President Hayes - Nihilist?

3 Pages Posted: 25 Jun 2009

See all articles by Colin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce

Clemson University - College of Business and Behavioral Science

Date Written: June 25, 2009


This short essay connects President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822 - 1893) with the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882). It shows that President Hayes was an avid reader of Emerson and that he thought in Emersonian terms when he considered political questions. In private letters Hayes was wont to describe himself with the unusual term 'nihilist.' His use of this appellation has to be understood in the context of the times. What he meant was that he had been called a 'nihilist' by devotees of the principle of 'laissez-faire' for his preference for policies which saw the state in a 'proactive' role in terms of economic regulation and so on. Hayes was proud to be a 'nihilist' understood in this sense because he believed state activity for the sake of social improvement is in fact the legacy of the Declaration of Independence and the Sermon on the Mount. Hayes' religious views were very 'liberal' but he was a long way from what the term 'nihilist' subsequently came to mean in later generations.

Keywords: Nihilism, Hayes, Emerson, Egotism, Greatness, Fatalism, Postmodernism

JEL Classification: B30, B31, H11, I20, N41, Z12

Suggested Citation

Pearce, Colin D., President Hayes - Nihilist? (June 25, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Colin D. Pearce (Contact Author)

Clemson University - College of Business and Behavioral Science ( email )

Clemson, SC 29631
United States

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