Rutherford B. Hayes, nineteenth President of The United States, who occupied the White House from 1877 to 1881, is among the least known chief executives in American history.1 He is one of those Presidents that writer Thomas Wolfe dismissively lumped together as the forgotten “bearded men” of the mid-nineteenth century. In presidential rankings, Hayes consistently ranks among the bottom third.2
Two habits handicapped him throughout his presidency, the most important of which was the gap between his rhetoric and his actions. In other words, he talked much bigger than he was ever prepared to act. “What Hayes said was not what Hayes did,” noted historian Richard White.3 This was true in all areas, but especially with the controversial topic of civil service reform. In the latter case, his bold words infuriated his own political party’s leadership while his limited actions greatly disappointed reformers from across the aisle. One historian quipped that Hayes left the Republican Party more united when he left office because he equally angered all factions.4 Second, and related, Hayes seldom explained his actions, and rarely attempted to sell his policies. He thought that what he did was so inherently rational and sensible that everyone would clearly understand his motives. This was particularly deadly for a president who spoke aggressively but acted meekly.
Hayes entered the presidency under a dark cloud in 1877. Not since John Quincy Adams and the so-called “corrupt bargain” of 1824 had a president took the oath of office with such questionable legitimacy as had “Rutherfraud’ Hayes.
When Governor Hayes retired after a long night of monitoring returns on Tuesday November 7, 1876, he was convinced that he had lost the election to his Democratic rival, Samuel Tilden. Armed with reports of voter intimidation and fraud, Republican Party headquarters in New York City challenged the results from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina early the next morning.5
Party leaders sidelined candidate Hayes during the challenge. Initially, he thought it was a mistake to dispute the totals, but quickly convinced himself of the righteousness of the Republican cause. Because rival governing authorities in the three disputed states submitted alternative electoral votes, Hayes believed that Senator Thomas Ferry, president pro tempore of the Senate, should count the ballots. Presumably the loyal Republican from Michigan would accept only those results from the loyal state governments inclined to be favorable to Hayes. Democrats balked at this idea. Shouldn’t the election go to the House of Representatives, as stated in the Constitution (and which Democrats conveniently controlled)? Now Republicans cried foul.
Bypassing both candidates, leaders in Congress created a special electoral commission consisting of seven members of each party plus one Supreme Court justice. The justice was a Republican, giving them an eight to seven majority. Winning votes was one thing, but legitimizing their decision was another matter. The resulting agreement became known as the “compromise of 1877.” Among other things, Republicans promised that they would remove the last federal troops from Louisiana and South Carolina, thus ending Reconstruction and leading to the rise of Jim Crow segregation.6
Although Hayes played little direct role in the dispute or compromise that ended it, the outcome greatly tarnished his victory. Hayes never comprehended the delegitmizing effect of this on his presidency. Democratic control over the House of Representatives made the situation even worse.
If the bizarre circumstances of the disputed election and the strictly partisan vote by which the electoral commission awarded him the White House was not enough of a hinderance, Hayes compounded the difficulties with two other decisions. First, he pledged when nominated to serve only a single term if elected to office. Hayes was not the first president to do so. Dark horse candidate James K. Polk promised the same in 1844. Hayes considered it a good governance measure, as he explained at length in his acceptance letter:
Believing that the restoration of the civil service, to the system established by Washington and followed by the early Presidents, can best be accomplished by an Executive who is under no temptation to use the patronage of his office, to promote his own re-election, I desire to perform what I regard as a duty, in stating now my inflexible purpose, if elected, not to be a candidate for election to a second term.7
Hayes certainly deserves kudos for the sentiment, but he doomed himself to an instant lame duck term at a time when presidential power was already at its historic nadir. Members of his own party were too busy scrambling for the 1880 nomination to pay much heed to Hayes’s administration.
Second, since he felt beholden to no one in the party, he felt equally free to ignore Republican grandees when constructing his cabinet. In nominating the reformist and political independent William Evarts as the cabinet’s token New Yorker, he froze out powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling. Having alienated the stalwart leader of the party, Hayes rejected nominations offered by Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, leader of the opposing Republican half-breed faction. By appointing the former German revolutionary of 1848 Carl Schurz to secretary of the Interior, Hayes alienated whatever remained of the Republican establishment. The fact that Evarts served as President Andrew Johnson’s defense counsel during impeachment proceedings demonstrates Hayes’s ability to exasperate multiple groups with one appointment. Again, he deserves praise for forging an independent course, but as a result he found himself with little support in Congress.
Rutherford B. Hayes will forever be remembered as the president who ended Reconstruction.8 In the process he abandoned the Civil War Republican Party’s commitment to equal rights for the former slaves and doomed them to a century of discrimination and segregation. In the years immediately following the Civil War, Congressman Hayes voted with the Radical Republicans in support of military reconstruction of the defeated rebel states. By 1877 he came to believe that Reconstruction needlessly delayed restoration of the union.
Hayes professed that removal of troops must be contingent upon a good faith promise from southern states that they would respect and protect the rights of African Americans. “The permanent pacification of the country upon such principles and by such measures as will secure the complete protection of all its citizens in the free enjoyment of all their constitutional rights,” the new president proclaimed in his inaugural on March 5, 1877.9 Even though Hayes maintained that he was not bound by any corrupt bargains resulting from the backdoor conniving of the electoral commission, he moved within weeks of his inauguration to implement their provision ending Reconstruction. “It is not the duty of the President of the United States to use the military power of the Nation to decide contested elections in the States,” Hayes wrote in his diary after a March 23, 1877 cabinet meeting.10
There was another political calculation that underlied Hayes’s thinking on the South. He earnestly believed that once the issues of slavery, war, and reconstruction had been resolved that the white, pro-business, and pro-economic development Southerners who made up the antebellum Whig Party would join the Republicans. The actions of southern politicians seeking investment—which could only come from or through northern banks—to build railroads, factories, infrastructure, and other projects in order to advance their vision of an industrialized “New South” suggested as much. Northern financiers hungry for new business after the panic of 1873 encouraged this cooperative vision.
Wily Southern politicians recognized that they could exploit these beliefs to their own advantage and made the necessary overtures to leading Republicans and the White House. Wade Hampton, a former Confederate general and Democratic shadow governor of South Carolina, charmed the president in a personal meeting. Armed with a mere verbal promise that Hampton would ensure equal protections for African Americans, Hayes ordered federal troops to withdraw from South Carolina by April 10, 1877. Hampton was sworn in as governor the day after they departed.
Louisiana took a slightly different path, but politicians there too made the requisite overtures to Hayes’s belief in a Whig restoration and tendered the appropriate promises on upholding the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Hayes soon ordered the removal of troops. The irony was not lost on those who, like Senator Blaine, wondered aloud how it was possible for Hayes to reconcile his claim to have justly won those states in the recent disputed election with his contention that Republicans could command a minority therein and only govern at the point of a bayonet.11
Reconstruction was over. “I am confident this is a good work,” he recorded in his diary on April 22, 1877. “Time will tell.”12
Time, of course, did tell and it failed to vindicate Hayes’s course of action. Critics within his own party charged him with overlooking attacks on blacks, but Hayes countered, with little evidence, that the ferocity and number of such incidents were declining. With no troops in place, weak federal enforcement statutes, and Supreme Court decisions that ruled in favor of state rights, southern white Democrats attacked black Republicans with impunity. Brazen assaults during the 1878 midterm elections clearly demonstrated the worthlessness of the promises made in the heady days immediately following Hayes’s inauguration. Moreover, it was equally clear that Southern whites would not vote for Republicans or to support the administration. Hayes’s fantasy of Whig restoration was dead. In the process, he eviscerated the loyal black Republican organizations in the South through his misguided effort to win over the whites.
In a rearguard action, Hayes directed Attorney General Charles Devens to prosecute violations of federal election laws in 1878. The president devoted significant resources to the efforts, but the federal government failed to secure convictions from unfriendly juries. Hayes vented to Congress on this lamentable situation in his 1878 annual message in December, but he had no recourse. He’d been had by wily southern politicians and there was nothing he could do about it now.
As a result, Democrats took over the Senate after the 1878 elections and thus gained control over both houses. In April 1879, the Democrat majority flexed their muscles and attached a rider to an appropriations bill to repeal a variety of federal election laws. Hayes vetoed the bill and rallied enough Republicans to sustain his veto.
In one sense it is unfair to blame Hayes for the ninety years of disenfranchisement, gross injustice, lynching, and racial segregation that followed. On the other hand, Hayes might deserve more leeway in regards to his role in ending Reconstruction if he had approached the problem of reconciliation with hard-headed realism. He made no attempt to put any mechanisms in place as a safeguard in case of southern duplicity. Once again, there was an enormous gap between obtaining a promise, and the reality of accepting whatever Southern politicians were willing to feed him. One is left to conclude Hayes was all too eager to sell out former slaves in a vain and unrealistic attempt to return to some pre-war political normalcy.
Believing that he had solved the question of national reconciliation in the first eight weeks of his term, Hayes felt confident in turning to his pet issue, civil service reform. “Now for Civil Service Reform—Legislation must be prepared & Executive rules and Maxims…We must be relieved of Congressional dictation as to appointments,” he jubilantly exclaimed in his diary.13
Hayes considered himself a genuine reformer in the age of “spoilsmen,” those who rose to prominence and wealth via political patronage. It was the first issue he addressed in his 1876 acceptance letter, and the reason for his pledge to serve a single term. In typical overstatement, Hayes declared, “The reform should be thorough, radical, and complete.”14 Yet, on this issue more than any other, there was a gap between his lofty rhetoric and his more modest actions. His reforms might have appeared radical, but they were certainly not thorough and complete. He managed to unite Republicans of all stripes against him by outraging the bosses with his temerity in attacking them but simultaneously disappointing reformers for not going far enough. “In truth,” sympathetic historian Ari Hoogenboom wrote, “Hayes was not totally committed to the program of civil service reform.”15
The presidential campaign of 1876 was a harbinger of what was to come. Candidate Hayes heartened reformers during the campaign when he discouraged the use of assessments—kickbacks that politically-appointed civil servants made to the party as a gratuity for receiving their position. Outraged by Hayes’s gall, political bosses ignored the request. In a typical move, Hayes then softened his position on assessments when party leaders convinced him that there was no way to win the election without this vital source of campaign funds.
Hayes’s cabinet included the most radical civil service reformer in the party, Carl Schurz, as secretary of the Interior. Other members were not so dedicated to the cause and Hayes irritated reformers by backing questionable appointments made by his subordinates. With little chance for legislation in a Democratic-controlled Congress, the president relied on executive orders to implement reforms — including banning assessments, prohibiting officers from managing political campaigns, and eliminating superfluous positions, among others — but these rules were not universally applied or enforced. Hayes concentrated most of his efforts on transforming the biggest patronage plum in the entire civil service, the New York customhouse—which employed over 1,200 people and collected over three-quarters of the national revenue—into a showcase of civil service competency.16 Hayes relentlessly battled fellow Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling for control of this critical federal asset. The president exerted executive prerogative over the federal bureaucracy, while Conkling stood behind the tradition of senatorial privilege in “recommending” executive appointments. After a year of investigations and a botched effort to replace Arthur in the Fall of 1877, Hayes finally fired the collector in July, 1878. Replacing the collector and the naval officer, however, failed to bring about the total transformation that the president had hoped to accomplish. Once again, he dismayed the reformers.
Hayes acted similarly on a more personal level. When Mrs. Hayes lobbied for her brother’s appointment to the Marine Hospital Service, Hayes issued a blanket decree. “No person connected with me by blood or marriage will be appointed to office,” he boasted on March 24, 1877.17 Still, like other presidents Hayes made hundreds of appointments, including to those party functionaries whom he wished to reward.
Without comprehensive legislation, his rules lacked the necessary authority to reform the system. He liked to compare himself to John Quincy Adams, and it is true that Hayes was the least partisan president of any between the younger Adams and Theodore Roosevelt in regards to removals and appointments.18 However, coming into office after eight years of Grant’s Republican administration, Hayes had little cause for making mass removals of civil servants.
Little could Hayes have guessed that 1880 would see the nomination and election of Chester Arthur as the next vice president of the United States. Nor, in his wildest speculations could he have ventured that Garfield’s murder would propel Arthur to the White House just three years after Hayes had fired him. Perhaps, the most unbelievable of all for Hayes to grasp would have been the notion that Arthur would ultimately sign a major civil service reform law after the public outcry over Garfield’s assassination by a disappointed office seeker. A betting man would have predicted Garfield’s brief administration would be dominated in the same exhausting fight over the customhouse with Senator Conkling as Hayes had; and they would have been wrong.
Nativism and xenophobia also marred Rutherford B. Hayes’s term in office. Having won the Ohio governorship the year before on a viciously anti-Catholic campaign, despite the Democratic high tide, Hayes believed a nativist, neo-Know Nothing policy during hard economic times was the key to victory in 1876. Powerful Senator James G. Blaine, another leading contender for the presidential nomination, took up the issue as well by introducing a constitutional amendment to ban public funding for Catholic schools. The amendment did not pass, but the mood infected the Republican Party.
But Hayes took little action against Catholics during his administration as attention shifted to Chinese immigrants. In the election of 1876 both parties appealed to Pacific coast voters with flagrant Sinophobia. In early 1879 Congress forwarded a bill to greatly reduce Chinese immigration to the White House. On March 1, 1879 Hayes vetoed the bill. Hayes droned on in his lengthy explanation about how, among other legalistic considerations, the bill violated the 1868 Burlingame Treaty with China, which stipulated that the United States could place no restrictions on immigration. He made no mention of civil or human rights or discrimination. In fact, Hayes expressed sympathy for those suffering under siege of the “Chinese menace.”
Following the advice of George F. Seward, the American minister to China who happened to be in the United States at the time, Hayes initiated negotiations to amend or replace the Burlingame Treaty. The resulting Angell Treaty, which was ratified by the Senate after Hayes left office, allowed the United States to regulate and restrict Chinese immigration although not to totally ban it. Anger at the veto contributed to the Democrats’ narrow victory in California in 1880, but Hayes opened the door to the most restrictive and xenophobic immigration restriction measure up to that point in time, the exclusion of Chinese laborers, signed by President Chester Arthur in 1882.19
President Hayes dealt with several other major issues during his term. After inheriting an ailing economy still reeling from the 1873 panic, Hayes, an adovocate of gold-backed currency, fended off the pro-silver, pro-greenback inflationists as best he could. In early 1878 he vetoed the Bland-Allison Act to increase the amount of silver currency in circulation. Congress overrode the veto. This was the only one of his thirteen vetoes to suffer that fate. Hayes used his executive discretion to mint the lowest amount of silver possible under the law. This battle over the money supply dominated the economic debate in the United States until the Gold Standard Act of 1900 finally settled the matter, albeit only after thousands of strikes, historic deflation, another depression, the populist uprising, a war with Spain, and the discovery of enormous gold reserves in Alaska and South Africa.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 confronted Hayes with his first unexpected crisis in July.20 Pay cuts by major railroad lines precipitated mass walk offs that halted traffic throughout the nation. Two days into the crisis, West Virginia’s governor wired a request for federal troops to the president. Just three months after withdrawing troops from the South on the grounds that the federal government should not interfere in state issues, Hayes issued a proclamation labeling the action an “insurrection” and ordering the strikers to disperse.21 The president dispatched a small contingent of regular soldiers to West Virginia. He issued identical statements for Maryland on July 21 and Pennsylvania on July 23.
Despite these proclamations, the president acted coolly and brushed aside demands that he issue a call for volunteers as Lincoln had done in April 1861. While he supported the states with shipments of supplies for their militias, Hayes sent few regular troops (not that he had many to send in any event as the army was largely tied down in the West), and he preferred to do his fact-finding via professional officers like General Winfield Scott Hancock, instead of local politicos and industrialists. Unlike poorly led, jittery militia troops who had a predeliction for firing on crowds of civilians, federal troops followed the lead of their commander-in-chief with greater restraint. When summing up his record after a year in office, Hayes celebrated his handling of the strike: “The Riots — not a man shot but order promptly and firmly upheld.”22 It is a little misleading. State and local militia and police killed at least 117 and wounded many times that. 23
Hayes consciously modeled himself on John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States. He saw his hero as man of outstanding character, sound judgement, national sentiment, and integrity, all traits that Hayes aspired to. Yet, Adams was also a poor communicator who enjoyed little support in Congress, who came to the presidency with questionable legitimacy, and who likewise failed to achieve his major policy goals. Hayes might have bothered to learn that lesson and adjust his own presidency accordingly.
- The standout biography of Hayes is Ari Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995). ↩
- The most exhaustive account of the Hayes administration is Ari Hoogenboom, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988). For larger context, see also Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, The Oxford History of the United States (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017). White is unsparing in his criticism of the 19th president. ↩
- White, The Republic for Which It Stands, 334. ↩
- Frank P. Vazzano, “Rutherford B. Hayes and the Politics of Discord,” The Historian 68, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 519–40. ↩
- For more on the election see Michael F. Holt, By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876, American Presidential Elections (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008). ↩
- The classic account of the Compromise of 1877 is C. Van Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1951). Other provisions of the compromise included appointmet of a southerner to the cabinet, funding of internal imrpovements in the south, costruction of a southern transcontiental railroad line, and election of James A. Garfield to speaker of the House. Not all of these measures were implemented. Historians in the last generation are less convinced of the importance of the compromise. ↩
- Rutherford B. Hayes, “1876 Acceptance Speech” https://www.rbhayes.org/hayes/1876-acceptance-speech/. ↩
- For more on Reconstruction and Hayes, see Brooks D. Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998) and Mark W. Summers, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, The Littlefield History of the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Simpson points out the variance between Hayes’s words and deeds. Summers describes Hayes’s policy as “appeasement.” Both feel Hayes possessed few alternatives. ↩
- James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, vol. 10 (New York: Bureau of National Literature, 1897), 4394. ↩
- T. Harry Williams, Hayes: The Diary of a President, 1875-1881 (New York: David McKay Co., 1964), 85. The complete edition of the diaries are available online at https://resources.ohiohistory.org/hayes/. ↩
- Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents, 211. ↩
- Williams, Hayes: The Diary of a President, 87. ↩
- Williams, 87. ↩
- Hayes, “Acceptance Letter.” ↩
- Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President, 324. Richard White even goes so far as to argue that Hayes wanted the spoils for his faction and was not much of a reformer. See, White, The Republic for Which It Stands, 360. ↩
- Gregory J. Dehler, Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President (New York: Nova History Publishers, 2007), 24; Hoogenboom, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, 111. ↩
- Williams, Hayes: The Diary of a President, 85. ↩
- Hoogenboom, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, 144. ↩
- Erika Lee, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2019). ↩
- Michael A. Bellesiles, 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently (New York: New Press: Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010); Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1959); David O. Stowell, Streets, Railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). ↩
- James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, vol.10, 4440. ↩
- Williams, Hayes: The Diary of a President, 126. ↩
- Bellesiles, 1877, 117. ↩