Rutherford H. Platt: Who could ask for more than that?

Published: 1/8/2021 4:20:28 PM
Modified: 1/8/2021 4:20:13 PM

The seditious attempt to overthrow the 2020 presidential election has inevitably drawn comparisons to the highly contested election of my great-great uncle Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. While that election was indeed a sorry chapter in American history, the implication that Hayes was a 19th century version of Trump is entirely misplaced. I earlier contrasted candidate Trump with Hayes in a column in this newspaper (July 11, 2016) and I now write again in defense of my ancestor.

Rutherford Hayes was a child of the frontier whose family migrated from Brattleboro, Vermont to Ohio in 1817. With the support of a wealthy uncle, he was educated at Kenyon College and Harvard Law School. He was a wounded Union officer in the Civil War, a two-term congressman, and three-term governor of Ohio. He was not an eager Republican candidate for the presidency and — like his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, governor of New York — he viewed the four-month brawl for the Electoral College from the sidelines. After serving one term (1877-81), Hayes declined to run for a second term and returned to Ohio.

The roles of the two parties at that time were reversed from today, with southern Democrats representing white supremacy while Republicans, emphatically including Hayes, revered the legacies of their party’s founder, Abraham Lincoln. Under the deal struck by party power brokers, Hayes was compelled to remove federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction. Nevertheless, Hayes proved to be an adept and progressive president who opposed Democrat attempts in Congress to nullify the three civil rights constitutional amendments adopted after the Civil War. Anticipating Theodore Roosevelt, he advocated civil service reform, prison reform, railroad regulation, public education, fair taxation and social justice. In his post-presidency, Hayes served as a trustee of Ohio State University which he helped to found as governor. He also was a trustee of the Slater Foundation which assisted a young W.E.B. DuBois to study in Germany.

At his funeral in 1893, Hayes was eulogized by his longtime friend, the eminent progressive theologian Rev. Washington Gladden, as “Ohio’s greatest citizen — the finest product of her century of history.” Who could ask for more than that?

Rutherford H. Platt


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