May 19th, 2020


The Obscure Presidents: Rutherford Hayes

Rutherford Hayes is surely one of the "obscure presidents". Outside of his home state, he is probably not remembered by anyone who is not a historian. Even in his own time, the Presidency of Rutherford Hayes got off to a bad start. Hayes took office after an intensely disputed election, with tensions running so high that outgoing President Ulysses Grant had the army on standby to prevent a possible insurrection. The whole affair earned Hayes such pejorative nicknames as "Rutherfraud" or "His Fraudulency." In order to get Democrats to go along with the findings of the Election Commission, it is believed that Hayes agreed to withdraw the last federal troops from the South, ending the Reconstruction Era. That might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it had drastic consequences that are still being felt today. Hayes hoped to reconcile the divisions left over from the Civil War and Reconstruction, and its likely that he genuinely wanted to protect the civil rights of African-Americans, but on that last goal he failed. His removal of federal troops emboldened white supremacists in the south. His only probable success was probably in his pursuit of civil service reform. He challenged his own party in the making of appointments. Though he was unsuccessful in enacting long-term reform, he helped to provide a significant impetus for the eventual passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883.


Born in Ohio in 1822, Hayes became a successful lawyer in Cincinnati. He served as city solicitor of Cincinnati from 1858 to 1861. Part of his law practice was defending escaped slaves who had been arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. He served with distinction during the Civil War, and was wounded at the Battle of South Mountain. He returned to service after recovering from his injury, and would later suffer another wound, have a horse shot out from under him, get thrown from another horse, and get struck in the head with a spent round. In total he was wounded five times during the war. He left the army with the rank of brigadier general (and brevet major general). In 1864 he was elected to the House of Representatives, but was reluctant to leave the army with the war still ongoing. After the war, he served in the Congress from 1865 to 1867 as a Republican. Hayes left Congress to run for governor of Ohio and was elected to two consecutive terms, from 1868 to 1872. Later he served a third two-year term, from 1876 to 1877.

Hayes was nominated as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1876. He was selected because of his good reputation, something the Republicans were looking for in the wake of the scandals of the Grant administration. The election of 1876 was the closest in history, with a number of electoral votes in dispute. He lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden but he won an intensely disputed electoral college vote after a Congressional commission awarded him twenty contested electoral votes. This resulted in the Compromise of 1877, in which the Democrats acquiesced to Hayes's election on the condition that he withdraw remaining U.S. troops protecting Republican office holders in the South, ending the Reconstruction era. Hayes was elected through the Compromise of 1877, a compromise that officially ended the Reconstruction Era by allowing the South to govern itself. In office he ordered the withdrawal of military troops from the South. This ended US Army support for Republican state governments in the South. It removed protection for the efforts of African-American freedmen to establish their families as free citizens. As President, Hayes promoted civil service reform, and attempted to reconcile the divisions left over from the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Hayes ordered federal troops to guard federal buildings to restore order from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. He implemented modest civil service reforms and vetoed the Bland–Allison Act, a bill that intended to put silver money into circulation. Fearing that the bill would be inflationary, he insisted that maintenance of the gold standard was essential to economic recovery. Hayes kept his promise not to run for re-election, He retired to his home in Ohio, and became an advocate of social and educational reform.

Admirers of Hayes have praised his commitment to civil service reform and defense of civil rights. But for the most part, Hayes is generally ranked as average or slightly below average by historians and scholars. His home at Spiegal Grove was donated to the state of Ohio, becoming Spiegel Grove State Park. Hayes was re-interred there in 1915. The following year the Hayes Commemorative Library and Museum was opened on the site, becoming the first presidential library in the United States. It was funded by contributions from the state of Ohio and Hayes's family.

Hayes is remembered in parts of South America because of an 1878 dispute between Argentina and Paraguay which Hayes had arbitrated and decided in favor of Paraguay. The result of his arbitration gave Paraguay 60 percent of its current territory. In honor of Hayes, a province in the region was named after him: Presidente Hayes province. Its capital is Villa Hayes. The Paraguayans also created an official holiday in Hayes' honor: Laudo Hayes Firm Day, the anniversary of the decision, is celebrated in Presidente Hayes province. A local soccer team: Presidente Hayes soccer club (also known as "Los Yanquis") is also named for him, based in the national capital, Asuncion. A young girl who came out of a coma was granted her fondest wish: a trip to the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.

Hayes County, Nebraska is named after the 19th President. Rutherford B. Hayes High School in Hayes's hometown of Delaware, Ohio was also named in his honor. Hayes Hall, built in 1893, at the Ohio State University is also named in his honor. It is the oldest remaining building on campus, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 16, 1970. Before Hayes died in 1893 he knew that the building would be named in his honor, but never lived to see it completed.

Historian Ari Hoogenboom, Hayes' leading biographer, makes the case that Hayes was a shrewd politician and describes him as a "patient reformer who attempted what was possible." Hoogenboom maintains that Hayes's most serious mistake was choosing not to run for second term, which would have allowed Hayes to more fully implement his agenda. But this is not a universally accepted point of view. Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Hayes as an average or below-average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Hayes as the 28st best president, while a 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Hayes as the 32nd best president.

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Hayes biggest mistake appears to be his abandonment of the principles espoused by Ulysses Grant for the protection of the freedmen and the commitment to equal rights. As presidential rankings continue to place a higher value on the protection of civil rights and the recognition of principles of equality, it is likely that Hayes' standing will continue to decline.