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RBHStampAfter two weeks, two biographies and about seven hundred pages, Rutherford Hayes reminds me of a better-intentioned, more savvy and far more intellectually gifted version of Franklin Pierce.

Neither Hayes nor Pierce come to mind when choosing the most memorable (or successful) chief executives in the nation’s history. And sadly, neither has a particularly deep field of biographies from which to choose.

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* The first Hayes biography I read was “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President” by Ari Hoogenboom. Published in 1995, this was the first comprehensive biography of Hayes written in four decades. It proves detailed, well-researched, thoughtful and thorough.

Written by an author sympathetic to Hayes, at both its beginning and end it attempts to convince the reader that Hayes was a far more decent and progressive chief executive than history recalls. During most of the book, however, Hoogenboom follows a facts-only style which wis balanced but rarely engrossing.

By its end, this biography has provided a comprehensive look at Hayes on both a personal and professional level and seems likely to remain the “go to” biography on the this president for the foreseeable future. (Full review here)

*The last biography of Hayes I read was “Rutherford B. Hayes” by Hans Trefousse. A member of The American Presidents Series, this biography was published in 2002 and is far shorter than Hoogenboom’s. And unlike Hoogenboom, Trefousse seems to view his mission as re-acquainting the modern reader with Hayes, not the rehabilitation of his legacy.

This makes for a slightly more balanced biography, but also a less passionate and provocative one. In addition, one almost gets the sense by the end of Trefousse’s biography that he was handicapped by this series’s format – or that his heart was not entirely in the effort. Nonetheless, for readers seeking a quick, crisp summary of Hayes’s entire life, this book may prove valuable. (Full review here)

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Although I learned a great deal about Hayes through these two biographies, I don’t feel like I know or understand him on a personal level. Hoogenboom did a far better job conveying Hayes’s “inner self” than did Trefousse, but neither were able to fully humanize him. This is somewhat surprising because Hayes left behind a large collection of diary entries and letters…but perhaps Hayes, like many people, is simply destined to remain a bit opaque.

***During my journey through Hayes’s life I discovered a biography I need to read on my next pass through the presidents: Harry Barnard’s 1954 “Rutherford B. Hayes: And His America.” Prior to publication of Hoogenboom’s biography this seems to have been the standard Hayes biography and is undoubtedly worth reading.

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Best Biography of Rutherford Hayes: Ari Hoogenboom’s “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President