Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

The policies of Rutherford B. Hayes, America's nineteenth President, began to heal the nation after the ravages of the Civil War. He was well suited to the task, having earned a steadfast reputation for integrity throughout his career as a soldier and a statesman. Upstanding, moral, and honest, Hayes was elected after the most lengthy, bitterly disputed, and corrupt presidential election in history.

Hayes's father ran a successful farm and whiskey distillery in Ohio but died ten weeks before Rutherford was born. Raised by his single mother, Rud developed a very close relationship with his brilliant sister, Fanny Hayes, who encouraged him to achieve the prominent career denied to her because she was a woman. With the help of his wealthy uncle, Sardis Birchard, Hayes went to Harvard Law School and then made a name for himself as a successful criminal defense lawyer in Cincinnati. There he married Lucy Ware Webb. Lucy advocated temperance and abolition, and was a strong Methodist who placed more emphasis on good works than on being "born again." Without nagging, she influenced her husband. After marriage he became a stronger antislavery advocate and a teetotaler following his move to the White House, and he regularly attended religious services with Lucy, though he never joined a church.

Patriot of the Union

When the Civil War broke out, Hayes was already nearly forty-years old and the father of three with a fourth on the way. Nevertheless, he was one of the first three-year volunteers, stating that he would rather die in the conflict than live having done nothing for the Union. Using his political connections, Hayes was appointed a major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteers. An officer with no military experience, he learned quickly, worked hard, and with his "intense and ferocious" demeanor on the battlefield gained the respect of the enlisted men and his superiors. At the Battle of Opequon Creek, for example, Hayes led the charge through a morass that turned the tide of battle. Wounded five times in the war, Hayes kept leading his men into battle, and by the end of the conflict he was a brigadier general, and later breveted major general for "gallant and distinguished services."

While campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 he was nominated in Cincinnati for the U.S. House of Representatives. Hayes refused to return to take to the stump, stating that "an officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped." That statement was worth all the speeches he could have made. Hayes was elected and the war was over before the first session of his Congress met on in December 1865.

Road to the White House

After the Civil War, Hayes served as member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1865-1867) and then as governor of Ohio (1868-1872, 1876-1877). By 1876, Republicans recognized that the scrupulous Hayes—a war hero from a populous swing state and a candidate acceptable to the major factions in the Republican party - was presidential material. "Availability" secured Hayes the nomination, but he faced a tough campaign. The nation was in the midst of an economic depression, the Grant administration was tarnished by scandals, and Democratic opponent Samuel J. Tilden of New York was a superb political organizer with a reform reputation. On Election Day, Tilden rolled up a plurality of 250,000 votes, but the vote in three southern states was close enough for both Republicans and Democrats to claim them and with those states the presidency. To decide who carried those states, Congress set up a special commission which awarded the disputed electoral college votes to Hayes, making him the winner. Outraged and frustrated, Democrats dubbed Hayes "Rutherfraud" and "His Fraudulency."

The Hayes Presidency

Hayes's inaugural address was conciliatory in tone and addressed specific problems. To alleviate hard times, he backed existing legislation that called for the nation's return to the gold standard in 1879. To eliminate political corruption, he advocated a nonpartisan reformed civil service, observing that "he serves his party best who serves his country best." To conciliate the South, Hayes said it should have local self government, but that those governments must obey the entire Constitution, including the Reconstruction amendments. Perhaps because Hayes, along with his comrade in arms William McKinley, had more combat experience than other Presidents, he wished to arbitrate disputes with other nations. He also congratulated the American people for the peaceful resolution of the recent disputed election.

As President, Hayes sought to implement his inaugural address. He had supported radical Reconstruction legislation which aimed to secure the rights of black citizens, but by 1877, Hayes believed that military occupation had bred hatred among southerners and had prevented the nation from healing itself in the aftermath of war. Actually, Reconstruction was virtually over when Hayes took office in March 1877, with federal troops protecting Republican governments only in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Columbia, South Carolina. It ended completely when, within two months of his inauguration, Hayes ordered those federal troops to their barracks, but only after Louisiana and South Carolina authorities pledged to respect the civil and voting rights of blacks. These promises were soon broken and the white supremacist Democratic Party asserted total dominance of the South. By the 1890s, the Democratic hold on the South resulted in a complete denial of voting rights for blacks until the 1960s.

Hayes was a patient and a gradual reformer. He feared that sweeping changes were often not lasting and was satisfied with smaller incremental gains. He had great faith in education as the keys to prosperity and harmonious relations among diverse racial and ethnic groups. He did not attempt to reform the entire civil service, but concentrated on one major office, demonstrating that open competitive examinations did, in fact, reap better workers. He did not attack all spoils-minded senators but only the imperious and obnoxious Roscoe Conkling of New York. The death of Abraham Lincoln, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and the failures of Ulysses S. Grant had left the presidency in a weakened state. Hayes helped to restore prestige to the office by defeating Conkling and the idea of "senatorial courtesy," which claimed for senators the right to appoint civil servants in their states. He also defeated an attempt by the Democratic-controlled Congress to force him to accept unwanted legislation by attaching amendments - riders—to necessary appropriations bills. By the time Hayes left office, senators could suggest but not dictate the appointment of officers, nor was the President's veto power destroyed. Hayes helped restore prestige to the presidency, heal the wounds left by the Civil War, and strengthen the Republican party sufficiently to win the election of 1880.

In his very active retirement Hayes continued to struggle for equal educational opportunities for all children. He also was active in the prison reform movement.