Pre-service occupations: lawyer, governor, U.S. representative, general
Key events during his administration: end of Reconstruction (1877), “Great Railroad Strike” (1877), resumption of specie payments (1879), Nez Perce campaign (1877)
Presidential rating: Mildly successful and mixed on popularity
Rutherford B. Hayes seems like one of those “footnote” presidents—an also-ran. Indeed, Hayes’ ascendancy in 1876 marks the string of presidents until Teddy Roosevelt whom most people today are hard-pressed to put in the correct order, much less even name.
Rutherford “Rud” Hayes even enjoyed an ever-so-brief moment in the spotlight seven years ago during the Florida recount, because his own election to president involved disputed ballots and the Democrat candidate (Tilden) winning the popular vote while losing the electoral vote. Then he faded from memory again. In what’s becoming a usual refrain in these reports on the presidents, that’s a shame.
Historians of the Gilded Age often gloss over, speed through or grossly distort the presidents of this era, and Hayes is no exception. Hayes was a decent president; he faced one tremendous crisis in his term—the great strikes of 1877—but his actions are usually misunderstood or, worse, misreported, and his presidency is forgotten (save for the above-mentioned election). But his president shouldn’t be overlooked, because Hayes was a solid and respectable president during a time when the great passions of the previous decades had finally cooled. He stayed true to the Constitution and fought back several attempts by the Democratic-controlled Congress to usurp executive authority, and he made sure that his predecessor’s hard money policy became law, thereby greatly strengthening the nation’s economy.
“Rud” Hayes took office amid cries of fraud. Indeed, the opposition press even addressed him as “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.” Hayes took office amid a nation still struggling economically and weary from the last two decades of turmoil. Reconstruction was ending; race was fading as an issue while the nation turned its attention to labor versus capital and remaining campaigns in and settling of the West. As president, Hayes was able to steer the nation through these challenges with a quiet dignity. He wasn’t always successful in his endeavors, as we shall see, but overall, his presidency was very respectable.
Rud Hayes had one of the more interesting upbringings. At first a sickly child whose survival was questioned, Hayes developed into a rigorous young man. He loved to learn and equally loved to hear loquacious and educated men speak. He joined a prominent social club, the Cincinnati Literary Club, which included Salmon P. Chase, who would be Lincoln’s treasury secretary and later chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Not exactly a young Lochinvar, young Rud Hayes nevertheless won the hand of the lovely Lucy Ware Webb in 1852. Lucy would prove to be one of the most popular first ladies ever. Together, they had six children who lived to adulthood.
Hayes studied law, graduated from Harvard Law and eventually opened a practice in Cincinnati. Politics eventually beckoned and he entered public service in Cincinnati, but the war put a temporary stop to further ambitions on that front.
Soldier for the Union
Rutherford Hayes volunteered his services to Ohio shortly after the war began. He was made an officer in the 23rd Ohio, a regiment Hayes retained close to his heart the rest of his life. Much of his war career was spent in western (soon West) Virginia, where he was wounded four times.
Hayes loathed being assigned away from command situations, as happened when he was made a regimental judge advocate. He much preferred being in charge than being one of many.
He saw some action during the early fighting in western Virginia, but his first huge battle didn’t come until South Mountain, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 1862, where he was wounded. Made a colonel, Hayes commanded a brigade at year’s end and fought Confederate raiders, including John Hunt Morgan on the latter’s raid into Ohio in 1863. The following year, Hayes fought under George Crook at the vicious fight at Cloyd’s Mountain in West Virginia. Hayes then took part in Phil Sheridan’s subjugation of the Shenandoah Valley, fighting at Opequon Creek, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. He took three more wounds and lost four horses. Hayes finished the war a brevet major general.
During the campaigns of 1861-62, Hayes earned a reputation for fairness, mildness and the ability to get along with the most difficult officers, especially his commander. His wife, Lucy, often took a harsher and more critical view of President Lincoln and commanders in the field than did Hayes, who always counseled his wife to have patience and trust that things would work out. Lucy didn’t like how Lincoln seemed to toss aside Generals Fremont and Pope (see essay on Lincoln). She was a pure abolitionist who had convinced her husband of the cause. But Hayes, Trefousse writes, was “more farsighted than many of his contemporaries” when it came to judging situations and character (p.24), and his letters to Lucy reveal his foresight and grasp of events in anticipation of official developments. It was a trait that usually served him well as president.
Congressman and governor
In 1864, Hayes’ home district elected him to Congress. Hayes refused to leave his command to campaign for the office, saying that no officer fit for duty should leave his post to electioneer for Congress—and one who did “ought to be scalped.” He won easily and didn’t have to worry about leaving the Army because he wouldn’t have to take his seat until December 1865.
At first, Hayes felt comfortable with President Johnson. But like many moderate Republicans, Hayes reluctantly broke with the president when it became clear they were moving in two different directions. He became convinced of the rightness and justness of the Radical Republican policy in the South, and during one speech in Ohio, said there were two Reconstruction policies: Lincoln’s and Jefferson Davis’. Obviously, he placed President Johnson’s with the latter.
Midway through his second term in Congress, Hayes resigned to campaign for Ohio governor. Congress wasn’t where his ambitions lay, anyway. Even though Ohio’s governor had limited executive authority, it was a position of authority and more to Hayes’s liking. He hemmed and hawed properly then accepted the nomination—and went out to fight a difficult campaign.
Ohio was the home to Oberlin College, where white and black students studied together as equals, but the state as a whole did not want equal rights. The Republican Party ran on a plank of an equal rights amendment to Ohio’s constitution, which the Democrats strongly opposed. Republicans fared badly in the state’s ballots that fall, as the amendment was soundly defeated, a Democrat was elected to Hayes’ seat, the Democrats controlled the state house—but Hayes squeaked by and won the governor’s mansion, taking office in early 1868.
Ohio’s governor during that time didn’t have much power as he didn’t even have veto authority. Yet Hayes was popular enough to serve two non-consecutive terms. He had decided to quit political office at the end of the first term, in 1872, but as he continued to follow politics closely, he got swept in again and won a second term in 1876.
This victory in a key presidential state made him a contender to succeed Grant that year.
The disputed election—“Rutherfraud” Hayes
By 1876, the Republican Party was exhausted. The turmoil of the last 12 years had spent the party, especially Reconstruction and the “waving of the bloody shirt” over outrages in the South against blacks and Republican supporters. Grant’s handling of scandals didn’t help matters much either, nor his determination to fight for Reconstruction when the party was looking to end it. Democrats were resurgent in the South as the states were “redeemed” with white-controlled governments. Northern attentions were focused more on westward expansion, labor and economic concerns, Indian wars, and so on.
The detritus of the Civil War was fading. The party needed a fresh start. Many new faces—at least new to presidential politics—stepped forward in hopes of getting a nomination that summer. Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden of New York, a strong contender who had successfully fought the corruption of “Boss” Tweed’s Tammany Hall ring.
The Republican favorite at first was James G. Blaine of Maine—who we’ll hear from again through the next several administrations—but after coming close on several ballots, finally lost to Hayes. Why Hayes? He was considered a safer choice than Blaine, who was thought damaged by false charges of corruption involving railroad bonds. Even though cleared of the charges, enough Republicans thought a candidate with the sting of a corruption charge versus a candidate who won his stripes fighting corruption was a deal-breaker. So, Hayes was nominated. His running mate was William Wheeler, of whom Hayes confessed, “I’m sorry, but who is Wheeler?”
This was still the era when candidates didn’t stump for themselves, so Hayes remained in Cincinnati, performing his duties as governor, while the campaigns whirled on. Democrats ran on Republican corruption, while Republicans countered by saying that “Not every Democrat was a rebel, but every rebel was a Democrat.”
The election was close—so close that Hayes retired on election day believing he had lost. Tilden commanded a popular majority, and it seemed he had won the electoral vote. He started going about his business the next day until he received notice that some states were still in dispute.
The ballots in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were a mess. The governors of those states had certified the ballots—the governors recognized b y the federal government, that is. Florida’s Democratic governor-elect and Louisiana’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate signed their own certificates. The Tilden electors from South Carolina merely sent them to Washington with no certification, claiming their man had won. There were also bad ballots, deliberate fraud on ballots and other problems.
A major crisis was now at hand. This was far beyond the first major disputed election, that of 1824 when the race between John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and William Crawford was thrown to the House. With outgoing President Grant’s full support, the Congress formed the 15-member Electoral Commission to settle the matter. Members would be three Republican senators and two Democrat senators (the Republicans controlled the Senate), two Republican representatives and three Democrat representatives (the Democrats controlled the House), and five Supreme Court justices (two from each party). Most justices were Republicans, so by common accord, the most impartial justice was selected to be the fifth member.
The commission formed and met in late January, with strong counsel representing each candidate. They reviewed the dual sets of returns from the three states, and decided that they would not review ballots beyond those that were prima facie lawful (meaning they wouldn’t create any new standards for counting votes). In the end, the impartial justice sided with the seven Republican members, and awarded the disputed electoral ballots to Hayes, giving him the 185-184 victory. Only the 2000 election would be closer.
In 1878, Democrats in Congress attempted to embarrass Hayes by proving Republicans committed fraud during the election—and thereby strengthening their hand in 1880. Their Potter committee, however, backfired, when it was forced to examine actual fraud committed by Tilden’s nephew, who attempted to bribe officials in the South. Their grandstanding failed to destroy its intended target—the Republican Party—but instead strengthened Hayes’ stature and damaged Tilden too badly for him to be a contender again. * (See Resources for Treffousse’s mistaken conclusions of 1876 vs. 2000.)
The Hayes cabinet
Once inaugurated, Hayes set about asserting his independence. He didn’t care much for the game of awarding political offices to party men simply because they were “due” or because they “deserved” it. Nor did he like making appointments to satisfy wings of the party.
Like Grant (though Hayes’s biographers never make this point), Hayes appointed whom he wanted without consulting party leaders. His choices were good and strong, and some biographers have hailed his cabinet as the best post-Lincoln one for the remainder of the century. There is some truth to that sentiment, in that the men served ably and honorably, and many went on to greater success and fame.
For example, to State, that most crucial of posts, Hayes named William Evarts, who had represented the president during the election crisis. Evarts had enjoyed an interesting career up to that point: he served as Johnson’s chief counsel during the impeachment mess, then Johnson’s final attorney general; he later served as point man for Grant and Hamilton Fish’s Alabama claims arbitration. Evarts’ term at State would be solid; he would later serve in the Senate and would lead the fundraising drive for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal in 1881.
At Treasury, Hayes selected his fellow from the Buckeye state, John Sherman. The brother of the famed general was a hard-money man like the president. Sherman would gain greater fame as the architect of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.
At Interior, Hayes appointed the fiery Carl Schurz, a liberal (old sense) Republican who had been instrumental in creating the liberal Republican/Democrat alliance for 1872 to defeat Grant. Schurz had opposed placing the Indian Bureau under the War Department (an idea of Grant’s that Grant abandoned as president). When placed in charge of Interior, Schurz would attack the corruption in that department with a zeal that had long been needed. More on that later.
Meanwhile, party leaders, such as Maine’s James G. Blaine, were dismayed at Hayes’ choices, particularly because they had not been consulted—and many who wanted those choice posts were mad, as had happened with Grant.
It wasn’t a good beginning for the president, especially considering half the nation’s voters initially considered him to be a fraud—but ruffled feathers ignore the fact that he made good choices.
1877: Reconstruction swan song
Supposedly—I use that word deliberately—the resolution of the election of 1876 included a deal whereby Democrats would acquiesce to President Hayes and forget about “President” Tilden in exchange for the removal of Federal troops from the South (meaning, they would no longer protect the two remaining Republican governments in South Carolina and Louisiana, and would decamp from the state houses and return to their forts).
But that’s not quite what happened. The above paragraph is the informal “Compromise of 1877,” but President Hayes, if he actually felt beholden to it, took his time. Chief among his concerns was the seeming abandonment of blacks and Republican government in the South. What he wanted was assurances from the Democratic governors that black and non-Redeemer whites rights would be respected and upheld. Hayes got those assurances during meetings at the White House—and the troops were withdrawn—but they proved disingenuous, to put it kindly.
At first, the president believed his Southern policy was a success and a new political alignment and racial harmony was in the making. Crowds of well-wishers of blacks and whites who greeted him while on a tour of the South in later 1877 convinced him of the correctness of his policy—but also made him succumb to wishful thinking. Hayes, a good man, was being snowballed by Redeemers and white supremacists that had no intention of adhering to his policy or any of the federal laws favorable to black citizens. Hayes biographer Ari Hoogenboom explains:
“He believed that the war wounds had been healed, that white southerners had accepted the Reconstruction amendments safeguarding black lives, rights, and property, and that conservative Democrats would ignore color and sectional lines in politics and would move over to the Republican Party.So, the “redeemed” South meant not only the end of Reconstruction but threatened to be the end of everything gained since 1865. And the 1878 elections proved just how misplaced Hayes’ optimism was concerning his southern policy. Hayes, to his credit, took up the cause of civil rights and would fight the Democratic-controlled Congress over enforcement of the hard-won results of the Civil War. More on that later.
Hayes was wrong. The war wounds were not healed, white southerners had applauded the amendments because they thought it likely that they would be neither enforced nor obeyed, and conservative Democrats did not join the Republican party, which steadily shrank until its members were a mere handful of officeholders. A more cynical person than Hayes would not have expected southerners to be rapidly converted to civil and political rights for black. He failed to perceive the pervasiveness and the viciousness of racial prejudice in southern politics and society…” (Hoogenboom, p. 70)
1877: The Great Strike
The Panic that started in 1873 stretched into Hayes’ term. Grant’s Resumption Act, which Hayes supported and effectively ended the depression, wouldn’t take effect for two more years. (More on that later.) During the summer of Hayes’ first year, massive strikes gripped first the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in West Virginia and then many more industries nationwide.
Railroads dealt with the hard economy through cutting costs. Some lines pooled their freight hauling; some fired workers; most lines decided to reduce wages, usually by 10%. Some lines’ employees took the cut in their already low pay in stride, because they were still employed. Others, already smarting from previous wage cuts, couldn’t take it any more. In West Virginia, the trouble began.
Strikers brought rail traffic to a halt in many centers, including Chicago, East St. Louis, Decatur, Ill., and half a dozen other places. Strikers—who were soon outnumbered by general mobs—police, “vigilantes” and finally militia clashed in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The militia in Pittsburgh killed 20 and wounded 29; the strikers fought back harder and torched 39 buildings, more than 100 steam engines and more than 1,200 pieces of rolling stock. More violence erupted between mobs and police in Chicago. The violence—and the strikes—finally subsided after a month.
Hayes biographer Ari Hoogenboom notes that the great strike was the closest America ever came to a nationwide work stoppage, and it was also testament to the fact that by 1877, the United States economy had truly become national. Hoogenboom also notes that Hayes examined the situation carefully, and, mindful of how federal troops had been used in civilian situations during the past 12 years, charted a constitutionally correct course.
Hayes had dealt with strikers as Ohio’s governor, and as president he would follow exactly the same course: he said that people had the right to work and that property owners had the right to the use and possession of their property, and that he would use force if necessary to keep the peace (and nothing more). The president was most concerned with avoiding using federal soldiers to keep the railroads running, because the strikers kept their heads and allowed passenger trains, with the all-important mail, to keep running. They only blocked freight trains and battled strikebreakers, police and militia attempting to move them along. Interfering with the mail would have been a federal matter; stopping freight trains, however, was not. So, Hayes decided that the best course would be to use U.S. Marines and Army regulars to protect federal property, and, if asked properly by state governors, to keep the peace (i.e., break riots). Hayes refused to order the military to run the railroads.
The Wikipedia entry on Hayes (as of Oct. 19, 2007) claims “Hayes called in federal troops, who, for the first time in U.S. history, fired on the striking workers, killing over 70.” Rubbish! The only soldiers who fired on strikers were the various states’ National Guard units. Marines and soldiers arrived to maintain the peace and often too late to break up a fight. That’s according to both Hoogenboom and Trefousse. Historians who disparage the Gilded Age look down on Hayes as if he sided with the railroads against the strikers, but again, he did no such thing. Hayes reflected later in his diary that
“The strikes have been put down by force; but now for the real remedy. Can’t something be done by education of the strikers, by judicious control of the capitalists, by wise general policy to end or diminish the evil?” (Trefousse, p.95; emphasis in original)
The Nez Perce campaign, the Poncas and Indian Bureau reform
One of the most dramatic incidents that occurred during Hayes’ term was the Nez Perce campaign of 1877. Chief Joseph and several chiefs fought one of the most brilliant fighting retreats in modern history, leading 800 Nez Perce through 13 battles and 1,700 miles through Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Montana and finally Idaho, where they finally surrendered. The best brief chronicle of the events can be found in Alvin Josephy Jr.’s The Patriot Chiefs.
Hayes’ role in this campaign was negligible, but as president he sought to continue Grant’s reform of the corrupt Interior Department, including the Indian Bureau, which was one of the main sore points of contention between settlers and Indians on the plains and western reaches. Grant’s reforms hadn’t been perfect—soreness and some indecision had lead to the Nez Perce dissatisfaction and subsequent enforced reservation life—but they had been a strong step in the right direction. The reforms under Hayes and Interior Secretary Schurz were better.
With the single-mindedness that had made him a dangerous political enemy—or powerful friend—Schurz uncovered fraud, deception and corruption inside the bureau and out in the field. The new Hays/Schruz reforms included more funding for schools on reservations (Congress approved) and, for the first time, Indian police officers on reservations. The concept was expanded under President Arthur to include the appointment of Indian judges. Hoogenboom writes that by “mixing Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence with Native American practices, policemen and judges were able to keep order on reservations, and they proved effective agents of acculturation.” (p.162-163)
President Hayes earns a strong mark for his reforms, and for his handling of an unfortunate episode that happened on his watch. The land of the Poncas tribe in Nebraska was mistakenly given to some Sioux, and the Poncas were removed to the Oklahoma territory in a rather harsh journey. The new land was unacceptable, and new land was found, but many Poncas wanted to return home. The affair grew uglier—but not bloody—and eventually lead to an extraordinary personal apology from the president himself.
“As the chief executive at the time when the wrong was consummated, I am deeply sensible that enough of the responsibility for that wrong justly attaches to me to make it my particular duty and earnest desire to do all that I can give to these injured people that measure of redress which is
required alike by justice and by humanity.” (Trefousse, p.124)
Civil service reform
The president also busied himself with another kind of reform: The civil service was badly in need of a makeover. Grant’s attempts had lead to false cries of corruption from the very crusaders for reform. Hayes took up the challenge, and this occupied much of the attention of his administration.
Civil service reform was a complicated matter. Political parties expected a share of the government pie in terms of appointments to the thousands of lucrative posts, such as postmasters and ports collectors. For example, in return for supporting a successful candidate for Congress—or even president—a powerful party operative had every reasonable reason to expect some of the appointment largess to come his way for his contacts. Inevitably, this often allowed incompetent or immoral (or both) men to hold offices.
The spoils system was the most serious obstacle to getting rid of corruption in civil service, because it let members of Congress interfere with the appointments process—which was an executive function, not a legislative one. Hayes and Schurz sought to replace the spoils system with a merit system, and prevent officeholders from participating in political activities—thus removing undue political influence. It was fine in theory. But in practice? Hayes moved cautiously, which angered reformers who wanted the reform Now! and had long-since grown impatient with Republican reform efforts. But he also angered party leaders such as New York’s Roscoe Conkling, who chaffed at even mild efforts at changing the lucrative spoils system.
The president’s cautious approach brought much criticism—and a showdown over the New York Customhouse (which collected 70 percent of U.S. customs revenue), run by Conkling patron Chester A. Arthur. Hayes tried to remove Arthur and another man from the Boston customs house and replace them with his own appointments (made in consultation with, ironically, spoilsmen), but Congress defeated them in late 1877.
Hoogenboom illuminates this early Hayes defeat by describing the politicians as “disappointed” and the reformers as “peeved” and the administration’s reform credibility as “eroded.” (p.134-135) Hayes was a little inconsistent, because he did use patronage to his effect when it served him—particularly in the South.
Reformers would remain peeved throughout Hayes’ term and unhappy with what they considered the administration’s retreat and inconsistencies. Even though he did make decent steps, Hayes wouldn’t be able to complete reforming the civil service an passed it to his successor Garfield, who unwillingly became the symbol of reform by his death. (It’s also funny that Hayes aimed to kick Arthur out of office, connected as he was with the corrupt New York machine (though not corrupt himself), only to sit in the same seat as Hayes a few years later—and winning praise as a great civil service reformer.)
Hayes versus Congress
As stated earlier, President Hayes fought hard against a Congress determined to undo the progress made on civil rights since the Civil War. If Lincoln started the second American revolution and Grant won and sustained that victory, Hayes is one of the many unsung presidents who helped sustain it.
Hayes was a weakened president by the end of 1877 through the combination of his cabinet appointments, civil service reform and the end of Reconstruction. Democrats in Congress realized that if they were to take complete control in the South and regain the White House in 1880, federal oversight of Congressional elections needed to be eliminated. Thanks to the 1878 elections, in 1879, Hayes faced a Democratic-controlled Congress. But as that Congress was about to learn, it wasn’t veto-proof, and “his Fraudulency” was no pushover. Rud Hayes was a mild man, but when his dander was up, he was as rigid as steel.
First, the outgoing 45th Congress failed to appropriate money for the federal government when it adjourned in March (the Republican-controlled Senate had refused to go along with the Democrat scheme to prevent enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, so no funding was approved). President Hayes called the incoming congress into immediate session to get the appropriate funding.
The now-Democrat-controlled House and Senate tried four times to pass bills aimed at removing any type of federal say in the South. Each time, Hayes vetoed the bills. First they tried prohibiting military protection at federal elections, which Hayes declared unconstitutional because it denied the federal government the right to enforce its laws. Then they passed another appropriations bill with riders repealing parts of the Enforcement Acts pertaining to supervisors and marshals for elections. Hayes countered by saying that the aim was nothing more than to destroy federal control over congressional elections.
Then Congress attempted to deny compensation for federal officials at election time, and then denial of payment for marshals employed to protect polls.
Each time, Hayes vetoed the bill with a stern lecture on passing bills with unconstitutional (or unrelated) matters attached to them. With each veto, Hayes’ stature rose and the Democrats’ fell—and Hayes recovered much ground with his own party. Finally, in the summer, they gave him a bill he could sign, but sent a separate one that he once again vetoed. By this time, the Democrats were in total disarray, and well on their way to defeat in 1880.
Hayes was a hard-money man and had been long before he came to Washington. The nation had been off the gold standard since the Civil War, and the nation’s economy ran on government-backed gold coins, the greenbacks that the federal government began issuing during the war, and notes issued by national banks. Hayes’ predecessor had defeated an attempt to greatly expand paper currency, and supported a return to the gold standard (resumption of specie payments, meaning the greenbacks were redeemed with, or backed by, gold at face value). The Resumption Act was scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 1879.
President Hayes supported Grant’s sound economic policy and made it his own. Hoognboom explains that Hayes opposed inflation through the expansion of greenbacks in circulation and/or the substitution of a silver standard for the gold standard, and Hayes had attributed his 1875 gubernatorial victory to his hard money support (p. 93). Democrats, backers of a silver standard and some Republicans, however, attempted to undo the Resumption Act. The arguments were the same now as against Grant: expanding the money supply would relieve the economic hardships of the Panic.
Hayes, like Grant, strongly disagreed. Treasury Secretary Sherman (who had authored the Resumption Act in the Senate) built a gold reserve to prepare for 1879. The president, meanwhile, vetoed a veto-proof watered-down government silver purchase bill on the grounds that it didn’t reflect realistic commercial value. In other words, he didn’t object to silver coinage, just that it shouldn’t be put on the same level as gold-backed money. (Hoogenboom p.95 and Trefousse, p.101) ***
Hayes lost the battle over silver coinage, but won out over the inflation supporters when the year following resumption proved a spectacular success. In his subsequent speeches, Hayes usually took credit for the improved economy, and he does deserve a lot of credit by refusing to let Congress gut the Resumption Act. Hoogenboom writes:
“Above all, Hayes was determined that the nation remain on the gold standard, and he fought to eliminate any threat to it. Congress, viewing the currency, not as a question of faith and moral, but as one of politics and economics, was content to ignore that issue, especially since business was booming. But Hayes believed that his hard-money policies sustained that boom, and the continued circulation of greenback and silver dollars made him uneasy. For him, it was an eternal verity of both economic and moral law that gold was the proper base for a nation’s economic currency.” (p.100)
China and Mexico
President Hayes is not known for foreign policy, but two events merit mention.
The pre-war Nativist Party—later the American Party—was the first formal anti-immigration expression in American history. That party, which faded rather quickly, opposed Irish and Catholic and other “undesirable” immigrants from Europe.
In the West, the number of Chinese immigrants had been increasing—lured, as they were first by gold and then by the American dream just like their European counterparts. A Nativist streak had infected the West, particularly in California. The great strike touched the west coast and many Chinese (called Coolies) were murdered in racist attacks. Competition for jobs and cheap labor was usually the main cause.
Californians lead Congress in passing a law in 1879 specifically restricting immigration from China. President Hayes was under immense political pressure to sign the measure, but he decided it would be a bad move for America. The act would violate the Burlingame Treaty with China and could endanger American merchants and missionaries in the empire. So Hayes sent his veto to Congress, which was sustained, and the president received praise from outside of the West for upholding the ideals of the nation’s founding.
Hayes didn’t veto the bill for idealistic reasons, because he did agree with the Californians’ sentiments to some extent. He didn’t consider the Chinese as immigrants because they were mostly men, not families, and he actually worried about a propensity of aggression among whites against “lesser” (e.g., weaker) peoples. He believed limiting immigration from China would be better for both America and China.
Meanwhile, President Hayes and Secretary Evarts attempted to deal with Mexican bandits raiding across the border and hitting American ranchers. Mexico’s government—or lack thereof—had been unstable for at least half a century. When Hayes took office, Porfirio Diaz also assumed power in Mexico and would consolidate the country until his overthrow in 1911. Diaz would prove to be a strong leader, but of course in 1877 Hayes had no way of knowing this and assumed that Diaz was yet another in the long string of weak rulers unable to control the borders.
Hayes issued orders to General Ord letting U.S. troops pursue Mexican bandits across the border, a move that led to ridiculous charges by political opponents that the president and Secretary Evarts sought to take over northern Mexico.
The troops stayed. And by 1880, Diaz had gained control of his side of the border, and Hayes rescinded the cross-border pursuit orders. Subsequently, exports to Mexico increased.
Rud Hayes had brought a great dignity and calm to the White House—some said “restored it” after the Grant years, and it is true that there was absolutely no scandal connected with the Hayes administration, absent the 1876 election. Lucy Hayes was a bright and spirited host who eschewed liquor in the presidential mansion (it’s disputed whether she was called “Lemonade Lucy” during or after the White House years). The Hayes presidency was a bright spot, and if Hayes had wanted another term, he could have easily had it.
But he didn’t. He had pledged during his campaign to serve only one year—had even proposed a Constitutional amendment limiting the president to one six-year term (as was in the Confederate Constitution)—and was tired of the ardor of presidential life. Four years was enough.
Republicans gathered in Chicago to choose Hayes’ successor. U.S. Grant had been convinced to give a try for a third term and he seemed to be the favorite at first. But rivals James G. Blaine and John Sherman threw support behind dark horse candidate Rep. James Garfield. Grant and his fervent supporters backed down, and Hayes’ fellow Ohioan won the nomination. Garfield, with Chester A. Arthur in tow, went on to defeat Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in a close election.
Rutherford Hayes retired to his beloved Spiegel Grove estate in Ohio, where he continued to be involved in veterans’ affairs—as president, he had pressed for real veteran benefits—and other philanthropic activities. He had already been appointed to the Board of Trustees for Ohio State University, which he served until his death in January 1893.
Negative historical interpretations of the Gilded Age make it easy to overlook this honest and capable moderate president’s term. Like Grant, Hayes is another president bedeviled by self-anointed intellectuals such as Henry Adams, who sneered at Hayes as a “third-rate nonentity.”
Hayes’ use of executive power was careful and measured. Contrary to popular history, he did not send federal soldiers to break the 1877 strikes on behalf of railroads, but rather to keep the peace. He vetoed appropriations bills that were unconstitutional or included riders that were inappropriate and unconstitutional, and ultimately were designed to damage or undo lawful federal authority. His one major constitutional proposal, limiting the president to one six-year-term, anticipated the post-FDR 22nd amendment (one which I oppose as long as there’s not a proportionate one for Congress and the Court).
Hayes’ attempts to reform the civil service continued the actions begun by Grant, but much of the political establishment of both parties wasn’t too interested; reformers chaffed at his careful measures. Only his successor’s murder would bring the needed change.
His treatment of Indians was even better than Grant’s. Andrew Johnson had foreseen the need for change in direction; Grant had started the change that moved U.S. policy away from merely shoving Indians out of the way, and went so far as to treat many tribal leaders just short of heads of state. Hayes took it even further through Schurz’s fumigation of the Indian Bureau and Interior Department.
His foreign policy, while a minor aspect of his presidency, was measured and punctuated by his farsighted rejection of the anti-Chinese immigration act. His dealings with Mexico were also just.
It’s also interesting to note that Hayes traveled—a lot. During his four years in the White House, Hayes visited more places of the country than most of the other previous presidents combined. He was also the first sitting president to visit the west coast.
It’s fair to label Rutherford Hayes a somewhat successful president, because he accomplished much of what he set out to do. Hayes’ only policy that can be labeled a failure was his Southern policy; while well intentioned, the president labored under an unpleasant illusion that things were getting better in the South when the opposite was true. The systematic crushing of black freedom in the South—it was systematic and done under the auspices of state authority—didn’t escape Hayes’ notice, but he believed Grant’s solution of federal force to prop up Republican governments was not a solution. Instead, he appealed to Southerners’ better nature and pleaded with them to follow the law. But without threat of reprisal—whatever forms that could have taken—the pleading was useless. In this area, Hayes failed.
Final assessment: Somewhat successful and popular.
Hayes’ presidency is easily overlooked, but fortunately we have some excellent resources. For this study I used The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes by Ari Hoogenboom (1988), of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency series, and Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse (2002), of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The American Presidents series.
A decent one-volume treatment of Hayes’ life is Hoogenboom’s 1995 Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. (Trefousse wryly notes that his fellow biographer placed Hayes’ soldiering before his government service, which indicates which was better.)
A scathing attack on Hayes and his successors concerning Southern policies is found in The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson by Rayford Whittingham Logan and Eric Foner (1954, reprinted in 1997).
* – I find some of Trefousse’s conclusions about Hayes somewhat unconvincing, especially concerning his depiction of the “restoration” of the good name of the White House following the Grant years. If Grant was so bad for the Republican Party and Hayes was so great, why was there a strong movement afoot to give Grant a third term in 1880—to succeed Hayes? My point is, Trefousse, while elevating the deserving Hayes, overly denigrates Grant.
It is true that Hayes ran a scandal-free administration and Grant’s people, well, they had some problems (see last entry). But Grant was every bit as popular as Hayes, even more so. Trefousse has more than a bit of modern-day historian’s bias against Grant, especially because many things that Grant did or initiated—especially the specie repayment bill—Trefousse gives Hayes full credit for.
Another big problem with Trefousse’s book: he stretches the comparisons between the 1876 and 2000 elections way too far. In the introduction, he states, “As in 2000, the controversy was in part because of a dispute about African-American votes…” Oh, hogwash! Yes, it was true in 1876, as racist Democrats fought to deny blacks the right to vote. But it did not happen in 2000; even the liberal-dominated Civil Rights Commission was forced to admit by its more conservative-leaning members that the charges of “black voter suppression” in Florida 2000 were flat-out bogus. The fictitious charges were trumped by liberals and black “leaders,” so-called, who just could not accept that their guy had lost the electoral vote fair and square.
There was no black voter intimidation in Florida 2000—and liberals conveniently ignore the fact that in the counties most in dispute (e.g., the only counties Al Gore sought a recount in) were run by Democrats, not Republicans. Trefousse was also writing in 2001 (the book was published in 2002) so he paints a happy picture of Democrats rallying to President Bush unlike the Democrats in Hayes’ era. It’s hard to read Trefousse’s words without laughing mirthlessly, because Democrats did not “rally to Bush” in 2001, and their behavior since the Florida recount has gotten steadily worse.
(And please: anyone who wants to argue the Bush was “selected-not-elected” crap had best go elsewhere. Every major media organization did their own recounts by every possible method and all came to the same conclusion: Bush won fair and square. All the U.S. Supreme Court did was put an end to the endless--and unconstitutional--recounting. It didn’t install Bush as president.)
** -- I agree with Hayes on this sentiment. I appreciate what unions have done for this country in the past, but it makes me mad today when union people tell me I can’t—not shouldn’t, but can’t—do business with someone because they don’t hire union. A pox on that. I’ll do business and shop where I please.
*** -- It’s amazing but not surprising that Trefousse and Hoogenboom manage to give only a passing hard money credit to President Grant, without whom Hayes would not have had a good, solid policy to champion! In addition, I realize that there are certain people on the far right conservative spectrum—such as Ron Paul—who advocate that we must only be on the gold standard and that anything else is unconstitutional, echoing in a way an argument of Rutherford Hayes. However, having the U.S. economy based on the gold standard in 1879 is one thing; doing the same in 2007, with an economy several times over the size of 1879’s, is almost too fantastic to contemplate.
1 A chromolithograph of President R. Hayes created by G.F. Gilman.
2 Rutherford and Lucy Hayes on their wedding day, Dec. 30, 1852.
3 Hayes as a general late in the Civil War.
4 This cover sheet for a song composed for the 1876 campaign highlights Hayes’ support for hard currency: The wagon’s large front wheel is inscribed “Hard Money Wheeler Gold Basis,” a rather clumsy way of mentioning both Hayes’ vice presidential candidate and Hayes support for the resumption of specie act. (Most campaign songs were wretched and eminently forgettable.)
5 Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite administes the oath of office to Rutherford B. Hayes on a flag-draped inaugural stand on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol in March 1877.
6 An unflattering cartoon by J.A. Wales features “The ‘Strong’ government 1869-1877,” with a woman as “the Solid South” carrying Ulysses S. Grant in a carpet bag marked “carpet bag and bayonet rule;” and “The ‘Weak’ government 1877-1881,” with Rutherford B. Hayes plowing under the carpet bag and bayonets with a plow marked “Let ‘em alone policy.”
7 Various scenes of “The Great Railroad Strike” in July 1877, as shown in Frank Leslie's Illustrated, Aug. 11, 1877.
8 “District of Columbia – our Indian allies – interview of a delegation of Indian chiefs with President Hayes, in the East Room of the White House.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, Oct. 13, 1877.
9 An Oct. 19, 1881, Puck cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper shows President Hayes kicking Chester A. Arthur out of the New York Customs House.
10 President-elect James Garfield looks at a baby in basket tagged “civil service reform, compliments of R.B. Hayes.” The outgoing president, dressed as a woman, leaves with bag labeled “R.B. Hayes – savings, Fremont, Ohio.” This cartoon, drawn by Frederick Burr Opper, appeared in the Jan. 19, 1881, issue of Puck.
11 President Hayes (Brady-Handy Collection, LOC)
12 Rutherford Hayes flanked by two of his sons.
13 The president in retirement at his beloved Spiegel Grove estate. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center