Saturday

July 22nd, 2017

Insight

Governing in fraught times

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Feb. 8, 2017

We must, I now think, prepare ourselves to accept the inevitable. I do it with composure and cheerfulness. To me the result is no personal calamity.

— Entry in the personal diary of Rutherford B. HayesNov. 12, 1876

 

FREMONT, Ohio

He went to bed thinking he had lost the election, and in truth it looked as if his rival, Gov. Samuel J. Tilden, a Democrat from New York, had triumphed. That was between midnight and 1 in the morning, and, according to Hayes, he and his wife talked a bit before they drifted off to the sleep of disappointment, he consoling her “with such topics as readily occurred of a nature to make us feel satisfied on merely personal grounds with the result.”

They soon fell into what Hayes, the governor of Ohio and the Republican presidential nominee, described as a “refreshing sleep,” adding, “and the affair seemed over.”

But the election of 1876 was not over. It would not, in fact, be over for months — and the man who lost the popular vote eventually won the presidency. Tilden would not become the 19th president of the United States, just as Hillary Rodham Clinton would not become the 45th.

Donald J. Trump is the fifth person to lose the popular vote but win the presidency. John Quincy Adams preceded Hayes in that distinction, followed by Benjamin Harrison and George W. Bush. None of Mr. Trump’s predecessors is regarded as a particularly successful president, but all offer lessons for him, none more so than Hayes.

It was here in Fremont that Hayes and his wife are buried, and it is here, in leafy and lovely Spiegel Grove, that sits the Rutherford Hayes Presidential Library and Museums, one of those quiet, almost forgotten landmarks off the beaten track of history but a formidable reminder of the caprices of politics and of the challenges faced by a president who won the Electoral College vote in fraught circumstances.

Ohio is the classic swing state, the one Republicans always win when they capture the White House, and perhaps Mr. Trump will stop by here one of these days, examine the remarkable private library of 8,000 books Hayes assembled, and maybe stroll through the 25-acre estate, the Trump Tower of its day, a majestic presidential home with a rustic flair. The town, named for explorer John C. Fremont, the first Republican presidential nominee, was once officially designated part of Indian Territory and, in Hayes’s lifetime, was an agricultural processing center.

Mr. Trump might find that the Hayes presidency began with even more tumult than his own — “a political drama,” the Hayes biographer Kenneth E. Davison wrote in his 1972 volume, “without parallel in the history of American presidential elections.” While Mr. Trump’s election is the political manifestation of the economic, social and cultural disruption of the digital age, the Hayes-Tilden affair reflected the disruption of the Gilded Age.

Like the deadlock between George W. Bush and Vice President Albert Gore Jr., the 1876 election went into overtime — an extended period of political strife that lasted until days before the inauguration. With the votes in several states in dispute, a 15-member commission divided evenly among members of the House, Senate and Supreme Court was nonetheless not divided evenly among Republicans and Democrats. Repeated commission votes reached an 8-7 GOP advantage.

“Able and tenacious Republican leaders,” the late Ari Hoogenboom, a scholar of the Gilded Age, wrote, “challenged and outclassed Democrats in a sordid struggle for electoral votes.”

Their guile gave the presidency to Hayes and relegated Tilden, a reform governor not so unlike his rival, to an asterisk in history, though if you walk through the streets named for the presidents in Wichita Falls, Texas, you will find Tilden Street, right between Grant and Hayes Streets. (Richard Nixon once lived on Tilden Street in Washington, a block from where I once lived and likely within the same paper route as Lyndon Johnson’s home.)

“I can retire to private life,” Tilden said, “with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.”

But those responsibilities fell heavily onto the winner’s shoulders, as they do on Mr. Trump’s.

They share several challenges, among them internecine fighting within the Republican Party. (In the case of Hayes, there was lingering tension between the president and Sen. Roscoe Conkling, who was aggrieved he hadn’t won the party’s nomination and who dismissed the president’s civil-service reform efforts as “snivel service reform.”) Republican lawmakers also were angered the president hadn’t consulted them on Cabinet appointments.

It was a time, too, of brutal labor strife, bursting into full flower with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, with the greatest clashes in Pittsburgh, where 20 were killed, more than three dozen buildings set on fire and 104 locomotives and 1,245 rail cars destroyed.

But the most significant strife came over Reconstruction. Hayes, who once said that half his life was dedicated “to resist the increase of slavery and … destroy it,” worked to gain pledges that Democrats would respect the rights of Republicans and blacks if federal troops, garrisoned in the South since the end of the Civil War, were withdrawn.

Those vows were not kept, though Hayes kept his part of what was known as the Compromise of 1877 by inviting a Southern Democrat into his cabinet. A year later he opposed the Bland-Allison Act to inflate the currency through the government purchase of silver; Congress overrode his veto.

Overall it was a sad and sober time, marked by sectional, party, economic and racial tension, the sad and sober harvest of a disputed election won by a minority-vote president.

Mark Twain described Hayes as “quiet & unostentatious,” two words never applied to his successor 140 years later. But in the time of Rutherford B. Hayes, as in the time of Donald J. Trump, the greatest challenge is to win national unity.

The trials that Hayes, who won 254,235 fewer votes than his rival, endured serve to underscore the difficulties in the path ahead for the current president, who won 2,864,974 fewer votes than his principal opponent, though conservative-oriented candidates outdrew liberal-oriented candidates in 2016. The mansion at Spiegel Grove stands as a landmark, but also a lantern of warning. Uniting a divided country is no easy task.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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