Rutherford B. Hayes: Life Before the Presidency

Rutherford B. Hayes: Life Before the Presidency

Born on October 4, 1822, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, called "Rud" as a child, was named for his father and grandfather. His American roots traced back to 1680’s New England. Five years before Rud's birth, his parents fled the poor economy there and resettled in Delaware, Ohio, just north of Columbus. They secured a farm, established a whiskey distillery, and built a house in town. But Rud's father died in July 1822, leaving Sophia Birchard Hayes—already mourning the recent loss of a daughter—with two children and a third on the way. The future President was born ten weeks after his father's death. He was often sick as an infant. When Rud was only two, just as his health improved somewhat, his nine-year-old brother drowned while ice-skating. Sophia was left with a daughter, Fanny, and a son (Rud), who remained frail.

Although born in the shadow of tragedy, Rud enjoyed a comfortable, loving childhood. Sophia Hayes was religious, independent, and energetic; the widow faced her hardships with remarkable ability. Her younger brother, Sardis Birchard, settled down as a merchant in Lower Sandusky, Ohio, where he prospered and, though geographically distant, served as a surrogate father for Fanny and Rud. Sophia took in lodgers and, with the farm leased for a share of the crops, managed to make ends meet. She was extremely protective of Rud, who was not allowed to play outside the family until he was seven or engage in rough sports until nine years of age. As a result Fanny and Rud were very close, playing together and nursing each other when ill.

Sophia taught Rud to read and write, but through Fanny, who was exceptionally bright, he became acquainted with Shakespeare's plays and Sir Walter Scott's poetry. Rud and Fanny also for a short time attended a newly opened publically supported district school. Rud later recalled: "The school was free to all and was crowded with scholars of all ages, from little folks of our own size up to young men grown. The school-master, Daniel Granger, was a little, thin, wiry, energetic Yankee, with black hair, sallow complexion, and piercing black eyes; and when excited appeared to us a demon of ferocity. He flogged great strapping fellows of twice his size, and talked savagely of . . . throwing them through the walls of the schoolhouse. He threw a large jack-knife, carefully aimed so as just to miss, at the head of a boy who was whispering near me."

Despite the brief frightening experience with Granger, Rud regarded Joan Hills Murray, who ran a private grade school in Delaware, as his "first teacher." Both children studied hard, and their uncle, Sardis Birchard, helped finance their later private schooling. Rud attended Norwalk Seminary in Ohio, and then another private institution in Connecticut. He thereafter enrolled in Kenyon College, at Gambier, Ohio, where he was named valedictorian of the class of 1842. In keeping with the ambitions and dreams of Fanny and Sardis, Rud decided to pursue a legal career. He studied in a law office in Columbus for ten "vexatious and tedious" months before entering Harvard Law School, earning a bachelor of laws degree in 1845. He joined the Ohio bar that year and opened a practice in Uncle Sardis's town of Lower Sandusky (soon renamed Fremont after the famous explorer who would become the first Republican presidential candidate).

Law Career and Marriage

Hayes's law practice got off to a sputtering start. Business was slow, and the young lawyer was bored and restless. Although he denied it, he also showed symptoms of tuberculosis. After visits to New England and Texas, and seeking a fresh start, he moved to Cincinnati on Christmas Eve, 1849. In time, he made a name for himself in criminal law. Using his natural charm and his elite training, he defended society's outcasts, often managing to free them or save them from the gallows. 

He also had a full social life, calling on young women and joining clubs and societies. On Wednesday evenings, he was at the International Order of Odd Fellows; on Thursday, at the Sons of Temperance. Best of all were the Saturday night meetings of the Cincinnati Literary Club with its mix of intellectually stimulating discussions and oysters washed down with "liberal amounts of the local Catawba wine." More "exuberant members often adjourned to Gleissner's in the Over-the-Rhine area for some German lager." Hayes, a moderate reformer, was literally temperate in his use of alcohol—and not a teetotaler.

Although Hayes called upon and flirted with Cincinnati belles, he found himself more and more attracted to a girl from his home town of Delaware. In 1847, when he first saw Lucy Ware Webb at the sulpher spring—a common meeting spot for young people —she was going on sixteen and, as he later remembered, "not quite old enough to fall in love with." His mother had befriended Lucy's mother and wanted her daughter for her son. 

When Lucy was two, her father, a physician, died of cholera in Kentucky where he had gone to free slaves he had recently inherited. Widowed with three children, Lucy's mother, when urged to sell those slaves to secure a decent income, replied: "Before I will sell a slave, I will take in washing to support my family." Like her parents, Lucy was strongly antislavery, supported temperance (unlike Hayes she completely abstained from alcohol and ultimately became known as “Lemonade Lucy” because of her role in banning alcohol from the White House), and was a Methodist Christian who placed more emphasis on good works than on faith in doctrine. 

By the time Hayes set up his law practice in Cincinnati, Lucy Webb was nineteen and attending Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College, something novel for women in 1850. He looked her up and enjoyed her company. Shortly after Lucy graduated from college, he impulsively proposed to her. Lucy replied modestly, "I don't know but I am dreaming. I thought I was too light and trifling for you." He had, though, realized that by no means was she light, nor trifling. 

The two took their time setting a wedding date, doing so when Uncle Sardis assured Hayes of his willingness, if necessary, to help them financially. Although Hayes had achieved some prominence as a court-appointed defender of notorious murderers, there were no lucrative fees involved in such cases, and his income was hardly adequate to support a wife and family. The wedding took place in December 1852, beginning an equal partnership in a happy 36-year marriage. A degree of prosperity followed their wedding; ten months later they welcomed their first of eight children.

Taking up Antislavery Causes

Having regarded abolitionists as too radical, Hayes had been a moderately antislavery Whig in politics. But influenced by Lucy's antislavery convictions, Hayes in 1853 began to defend runaway slaves who had fled across the Ohio River from Kentucky. His defense in 1855 of Rosetta Armstead, a young girl, was most memorable. Armstead was being escorted at the behest of her Kentucky owner through the free state of Ohio on the way to Virginia when she was detained by antislavery activists and freed on a writ of habeas corpus. Her former owner appeared and asked her before witnesses to choose between going with him or being free. She chose freedom, whereupon he had her arrested by a federal marshal as a runaway slave. Hayes, along with Senator Salmon P. Chase and Judge Timothy Walker, defended Armstead. 

Not only was the slavery or freedom of a human being at stake, but so were intriguing questions of law. Was Armstead a runaway since her owner brought her to Ohio? Did touching the free soil of Ohio automatically make one who was not a runaway free? Did her owner legally manumit her? Did her minor status affect her capacity to choose? Could a state court determine the legality of the imprisonment of anyone by a U.S. marshal? 

The Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas ruled that the right of transit of slave property through Ohio did not exist and that a state court on a writ of habeas corpus could, in fact, free a federal prisoner. The U.S. commissioner, however, did not let the challenge to federal authority go unanswered. Armstead was rearrested. At the subsequent hearing, Hayes made the major argument for the defense. He castigated the owner for betraying his implicit promise of freedom, arguing successfully that Armstead was not a runaway since her owner's agent brought her to Ohio. The commissioner agreed, and Armstead was free. In Chase's words, Hayes "acquitted himself with great distinction."

After the Whig Party broke up following passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act  (which Hayes opposed), Hayes the next year helped mold the disparate opposition to the Democrats into the Ohio Republican Party. Initially, however, he felt that the new party ignored the old Whig element, of which he was a part, and he therefore became more involved with law and family than with politics. The Hayeses had a second son in March 1856, but in July that year, Hayes's beloved sister, Fanny, died from complications following childbirth. Her death deeply saddened Hayes. She was the "dearest friend of childhood" and the "confidante of all my life."

Fanny's death hit Hayes hard, but Lucy and their "fine little boys," as well as his profession and a newly kindled interest in politics, assuaged his grief. He supported the Republican candidate for President, John Charles Fremont—"For free states and against new slave states" —and was not discouraged by Fremont's defeat in 1856. He had faith that "right" would prevail. "However fares the cause," he declared, "I am enlisted for the war." In 1858, the Cincinnati City Council elected Hayes to complete the deceased city attorney's unfinished term. In 1859, he then won election to the post, serving until 1861.

Heroic Civil War Service

Hayes was willing to let the lower southern states leave the Union when they seceded following Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, but South Carolina's April 12, 1861, attack on Fort Sumter outraged him. Aware that he had no military experience and was nearly 40 years old with three boys—and a fourth child on the way—Hayes drilled initially with a "volunteer home company," called the Burnet Rifles. He thought the war would be short; by May 15, however, he realized the nation was facing a long, hard struggle and declared, "I would prefer to go into it if I knew I was to die . . . than to live through and after it without taking any part in it." On June 7, the governor of Ohio made him a major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteers, and Hayes started his service.

Hayes quickly earned the respect of the enlisted men and his superiors. He proved his mettle in battle and assured Lucy, "You need have no fear of my behaviour in fight. I know somewhat of my capacity. It is all right." William McKinley, who enlisted in the 23rd Ohio (making it the only military regiment with more than one future President in American history), marveled that, "His whole nature seemed to change in battle. From the sunny, agreeable, the kind, the generous, the gentle gentleman . . . he was, once the battle was on . . . intense and ferocious."  The two became close friends.

At the 1862 Battle of South Mountain in the Antietam Campaign, Hayes was at the head of the 23rd, spearheading the attack on the Confederate position in Fox's Gap. Two charges pushed the Confederates back, but just as Hayes ordered a third charge, a musket ball fractured his left arm above the elbow, leaving a gaping hole. Hayes survived, thanks to the skill of his brother-in-law, Dr. Joseph Webb, his regimental surgeon. Lucy subsequently nursed Hayes and other wounded soldiers where they convalesced at Middletown, Maryland.

Hayes was promoted to colonel and, from 1863 to 1865, regularly commanded a brigade; at times, he headed-up a division. In 1863 and 1864, Hayes's brigade conducted a series of dangerous, effective raids on rail lines and supply depots in Virginia. Later in 1864, Hayes's brigade participated in several battles in the Shenandoah Valley as part of George Crook's Eighth Corps of Philip Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah. Hayes especially distinguished himself in the retreat after the defeat at Second Kernstown (July 24, 1864), and by leading the decisive charge through the mud of Rosebud Run at the victory of Opequon Creek (September 19, 1864). 

At Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864), Hayes's division absorbed elements of a surprise Confederate attack, with Hayes injuring his ankle when his horse was shot out from under him. He was then hit in the head by a spent ball that no doubt passed through someone else. His men assumed he had been killed, and his death was even reported in the press. For Lucy, these were agonizing times, with her writing at one point: "Could I only know that you will be returned to me!" Fortunately, she heard that Hayes had survived Cedar Creek before she read of his supposed death. 

Cedar Creek was Hayes's last battle. He was later promoted to brigadier general, mustered out of the Army on June 8, 1865, and breveted major general for "gallant and distinguished services." Hayes was pleased to become a general but freely admitted he never fought a battle as one. As a citizen officer who helped make the Army of a free, democratic republic successful, he asserted with pride: "I was one of the good colonels in the great army."

Congressman and Governor Hayes

In July 1864, Republican friends in Cincinnati, Ohio, nominated Hayes for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and suggested he get a furlough to come home and campaign. Absorbed with the ferocious summer fighting, he refused, noting 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. You may feel perfectly sure I shall do no such thing." That statement was more effective politically than any stump speeches he could have made back home. 

He learned of his election to the 39th Congress while campaigning with General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley that October. His term began on March 4, 1865, but the first session of that Congress did not meet until December 4, 1865. In the meantime, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865; five days later, President Lincoln was assassinated. With the war over, Hayes resigned from the Army in June, four years and a day after he took up arms.

Although being a congressman had its rewards, Hayes missed his family, as he had seen them only intermittently during four years of war. He attended Congress faithfully, spoke rarely, and supported Radical Reconstruction measures that Congressional Republicans favored to protect newly freed African Americans, measures such as the 14th and 15th Amendments. In keeping with his literary, historical, and intellectual interests, he made a significant contribution as chair of the Joint Committee on the Library by securing a $100,000 appropriation for the books and papers of Peter Force, the Washington printer and journalist.

He was reelected to the House in 1866 but resigned in 1867 to run for governor of Ohio. Hayes took the unpopular stand of supporting an amendment to the Ohio constitution giving voting rights to African Americans. While the Democrats appealed to racial prejudice, Hayes accused them of treason. He eked out a victory by less than 3,000 votes (Hayes’s appeal to anti-Catholicism also hurt the Democrats). The Democrats, however, won control of the Ohio state legislature, and the suffrage amendment was defeated. 

Nonetheless, the governor enjoyed life in Columbus, was reelected to a second term, and served from 1868 to 1872. His most important accomplishment was the ratification of the 15th Amendment, eliminating race as a qualification for voting. He was also largely responsible for the establishment of what became The Ohio State University, for an Ohio Geological Survey, and for appointing nonpartisan boards to oversee state institutions. Hayes supported Ulysses S. Grant for a second term in 1872 and, to strengthen the Republican ticket, ran for Congress. While Grant triumphed, Hayes lost. Retiring from politics, Hayes then moved to Fremont to help his Uncle Sardis, whose health was declining, manage his investments. Sardis died in 1874, leaving Hayes the bulk of his estate.