Rutherford B. Hayes - Evaluation

Considered altogether, the achievements of the Hayes administration were not dramatic. Hayes had not previously been involved in national politics in an important way. He accepted the Republican presidential nomination more as a rare personal honor than as an opportunity to carry into effect a particular agenda. Once elected, he assumed the leadership of a government that, following the failure of Reconstruction, had already retreated to playing a more limited role in the lives of the American people, and he saw no reason to reverse that trend. As he noted in his diary, "We are in a period when old questions are settled, and the new are not yet brought forward." Rather, he contented himself with enhancing the efficiency with which the government carried out the limited functions of the past. Thus, he appointed a strong cabinet loyal to his own views and devoted his attention to such matters as reforming the civil service, resolving the conflict over the southern state governments, and battling for his own understanding of a sound currency. Limited government did not imply a passive presidency, as the many clashes with Congress over the respective prerogatives of the executive and legislative branches showed.

Hayes characteristically pledged in his letter of acceptance to serve only one term. At the end of four years he was satisfied that his performance as chief executive had strengthened his party and enhanced public esteem for the office he held. After James A. Garfield had been nominated by the Republican party to succeed him (Hayes approved of this choice, although he had personally preferred Secretary of the Treasury Sherman), he embarked upon a twoand-a-half-month cross-country excursion to California, Puget Sound, and Santa Fe via railroad, steamship, stagecoach, army ambulance, ferryboat, and yacht. This was the grandest by far of a series of tours, designed to promote national unity, that had taken the president into the Deep South, up to northern New England, and across the Midwest as far as the Dakota Territory to see the wheat harvest.

He returned from the west coast just in time to cast his vote for Garfield. His fellow Ohioan was elected in another close contest, and the Republicans regained control of both houses of Congress—a result for which Hayes rightly believed he deserved some credit. Hayes retired to the life of a private citizen in Fremont, Ohio, as comfortable with his term in office as perhaps any president since. His health was still excellent, and he became the most active former chief executive prior to Jimmy Carter, devoting himself to civic affairs—higher education, prison reform, and veterans reunions—until three days before his death, of a heart attack, on 17 January 1893.

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