I’m not really inclined to defend Rutherford B. Hayes. But I’m annoyed that Obama repeated the stupid apocryphal tale about Hayes rejecting the telephone. This isn’t because I care all that much about Hayes or even our presidents knowing all that much about their predecessors.
I am annoyed because it shows a complete lack of understanding of late 19th century Republicans. Given that Hayes was a pretty typical Republican insider of the Gilded Age, he almost certainly saw one thing when he first heard of the telephone.
The technological innovations of the Gilded Age were largely developed to facilitate the corporate expansion of monopoly capitalism and few inventions did more to help capitalists than the telephone. Technological innovation was the name of the game. Hayes understood this.
Of course, there is much to dislike about Hayes. We can’t exactly blame him for the Compromise of 1877, even if it made him president.
We can however damn him for his speech “The Reconstructed South.” Given in Atlanta on September, 24, 1877, Hayes was on a tour of the South to help smooth over the Compromise of 1877 and bring the nation together behind a version of Civil War memory that covered up the racial strife that had led to the war. Addressing this portion of his speech to the freed slaves, Hayes said:
What troubles our people at the North, what has troubled them, was that they feared that these colored people, who had been made freedmen by the war, would not be safe in their rights and interests in the South unless it was by the interference of the general government. Many good people had that idea. I had given that matter some consideration and now, my colored friends, who have thought, or who have been told, that I was turning my back upon the men whom I fought for, now, listen! After thinking over it, I believed that your rights and interests would be safer if this great mass of intelligent white men were let along by the general government. And now, my colored friends, let me say another thing. We have been trying it for these six months, and, in my opinion in no six months since the war have there been so few outrages and invasions of your rights, nor you so secure in your rights, persons, and homes, as in the last six months.
How did leaving “the great mass of intelligent white men” in charge of race relations work out for African-Americans?
Not to mention that the Hayes years saw the final crushing of Native American resistance on the Great Plains.
So go ahead and slam Rutherford Hayes if you want. But can we please do it for the right reasons?