Current events are usually a repetition of the past. News is almost never new.
Attempts to create change that would benefit the nation and its citizens such as universal health care, economic stimulus projects to improve roads and bridges, regulations protecting the environment, prison reform including the closing the detention horror in Guantanamo, have been impeded by entrenched special interests. It has happened before. “Good Men” cannot always accomplish their goals, even with the power of the presidency.
In 1877, one hundred and thirty-seven years ago, Rutherford B. Hayes (a graduate of Harvard Law School and a Civil War hero, wounded five times in battle) was elected President by a commission of the electoral college after losing the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, governor of New York. The decision to elect Hayes was bitterly contested; taunts of fraud and illegitimacy haunted the beginning of his term in office. Yet, Hayes’ presidency was one of enlightenment; supporting civil service reform and the end of the spoils system, protection of the civil rights of former slaves and their families, the right of blacks to vote in the South, federal scholarships for blacks in higher education, humane treatment of Indians including promoting education as a means out of poverty, and reconciliation between north and south by ending of Reconstruction.
With respect to the government’s policy toward Native Americans, Hayes sent a message to Congress in February 1881, stating his intention to “give to these injured people that measure of redress which is required alike by justice and by humanity.”
One of the major goals of his presidency was to reform the civil service system, also known as “the spoils system” — as in the phrase, “to the victor belong the spoils.” There were no Civil Service tests or regulations. Government jobs were doled out by winning politicians to their friends, family and supporters. In turn, these government employees, who were generally unqualified for the positions they held, were expected to contribute to the future campaigns of their benefactors and to support the status quo in every way possible. The effect was a bloated and ineffective bureaucracy impeding the operation of government and costing the country dearly for wages of incompetent and unnecessary employees. Members of Congress, unhappy with Hayes’s policies of civil service reform, which would eliminate or greatly reduce their power to give lucrative jobs to supporters, refused to approve his nominations based on merit. In a tactic used by other presidents when their appointments have been denied approval or even a hearing in committee, President Hayes resorted to “recess appointments” when Congress was adjourned.
Although he authorized the use of Federal Troops to quell railroad riots and demonstrations by workers whose wages were reduced during an economic recession, Hayes supported the cause of workers’ rights and their entitlement of a living wage. Contemplating the effect of the strikes, demonstrations and their suppression, Hayes wrote in his diary:
The strikes have been put down by force; but now for the real remedy. Can’t something [be] done by education of strikers, by judicious control of capitalists, by wise general policy to end or diminish the evil? The railroad strikers, as a rule, are good men, sober, intelligent, and industrious.
During that recession and consequent unemployment, particularly in the western states, a law was enacted with the support of the Workingmen’s Party abrogating a treaty with China. The effect of this legislation would be to prevent further Chinese immigration. When Hayes vetoed the bill on the grounds that treaties should not be cancelled unilaterally without first trying to negotiate a resolution, the House of Representatives attempted to impeach him. The impeachment narrowly failed when Republicans, Hayes’s party, prevented a quorum by refusing to vote.
Among Hayes’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court was John Marshall Harlan who was narrowly confirmed by the Senate. Harlan served on the court for thirty-four years, during which he voted (usually in the minority) for aggressive enforcement of the civil rights laws.
Despite the efforts of President Hayes, few of his enlightened policies were enacted because control of the House of Representatives was held by the Democratic Party (then the party of southern interests and racism). However, initiatives begun during his presidency were the basis for later reforms.
Hayes kept his promise to limit his presidency to a single term. In retirement, he was troubled by the disparity between the rich and the poor, saying in an 1886 speech that “free government cannot long endure if property is largely in a few hands and large masses of people are unable to earn homes, education, and a support in old age.” The following year, Hayes recorded his thoughts on that subject in his diary:
In church it occurred to me that it is time for the public to hear that the giant evil and danger in this country, the danger which transcends all others, is the vast wealth owned or controlled by a few persons. Money is power. In Congress, in state legislatures, in city councils, in the courts, in the political conventions, in the press, in the pulpit, in the circles of the educated and the talented, its influence is growing greater and greater. Excessive wealth in the hands of the few means extreme poverty, ignorance, vice, and wretchedness as the lot of the many. … Let the people be fully informed and convinced as to the evil. Let them earnestly seek the remedy and it will be found. … [T]o know the evil is the first step towards reaching its eradication. …. We may reach and remove the difficulty by changes in the laws regulating corporations, descents of property, wills, trusts, taxation, and a host of other important interests, not omitting lands and other property.
Rutherford B. Hayes is not the first president, nor the first Good Man, to have his intentions and goals thwarted by the interests of those who benefit from injustice. He will not be the last.
By Bob Marrow
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