The "smallest mistake": explaining the failures of the Hayes and Harrison presidencies

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Author: Douglas Steven Gallagher
Date: Fall 2002
From: White House Studies(Vol. 2, Issue 4)
Publisher: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,892 words

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This paper explores the first months in office of two presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. Each man lost the popular vote while winning the electoral vote, and neither man is seen today as one of the country's greatest presidents. These facts can be explained by studying what they did and how the country perceived them. In each case the transfer of power was peaceful and was not challenged legally, but the party out of power in each case used the "smallest mistake" either president made to question his legitimacy. The paper also explores the curious political situation of the nation's current "minority" president, George W. Bush.


Charles O. Jones's Passages to the Presidency notes a particular peculiarity in the American political system. Unlike Great Britain, where the transfer of power from Conservative prime minister John Major to Labour leader Tony Blair took less than 24 hours, the United States Constitution provides for approximately 75 days between the election of a president and the taking of the office. The "transition" is a unique opportunity with perils for the new president and his staff, and Jones outlines those many promises and pitfalls in his study of four transitions which entailed a switch between political parties as well as presidents. (1) The transition, along with the separate election of presidents and congressional representatives and the separation of powers, make the American system interesting.

This study will concern the plight of two presidents (and a situation) Jones overlooks in his research: Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. Each of these "minority" presidents, elected with fewer popular votes than the candidate they defeated, pressed ahead and dealt with issues they considered important to America's future.

Hayes's first priority was an end to sectional divisiveness that had existed since the Civil War, and he did much to accomplish that goal in his first weeks. He appointed a southern Democrat to his cabinet, pulled federal troops out of Florida and South Carolina (in accordance with the deal struck to award him the presidency), and spoke in soothing tones about moving past the war. He also signaled his intention to carry out civil-service reform, much to the dismay of many other Republicans. In doing all of this, Hayes appears far stronger than future generations would assert. The trouble would come because he tried to promise all things to all people: he claimed that reconciliation with the South would not hurt black voters, when Democratic rule did just that. Few would forget that "His Fraudulency" did not keep all of his promises, and his historical reputation would suffer as a result.

Benjamin Harrison faced less onerous tests in his first days: these controversies were limited to party squabbles over appointments to cabinet positions and ambassadorships. However, they were no less important to his political future. In each early decision he made, Harrison unwittingly antagonized a certain faction of the party to which he owed his election, be it civil-service reformers or politicians more committed to...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Gallagher, Douglas Steven. "The 'smallest mistake': explaining the failures of the Hayes and Harrison presidencies." White House Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, 2002, p. 395+. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A96135198