Rutherford Birchard Hayes: America’s 19th President

Rutherford Birchard Hayes is considered the first of the five presidents to be elected during the Gilded Age, a period that involved serious social problems masked by a thin gold gilding and generally recognized as existing from the 1870s to 1900. Hayes won the presidency in 1877. His victory was highly unusual as he was the first U.S. President to lose the popular vote but win the office because of massive electoral fraud. However, despite winning under a dark cloud, many historians consider him to be the most honest men that ever inhabited White House.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes

Rutherford Birchard Hayes. Courtesy of Wikiipedia.

Hayes was born on 4 October 1822 in Delaware, Ohio to a Vermont storekeeper Rutherford Hayes, Jr. and his wife Sophia Birchard. Unfortunately, Hayes’ father died ten weeks before he was born and his upbringing was left to his mother, who never remarried. Hayes attended the common schools in Ohio, at the Methodist Norwalk Seminary in Norwalk, Ohio, and then at Kenyon college in Cambier. He was a great student, became class valedictorian, and graduated with highest honors in 1842, the same year that the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud wrote her memoirs.

In 1850, Hayes moved to Cincinnati and opened a law office. It was there in Cincinnati that he began to court his future wife, Lucy Webb. His mother had always liked Lucy and for years had encouraged him to get to know her. Once he did, they became engaged in 1851 and married on 30 December 1852. The couple would go on to have eight children: Birchard Austin, Webb Cook, Rutherford Platt, Joseph Thompson, George Crook, Fanny, Scott Russell, Manning Force.

Lucy Webb Hayes. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because Lucy was a Methodist, teetotaler, and abolitionist, she influenced Hayes’ views on those issues, and he would later be called “Old Granny” because of his support of them. After his wife joined the Republican party, he became interested in politics and joined the Republican party too. Then, having had an interest in slavery for some time, when the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the army.

Hayes soon showed himself to be a courageous soldier and earned a promotion to colonel. On the battlefield during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant said he showed “conspicuous gallantry.” In addition, Hayes was lauded for having been wounded five times and having four horses shot out from under him. He was also known to always to be the person leading the charge. In fact, his exploits became legendary:

“He took part in several engagements … prior to the battle of Winchester. In that important encounter he had the right of Crook’s command, and it was therefore his troops which, in conjunction with the Calvary, executed the turning manœuvre that decided the fate of the day.

At one point in the advance his command came upon a deep slough, fifty yards wide and stretching across the whole front of his brigade. Beyond was a rebel battery. If the bridge endeavored to move around the obstruction it would be exposed … while if discomfited, the line of advance would be broken in a vital part. Hayes, with the instinct of a soldier, at once gave the word ‘Forward!’ and spurred his horse into the swamp. Horse and rider plunged at first nearly out of sight, but Hayes struggled on till the beast sank hopelessly into the mire. Then dismounting, he waded to the farther bank, climbed to the top, and beckoned with his cap to the men to follow. In the attempt to obey many were shot or drowned, but a sufficient number crossed the ditch to form a nucleus for the brigade; and, Hayes, still leading, they climbed the bank and charged the battery. The enemy fled in great disorder, and Hayes reformed his men and rescued the advance …

At Fisher’s Hill Hayes led a division in the turning movement assigned to Crook’s command. Clambering up the steep sides of North Mountain, which was covered with an almost impenetrable entanglement of trees and underbrush, the division gained, unperceived, a position in the rear of the enemy’s line, and then charged with so much fury that the rebels hardly attempted to resist, but fled in utter route and dismay. Hayes was at the head of his column throughout this brilliant charge.

At Cedar Creek he was again engaged. While riding at full speed, his horse was shot under him, but soon recovering, he sprang to his feet and limped to his command.”[1]

President Rutherford Birchard Hayes

Rutherford Birchard Hayes in his uniform during the American Civil War. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because of such gallantry, Hayes was promoted to brigadier-general and brevetted major-general. His heroic record also made him an extremely attractive candidate to Republicans who wanted to rally the American public to their side. For this reason, they encouraged him to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but to do so, he needed to leave the battlefield to campaign, something he was not inclined to do. This was remarked on after his death when the National Prison Association held a memorial for him, and a Revered George H. Hickox of Michigan stated:

“If memory serves me rightly, General Hayes served through the war. He was nominated for congress while in the army. The unwise zeal of his friends at home urged him to leave the army and engage in the political campaign. A brief letter gave them his answer. He wrote, ‘Thanks, I have other business just now. Any man who leaves the army at this time, to electioneer for congress, deserves to be scalped.’ He wrote again, ‘I shall never go to Washington, until I go by the way of Richmond.’ On the banners of the Ohio campaign, that year, the popular and loyal heart had written, ‘Our candidate is stumping the Shenandoah Valley;’ and, ‘Hayes loves his country, and is fighting for it.’”[2]

It didn’t matter that Hayes refused to campaign because his battlefield reputation proceeded him. He handily won the seat without campaigning in 1864 and when he entered Congress a year later, he supported Reconstruction. However, he was hardly able to accomplish anything because three years later he was encouraged to run for governor of Ohio and once again won.

Ulysses S. Grant had been president between 1869 and 1877 and his tenure was rocked by corruption and constant scandals. Hayes, on the other hand, rooted out corruption and unlike many other politicians, he refused to go along with the spoils system of giving jobs to political supporters or friends. Instead, his appointees received their jobs based on qualifications and merit and soon his public appeal was based on his honest reputation.

Despite Hayes’ unblemished reputation and him beating out an incumbent and popular Democratic governor in 1875, he was not the front runner for presidential candidate among Republicans. That honor belonged to James G. Blaine of Maine. However, after Blaine was charged with corruption, Republicans decided Hayes would be the better 1876 candidate for president.

The battle for the presidency was a hard fought race. Samuel Jones Tilden was the Democratic candidate and his appeal was based on his reputation for reform and his electoral success in the country’s most populous state of New York. In addition, Tilden devised a nationwide advertising campaign and was also a skilled organizer whose canvassing system and field knowledge was so thorough that, months before he won the 1874 election for Governor of New York, he predicted the margin he would win by and came within 300 votes.

19th U.S. President Rutherford Birchard Hayes

A Rutherford Birchard Hayes poster produced when he ran for U.S. President. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the presidential election Tilden had predicted he would win the popular vote and he did by about 200,000 votes. That gave Tilden 203 to Haye’s 166 electoral votes, but Republicans objected complaining that many blacks in southern states had not been allowed to vote. The states of Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina therefore refused to accredit the Democratic electorates, and their votes went to Hayes, which then resulted in Tilden not having a majority and a tie being declared.

This infuriated Democrats and chaos ensued between the Democratic controlled House and the Republican controlled Senate. Ultimately, Republicans and Democrats agreed that a bipartisan electoral commission should determine the results, but Republicans arranged it so that the outcome favored them, and Hayes won. Of his win, it was reported:

“The complacency with which the Administration press assumes the election of a Fraudulent president deserves to rank as a masterpiece of ingenious affectation … These are the days of humiliation, shame, and mourning for every patriotic American. A man whom the people rejected at the polls, has been declared President of the United States, through processes of fraud. A cheat is to sit in the seat of George Washington. Let every upright citizen gird himself up for the work of redressing this monstrous iniquity. No truce with the guilty conspirators! No rest for them and no mercy, till their political punishment and destruction are complete!”[3]

Democrats were so incensed they refused to attend Hayes’ inauguration calling him “His Fraudulency.” Republicans so feared that Rutherford Birchard Hayes might be assassinated, they decided to hold the inauguration in secret and did so on 3 March when he was sworn in as the 19th president in the Red Room of the White House in a private ceremony. Ultimately, however, to prevent a challenge to the electoral commission’s ruling, Republicans gave Democrats what they wanted, an end to Reconstruction, rebuilding of the south, and a southern appointee to Hayes’ cabinet. Hayes was then publicly inaugurated two days later on 5 March.

After taking office, President Rutherford Birchard Hayes and his wife Lucy gave their first official state reception at the White House on 19 April 1877. The dinner included wine, but Hayes quickly became unhappy about the drunken behavior displayed at several receptions around Washington, D.C., and decided to support his wife’s temperance leanings, so alcohol was thereafter not served and visitors to the White House found it an alcohol free zone. For this, his wife earned the nickname of “Lemonade Lucy.” In fact, the secretary of state, William Maxwell Evarts, noted that the prohibition at the White House engendered all sorts of humor and he himself once ‘chuckled over his description of a state dinner, when ‘water flowed like wine!’”[4]

Not everything else was so humorous for Hayes as president. One of the first difficulties he faced was the largest U.S. labor uprising to this point in history. It became known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and was caused because of employee wage cuts made by railroad executives to make up for the financial losses they suffered in the panic of 1873. Although there were some riots, workers eventually went back to work despite some of the wage cuts remaining. At first glance it appeared as if the railroads were victorious, but ultimately the public blamed the railroads for the strikes and riots, and executives were forced to improve working conditions and stop further wage cuts.

Hayes’ American Indian policy carried out by Interior Secretary Carl Schurz also resulted in problems. Hayes instructed Schurz to institute assimilation of Native Americans into white culture, provide educational training, and divide Indian land into individual household allotments. Hayes believed that such policies would lead to self-sufficiency and peace with Native Americans, but that did not happen. There was the 1877 uprising by the Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph and trouble with the Ute tribe of Colorado in 1879.

President Rutherford Birchard Hayes

An 1881 political cartoon about Carl Schurz’s management of the Indian Bureau. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hayes was also determined to reform civil service appointments based on the spoils system, something that had started during Andrew Jackson’s term. However, Hayes’ attempts at reform brought him into conflict with Stalwarts (pro-spoils supporters within the Republican party). Those who were consulted about political appointments were also unhappy with the president. Hayes tried to convince Congress to prohibit the spoils system but that didn’t work, and, so, he tried to get them to enact permanent reform legislation. That didn’t happen during his presidency, but it did make possible the passage of the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

While in office, Rutherford Birchard Hayes also embarked on a 71-day tour of the American West known as the Great Western Tour of 1880. He left Washington, D.C. in late August, had a layover at the Hayes family home in Fremont Ohio. The trip was resumed on 2 September with the first stop on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Line being in Omaha, Nebraska. The TransContinental Railroad had been finished on 10 May 1869 and from there a special Union Pacific train traveled along the Platte River.

Hayes was the second president to travel west of the Rocky Mountains, as Ulysses S. Grant had done so in 1875 when he visited Utah. Yet, the event was still so rare, crowds lined the route to see their new president. Top speed at the time was not more than about 35-miles an hour, so it was a long trip. Besides the stop in Nebraska, Hayes also stopped in Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada before he ultimately arrived in California. Controversy over his election persisted throughout the trip and when he arrived in San Francisco, the San Francisco Examiner reported on Saturday 11 September:

“The decoration of welcome prepared for the reception of Rutherford B. Hayes at the Mechanics’ Fair last night, designated him as ‘Our President.’ He is the ‘President,’ of those who choose to call him so. But the great majority of the people view him as the first to make fraud triumphant in these United States. The appropriate designation of the Chief magistrate of the Republic, is ‘the President.’ Hayes does not fill the bill. By the way, it is pertinent here to mention the fact that, on his entrance at and parade through the great Pavilion last night, there was barely a glitter of enthusiastic token. Of all the immense crowd very few hailed him with cheers, and there was no loud or full greeting. Contrasted with the tumultuous welcome given Gen. Grant, as ex-President, it was as a funereal occasion. Some Chinaman had lettered a bed quilt at one end of the gallery ‘Welcome to Rutherford the Good,’ at which Hayes took a very long and comforting look; but the Fruit Department display, exceedingly fine as it was … he barely glanced at as he hurried past it, much to the disgust of those in charge, who had been deluded into the extra preparation by the information that he was greatly interested in such display. … He seemed greatly taken by the Chinese and Japanese booths, at which a Chinaman presided. As if to bear out his true character the fraud was wrought upon the assembled throng of keeping them tediously awaiting his arrival, promised at eight o’clock, until half-past nine o’clock. But the crowd got enough of him at that late hour.”[5]

Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hayes was to travel by railway and stagecoach to Oregon and Washington. Because of known bandits that inhabited the territory, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War, rode “shotgun” alongside the stagecoaches. Hayes went to Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington before taking a steamship from Vancouver to Seattle. He then returned to San Francisco and toured several southwestern states before returning to Ohio in November.

As promised, Rutherford Birchard Hayes did not run for reelection in 1880. However, he did ensure that the party machinery was sufficiently intact to win the presidency. Republican James Abram Garfield became the next president after he barely beat out the Democratic candidate General Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania: Garfield beat the career military officer Hancock in the popular vote by a mere two thousand votes.

James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur’s Grant National Republican Banner for 1880. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hayes was happy to hand the presidential mantle over to Garfield and left Washington. After he did the Journal of the Knights of Labor reported:

“His civil servant reform efforts were sincere and important. Garfield’s election was taken as a proof of the confidence which Hayes had won for himself. On his retirement, the ex-President, who was an extremely simple man, retired to his home at Fremont, Ohio. He has since devoted himself to benevolent and philanthropic work, prison reform and education and charitable enterprises and temperance.”[6]

Life in retirement would be good for a few years until Lucy died. It happened a few days after she suffered a stroke. Lucy, who became her husband’s confidante on political matters and played a crucial role in his win for governor, died on Tuesday 25 June 1889 at the age of 57. Hayes was greatly affected by her passing and wrote in his diary:

“Lucy died without pain this morning at 6:30. All were present. I held her hand and gazed upon her fine face to the last; when kissing her good-bye as she left the earth, I joined the dear daughter and the other children in walking onto the porch in the bracing air of the lovely morning.”[7]

When Lucy’s death became known to the public, flags across the U.S. were flown at half-mast in her honor. The day after her demise, Hayes once again remarked on his great loss, stating of Lucy:

“I notice in the newspapers the phrase, ‘the beautiful home’ … but I now begin to realize that the soul has left it.”[8]

Rutherford Bircharad Hayes lived another four years after Lucy’s death. Their daughter Fanny served as her father’s traveling companion during this time. He died at home of complications of a heart attack on 17 January 1893. His last words were, “I know that I’m going where Lucy is.”[9] He was interred in Oakwood Cemetery in Fremont.


  • [1] W. H. Powell, Officers of the Army and Navy (volunteer) who Served in the Civil War (Philadelphia: L. R. Hamersly & Company, 1893), p. 58.
  • [2] National Prison Association of the United States, Rutherford Birchard Hayes: In Memoriam (Chicago: Knight, Leonard & Company, 1893), p. 28.
  • [3] Greenville Advocate, March 8, 1877, p. 2.
  • [4] R. Shackleton, The Book of Washington (Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Company, 1922), p. 22.
  • [5] The San Francisco Examiner, “Something of Hayes,” September 11, 1880, p. 2.
  • [6] Journal of the Knights of Labor, “Rutherford B. Hayes Dead,” January 26, 1893, p. 3.
  • [7] Charles Richard Williams, The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes, Nineteenth President of the United States (Columbus: Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, 1922), p. 474.
  • [8] C. R. Williams. 1922, p. 474.
  • [9] Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, In memoriam Brevet Maj.-Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes, United States volunteers (1893), p. 72.

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  1. Jason Stark on January 30, 2021 at 11:15 pm

    I never knew any of this about President Hayes.

    He seems like a decent man. Not sure about the whole election fraud thing; seems like some things never change. But he certainly was a Civil War hero and a good person, even if he had faults (we all do).

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