The author give a very descriptive account of Hayes' youth and upbringing, including introducing the reader to the most important adults in Hayes' formative years: his mother Sophia, his wealthy uncle Sardis and his sister Fanny. (Hayes' father died 10 weeks before Rutherford Hayes was born). We also learn much of Hayes education and his career as a lawyer, all of which gives insight into his character. Hayes is both gregarious and personable, as well as disciplined and driven in his life's work.
The book contains an excellent accounting of Hayes' service in the Civil War, from which we learn that he was very brave and very patriotic. From the fact that he was seriously wounded at the Battle of South Mountain, but returns to fight after recuperation from serious injuries, and from Hayes' refusal to leave the battlefield to take a seat in congress, his courage as a soldier is solidly established.
The political career of Hayes is detailed, as a congressman, a governor and as a President who keeps his promise to sit only one term. The book makes the case that Hayes was not a party to any agreement to abandon protection of African-American freedmen in the south, instead attempting to persuade the reader that Hayes was simply naive, believing that simple appeals to conscience would be sufficient to protect freed slaves from vindictive ex-confederates.
Hayes confronted a number of interesting issues in his term as president. These included civil service reform, tariff and monetary policies, unfair treatment and relocation of Native Americans, a bias against Chinese immigration, temperance and prohibition, and labor disputes, to name a few. Each of these are discussed in detail. The author attempts to dispel the popular notion among historians that Hayes was an ineffective president, coming to his defense on each of these issues, sometimes more convincingly than others.
Hayes had one of the most active retirements of any former president and Hoogenboom describes this period of Hayes' life very well. We learn much in the book about first lady Lucy Hayes and the Hayes' children. This first couple had a very strong and loving relationship and a strong case is made by the author that the good impression left of Mrs. Hayes is deserved.
This book was enjoyable for the information and detail it provided, the strong description of the subject and his times and the explanation of the issues. Once criticism is that the author has become too enamored with his subject to be objective in his assessment of the Hayes presidency. This is understandable given Hayes' generosity in providing future historians with insight into his personality and his thinking via his diary. A more balanced and critical assessment of the Hayes presidency would have been appreciated. No politician is correct on every issue, no matter how principled. Hoogenboom succumbs to something akin to a Stockholm Syndrome in the manner that he forgives Hayes for his failure to protect freed African-Americans and in his lukewarm pursuance of civil service reform only when it adversely affects political foes but not when it hampers the political fortunes of friends. Nevertheless, the extensive research and the excellent manner in which the author is able to have the reader come to know his subject so well makes this a terrific historical work.