A Presidential Diary

Hayes: The Diary of a President, 1875-1881

edited by T. Harry Williams
David McKay, 329 pp., $6.50

There is something anomalous about a President’s keeping a diary. Only three out of the thirty-five have found the time to do it. They were John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes (each of whom served only one term); the most literate of our Presidents, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt (all of whom were re-elected), did not bother. By coincidence or not, the three men who did sit down regularly to confide their Presidential cares to a personal journal all happened to be, in a special sense, very inept political leaders. Adams disdained to build himself a party organization; Polk and Hayes managed to demoralize the organizations they inherited.

I am not so certain that the implied correlation is an altogether fanciful one. In matters of communication, a man of great public responsibilities does make choices on how he allocates his energies—and what sort of medium is a diary? The diary offers him a very subtle inducement to indulge in self-justification, and to divert his energies away from the real arts of persuasion, which are arduous and exhausting and involve a tremendous constituency of lawmakers, politicians, and public. The more time such a man spends with his diary, the less he seems to need to persuade anyone but himself that he is right and all who oppose him are wrong. Sensitivity is shifted, as it were, from the public to the private sector. A fascinating record of just such a process is, I think, set forth in the diary of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Few men have entered the White House with greater need for political skill than Hayes. Not only was he a minority President whose claim to office was tainted by charges of fraud, but he was a Republican saddled with a Democratic House of Representatives, a civil service reformer who owed his election to spoilsmen, and an avowed protector of the Negro committed to the early liquidation of Negro-supported carpetbag regimes in Louisiana and South Carolina. Yet despite the narrowness of his mandate and the serious limitations on his political maneuverability, Hayes had great plans for his administration. It was to be much more than a mere holding operation. Not only would he preside over the final pacification of the South, but he intended to take action that would accomplish a virtual revolution in American political life: he would return the country to a two-party system based on economic rather than sectional issues.

The first step would be the removal of Federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina, ending any threat of further control by carpetbag oligarchies. Hayes would then appoint one, and possibly two Southerners to his cabinet. This was to be followed by a policy of selecting white conservatives for Federal office in the South without regard to party affiliation, and of seeing that Southern requests for Federal funds to construct badly needed canals, railroads, and levees were sympathetically entertained. All that would be required of the South in return was …

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Letters

Presidential Diaries September 10, 1964