American history, biographies, book reviews, Hans Trefousse, presidential biographies, Presidents, Rutherford Hays
“Rutherford B. Hayes” is Hans Trefousse’s 2002 contribution to The American Presidents Series. Trefousse was an American historian, author and a professor at Brooklyn College for nearly four decades. He was most widely known for his biographies of Andrew Johnson and Rutherford Hayes. Trefousse died in 2010 at the age of eighty-eight.
Like the other half-dozen members of this series I’ve read so far, Trefousse’s text is crisp, concise and comprehensive (though in a cursory way). Seldom straying far from his subject, Trefousse delivers Hayes efficiently and effectively – but without animation or deep insight.
Trefousse does not seem to view his mission as the rescue or rehabilitation of Hayes’s legacy (which is closer to “non-existent” than “bad”). Instead, Trefousse seems determined simply to re-acquaint the modern reader with this former president’s personal, military and political lives and to convey Hayes’s fundamental sense of decency. While some aspects of this objective are met, others are not.
Moving through Hayes’s past at warp speed, the most humanizing aspects of his life (such as his close relationship with his sister and, later, his wife) are never seriously explored. Instead, Trefousse’s examination of Hayes on a personal level is so rapid that by the book’s end the former president seems more like a compassionate two-dimensional caricature than an innately decent flesh-and-bones human.
In this respect, much of the fault can be attributed to the format of books in this series. Although valuable for impatient readers (or those easily bored by esoteric presidents), these biographies are often unable to fully animate or analyze their subjects. And as a result of Trefousse’s breathless efficiency, the reader misses nearly every moment in Hayes’s life which could explain his deep sense of humanity or his extraordinary honesty and integrity.
Fortunately for readers who lack broader exposure to this former president, Trefousse’s text misses very little of substance with respect to his education, participation in the Civil War or his political career. Almost every notable “headline” moment of Hayes’s seventy years of life receives coverage. But the text come across less like a narrative of Hayes’s life and more like an organized compilation of lecture notes.
Many of our forty-four presidents have proven far less honorable than Hayes, but few remain more mysterious or obscure. And while Trefousse provides a competent summary in a convenient format, by the book’s end I was asking myself “so what?” Hayes’s impact on the presidency and his relatively amorphous legacy are briefly considered, but Trefousse’s investigation falls short of what Hayes almost certainly deserves.
Overall, Hans Trefousse’s “Rutherford B. Hayes” is a serviceable and adequate summary of the life of the nineteenth president. For readers who lack the patience to tackle a lengthier biography of Rutherford Hayes, this book may be ideal. But for those seeking to more fully understand the life and times of this arcane and surprisingly well-intentioned politician, Trefousse’s biography is unlikely to be satisfactory.
Overall rating: 3¼ stars
I started my slow read through a single book on each president in 2015. I’m now on Hayes. Because I prefer to read digitally, it cuts down a bit on available books as many older books are print-only, especially with certain presidents that don’t have the same popularity of a Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, etc. That means I’ve read a handful of American Presidents Series books feeling they were my best option. This is my sixth.
By far, this is the worst I’ve read, not only of that series but a book about any president I’ve read so far. I’ll even go a step further and say it’s the worst biography I’ve read, president or not. Yet I feel obligated to see it through. (Only on chapter 4 right now.)
While, as you mention, the format may have something to do with it, the author has given us an outline of events without much meat to go with it. Some facts or events seem to have no meaning or connection to anything else… it’s like a copy/paste from someone’s day-planner. There were a few times reading last night where I thought, “What does this have to do with anything?”
I appreciate the goal of the series, and the others I’ve read have managed to make the subject more than a list of events and activities. So I believe it’s possible to do something worthwhile within the confines of the format, but this author (in my opinion) failed. I can’t wait to be done with this one and move on to Garfield.