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While Harvard prides itself on being a veritable factory for future presidents—seven alumni have gone on to the Oval Office—Harvard Law School has only produced one: the vaguely remembered, relatively inconsequential Rutherford B. Hayes, who was elected in 1876.
But that total could double on Tuesday if Law School alumnus and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wins the day.
It may seem surprising that the Law School, one of the top academic centers in the nation, has produced just one president—and a forgettable one at that.
“I can’t say that I think Hayes had a particular political legacy; he tends to blur together with other Gilded Age political leaders,” said American history professor Rachel C. St. John.
Hayes’ own recollections of his time at the Law School provide some insight into why an education at the school may not prepare a fine young mind for the presidency.
Just two months into his first year at Harvard, in 1843, Hayes wrote in his diary, “What am I doing to prepare myself for the life struggle upon which I am soon to enter? What training of the faculties have I submitted to, to give them that vigor which is needed to grapple successfully [with] the difficulties of the most trying profession known among men? Alas, to all these and a thousand similar questions which might be asked, I have but one answer. Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Perhaps Hayes’ dissatisfaction with his education was specific to him, or that era at the law school. But Obama, who graduated from the Law School 145 years later, seems to have had similar feelings about his own time at the Law School.
“I went to Harvard Law School, spending most of three years in poorly lit libraries, poring through cases and statutes,” Obama wrote in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” “The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power—and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of the condition.”
If Hayes, like Obama, learned nothing of practical use to the real world, what did he do with his time at Harvard?
Though Hayes did some work for class, he found “reading for authorities like feeding on narcotics. The stimulus is too great for a healthy stomach, agreeable and exciting at first, but speedily followed by satiety and disgust.”
Like students today, Hayes found a way around having to do all his reading—through the 19th-century equivalent of SparkNotes.
“I am now reading Aristotle’s ‘Ethics,’ or rather I am reading the outline of all Aristotle’s works,” he wrote.
If Hayes’ courses weren’t the basis for his presidential aspirations, then perhaps the political atmosphere of the school led to his career in government.
Pre-Civil War abolitionist tensions ran high at the school. While Hayes later became known for ending Reconstruction, he declined to take a side in the dispute over slavery during his time at Harvard.
“We have had a little excitement here for a few days past, occasioned by a skirmish between some of the Southern law students and the members of the senior class in college,” Hayes wrote in 1844. “It has resulted in a few slight bruises, the loss of a few soap-locks [greased long sideburns, in fashion at the time], and the expulsion of one or two from each department.”
Hayes also crossed paths with President John Quincy Adams, Class of 1787, who was a major presence on campus and who was a noted orator on behalf of the abolitionist cause.
Hayes found Adams—who had left the presidency in 1829 but was a congressman from Massachusetts for much of the 1830s and 1840s—“a venerable but deluded old man” with a “very unreasonable and unfair” anti-slavery platform.
With out-of-touch speakers and unengaging classes, could Hayes’ experience show that another law school—perhaps even a notable one in New Haven—is better suited to creating presidents?
Based on his interaction with Yale students, Hayes might have thought so.
“The students from Yale are commonly better speakers and appear better in moot court and the lecture room than those who graduate here,” he wrote. “The societies in this college are miserable enough, ill got up and badly sustained.”
Hayes’ intuition may be borne out by the statistics. Yale Law School has two presidential alumni to date—Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford. While a win by Obama could even the score, a loss in the primary to Hillary Clinton could have actually allowed Yale to take an even larger lead.
But Hayes’ overall assessment of the Law School indicates that he thought little of this contest of numerical fisticuffs.
“I am satisfied more than ever from what I have seen here that there is a great deal of nonsense in the talk we often hear about the difference between colleges,” he wrote.
—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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