In This Review

Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes
By Hans L. Trefousse
Times Books, 2002, 192 pp

Trefousse must have drawn a short straw when asked to write a volume in Arthur Schlesinger's presidential biography series. Many presidents have been less respectable than Hayes, but few are more obscure. In the faint hope of making Hayes interesting, Trefousse concentrates on the two episodes that might catch the fickle attention of Americans today: his disputed 1876 election victory over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and the related decision to end military support for the remaining Reconstruction governments in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. The result is a competent summary of existing knowledge and the best short biography of Hayes to date. But it is very far from the treatment of the era we need. Detailed accounts of Hayes' participation in minor Civil War campaigns cannot compensate for the author's failure to explain the Republican Party politics that shaped Hayes' career and administration. At its best, short biography is analytical and imaginative, leading readers to view historical figures in striking new ways. Here, however, Hayes emerges with his respectability somewhat enhanced, but no piercing beams of light penetrate the obscurity in which the man and his era continue to languish.