Washington.
As President Bush addressed the nation following the attacks, Americans experience a sense of unity not seen since the days of World War II. Americans have differences; deep and significant. However, at the end of the day, we all love our country. Tea Parties, Bernie Bros, NRA members, and libertarians, we all love our country and will rally together. It is a shame that it often takes unspeakable tragedy to unify us. But in 2001, all Americans looked to President Bush to leadership. For a few short months, the President did not disappoint.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, we did so with nearly universal support. Americans of all walks of life rallied to the cause. Our Allies did their part as well. Invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter, the western alliance sent troops to Afghanistan. Canadian, French, German, British, and numerous other troops fought side-by-side with American servicemen and women. This is to say nothing of the invaluable amount of intelligence sharing that took place between European allies to bring terrorists to justice. NATO is important.
This isn't to say that there were not debates in early days of the "War on Terror", because there were. A good example of this would be the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Realizing that intelligence agencies and security organizations didn't do a good enough job communicating in the years leading up to 9/11, the decision was made to put them all under one cabinet level department. The role of the DHS, the NSA, the FAA, and many other organizations tasked with keeping us safe is still something that is hotly debated today. It is ironic however that Bush, a conservative who has decried the expansion of government, oversaw the single greatest centralization of federal government power in a generation. Fear makes us do funny things.
The extraordinary thing about the Bush presidency is how his support evaporated in the years following 9/11. Historically, Americans will give a President the benefit of the doubt during times of crisis. Therefore, it must tell us something about the magnitude of the mistakes the Bush administration made in the years following 2001 to explain the President's loss of support.
George W. Bush had a historic opportunity to transform the United States for the better following September 11th. Had the U.S. stayed focused on Afghanistan, given the political and international support the mission had, it is possible that American troops would not still be fighting and dying in Afghanistan today. Bush could have announced that 9/11 would mark the beginning of the end of our nation's reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Without economic dependence on the Middle East, the U.S. would be less likely to engage in military operations in the region. With the support of our allies, the NATO alliance the Western world could have become stronger than ever. The democratic world could use our alliance to further combat terrorism, address economic concerns, and combat climate change. Instead, due in large part to the terrible decisions made by the Bush administration in 2003, Afghanistan once again fell into chaos, the Middle East was destabilized, and a generations old alliance was strained. In 2003, the Bush administration made the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history: the invasion of Iraq.
Looking back, it is hard to understand how the the United States allowed itself to be pushed into war in Iraq. We know that within weeks of 9/11 discussions at the highest level of government began to focus on Iraq. We know there were those in the White House and those in the Pentagon who hungered for war in Iraq and salivated at the idea getting access to Iraq's oil supply. We know that Saddam Hussein's government, while evil, had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. We know that despite some very shaky intelligence suggesting that Iraq might be pursuing Weapons of Mass Destruction, the overwhelming opinions of intelligence agencies around the world and the United Nations, they were not pursuing WMDs. We also know that no weapons were ever found in Iraq. We also know that Iraq, isolated and alone, with a second rate military, posed no threat to the United States or our allies. Despite all of this, members of Bush's inner circle, many of them with strong financial ties to the Middle East, convinced the President to order the unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Without the support of our allies (save a halfhearted Great Britain), valuable resources were diverted from the unfinished work in Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf. In March, the war had begun with the support of more than 60% of Americans.
All of us remember the scenes on television. The American military quickly dismantled the Iraqi security forces. within weeks Baghdad had fallen and Saddam Hussein was hiding in a spider hole. On May 1, 2003 aboard an aircraft carrier President Bush declared that major military operations in Iraq had ceased, The United States had won. In short, "mission accomplished." Soon all hell would break loose.
Bush was reelected in 2004. The true cost of the Iraq War was not yet known. Americans appreciated the President's leadership in the days following 9/11, and the Democrats put forward an honorable but ultimately weak candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. It also helped that the Bush campaign successfully, in my opinion, took advantage of people's faith for political gain. Rallying the Religious Right against the "threat" of gay marriage, the strong evangelical voting block organized in Bush's favor. For me the election of 2004 was important for two reasons. It was the first election in which I could cast a vote, which I found to be very exciting. It was also the first time I was told in a Sunday School class that it was my Christian duty to vote for the Republican Party. I quickly looked around half expecting to see a money changer a few tables over.
I always jokingly say to my students "I don't know why presidents run for 2nd terms, no one has ever had a good one." There is a lot of truth to that statement. However, George W. Bush might be the standard bearer for bad second terms. Thanks to the polices he pursued and events outside of his control, the younger Bush's 2nd term might be the worst in history.
For starters, Iraq descended into sectarian chaos. Without a stable government, without security, without jobs, sometimes without basic necessities, the centuries old powder keg in Iraq exploded. Terrorist organizations which had previously not been in Iraq set up operations. They were easily able to find recruits, because there were so many desperate people in Iraq. When the U.S. took over Iraq, the new government it set up fired all members of the military. Now there were thousands of unemployed young men, trained in warfare, willing to displace the invader. Thousands more, driven by extremism, traveled to Iraq to enter the fray. There was one such organization, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, that fought the United States to terrible effect during what came to be known as the Iraqi Insurgency. Today that organization is known as ISIS. Throughout 2005 - 2006, the situation in Iraq worsened. American soldiers, many times lacking the proper funding or support from Congress or the Bush administration, were under constant attack by Iraqi insurgents. Dozens of Americans died every month. The situation in Iraq did improve after Bush, to his credit, ordered a "surge" of troops to combat the violence. By the end of his presidency, the violence had (temporarily) eased. A new, extremely corrupt government would lead Iraq. The corruption and incompetence of the new Iraqi government would allow for ISIS to take control of much of their country after American forces left. Bush negotiated an end to American occupation before leaving office scheduling a withdrawal of troops that wold take place during President Obama's first term.
All told, nearly 4,500 American servicemen and women died serving our country in Iraq. The vast majority of these brave warriors died after President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished." The war in Iraq was a war of choice. The war weakened America at home, destabilized the Middle East, created a power vacuum that allowed organizations like ISIS to thrive, exploded that national debt, and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. There is very little one can say in support of the argument that the War in Iraq was good for America. However, the war should serve as a reminder of the amazing blessing Americans have in our servicemen and women. Thousands of American soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors bravely and honorably served in Iraq and continue to do so throughout the world today. We owe it to these brave Americans to only send them into harm's way when absolutely necessary and to give them every resource they need to be successful on the battlefield. We owe it to them to provide them with the best medical care and educational opportunities when they return home. On these issues, even in these divided times, there should be no partisan debate.
The summer of 2005 saw another dark moment of the Bush presidency. Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in August creating never before seen damage and suffering. The city of New Orleans was most affected, much of the city was overwhelmed by flood waters. Hundreds were killed, while thousands more fled for their lives while their homes were consumed by the sea. While obviously, it is not a president's fault if a hurricane hits the United States, President Bush was rightly criticized for his slow response. The areas most affected by the storm were generally the poorest neighborhoods which were overwhelmingly black. The delayed and inadequate response by state, local, and federal agencies caused many to question whether race played a role in the slow response. Many have argued that the reaction to Katrina highlighted the struggles associated with American federalism. Such arguments are correct. The division of power between the states and the federal government can be a complicated thing. Who should take the lead in dealing with the crisis, the state's governor or the President of the United States? While federalism is a fundamental principle in our Constitution, the middle of a natural disaster, when people are dying, is not the time to debate the proper role of the federal government. People needed help. They looked to their government for assistance and their leaders let them down.
Sadly, no discussion of George W. Bush's presidency would be complete without discussing the near collapse of the American financial system and the Great Recession that followed. As I've stated before, no President simply by their actions alone can cause the economy to grow or cause a recession. George W. Bush did not cause the failure of the housing market or bankruptcies of financial institutions. However, the underlying problems that led to the downturn had their basis in years of deregulation of the financial markets. Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers were allowed to market and sell dangerous and risky products, such as sub-prime mortgages, to far too many Americans. Credit was easy, debt was high, and wages were stagnant. All of this led to a bursting of the housing bubble. When Bush, correctly in my opinion, encouraged Congress to step in and bailout the banks to prevent further suffering, his administration allowed for CEOs, many of whom were responsible for the mess, to receive lavish bonuses after taking taxpayer money. George W. Bush became the first President since Herbert Hoover to oversee a net loss of jobs.
There is so much more to talk about when discussing the presidency of George W. Bush. No Child Left Behind, his failed attempt at privatizing part of Social Security, the huge tax cuts, but there simply isn't enough time. When evaluating a presidency, one must harness their inner Reagan and ask whether or not the country was in better shape at the end of the President's term than at the beginning? In the case of George W. Bush, the answer is a resounding "no." At the end of Bush's time in office the nation was in the midst of the worse recession in 70 years. America was still fighting two wars, one of which was a war of choice, and the nation was deeply divided. Bush does deserve credit for his leadership in the weeks and months following 9/11. He showed strength, determination, and spoke words that encouraged and comforted a shocked nation. However, in the years that followed economic turmoil, foreign policy blunders, and an unfulfilled domestic agenda overtook the Bush presidency.
That being said, I still kind of like the guy.
Allow me to paint a picture for you. A political party is having trouble connecting to voters. With internal divisions, it is unclear who their standard bearer will be. However, desperate for a electoral win, the party looks to an outsider as a way of appealing to average citizens. Their candidate has no political experience. Their candidate has never run for public office. Their candidate doesn't seem to have any firm political principles at all. But, their candidate is a national celebrity. His fame and his ability to connect to the average American voter wins him enough support that he is elected President of the United States. No, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. Rather, I'm talking about our 12th President, Zachary Taylor.
"Old Rough and Ready" as he was known was a true political outsider. Despite familiar connections to the political establishment of his time (Jefferson Davis was his son-in-law), Taylor never expressed much interest in politics. Taylor joined the army as a young man and served with distinction throughout his career. Taylor commanded troops in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Seminole War. However, it was his leadership in the Mexican-American War that brought him national fame. In 1846, the United States hungered for northern Mexico, the territory now known as California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. When Mexico refused to sell the U.S. the land, President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to provoke a war with our southern neighbor by invading disputed territory. When the Mexicans took the bait and attacked the American invaders, Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war. Congress did as the President asked and the Mexican-American War began. The conflict that ensued was one-sided and controversial. To many Americans, it seemed as if the United States was attacking Mexico for nothing more than a desire for territory. Such behavior didn't seem to be in line with our nation's principles. Ulysses S. Grant, who was a young officer at the time, summed up the feelings of many regarding the war when he wrote:
"I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. [...] I do not think there was ever a more wicked war."
Nevertheless, despite the opposition by many, the Mexican-American War was a resounding military victory. This was in no small part due to the leadership of Gen. Taylor. The treaty that was signed at the end of the conflict ceded all of the modern southwest, most importantly California, to the United States.
In 1848, the Whigs were in search of a candidate to run for president. The young party was not as well organized as the Democrats, nor did it have as unified a platform. The Whigs had successfully run a candidate before. In 1840, William Henry Harrison was elected President, however he died just 31 days into his administration. If you've read this blog before you know what happened in the years that followed. However, despite Harrison's death, his election proved that a candidate with the right image could win votes from the common white man; votes that usually went to the Democrats. If General William Henry Harrison could be elected, why not try the same tactic again. Zachary Taylor was courted by the Whigs and reluctantly accepted their nomination. Now, a man who had no political experience, had never shown an interest in politics, and had never even registered to vote, was a major party's candidate for the nations highest office. The gamble paid off and Zachary Taylor was elected President of the United States.
Soon after taking office, President Taylor was faced with a uniquely American problem: the addition of a new state to the Union. In this case, the new state in question was the recently won territory of California. In 1848, gold was discovered near Sutter's Mill, California. As word spread, thousands of prospectors headed west in hopes of striking it rich with a majority of settlers arriving in 1849. These "forty-niners" led to an explosion in the population. With hundreds of hopeful fortune seekers arriving daily, California was struggling to keep up; after all there was no real government to speak of. Towns popped up around riverbeds and supposed gold deposits. Quickly California was overrun with bars, brothels, gambling halls, and a desperate need for law and order. Local officials quickly appealed to Congress to begin the process of applying for statehood. In fact, the Californians had already drafted a state constitution, which included a provision banning slavery in the soon-to-be state. Ordinarily, the addition of a star to the flag would be a reason for celebration. However, in 1849-1850 it was a point of great contention. Southern leaders realized that if California entered the Union as state free of slavery, the United States Senate would firmly be in the hands of Senators from free states. After all, the more populated North already controlled the House of Representatives. Fearing that the institution of slavery was under siege and angry at Northern states for refusing to return runaway slaves, some Southern leaders began to openly discuss secession.
In a surprise to everyone, Taylor a southern slave owner himself, firmly stood up to the secessionists. This included rebuking his son-in-law Jefferson Davis. Taylor, a man who had never taken a firm stand on any political issue, was now planting his feet firmly on the side of the Union. Taylor believed that California should enter the Union as a free state and nothing more. No concessions needed to be made to the South, no deal needed to be brokered, California would become a state and that would be that. To Taylor, like many in Washington, the idea of plantation slavery in arid California was ridiculous and therefore the entire controversy was meaningless.
The President understood that the religious devotion to slavery that many in the South felt had less to do with economics and more to do with the consolidation of power. Slavery had brought the planter aristocracy great wealth and influence. Any threat to the institution was therefore a threat to their power. President Taylor, who had promised that he would stay out of Congressional business and never use his veto power, also took an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution. Therefore, he was not about to let southern oligarchs tear apart the country over California.
The issue of California went unsettled throughout much of 1850. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced a compromise bill that would admit California to the Union and also give generous (and immoral) concessions to the South. However, the bill became bogged down in Congress and lacked presidential support; the issue remained unresolved.
On July 4, 1850 President Taylor attended a groundbreaking celebration for the new Washington Monument. Throughout the day he consumed a pitcher of milk and a large bowl of cherries. By the evening, Taylor was complaining of severe stomach pain. Over the course of the next few days the President's condition worsened. On July 9th the President died. His body was transported to his family plot in Louisville, KY. However, soon after his passing rumors began to swirl that perhaps he had been poisoned by angry southerners. It would not be until the early 1990s that his body was exhumed and forensic tests revealed that he had not been poisoned, but rather most likely died of a gastrointestinal disease.
Millard Filmore assumed the presidency following Taylor's death. Within months, the ominous Compromise of 1850 was passed which admitted California to the Union, but also enacted the horrendous Fugitive Slave Act. Whether or not this would have occurred had Taylor lived can never be known. However, his hard line stance against secession and in favor of union suggests the outcome may have been different. President Taylor's time in office is certainly unremarkable. He died with no significant legislative or diplomatic achievements. He was either unable or unwilling to put forth a policy vision for the nation that his administration would pursue. However, for his willingness to stand up to southern secessionists over the California question, he deserves credit. Looking back, it appears that rugged general was indeed old, he was rough, but he wasn't ready to lead the country.
When Charles Guiteau was being hauled away after shooting President James Garfield, he loudly exclaimed "I am a Stalwart! Arthur is President now!" While those words may not mean much to political observers today, in 1881 would have represented a very real divide in the Republican Party. Indeed, Chester A. Arthur was a Stalwart. And he was, in fact, President now.
Chester A. Arthur, in many ways, represented all that was wrong with American politics in the late 1800s. The era, known as the "Gilded Age", was characterized by the ruthless pursuit of wealth, the centralization of power into the hands of Robber Barons, and most importantly, political corruption. During the Gilded Age, government, both state and federal, was controlled by a few powerful political machines. These machines were organizations that sought to control politics through winning votes and awarding supporters with cushy, high paying government jobs. It wasn't so much the Governor or President that appointed tax collectors, chairmen, and postmasters, as it was the political bosses that had ensured their election in the first place. Every major city, and indeed the federal government, was packed with corrupt, incompetent party loyalist who had their jobs and their large salary because they were willing to extort money, accept bribes, win votes, and sign contracts all in favor of the party machine's preferred candidate. One such party hack was Chester Alan Arthur.
Arthur liked to live the good life. He ate well, he dressed well, and he lived comfortably in Gilded Age New York. A lawyer by trade, Arthur had worked his way up the political ladder by proving to be a loyal servant of the New York Republican machine controlled by Senator Roscoe Conkling. By the 1870s, Arthur found himself Chief Collector of the Port of New York. Whoever controlled the Port of New York controlled the flow of money into the city. Whoever controlled the flow of money ensured that a portion of it would make it's way to the pockets of machine politicians. Chester A. Arthur had reached the pinnacle of machine politics and made sure that his party reaped the benefits of all the "honest graft" that came with it.
Of course, not everyone was OK with the political climate of the day. Many political leaders, in both parties, sought to clean up the system. A national movement began that called for Civil Service Reform. Government jobs, the advocates claimed, should be awarded on the basis of merit, rather than political loyalty. While this might seem like an obvious point of view today, in the 1800s it became a defining issue for the Republican Party. Those in favor of reform were known as Half-Breeds, while the traditional machine politicians who resisted reform were known as Stalwarts. This schism in the GOP came to a head when the reform-minded President Hayes fired the Stalwart Arthur from his post at the New York Customs house in 1878. Whether the Republican Party would embrace the modest reform started by Hayes or return to the Stalwart favored spoils-system was the most pressing issue of the Republican Convention in 1880.
In 1880, President Hayes decided not to seek reelection. The Republican Party, who had controlled the White House for much of the past 20 years, didn't want to let their internal disagreements lead to electoral losses in November. The decision was made to put forth a compromise ticket. The Presidential nominee would be the well-liked reform-minded Congressman from Ohio, James A. Garfield. The Vice-Presidential nominee would be none other than the Stalwart of all Stalwarts, Chester A. Arthur. It is worth noting that Arthur had never been elected to any office in his entire life to this point. His selection was clearly to make sure that the Stalwarts had a voice, however quiet, in the new administration. In November, the Republicans won an extremely close race. James Garfield was the new Commander-in-Cheif and Chester A. Arthur was now a heartbeat away from the presidency.
In September, 1881, only 7 months into his presidency, James Garfield died as a result of a gunshot wound he had received 2 months earlier. Arthur took the oath of office in New York and became the 21st President of the United States. The assassin, Charles Guiteau claimed he shot the President because Garfield had refused to give him a political appointment as a reward for his support in the campaign. In truth, Guiteau was a deranged individual with sociological and psychological problems. However, the headlines that Garfield, who fought for reform, was gunned down by a disgruntled office seeker convinced many Americans that politics had become to corrupt and civil service reform was necessary.
It would have been easy for Arthur to quiet the calls for change. After all, everything he had achieved in the his political career was thanks to the spoils-system. He was a the beneficiary of corruption and graft. The Stalwart way of doing things had brought him wealth and power. However, a career spent as part of a political machine no doubt gave him unique insight into the reality of Gilded Age politics. To the surprise of many, President Arthur, a product of the old system, signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Modest by today's standards, the law required that some government jobs be awarded on the basis of merit. Applicants would take exams to prove they were capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of the office. The law only applied to 10% of the federal workforce, but it was the first piece of meaningful civil service reform.
Over the remaining 3 years in the White House, Arthur accomplished very little. Other than advocating for the modernization of the navy, there is very little one can point to as a a success. Not particularly popular with voters in his day, Arthur did not seek the Republican nomination in 1884. He returned home to his New York law firm and died a few years later. Chester A. Arthur was not a successful President. However, for his support of civil service reform, whether done out of pragmatism or a change of heart, our 21st president deserves credit.
The Election of 1876 was a turning point in American history. For the previous 11 years, Reconstruction, the occupation of the South by federal troops in the years following the Civil War, was remaking the former Confederacy. During these years of Reconstruction, the United States bore witness to a number of events that would forever shape the make up of our country and relationship between the people and their government.
The previous 11 years had witnessed the assassination of President Lincoln, the impeachment of President Johnson, and the corruption of President Grant. The Constitution had been amended 3 times during Reconstruction, abolishing slavery, defining citizenship, establishing civil rights, and banning discrimination at the ballot box on the basis of race. The occupation of the South allowed for the protection of recently freed slaves, the dismantling of the Ku Klux Klan, and election of Republican majorities in Southern capitals. African Americans in the South, though still facing extreme discrimination, poverty, and racism, were experiencing a level of freedom only dreamed of by previous generations. Numerous African Americans were even elected to public office. The nation was, however timidly, taking the first grueling steps toward the "new birth of freedom" of which Lincoln had once spoke. However, all this political reform became expensive and Americans have short attention spans. Southern Democrats hated Reconstruction and wanted the Yankee "carpetbaggers" to leave so that they might "redeem" the South. Fiscally conservative northern Republicans were getting tired of paying for an endless military occupation of the Southern states. The scars of the Civil War were far from healed, but the nation no longer wanted endure the necessary treatment.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated by the Republican Party to be their candidate for president. After 8 years of corruption in the scandal-ridden Grant administration, the Republicans knew they had to put forward a candidate with a reputation for honesty. Hayes had been an officer in the Civil War, a Congressman, and a successful Governor. He was known as a person of high character and was from the all important state of Ohio. For these reasons, he was chosen as the nominee.
On Election Day 1866, the race was deadlocked. As the days passed, it was unclear whether Hayes or Samuel Tilden, the Democratic Governor of New York, had been elected the new President. When all votes were counted, it was appearing as if Hayes had lost. Behind by hundreds of thousands of ballots in the popular vote, Hayes had resigned to the fact that he wouldn't be elected. However, 3 states, South Carolina, Louisiana, and yes, Florida each set two sets of officially election returns for Congress to verify. In short, one set of returns from each state was legitimate, the other fraudulent. This is not surprising given the extremely corrupt nature of Gilded Age politics. It was unclear who won these three states, but the election hung in the balance. Both parties declared victory. The contentious election led to very real threats of a new Civil War.
By early 1877, Americans still didn't know who would be the new commander-in-chief. And you though 2000 was bad? Congress and President Grant agreed to form a new bipartisan electoral commission consisting of congressmen, senators, and member of the supreme court. After weeks of negotiations, the commission awarded the election to Hayes, the loser of the popular vote. Why? There was a quid pro quo in which the Democrats agreed to let the Republicans have the White House if the GOP would in turn end Reconstruction allowing for a return of Democratic control of southern legislatures. With the end of Reconstruction came the implementation of Jim Crow, the reversal of progressive social polices, and the political domination of blacks by whites. It isn't clear whether or not Hayes personally agreed to this proposal, but nevertheless it happened.
Hayes' presidency has been forgotten by most Americans, but it was certainly divisive in its day. Being elected President without winning the popular vote, without the consent of the governed, is an unenviable position for anyone and Hayes was no different. To many Americans, the President was known as "Ruther-Fraud" or "His Fraudulentcy". Being considered illegitimate by a large portion of the population makes enacting a real agenda quite difficult.
Unlike other Presidents far down on this list, there are no scandals or policies personally enacted by Hayes that had dire consequences for the nation, rather a complacency that seemed to allow social and economic problems to persist without action on the President's part. Unlike the previous Grant administration that, for all of it's shortcomings, attempted to bring about change to the nation, Hayes was content to "let 'em alone." This is not only true of the tragic discrimination of blacks in the South, but also toward the growing influence of corporate America and the unfair treatment of industrial workers that came to characterize the Gilded Age. We know that Hayes was personally concerned with the treatment of blacks in the South, but he did nothing. We know that the President had real concerns about the growing disparity between the rich and poor, but his reaction to labor unrest was to send in federal troops. This can be seen with his handling of the Great Railroad Strike. We know that Hayes was disgusted by the corrupt nature of late nineteenth century politics in which party bosses filled government posts with loyalist and those willing to pay the highest price. However, Hayes was politically hamstrung by the fact that many viewed him as illegitimate (That happens when you lose the popular vote) and accomplished very little.
Hayes honored a pledge to serve only one term. After leaving office he became a champion for education reform. The former president helped raise money that opened the door for education opportunity for many. For his post-presidency work he should be commended. What is obvious is that Rutherford B. Hayes believed in the power of collective action. He believed that government, at least from a nineteenth century perspective, could have a positive impact on the lives of Americans. It is truly ironic however that during his time in White House he did very little to use the powers of his office for good.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
A place to discuss, among other things, politics, culture, food, faith, and nonsense.