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Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Presidents Day column didn’t do Hayes justice

There are a lot of people writing columns who would profit from a little more research before sitting down at the keyboard.

I could cite hundreds of examples, but the column I am thinking about right now is one Dale McFeatters, who wrote a Presidents Day piece that appeared on this page. McFeatters has been with Scripps Howard for a long time. I wish he would get a little better acquainted with his subject matter before he offers opinions on the greatness of our presidents.

Actually, he did a credible job of rating the greatest chief executives – with one exception.
It’s the exception I’m sore about.

One way for him to correct his shortcoming is to do a little more reading about ex-presidents. I have on the shelves in my modest library biographies of all of our presidents. They are easy reading. McFeatters should get a copy of the bio of Rutherford Birchard Hayes and look it over. It might prove enlightening.

The columnist was right on target when he cited the greatness of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, yet he gave the back of his hand to Hayes, a great Ohioan and a fine president who deserves better treatment that merely saying he held the first White House Easter Egg roll but never did much else.

McFeatters is correct in his assessment of James K. Polk, who was responsible for much of the country’s expansion to the south and west during his single term, after which he retired. He was the only speaker of the House of Representatives ever to reach the presidency.

He achieved acclaim for the additions of Texas, California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and the western part of Colorado to the union.

And McFeatters offers a valid point when he said that on Presidents Day weekend, “I give you Washington, Lincoln and Polk, giants among us.”

Well, yes. But there were other giants among us. I give you Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. And Rutherford B. Hayes.

The columnist noted that Presidents Day is so limited that it leaves many presidents unrecognized. “Of course, not all of them deserve recognition,” he wrote.

If you want to talk about poor presidents, Jimmy Carter stands alone. Compared with Carter, Hayes and the others look like greatness personified. I loved the comment by columnist George Will, who once observed that, “if anything, Carter is a worse ex-president than he was a president.”

But let’s take a little closer look at Hayes. He was born Oct. 4, 1822, and was beloved in Ohio for his distinctive service and brave exploits in the Civil War, topped off in 1865 by his promotion to the rank of major general.

He was wounded five times, most seriously at the Battle of South Mountain, where he earned a reputation for bravery in combat.

During his law practice in Cincinnati he won great prominence as a criminal defense attorney, defending several people accused of murder. He once used a form of the insanity defense to save a woman from the gallows.

He was a member of the U.S. Congress, and in 1867 was elected governor of Ohio. In 1875, he was elected to a third term as governor, the first person in Ohio to achieve that honor. As governor he attracted national attention by his uncompromising advocacy of a sound currency backed by gold.

Hayes used the office of governor to oversee the establishment of a school for deaf-mutes and a reform school for girls. He also worked for a proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution that would guarantee suffrage for black Ohioans.

In his second term as governor he promoted the expansion of voting rights for blacks and the establishment of a state Agricultural and Mechanical College, now known as The Ohio State University.

He also proposed a reduction in state taxes and reform of the state prison system. He was, in every respect, an outstanding chief executive of Ohio.

The Hayes-Tilden presidential election of 1876 is still studied by scholars. Hayes was elected by one electoral vote in a disputed election. He was the only president to hold office by virtue of a decision of an extraordinary commission of congressmen and Supreme Court justices appointed to rule on contested electoral ballots.
Elections were contested in three Southern states and the commission awarded all the contested votes to Hayes, who was elected with 185 electoral votes to Samuel J. Tilden’s 184.

Dr. Mona Fletcher spent so much time on that election in my political science classes at Kent State that I swear she must have been there in the gallery as they counted the votes.

The administration of Hayes is described by historians as peaceful and honorable. He fought for improved civil service and opposed political patronage.

Following eight years of corruption in Washington, he fought to establish new standards of official integrity in the nation’s capital. Historians point to his unblemished public record and high moral tone.

He retired after his first term as president, not wishing to seek re-election in 1880, and devoted himself in retirement to humanitarian causes, mainly prison reform and educational opportunities for Southern black youth. Hayes was one of our best-educated presidents. His early schooling was administered by his widowed mother in Delaware, Ohio. An uncle who took kindly to him sent him to a Connecticut academy and then to Kenyon College.

At age 20, he graduated as valedictorian and youngest member of his class. He entered Harvard University Law School, completed the course in two years, and in 1845 began practicing law in Fremont.

His wife, Lucy Ware Webb Hayes, was famously dubbed “Lemonade Lucy” because she wouldn’t allow hard liquor in the White House. The couple had seven sons and one daughter.

In one of his diary entries, Hayes wrote, “my task was to wipe out the color line, abolish sectionalism, and bring peace. To do this, I was ready to resort to unusual measures and to risk my own standing and reputation within my party and the country.”

Though he did not seek re-election in 1880, Hayes was gratified with the election of Mentor’s own James A. Garfield, and consulted with him on his cabinet appointments.

By the way, Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury was a relative of mine, John Sherman. (My mother was a Sherman.) But I digress.

Hayes may have initiated the first egg roll on the White House lawn, Mr. McFeatters, but there was so much more to the man — as governor and as president — that it is a disservice to dismiss him with the back of the hand.

You should give his biography a look. It is illuminating.


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