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"Every age has its temptations, its weaknesses, its dangers. Ours is in the line of the snobbish and the sordid."
Rutherford B. Hayes

"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 19th President (1877-1881). A Republican, he served between Ulysses S. Grant and 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 Civil War broke out Hayes joined the Union army and fought in the same regiment as future president William McKinley. Hayes, wounded five times during the war, managed to rise 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 two years and then a popular two-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. He was a compromise candidate among the party, 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 won by literally one vote. Reports arose that Republican officials packed ballot boxes with illegal votes for Hayes. Thus the legitimacy of the electors was called into question by Democrats. Polls showed his opponent, 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? 185. Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, together making up 19 votes, were disputed states this election, and they sent two sets of returns, one Democrat and one Republican. Both sides, each in control of a separate chamber of Congress, insisted that it was their count that was 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 5 members (3 of the majority, 2 of the minority), giving each party 5 members, and the Supreme Court made up the remaining five. Of the members from Court, there were two Democrats and two Republicans, with one neutral and respected Justice, David Davis, intended to be the tie-breaker vote. Then Davis was elected to the Senate by his home state, Illinois, and its Democratic majority. Oops.


This really screwed things up, since the remaining four Justices were all Republicans. A relatively impartial one, Joseph Bradley, was chosen, 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 reenforced segregation and created so many voter registration loopholes (such as poll taxes and grandfather clauses) that blacks in the South essentially lost their newly-won right to vote. This would last into the 1950's and 60's. Still, Hayes himself wasn't a racist (at least by his standard's time), and he supported civil rights bills never passed by Congress. Meanwhile, Hayes, known as "Rutherfraud" by his detractors, set about to heal the divide between the North and South. Both sides had long-since grown tired of Reconstruction, so his moderation was welcomed by many.

He inherited two crises from the Grant administration: Widespread corruption and a terrible economy. The spoils system in place since Andrew Jackson had reached its peak under Grant, and many (possibly even most) government workers were awarded their job only because of party loyalty. Hayes was angered by this, but has also had a bit of a problem - namely, that it was his own party that appointed most of them. Not wanting to split his party in half, he implemented some modest reforms and went after some of the most corrupt government employees, but this satisfied neither side. Reformers claimed that it was too little, too late, while anti-reformers were angered that he was taking any action at all. Interestingly, one of the people he kicked out 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 end the spoils system.

As for the economy, the country was torn over a debate involving the currency. At almost exactly the same 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 actually 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. Then, however, 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 between 2 and 4 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 of 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 actually regretted having to use force to end the strike, and he actually thought the strikers were mostly made up of good men who were pushed over the edge by greedy bosses. Hayes, unlike many politicians of his time, was very suspicious of big business and was 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 Democrat-controlled Congress during his last two years and attempts to reform the 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." The 1880 election narrowly went to the Republicans. 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 department (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 Fransisco in 1877. Congress attempted to ban immigration from China, but Hayes vetoed the bill. Hayes tried to negotiate with the Chinese 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. 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 1916.

He's a good example of how the general opinion of historical leaders and their actions can change a lot over time. Nearly everything he did while in office was popular in their own 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, is today 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 sad 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 did a good job when it came to 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 60% was in 1968.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 2000 presidential election and the 2016 election.

Hayes in fiction:

  • In one 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.


Example of: