Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse

President #19, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #33

He’s very big in Paraguay

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was, by all accounts, an intelligent and honest man who made his way to the White House in the most controversial fashion of any President until George W. Bush. Despite his personal integrity, his reputation from historians has taken a beating.

Hayes is viewed as the man who gave up on the idea of Federal enforcement of civil rights for blacks in the South for a period that lasted past World War II. He accomplished little in his one term as he faced a Congress that was hostile toward him. That was just the members of his own party. The Democrats in Congress hated him more.

Hans L. Trefousse, one of the foremost experts on the Reconstruction Era, tries to do his part to rehabilitate Hayes’ image. However, Trefousse did a better job making Andrew Johnson look like a racist monster, than he does in making Rutherford Hayes look like an underappreciated Chief Executive.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born on October 4, 1822 in Delaware. Delaware, Ohio, that is. His father died before he was born. (Three presidents were born after their fathers had died: Andrew Jackson, Hayes, and Bill Clinton.) Hayes’ uncle, Sardis Birchard, helped raise young Rutherford along with his mother, Sophia.

From an early age, Sardis Birchard exposed to young Rutherford to classic works of literature and taught him Latin and Greek. Hayes graduated from Kenyon College in 1842, and later would attend Harvard Law School. Hayes returned home to Ohio and started a law practice in Cincinnati.

In 1852, Hayes married Lucy Webb, who was the love of his life. The two of them had eight children together and would be married for 37 years. Lucy had graduated from what is now Ohio Wesleyan University, and would be the first First Lady to have a college degree.

Hayes’ law practice was successful and he became well known in political circles. When the Republican Party began in 1856, Hayes joined it immediately. Already leaning toward the side of abolition, Lucy’s strong religious beliefs pushed Rutherford firmly into that camp.

When the Civil War began, Hayes signed up for the Army. Hayes took command of a group of Northern Ohio volunteers, and, after a lot of reading up on military affairs, became a respected commander in the field. In the early part of the war, Hayes saw action in West Virginia. He was wounded in a battle that was a preliminary to the bloodbath of Antietam (about 22,000 people died on one day in that battle, the most casualties on any one day in U.S. history.)

Hayes returned to the battlefield in December of 1862 and was now a Brigadier General. Another future President, William McKinley, was under Hayes’ command.

Even before Hayes left the Army, the voters of Ohio elected him to the House of Representatives. He finally took office in December of 1865. Hayes would be a strong supporter of Civil Rights and a vehement opponent of President Andrew Johnson. Hayes resigned his seat in July of 1867 to run for governor of Ohio.

Hayes barely won the election as governor, but the Democrats controlled both houses of the Ohio Legislature. This would prove to be a problem as the governor of Ohio had no veto power at the time. With little to do the first two years except give speeches and make suggestions that no one heeded, Hayes became more involved with Republican politics at the national level.

In 1870, Hayes won a second two-year term, eking out a win by a little over 7500 votes. Hayes toyed with the idea of a Senate run in 1872, but decided against it, thinking it better to retire from politics with his reputation unsullied.

Hayes could not stay away. Or, perhaps, the Ohio Republican Party could not stay away from Hayes. In 1875, Hayes ran for a third term as Governor of Ohio. He won and took a Republican majority into both houses of the Legislature with him. Hayes was now discussed as Presidential material.

For much of the American history, Ohio has been a popular place to find Presidential candidates. The state is both Midwest and East. It is both industrial and agricultural. And, it has always had a healthy number of electoral votes.

Maine Senator James Blaine was the favorite for the nomination going into the Republican Convention. Cincinnati would be the site.

Blaine was well-known, but he had his enemies within the party. The anti-Blaine forces managed to keep the “plumed knight of the Senate” (as some called Blaine) from ever gaining a majority of the delegates. On the seventh ballot, the anti-Blaine forces coalesced around Hayes and got him the nomination. William Wheeler of New York was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Samuel Tilden for President and Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks for Vice President.

1876 was expected to be a Democratic year. Tilden was known as an honest, reform-minded candidate. The country was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis. The Republicans had held a 199-88 majority in the House in 1873. After the 1875 election, the Democrats held a 182-103 majority.

Hayes did not expect to win and there was not much he could do personally to help himself. 1876 was still a time when it was considered unseemly for candidates to personally go out and campaign. It would all be a matter of which party could find ways to get as many people to the polls. Or, in the case of the Democrats in the South, how many black voters they could keep away through intimidation or legal shenanigans.

When the results came out on Election Day, there was no clear winner. The New York Times (then a distinctly Republican leaning publication) reported the results as 184 electoral votes for Tilden and 181 for Hayes. 185 was the magic number. There was one state that had not yet been decided. It was … wait for it … Florida! (Florida had just four electoral votes in that era.)

But, the 181 total for Hayes was not entirely clear. Aside from Florida not reporting, there were conflicting returns from Louisiana and South Carolina. Also, there was one elector in Oregon that was being contested. The New York Times had already given Louisiana, South Carolina, and the lone vote from Oregon to Hayes. However, nobody knew which set of returns was correct. Tilden was going to prevail in the popular vote regardless.

In the end, all the disputed states ended up sending in TWO sets of electoral ballots. If Congress would count the Democratic votes (and not even all of them), Tilden would win. If Congress counted all the Republican votes, Hayes would win.

The Constitution stipulates that electoral votes are to be counted in front of a joint session of Congress with the President of the Senate presiding. But, there was no provision to handle a disputed set of returns. The House was in control of the Democrats and the Senate was controlled by Republicans. The President of the Senate was Republican Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, who was the President Pro Tem. (Vice President Henry Wilson had passed away in 1874.)

There were negotiations back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans about how to count the votes. In January of 1877, a joint committee recommended the establishment of special panel to look at the disputed returns. It would consist of 15 people, five from the Senate, five from the House, and five from the Supreme Court. The Senators would be three Republicans and two Democrats and the Representatives would be three Democrats and two Republicans. The Supreme Court justices would hold the balance as there would be two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent, David Davis.

Davis was from Illinois. The legislature there, controlled by Democrats, tried to buy off Davis by electing him to a vacant Senate seat for Illinois. Davis responded to this by resigning his seat on the Supreme Court. The Democrats had to settle for a Republican justice, Joseph Bradley. Democrats thought Bradley was the least partisan member of the Supreme Court left to choose.

As Congress counted the votes, (I’ve watched the process on C-SPAN and it is scintillating action), when the first set of disputed results came up, Florida’s, the matter was referred to the special Electoral Commission (as it was so called). The Commission voted along partisan lines 8-7 to approve the Republican returns. This was the case in all the disputed results. The count was not finished until 4:10 a.m. on March 2, 1877, less than two full days before the new President would be inaugurated. (Congress would quickly get to work to pass a new law to handle situations like this. It took only 10 years and basically stated that whichever set of returns is approved by the governor of a state counts.)

Outgoing President Grant had Hayes secretly sworn in as President in the White House on March 3. Since March 4 was a Sunday, the public ceremony would not be until March 5. Grant did not wish to risk Democrats disrupting the swearing in or getting some sort of injunction to prevent it.

Hayes, who did not like the way the matter was handled, nevertheless accepted the result. He believed that if the Southern Democrats had not intimidated black voters and illegally suppressed the turnout, he would have won easily. But, Hayes was branded “His Fraudulency” and “Old 8 to 7″ in the press.

One of the first fallouts from the election was the removal of Federal troops from Louisiana, which allowed the Democrats to reclaim the political machinery of the state. The military reconstruction of the South was over. Any hope that African Americans had in those states of achieving any semblance of equality would have to be deferred for generations.

Hayes also named a Southerner to his Cabinet. David Key of Tennessee became Postmaster General. Historians still dispute if these two events were part of a deal struck by the Republicans to allow the election of Hayes. Trefousse believes that the true victor of the 1876 election will never be known. There was too much corruption on both sides.

The first two years for Hayes were extremely rocky. Democrats wanted to hold hearings into the election results, with the possible aim of reversing the result. The Republican in charge of counting the votes in Louisiana was prosecuted for fraud. Hayes remarked that he felt that the man would not have charged with any crime if he had just said that the Democrats had won.

Hayes tried to take on the cause of civil service reform as one of his first tasks. The first Federal job Hayes went after was Collector of the Port of New York. The man in charge there was Chester Arthur, an ally of powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who wanted no part of civil service reform.

Following the recommendations of a report by a commission looking into the subject, Hayes ordered Arthur and two other Conkling allies to resign. All three men refused to resign, so Hayes suspended them. Theodore Roosevelt, father of the future President, replaced Arthur. Fewer than six months on the job, Hayes had managed to alienate himself from one of the most powerful men in his own party in Conkling.

While the tempest over the Port of New York was brewing, Hayes faced another major domestic problem: railroad strikes. In July, railroad workers throughout the country went on strike. In some areas, miners joined the strike. Riots sprung up throughout the country. Hayes called in Federal troops to restore order, and, ultimately, get the trains running again.

Before Hayes sent his annual message to Congress, he had already used Federal force to support corporate interests, but withheld Federal force to uphold civil rights. These two actions probably accounted for his recent drop in historians’ rankings of Presidents.

Rutherford and Lucy Hayes did manage to make the White House one of the livelier places in Washington for social gatherings, despite the fact that Lucy did not allow alcohol to be served in her home. She was dubbed “Lemonade Lucy.” The Hayes family were not prudes. They just did not drink alcohol.

In 1878, Argentina and Paraguay turned to Hayes to arbitrate a dispute between the two countries over the Gran Chaco region that bordered the two countries. Paraguay had been at war from 1864 through 1870 against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. The conflict was known as the War of the Triple Alliance. Paraguay suffered staggering losses in the conflict, with about 300,000 people (including civilians) killed. It is estimated that 90% of all adult males in Paraguay died in the war.

An area between two rivers, the Rio Verde and the Rio Pilcomayo was still in dispute between Argentina and Paraguay. Hayes decided to give the territory to Paraguay. The reason for this decision is still unclear. But, Paraguay was so pleased with the decision that a town was named in honor of Hayes, called Villa Hayes, and later an entire department (province) of Paraguay was named Presidente Hayes.

Hayes accomplished little else in office to overcome the controversy that surrounded his election. He had already promised before the election not to run for a second term. Hayes was a lame duck with the stain of fraud hanging over him. It was not a recipe for success.

Trefousse wants to make the point that Hayes was not a dishonest man. And, by all accounts, Hayes was one of the more honorable politicians around in one of the most corrupt eras in American politics. However, Hayes did not fully exercise all the powers of the Presidency. Perhaps he could not so because of political realities.

Hayes did leave office with the United States in better shape than he found it. The economic crisis of the Panic of 1873 had dissipated and Hayes had refused to solve the problem by simply printing more money. The United States had become a more important player on the world stage.

But, if you were a black citizen in the South, your situation would have gotten worse. The Federal government was not in the civil rights business anymore.

Hayes spent his retirement back in Ohio. He served on the Board of Trustees for Ohio State University, which opened when he was governor. He also spent time defending his record as President and his method of election. Hayes loved to point out that the Democratic Party did not renominate Tilden for the Presidency. (Nor would the Democrats renominate Al Gore in 2004.)

Rutherford Hayes passed away on January 17, 1893 in Fremont, Ohio, just six months after his wife Lucy passed away. His last words expressed happiness over going to rejoin her.

Overall, Rutherford Hayes was a good man who drew a bad hand as President. He was thrust into a political world seething with corruption, racial violence, and economic turmoil. Trefousse feels that Hayes did not get his due. Hayes may not have wanted to pull Federal troops from protecting blacks in the South, but, he had little choice in the matter. Nevertheless, the fact remains that under Hayes much of the gains in civil rights for African Americans gained from the Civil War disappeared for about 90 years.

At least the Election of 1876 and the trauma that the country went through ensured that the United States would never have to suffer from a questionable election result ever again. Or so I thought in 1999.

Other stuff: Rutherford Hayes’ birthplace in Delaware, Ohio was demolished in the 19th Century. He is buried in Fremont, Ohio. His grave is on the site of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. The library on site has an extensive genealogical collection. Hayes was an avid genealogist himself.

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4 Responses

  1. Pretty tough to be blamed for 90 years hence, but I guess once the troops were pulled out the politics of putting them back would have been difficult. Garfield was certainly in no position to do it.

  2. In sporcle’s name the US Presidents, Hayes is the one guessed the least, at around 53%

  3. Then, again, Obama at 68.9% barely beats out Polk at 68%.

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