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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Nineteenth President • 1877-81
Rutherford Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes

In one of the most bitterly contested elections in U.S. history, Hayes won the Presidency by only one electoral vote. Despite this onus and strong opposition in his own party, he carried out a program of moderate reform, particularly in the civil service. In terminating the role Federal troops had played in governing the South, he virtually ended Reconstruction and dampened the lingering hostility between the North and South. Before rising to the Presidency, he had served as a general in the Civil War, U.S. Representative, and Governor of Ohio. Throughout his life, but especially in retirement, he devoted himself to humanitarian causes.

Hayes, the youngest of five children, was born at Delaware, Ohio, in 1822. His father, a storekeeper and farmer, died before his birth. An uncle, Sardis Birchard, served as his guardian. After attending local schools, Hayes studied at academies in Norwalk, Ohio, and Middletown, Conn., and in 1842 graduated from Kenyon College, Ohio. He read law for a year at Columbus, and in 1845 completed Harvard Law School. He then took up practice at Lower Sandusky (present Fremont), Ohio.

In 1849 Hayes moved to Cincinnati. There, he gained attention as a criminal lawyer as well as a defender of fugitive slaves, and became active in the Whig Party. In 1852 he married Lucy Ware Webb, who would be the first wife of a President to be a college graduate. They were to have seven sons and a daughter.

After the demise of the Whig Party, in 1855 Hayes became a moderate Republican. He was willing to compromise on slavery to avoid war but sought to contain its extension. His first political office, held in the years 1858-61, was as city solicitor of Cincinnati.

Hayes and his cabinet
Hayes and his Cabinet. Left to right: Hayes, Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, Secretary of the Navy Richard W. Thompson, Attorney General Charles Devens, Secretary of State William M. Evarts, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, Secretary of War George W. McCrary, and Postmaster General David M. Key. (Photograph, 1879 or 1880, by G. W. Pach of a lithograph by an unknown artist, after a photograph by Mathew B. Brady, Library of Congress.)

When hostilities flared between the North and South, Hayes was appointed a major in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He was wounded several times and rose to the rank of brevet major general. While still in the Army, in 1864, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1865-67), where he unenthusiastically supported Radical Republican programs. He resigned in the latter year to run for Governor of Ohio.

Lucy Hayes
Lucy Hayes

Between 1868 and 1872 Hayes served two terms as Governor. In the latter year, he tried for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but failed to obtain it. The next year, he moved back to Fremont, and took up residence at Spiegel Grove estate. He was reelected Governor in 1875.

Hayes received the Republican Presidential nomination in 1876. A compromise candidate, he was acceptable because of his integrity, excellent war record, loyalty to the party, and moderate liberalism. He ran against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, Governor of New York. An unprecedented and intricate election dispute followed, during which both sides at first claimed victory. Tilden was clearly ahead in the popular vote, but lacked one electoral vote for victory; Hayes went to bed on election night believing he had been defeated. But the remaining votes were disputed and the electoral contest was far from over. For months, the Government and country were in a quandary. The complication was that a few States each submitted two different sets of electoral votes. Tilden needed to win only one vote; Hayes needed all the disputed ones to win.

To settle the impasse, Congress created a special commission of 15 members. It consisted of five from each House of Congress and five from the Supreme Court. The commission finally accepted the returns favoring Hayes by a partisan vote of 8 to 7. The issue was resolved only 2 days before the inauguration. To prevent a Democratic filibuster from frustrating the decision, the Republicans—though Hayes was apparently not personally involved—promised southern Democrats at least one Cabinet post, railroad subsidies, Federal patronage, and discontinuation of the role of Federal troops in Reconstruction.

Hayes and Chinese Minister
Hayes receives Chun Lan-pin, the first Chinese Minister to the United States, in the Blue Room of the White House in 1878. (Engraving, in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1878, Library of Congress.)

Whatever Hayes' part in the affair, this "bargain" created special difficulties for him. For one thing, though he insisted on merit in his Cabinet appointments and designated some highly competent individuals representing diverse factions, he did choose an ex-Confederate. This not only raised the question of a "bargain," but also infuriated many Republicans.

Secondly, Hayes almost immediately withdrew troops from the two Southern States where they remained, after obtaining promises from the would-be Democratic governments that they would protect the constitutional privileges of all citizens. He justified this action on the grounds that no State governments could be legally maintained in power by force of arms. Yet he also apparently believed—mistakenly—that this step offered the hope that the Republicans could make gains in the South by attracting white southerners, especially businessmen and conservatives.

Hayes' power was sapped not only by the circumstances of his election and charges of his participation in the "bargain," but also by his pledge, made in advance of his election, to serve only one term. Because of his determination not to relinquish to Congress any of his prerogatives, he clashed repeatedly with members of his own divided party on appointment matters and with the resurgent Democrats on Presidential authority to deploy Federal troops in supervision of elections. The Democrats, during the first half of his term, controlled the lower House of Congress; during the last half, both Houses.

Hayes and Native Americans
Hayes meets with Indian chiefs in the White House. (Engraving, probably by T. De Holstrup, after a drawing by W. M. Rouzee, in Harper's Weekly, Jan. 22, 1881, Library of Congress.)

Nevertheless, Hayes managed to effect a modest reform program that possibly was at least partially motivated by a desire to counter the Stalwart-Radical element in his own party, which dubbed Hayes' supporters as "Half-Breeds." His major point of focus was the civil service. In the most famous episode of his crusade, during which he freed various jobs from partisan control and struggled bitterly with his own party, he removed Chester A. Arthur from the collectorship of customs at New York City. He was unable, however, to obtain the creation of a Civil Service Commission.

A fiscal conservative, Hayes was a foe of inflationary policies—in a day when much of the public clamored for the free coinage of silver and the proliferation of paper money. The Bland-Allison Act (1878), which permitted the limited coinage of silver, passed only over his veto.

Hayes faced other serious problems. The first great national strikes occurred during his administration. In the summer of 1877, for the third time in as many years, the railroads slashed wages. Strikes and riots ensued. Even though Hayes sympathized with the plight of the workers, he sent Federal troops to restore order in certain areas.


Spiegel Grove
"Corn Rigs," or Anderson House

In 1879, despite vehement opposition in California, where Chinese labor forced down wages, Hayes vetoed a congressional bill that prohibited Chinese immigration. He contended it violated treaty obligations. Later, however, he obtained a modification of the treaty allowing the United States to restrict immigration. Other diplomatic activities were limited during the Hayes administration, though Hayes did arbitrate a boundary dispute between Argentina and Paraguay.

In 1881 Hayes returned to Spiegel Grove. Except for a visit to Bermuda, frequent speaking tours, and trips to Civil War reunions, he dwelt there until his death in 1893. Writing extensively and making many public addresses, he continued active in a variety of humanitarian causes, especially black education and prison reform. He came to view with alarm the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and grew closer to the common people.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004