Keith Ian Polakoff
RUTHERFORD BIRCHARD HAYES entered the White House when the powers and prestige of the presidency were at a particularly low ebb. During the term of Andrew Johnson, Congress had reclaimed the initiative, previously exercised by Abraham Lincoln, in shaping Reconstruction policy. It had restricted the president's authority over appointments and removals of officeholders. It had even seized upon Johnsons' attempt to replace one of his own cabinet advisers as a pretext for impeaching him and almost removing him from office. Then the eight years of the Grant administration that followed were so frequently marked by scandal that in December 1875 an overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the principle of a third term.
Hayes himself was, in an unusual respect, beholden to his fellow Republicans in Congress. The outcome of the 1876 presidential election was the subject of a prolonged and potentially dangerous dispute. Democrats were sure they had elected Samuel J. Tilden. Republicans were equally certain that their opponents had carried several southern states by fraud and intimidation. In three of these states—Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina—local Republicans used their control of the canvassing boards to throw out questioned Democratic votes and declare both the Hayes electors and the Republican state tickets elected, while the Democrats in turn cried foul.
Normally, the presidential electors met in their respective state capitals long after the actual result was known. Their votes were then transported to Washington and routinely tallied by the president of the Senate before a joint session of Congress. It was strictly a ceremonial occasion. This time the existence of rival sets of electoral votes from the three southern states and the ambiguity of the constitutional language describing the official counting procedure led a bipartisan majority in Congress to create a special electoral commission to determine which votes should be counted. The commission was supposed to be politically balanced, consisting of five senators (three Republicans and two Democrats), five representatives (two Republicans and three Democrats), and five associate justices of the Supreme Court (two Republicans, two Democrats, and independent David Davis; but the one independent refused to serve and was replaced by a third Republican). Only after the commission had ruled—in a series of 8–7 party-line votes—in favor of the Hayes electors and the Republican minority had weathered the threat of a filibuster in the Democrat-controlled House was Hayes officially declared president—on 2 March 1877, two days before he assumed office.
To compound the situation further, Hayes had a limited base of support within his own party. He only emerged as the nominee of the Republican National Convention because a deadlock developed between the supporters of the front-runner, James G. Blaine of Maine, and various lesser contenders. Since Blaine's opponents included men as disparate as machine politicians Roscoe Conkling of New York and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, and reformer Benjamin H. Bristow of Kentucky, they could only put their full strength behind someone else. That created an opportunity for Hayes, then in an unprecedented third term as governor of Ohio.
Hayes had been a lawyer, a Union officer wounded several times while leading his troops in battle, a dependable supporter of the Radical Republican plan during the early Reconstruction Congresses, and a staunch regular in the election of 1872—all of which reassured the likes of Conkling and Morton. At the same time, the reform elements drew encouragement from his advocacy of the gold standard, freedom from involvement in machine politics, and unquestioned personal integrity. And, of course, Hayes was a proven vote-getter in the pivotal Buck-eye State, which all Republicans believed they had to carry to retain the presidency. He was, in short, supremely "available."
Hayes was the very model of a Victorian gentleman. A native Ohioan (born 4 October 1822), he was a graduate of Kenyon College in his home state. After attending Harvard Law School, he built a solid reputation as an attorney in Lower Sandusky (later Fre-mont) and, after 1850, in Cincinnati. Already prosperous, in 1875 he inherited the substantial estate of the merchant uncle who had provided for him since infancy. Hayes was by no means a scholar, but he enjoyed reading, mostly American history and biography, and welcomed the company of scholars. Above all, he hungered for respectability. His diary plainly reveals the ambivalence he felt when his political ambition clashed with his strict sense of morality, which told him that a man might gladly accept high office but should not actively seek it. In the White House, Rutherford and Lucy Webb Hayes would decline to serve alcoholic beverages, even at state functions.
That same hunger for respectability helps explain the alacrity with which he accepted the advice of former Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri, whom he had never met, regarding his formal letter of acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination. Schurz was the acknowledged mastermind of the Liberal Republican revolt of 1872 and the foremost spokesman of the "best men," as the highly educated, upper-middle-class reformers modestly thought of themselves. Schurz urged Hayes to express himself boldly on the need for a sound currency, southern reconciliation, and civil service reform. On each issue Hayes did so, even employing some of Schurz's suggested language. He was especially blunt in his denunciation of the spoils system, which, he said, "destroys the independence of the separate departments of government, . . . tends directly to extravagance and official incapacity, . . . [and] degrades the civil service and the character of the government.. . . It ought to be abolished. The reform should be thorough, radical, and complete." The reformers were impressed, but party regulars were not. Senator Conkling sat out the rest of the campaign at his home in upstate New York.
Ari Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (Lawrence, Kans., 1995), is the best biography of the nineteenth president, as Hoogenboom's The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (Lawrence, Kans., 1988), is the best overall account of his administration. Arthur Bishop, ed., Rutherford B. Hayes, 1822–1893 (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., 1969), contains a useful chronology of Hayes's life and lengthy excerpts from his most important state papers. T. Harry Williams, ed., Hayes: The Diary of a President, 1875–1881 (New York, 1964), affords the best insight into his character and personality.
Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge, La., 1973), details the disputed election of 1876 and its settlement. William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869–1879 (Baton Rouge, La., 1979), is critical of Hayes's southern policy. Terry L. Seip, The South Returns to Congress: Men, Economic Measures, and Intersectional Relationships, 1868–1879 (Baton Rouge, La., 1983), compares the voting records of southern Democrats and Republicans of the Reconstruction era. James M. McPherson, "Coercion or Conciliation? Abolitionists Debate President Hayes's Southern Policy," in New England Quarterly 39 (1966), illustrates how frustrating this intractable problem could be for those who cared deeply about it. Vincent P. De Santis, Republicans Face the Southern Question: The New Departure Years, 1877–1897 (Baltimore, 1959), is an excellent account of the Republican attempts to find a substitute for their failed Reconstruction program.
Ari Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865–1883 (Urbana, Ill., 1961), is the best general account of the civil service reform movement from 1865 through the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883. John G. Sproat, The Best Men: Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age (New York, 1968), incisively analyzes the liberal reformers who had so much influence on Hayes. Hans L. Trefousse, Carl Schurz: A Biography (Knoxville, Tenn., 1982), is an excellent biography of the cabinet member closest to Hayes. David M. Jordan, Roscoe Conkling of New York: Voice in the Senate (Ithaca, N.Y., 1971), ably portrays one of Hayes's principal opponents.
Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence (Indianapolis, Ind., 1959), is a lively account of the great railroad strike. Walter T. K. Nugent, Money and American Society, 1865–1880 (New York, 1968), presents the most lucid account of the currency debates after the Civil War. Milton Plesur, America's Outward Thrust: Approaches to Foreign Affairs, 1865–1890 (DeKalb, Ill., 1971), treats Hayes as one of the forerunners of the more aggressive McKinley and Roosevelt.
Recent works include Ari Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes: One of the Good Colonels (Abilene, Tex., 2000), and Hans L. Trefousse, Rutherford B. Hayes (New York, 2002).