Rutherford B Hayes

19th president - 1877-1881

One of the most honest and decent men ever to occupy the White House, Hayes is nonetheless remembered mainly for having "stolen" his election victory.

Only the presidential election of 2000 has rivalled that of 1876 for controversy. Hayes's Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, had been widely expected to win, and did indeed win the popular vote by more than 250,000 votes (at a time when the US population was only 50 million). He also led the electoral votes by 184 to 166. But there were disputes over the results in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida (and one vote in Oregon), and, although Hayes told a reporter that he thought he had lost the election, his party refused to concede defeat. After much controversy, Congress appointed a committee to sort out the mess. Eight Republicans and seven Democrats sat on it, and each voted on party lines, allowing Hayes to clinch victory by 185 electoral votes to 184.

Plainly uncomfortable at the manner of his success, and concerned by threats of rebellion from outraged southern Democrats (whose campaign had focused on the corruption of the outgoing Grant administration), Hayes promised to serve only one term and committed himself to a conciliatory, non-partisan presidency.

In the circumstances of the time, this might have been less desirable than it sounds. Although Hayes had pledged protection for the rights of freed slaves in the South, he also advocated the restoration of "wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government" there and, in the informal compromise agreement of 1877, he announced that he would end military occupation of the southern states. This calmed the immediate political storm, but, as troops were withdrawn, the vacuum was filled by the cause of white supremacy.

Given the circumstances of his election, Hayes should probably be considered a successful president. An Ohio-born lawyer, he had fought with distinction during the Civil War, and his presidency was coloured by his obvious integrity. The other notable feature of his administration was his attempt at civil service reform. In June 1877, he issued an executive order barring federal employees from taking part in political activities. He also encouraged the creation of a civil service commission and the introduction of competitive examinations.

He honoured his promise not to stand for re-election and devoted his 12-year retirement to good causes, such as temperance and educational opportunities for former slaves.

In his own words

"He serves his party best who serves his country best."

"I am not liked as a president by the politicians in office, in the press, or in Congress. But I am content to abide by the judgement – the sober second thought – of the people."

"Fighting battles is like courting girls: those who make the most pretensions and are boldest usually win."

In others' words

"The great fraud of 1876-77, by which, upon a false count of the electoral votes of two States, the candidate defeated at the polls was declared to be President, and for the first time in American history, the will of the people was set aside under a threat of military violence, struck a deadly blow at our system of representative government." (Democratic Party Platform, 22 June 1880)

Minutiae

Hayes's wife was even more puritanical than he was. She became known as "Lemonade Lucy", for banning alcohol from the White House. In the whole of Hayes's presidency, there was only one state reception at which wine was served. The Hayes family spent their evenings singing hymns.

As a young man, Hayes was so popular with members of the opposite sex that he invented a non-existent girlfriend – who he said was waiting for him in Columbus – in order to discourage his overly persistent admirers from pursuing him.

On his journey from the White House to the estate in Fremont, Ohio where Hayes would be spending his retirement, he was involved in a serious rail crash – but managed to survive the incident unscathed.

During the Civil War, he had his horse shot from under him on no fewer than four separate occasions.

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