American history, Ari Hoogenboom, biographies, book reviews, presidential biographies, Presidents, Rutherford Hayes
“Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President” is Ari Hoogenboom’s 1995 single-volume biography of our nineteenth president. Hoogenboom is professor emeritus at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College and a well-known scholar of the Gilded Age.
Hoogenboom’s book was the first comprehensive biography of Hayes following Harry Barnard’s 1954 “Rutherford B. Hayes: And His America.” This modern examination of Hayes’s life is well-researched, competently argued, appropriately detailed and extremely thorough.
Unapologetically sympathetic to Hayes, Hoogenboom uses the book’s opening pages to make the case for Hayes as a more noble man – and far more successful politician – than history recalls. He amplifies his favorable opinion in the book’s closing chapters where his subject’s most serious mistake is alleged to have been…failing to run for a second term. The book’s core, however, follows a “just-the-facts” style of presentation with comparatively little op/ed flavor.
The former president who emerges is more decent and far more progressive than the Hayes described by an earlier generation of historians. We meet a man dedicated to government reform, universal access to education, fairness toward the Indians, a champion of equal rights, and a man acutely worried about the wealth gap between rich and poor.
But we also meet a president who was only narrowly elevated to higher office. Having barely survived a famously contested presidential election, Hayes assumed the presidency at a time of continued social and political disharmony. Hoogenboom convincingly argues that Hayes – who lacked the political stature and mandate of his predecessor – implemented as much social, economic and political reform as his party, and the country, would tolerate.
And while the disputed election of 1876 is thoroughly explained for the reader, it is surprisingly uninteresting and almost tedious. This is fairly typical of the author’s writing style: Hoogenboom is a facts-oriented historian rather than a novelist. His 540-page text reads like a lengthy newspaper article, not like a narrative seeking to place the reader beside Hayes during his journey through life.
Similar to the life of Ulysses Grant, the most interesting portions of Hayes’s life were his action during the Civil War and his post-presidency. Both of these periods are covered thoroughly and descriptively and were more interesting than the chapters covering Hayes’s presidency.
Yet a core piece of Hayes is missing from this coverage. The reader is never acquainted with the inner-man himself. We never really understand how Hayes saw the world or how he made difficult decisions. We simply see the external result of his internal machinery. But Hoogenboom makes no claims of being a psychologist and on the more historically important task of examining Hayes’s presidency and reassessing his legacy the author is quite successful.
Overall, “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President” is a thorough and detailed biography which also offers a useful perspective on Hayes’s life and legacy. Hoogenboom’s style is not to embellish or entertain – and Hayes provides little for an author to dramatize. But while this biography is rarely captivating it is well-written, consistently thoughtful, and seems likely to remain the standard one-volume treatment of the life of Rutherford Hayes.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Wow, you’re at Hayes. You are ticking them off. Well done. I find a lot of historians are a bit dry. I wonder if they are that dry in person?
Good question. But there’s no doubt that several former presidents are a tad dry, as well(!)
Currently reading Hayes, since starting the Presidents in order in 2018, and have to point out that, due to a serious lack of choices in biographies of certain almost forgotten presidents, I never dreamed I would devote over 1,000 pages to Hayes and James Monroe (the Human Sominex in my view) on this journey! I do have to state that I am enjoying Hayes much more than Monroe. I find the writing to be a bit too detailed, but still a readable book on a figure, like Steve, I knew virtually nothing about.