Misremembering Rutherford B. Hayes

President Obama is getting a lot of flak for repeating a common but apochryphal anecdote about President Rutherford B. Hayes (seems he could have gotten it via Ronald Reagan) rejecting the telephone as a useless invention.

He should issue an apology, with words to this effect:

I was wrong in disrespecting Rutherford B. Hayes as a backward-looking luddite who rejected technology. I should have disrespected him as a symbol of failure and disgrace for his abandonment of the African-Americans of the South as part of a corrupt bargain that gained him the presidency.

I have no clue how high-school American History textbooks treat Hayes and the end of Reconstruction these days, or even if he receives prominent mention. But he wasn’t respected a great deal when he left office in 1881, having achieved it through assurances he would dismantle military Reconstrution, and then ruined it through a disastrous strategy aimed at building a moderate Republican Party in Dixie with support from former Confederates. Here’s a nice summary from William Gilette’s Retreat From Reconstruction 1869-1879:

After the [1878] election, Hayes acknowledged that his southern policy had not succeeded. “I am reluctantly forced to admit that the experiment was a failure” and free elections in the South “were an impossibility.”The New York Times remarked that his policy had done nothing but encourage the southern Democrats to unite even more and to be more reckless in their pursuit of absolute control. Indeed, though many of his contemporaries had written eulogies for that policy at the beginning of Hayes’ administration, they were writing its obituaries at midpoint. According to the black New Orleans Louisianan, “President Hayes entered the presidential chair under peculiar circumstances and at one inaugurated a peculiar policy, and the consequence is that he finds himself in a peculiar position.”

That’s why he’s “not on Mount Rushmore.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.