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Useful Notes / Rutherford B. Hayes

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"He serves his party best who serves the country best."

"It's 1877, and the Democrats would gloat,
But they're all amazed when Rutherford Hayes wins by just one vote."

Rutherford Birchard Hayes (October 4, 1822 – January 17, 1893) was the nineteenth president of the United States, serving from 1877 to 1881. He was the third Republican president, succeeding Ulysses S. Grant and preceding James Garfield. He's most notable for winning the closest presidential election in American history and for ending Reconstruction.

He rose to prominence as a lawyer who took cases of fugitive black slaves, which gained him the attention of the Republican Party, which eventually recruited him. When The American Civil War broke out, Hayes joined the Union Army and fought in the same regiment as another future president, William McKinley. Hayes, wounded five times during the war, rose to the rank of major general due to his bravery on the battlefield. After the war ended, Hayes became a member of the House of Representatives for a little more than two years (he represented Ohio's 2nd congressional district in the 39th and the first four months of the 40th Congress) and then a popular three-term governor of Ohio. He was widely praised for his honesty and won national attention.

Hayes was chosen in 1876 to be the Republican nominee for the presidency. His nomination was unexpected, being that he was a compromise candidate among GOP members who weren't fully on board with initial frontrunner James Blaine, and people nicknamed him the "Great Unknown" because they didn't quite know his position on the issues. The election was a controversial one, and probably the closest in American history, having been won by literally one vote. Reports arose that Republican officials packed ballot boxes with illegal votes for Hayes. Thus, Democrats questioned the legitimacy of the electors. At the same time, Southern Democrats were accused of using violence and intimidation (the secret ballot not yet being a thing in most of the country) against both African-Americans and white Republicans, leading to questions over the legitimacy of those electors. Polls showed the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, was winning the popular votenote  and up 184 to 165 in the Electoral College (the one that really counts), with 20 undecided votes remaining. The number needed for victory that year was 185. Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, together making up 19 votes, were disputed states this election, and they sent two sets of returns, one each by and for the state Democratic and Republican parties. Both parties, each in control of a separate chamber of Congress (the Democrats had the House of Representatives, the Republicans the Senate), insisted that their respective counts from each of these states were the only ones that were legitimate. There was also a disputed vote from Oregon, since the elector was a former officeholder, which is illegal under the Constitution. To solve the matter, Congress set up a 15-member Electoral Commission. Each chamber chose five members (three of the majority, two of the minority), giving each party five members, and the Supreme Court made up the remaining five. Of the Court members, there were two Democrats and two Republicans, with one neutral and respected justice, David Davis, intended to be the tiebreaker vote. Then Davis was elected to the Senate by his home state, Illinois — more specifically, its legislature's Democratic majority. Oops.

This really screwed things up, since the remaining four Supreme Court justices were all Republicans. Joseph Bradley, who was considered the most independent remaining justice, was chosen to replace Davis (who chose to move from the Court to the Senate), but it was clear to everyone just who was going to win these disputed votes.note  Still, the Democrats made as much noise as possible, refusing to go down without a fight. Eventually, a backroom deal between both parties was formed. The Republicans agreed to remove all remaining troops in the South and end Reconstruction, and the Democrats agreed to let Hayes win the remaining votes and the election. This essentially meant that the North abandoned any remaining plans to protect blacks in the South. Now free to do as they pleased for the first time since before the Civil War, white Southerners responded by passing what are now known as Jim Crow laws, which reestablished segregation and created so many voter registration loopholes (such as poll taxes and grandfather clauses) that black men in the South (women being another can of worms) essentially lost their newly won right to vote. This would last into the 1950s and '60s. Still, Hayes himself wasn't a racist (at least by his time's standard), and he supported civil rights bills that Congress never passed. Meanwhile, Hayes, whose detractors called him "Rutherfraud," strove to heal the divide between the North and South. Both sides had long since grown tired of Reconstruction, so many welcomed his moderation.

He inherited two crises from the Grant administration: Widespread corruption and economic turmoil. The spoils system in place since Andrew Jackson had reached its peak under Grant, and many (perhaps most) government workers were awarded their jobs only because of party loyalty. Hayes disapproved of this, but he also had a small problem: the fact that his own party had appointed most of them. Not wanting to split the Republicans in half, he implemented some modest reforms and went after some of the most corrupt government employees, but this satisfied neither side. Reformers charged that it was too little, too late; anti-reformers were angered that he was acting at all. Interestingly, one of the people he fired was Chester A. Arthur, who was then in charge of the New York Customhouse. Hayes issued an executive order banning civil servants from managing political rallies and party events. When Arthur ignored the order, Hayes booted him out of office. He would go on to become the president who finally reformed the civil service system and ended the spoils system.

As for the economy, the country was torn over a debate involving the currency. At almost the very moment when the Panic of 1873 began, the United States went back to the gold standard. This caused the money supply to contract, and prices deflated. Believe it or not, this was seen as a bad thing back then. Why? Well, the easy money "greenbacks" printed during the Civil War caused inflation, which meant that it was easier for farmers to pay off their debts. However, with the money now deflating, they faced an economic crisis.note  Like Grant before him, Hayes sided with the "hard money" advocates and wanted money to be worth face value in gold. He built up the country's gold supply to handle the issue, and by mid-1878 the problem seemed to be solved. But then the debate switched to whether the country should be tied to just gold, or gold and silver. Congress passed a bill over his veto which mandated that the Treasury coin two to four million silver dollars each month. Hayes, fearing that too much silver could cause high inflation rates, made sure the minimum was coined each month. With the economy back on sound money, prosperity returned in 1879, and business in the country would boom almost uninterrupted until 1893.

The first nationwide strike in American history, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, happened in his term. When all the major railroad bosses decided simultaneously to cut pay to workers by 10%, they all went on strike. It's estimated that over 100,000 railroad workers were involved. Well over half of all railroads were shut down for about two months. However, these quickly turned to violent riots, and Hayes sent in the army to restore order and force the workers back to work. In the end, they won almost nothing. Hayes regretted having used force to end the strike, and he thought the strikers were mostly good men whom greedy bosses' actions had pushed over the edge. Hayes, unlike many politicians of his time, was very suspicious of big business and a critic of social Darwinism. However, he didn't think it was the role of government to get involved in the matter.

Other domestic concerns included a confrontation with the Democratic-controlled Congress during his last two years and attempts to reform Native American policy. The Democrats attempted to attach legislation to unrelated but necessary money bills. These attachments, nicknamed "riders," were designed to tip voting requirements throughout the country (but especially the South) in a way that would benefit the Democrats in the upcoming presidential election. Namely, they wanted to put even more restrictions on black voters. An outraged Hayes vetoed these, and the Democrats eventually gave up the "Battle of the Riders." Garfield won the 1880 election narrowly. Hayes wanted to rid the Indian Bureau of corruption and help Native Americans assimilate into white culture — namely, by placing more of them on reservations. However, the Native Americans didn't take very kindly to this, and there were some revolts. Notably, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce led a remarkable 1,700-mile retreat to Canada which almost succeeded.

Despite being rather obscure in American history, Hayes is a national hero in Paraguay. He served as an arbitrator after the War of the Triple Alliance in South America that had pitted Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay. Hayes ruling in favor of Paraguay forever immortalized him in the country's history as their savior. He has a city (Villa Hayes) and a departmentnote  (Presidente Hayes) named after him, as well as many schools, roads, and even a soccer team. Hayes also used the Monroe Doctrine to prevent the French from building a canal across Panama. There was some controversy at the time over Mexican bandits crossing the border and raiding American towns, but Hayes and the Army worked with Mexican leaders to put an end to this. Additionally, anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast exploded, with an anti-Chinese riot breaking out in San Francisco in 1877. Congress attempted to ban immigration from China, but Hayes vetoed the bill. Hayes tried to negotiate with the Chinese government to solve the issue, but it was no use. One year after he left office, Congress passed another bill banning Chinese immigration, and it would remain in effect until 1943.

Telephones were first installed in The White House during his administration, and he was the first president to take the Oath of Office inside the White House. Hayes' wife was known as "Lemonade Lucy" for refusing to serve alcohol at state functions. This had the side effect of convincing many prohibitionists to join the Republican Party, which led to the ban of alcohol in 1919. When he entered office, he pledged that he would not seek a second term. While he was popular for his honesty, the economic upswing, and better relations between the North and South and could have won another term, Hayes honored his pledge when the election of 1880 came. During the fall of that year, he undertook a "farewell tour" of the US that made him the first sitting President to visit California (where he saw Yosemite Valley and gave a speech at the coastal farming village of Los Angeles). He called himself the greatest president since John Quincy Adams, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln. After he retired, Hayes became an advocate of well-funded universal education, including for blacks. Hayes died of a heart attack in 1893. The first presidential library, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, was funded by his family and opened in his hometown of Fremont, Ohio, in 1916.

He's a good example of how the general opinion of historical leaders and their actions can change a lot over time. Most of the things he did while in office were popular in their time, but in hindsight, historians consider most of them to be bad things. Voters applauded Hayes for what was then seen as a solution to the "Southern question," but today, he is widely criticized for the backroom deal which created it and for abandoning Southern blacks to Jim Crow. The full return to the gold standard under Hayes, considered then to be one of his greatest accomplishments, came to be seen as creating an inelastic currency that would help cause future economic troubles. The policies adopted over Native Americans and Chinese immigrants are now considered to be regrettably representative examples of 19th-century American bigotry. In a post-New Deal era, sending the army to break up the railroad strikes is seen as having given too much power to big business, and they would continue to abuse workers for the next few decades. Initially a very popular chief executive, today Hayes is almost always considered to be forgettable at best. Still, it is worth mentioning that these criticisms are from a modern perspective. Some of his policies did work moderately well in his own time, and there's no denying that he was good at political maneuvering and moderating.

The election of 1876 saw the highest voter turnout in American history, an astounding 81.8%. For some perspective, the last time it was above 70% was in 1900.note  Due to the narrowness of his victory and the possible fraud involved, his picture showed up on American TV news a lot immediately after the presidential elections of 2000, 2016, and 2020.

Hayes in fiction:

  • An episode of Phineas and Ferb featured Heinz Doofenshmirtz trying to turn a Hayes statue into a bread loaf because Hayes had the longest beard of all presidents in American history and Doof couldn't grow himself a beard. Later in that episode, Betty Jo and an old rival of hers decided to race to the statue.
  • Appears in Gore Vidal's 1876, which partly focuses around that year's election.
  • Chisum: Hayes is briefly mentioned when Big Bad Murphy tells the acting governor of New Mexico that if he doesn't take action against the heroic Cattle Baron (who has been framed as the aggressor in a range war) then Hayes will take notice and disapprove. Later, one of the heroes writes a letter to Hayes requesting an impartial investigation into the affair, but his friends say it will take too long.