Benjamin Harrison vs. Rutherford B. Hayes: Pairing Presidents XV

Benjamin Harrison versus Rutherford B. Hayes:
Pairing Presidents XV

Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68) is credited with quipping, “There’s less to him than meets the eye.” That witticism is tailor-made for Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81), two terrible presidents.

Full disclosure: I am a long time member of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), headquartered at the Rutherford B. Hayes Center in Ohio. But no conflict of interest—Hayes gets no love from me!

How they are similar:

Both talked a better game on matters of race than they played. Both were Republicans, but neither did Abe Lincoln proud. Hayes came to the White House after the crooked election of 1876. There is no way to parse this: Hayes’s operatives flat-out stole twenty electoral votes (FL, SC, LA) even though his Democratic opponent Samuel J. Tilden easily won the popular vote.  The election was so crooked it made the 2000 Bush-Gore nightmare look like a model of democracy. Bribe money flowed through Congress like the fetid waters of a backed-up toilet. The only mediating factor was that Democrats also tried to buy the election; they just weren’t as good at it. Still, Hayes went to bed on election night thinking he had lost and recorded in his diary that he didn’t mind losing, though he felt badly for the “poor colored citizens” who would suffer under a Democratic presidency.

Hayes’s remorse didn’t last long. Once the fix was in, he signed off on the Compromise of 1877 in which Democrats agreed to allow Hayes to occupy the White House if Hayes removed all federal troops from the former Confederacy. This marked the official end of Reconstruction and the final triumph of Jim Crow segregation and second-class citizenship for African Americans. Hayes is the president who abandoned federal commitment to racial justice, the prevailing practice for the next 75years. Hayes wasn’t very good re: Native Americans either. Numerous tribes were dispossessed and forced onto reservations. Most infamously, Hayes authorized pursuit of the Nez Perce tribe led by Chief Joseph as he sought to remove his people to Canada. Their flight was stopped just short of safety, and Joseph’s surrender speech now stands as a metaphor for the tragedy that befell most Great Plains tribes. There are only two bright spots in Hayes’s racial record. He did veto the Chinese Exclusion Act when it came across his desk in 1879. Alas, his veto simply encouraged anti-Chinese hysteria, including attacks on Asians, and Congress passed it anew in 1882, after Hayes was out of office. His most outstanding achievement was the appointment of John Marshall Harlan to the SCOTUS; in 1896, Justice Harlan was the only court member to vote against the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision on segregation. 


The majority decision was written by Justice Henry Billings Brown, who was appointed by Harrison, and that tells you all you need to know about the depth of his commitment to civil rights. Harrison always claimed to be in favor of improving life for African Americans and even gave oral support to what would have been a 19th century version of the Voting Rights Act and another advancing black education. Both bills would have required a much stronger president than Harrison to get them out of Congress. You can imagine the fate of his proposed Constitutional amendment that would have overturned the SCOTUS 1883 decision that declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Harrison didn’t even bother when it came to Indian policy. The Ghost dances and the massacre of Wounded Knee occurred on his watch. He also tried to annex Hawaii, but it was left undone when he left office in 1893, and Grover Cleveland quashed the effort. (William McKinley revived it.) 

Both men were pro-business and anti-labor. Hayes rightly earned the ire of wage earners. He was (probably) the first president to use the U.S. military to crush a labor strike, which he did during the nationwide Great Railroad Strike of 1877. There was very little violence until Hayes kowtowed to railroad robber barons and sent troops against workers. His craven act led to the deaths of more than a hundred workers. Enraged workers retaliated with acts of sabotage that led to the loss of untold millions of dollars. Worse, Hayes set the precedent that the federal government was no longer an impartial party in capital/labor disputes. Organized capital came to demand that action be taken to smash strikes. This made U.S. labor history the bloodiest of any Western industrial democracy.

Harrison was nearly as bad. The 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act was passed to curtail business monopolies; the Harrison administration seldom found business interests to be illegal restraints of trade, but it did apply tortured logic to crack down on labor unions. This established a precedent not fully overturned until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. It also undid many of the workplace and ballot box gains made during the 1885-86 Great Upheaval. The Knights of Labor, the nation's largest labor federation, was reduced to near impotency courtesy of Harrison. Several very bad strikes nonetheless took place, including the 1890 New York Central strike and the 1892 Homestead Steel strike.

Neither president was much kinder to farmers. Hayes's decision to crush the 1877 railroad strike left intact the very industrial juggernaut that most repressed farmers. Moreover, his veto of the Bland-Allison Act kept the U.S. firmly on the gold standard instead of adopting bimetallism, which would have made it much easier for farmers to pay off their debts. Ironically, the bill would have also softened many of the monetary problems that plagued Harrison and Cleveland and contributed to the Panic of 1893. His signature on the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was too little, too late and hastened the onset of depression.

Harrison's high import taxes (McKinley Tariff) hurt export-minded farmers. He also did very little to combat a ban on U.S. pork (shades of a contemporary problem!), which was (falsely) thought to be unsafe. The allegation of the time–largely correct–was that GOP Congressmen personally benefitted from Harrison's pro-business/high tariff policies, and the House of Representatives– dubbed the Billion Dollar Congress–reverted to Democratic control in 1890. Harrison's presidency was the final straw that led to the formation of a national People's Party ("Populists") in 1892, one far more sympathetic to laborers and farmers.

Both men struggled with foreign policy, especially in Latin America. Hayes invoked the Monroe Doctrine to discourage French canal plans in Panama  (then part of Venezuela). He also authorized U. S. troops to enter Mexico in pursuit of bandito border raiders. On a positive note, he marshaled a diplomatic settlement of a war between Paraguay and Argentina.

Harrison nearly went to war with Chile when simmering disputes led to the deaths of two U.S. sailors of shore leave. His administration also endured tense relations with Canada over fishing rights off the coast of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and with Germany over Samoa. He also struggled (and often failed) to develop reciprocity treaties with European powers to counter the effects of his high tariffs.

How they were different:

Although both claimed to be in favor of civil service reform, Hayes tried to do more about it. He battled a GOP patronage faction (Stalwarts) led by Roscoe Conkling, who usually got the better of Hayes, but Hayes did succeed in removing several notorious grafters. Ironically, one was Chester Arthur, who later enacted important reforms. Hayes also fired Postmaster-General Thomas J. Brady, though he was exonerated of corruption charges. Harrison cooperated with the spoils system, though this led the Billion Dollar Congress to lose power, ushered in gridlock, and ended what little effectiveness Harrison had. Nor did it escape notice that the six new states admitted under Harrison (ND, SD, MN, ID, WY, WA) benefitted the GOP and provided patronage opportunities.

Harrison was more environmentally conscious and his longest lasting achievement was the Land Revision Act of 1891, which allowed the federal government to add abandoned lands to the public domain.

Harrison gave the pensions to disabled vets that Cleveland had been loath to grant.

Hayes is a minor folk hero among term limit advocates for keeping his pre-election promise that he would not run for a second term. 

Do you care that Harrison's was the first presidential voice ever recorded (wax cylinder)? Didn't think so.


Oddly, Hayes is currently ranked slightly higher (#25) than Harrison (#29). Sorry, SHGAPE folks, but Hayes is among our absolute worst presidents. One need look no further than the impact of ending Reconstruction and his assault on working people to see his as a presidency with long-term negative effects. In my mind, presidents whose actions have negative repercussions deserve to be ranked lower than those who are merely inept. Dump Hayes to the lower tier.

Harrison might have been better if he had more spine than a Teddy bear fashioned from Jell-O, but he didn't. Tallulah Bankhead's words resonate when I think of either man.

Rob Weir

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