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The president was raised by a single mother.

His wife brought college smarts to the White House and intimidated a lot of Washington society.

He came into office on the heels of a dramatic economic slump and replaced an unpopular, corrupt administration.

In policy, he stood for immigration reform and civil rights. But Congress was controlled by the opposition party — many of whom questioned the legitimacy of the president. The divide between them became so great that Congress stonewalled the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court in the president’s last year of office.

A lot of details from the dusty 19th century seem familiar in 2016.

Rutherford B. Hayes — Kenyon Class of 1842 — has a remarkable story. But after a dramatic 20th century of world wars, moon shots, heart surgeries and video games, Hayes and his beard have struggled to compete when it comes to dynamic legacies.

He served only one term. He was in a group of Kenyon men who closely supported President Abraham Lincoln — but Hayes himself was no Lincoln. If Americans today know anything about Hayes, it is that his 1876 election was completed by a complicated backroom deal that ended Reconstruction, the federal attempt to police civil rights in the South.

However, new interest in Hayes may be stirring — at Kenyon and far beyond. His hometown of Delaware, Ohio, is considering a statue near where he was born (today a gas station). His presidential library in Fremont opened a $1 million gallery renovation in May. And Hayes himself appears to be tweeting from his tomb, using the handle @PresRBHayes: “Being stuck in a crypt in Fremont isn’t so bad when a Harry Potter marathon is on @ABCFamily.”

Kenyon President Sean Decatur is on the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums Board of Trustees and is interested in working with the center in Fremont to have symposia about Hayes.

“Kenyon attracts students who are interested in public service and government work in Washington and locally and globally,” Decatur said. “We have a long history of such engagement, going back to Hayes and
his contemporaries in the mid-19th century. That thread is important for us as well.”

Hayes’ life can be a complicated and sensitive topic, but it may be time to reexamine whether the 19th president deserves to be the fall guy for the failure of Reconstruction.

“The party was over, and someone needed to put the dishes away and turn out the lights. And Hayes was that guy,” said Professor of History Glenn McNair. “No matter who was the Republican president at that time, it would have been the same outcome.” 

 

Old Kenyon

Hayes had plenty of troubles before his beleaguered White House term. His father died 10 weeks before Hayes was born in 1822. His mother never remarried, and three of his siblings did not survive to adulthood. He was wounded in the Civil War four times (more battlefield wounds than any other U.S. president). 

Rutherford’s ancestors were New Englanders, and he wanted to attend Yale. His mom was a descendant of one of Yale’s founders, but she insisted he attend a soberer institution that was closer to home. He came to Kenyon in 1838. 

He wasn’t that sober in Gambier — he wrote for The Knapsack, a humor magazine on campus that lasted five issues. He was a good student, but he still grumbled about his classes. In his senior year he wrote his sister: “Algebra, chemistry, and Paley’s Natural Theology all dry, and with the exception of Algebra I am not anxious to excel in them.”

He did excel at making friends, and one example reveals his later role as a “compromise president.” In 1841, the Nu Pi Kappa Society, which had only Southerners, was low on membership because the number of Southerners at Kenyon had fallen. Guy Bryan, who fought in the Texas Revolution as the firebrand nephew of Stephen Austin, the “father of Texas,” was close friends with Hayes and asked for help. Hayes led a group of Northerners who transferred into Nu Pi Kappa to keep it alive.

“Life in college uncovers character almost as in the war,” Hayes told Kenyon alumni meeting in Cleveland in 1891. Bryan and Hayes fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. But their friendship continued, and during Reconstruction their personal letters contained some bite as they debated civil rights for African Americans. 

Hayes was the valedictorian of his Kenyon class. And yet Hayes’ legacy in Gambier is largely forgotten in the 21st century. One of the new science buildings [Hayes Hall] is named for him, but McNair noted, “There is not a lot of talk about Hayes around here. There aren’t Hayes events. … Students have no clue who Hayes was or what Hayes Hall is.” 

The House

Hayes’ expansive home in Fremont near Lake Erie looks almost exactly as it did during his post-presidency days there. It’s a typical Victorian home tour: There are stories about the light fixtures, a peek at the hidden doorway built for caskets and the awe of a gigantic full-length painting of Hayes. 

You can see the cane chair President Ulysses S. Grant sat in during the inauguration they held to get Hayes into the White House. What you don’t hear is that Hayes was inaugurated early because just the day before that inauguration some Southern Democrats in Congress had passed a resolution recognizing his opponent, Democrat Samuel Tilden, as the next president. Grant and Hayes took action early because they were under threat that Tilden would come to Washington to claim the office.

Rutherford B. Hayes will not be added to Mount Rushmore. But he certainly deserves admiration as a decent and dedicated public servant who should be more closely studied and emulated."

Rutherford Platt, great-great nephew of the president

At a celebration during Memorial Day weekend to mark the 100th anniversary of the Hayes presidential library next to the house, there was a beard contest, a public barbecue and performances by The Ohio State University marching band and the brass quintet from “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Corps Band. Hayes probably would have enjoyed it. He was, after all, the president who allowed the popular Easter Egg Roll to move to the White House lawn after Congress barred children from trampling the grass at the Capitol. 

Rutherford Platt, an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts and a great-great nephew of the president, attended the Memorial Day events and wrote an op-ed that ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in July, reviewing the Hayes legacy: “Rutherford B. Hayes will not be added to Mount Rushmore. But he certainly deserves admiration as a decent and dedicated public servant who should be more closely studied and emulated by those who claim to be Republicans today.”

The library is trying to add nuance to its depiction of Hayes. There was a lecture and living history reenactors discussing Hayes’ party nomination on the weekend before the modern Republican Party held its convention in Cleveland. And the centennial included the first major update to exhibits in the library building since 1968. 

The Warrior

After Southern states announced secession from the United States, 146 men who graduated from or attended Kenyon joined the U.S. Army. Thirty-four Kenyon men served in the Confederate Army, and one was in the Confederate Senate in Richmond.

For Hayes, the choice was clear. As a lawyer in the border city of Cincinnati, he defended African Americans accused of being runaway slaves in the 1850s, and he was one of the first to join the abolitionist Republican Party when it formed in 1854. After secession enflamed the Southerners doing business in Cincinnati, they voted Hayes out of his city solicitor job in April 1861. He joined the U.S. Army. 

“He had zero military training and no battlefield experience at the start of the war,” said Christie Weininger, executive director of the library and museums in Fremont. “He was confident he could learn and do well once he got the chance.” 

Hayes began the war quietly, as a major in the 23rd Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, stationed in what is now West Virginia. His unit gradually moved closer to the fighting in the East, and in September 1862 Hayes was badly wounded in fighting that was a prelude to the bloody Battle of Antietam. For a while he was left between the lines of opposing soldiers as the musket balls hissed by — and even then he befriended an opponent. Hayes wrote in his diary afterward: “While I was lying down I had considerable talk with a wounded [Confederate] soldier lying near me. I gave him messages for my wife and friends in case I should not get up. We were right jolly and friendly; it was by no means an unpleasant experience.”

He was eventually rescued by his men. Hayes thought his wounded left arm would be amputated, but his brother-in-law was a doctor in the 23rd Regiment and saved the arm.

His wife, Lucy, stayed with him for a month as he recovered. She visited the soldiers in their campsites, sewed for the young men and helped them write letters home. “Not a lot of women stayed in the camps, but Lucy actually stayed in the camp when she visited, and the young soldiers came to see her as a mother figure,” Weininger said. 

Hayes fought in the pivotal Shenandoah Valley campaigns. At the Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, he was thrown from a horse and hit in the head by a spent musket ball that did not cause him serious injury.

Hayes' bravery in the titanic struggle to end slavery is obvious: He fought in more than 50 Civil War engagements and was wounded in his arm, neck, ankle and knee."

Hayes’ bravery in the titanic struggle to end slavery is obvious: He fought in more than 50 Civil War engagements and was wounded in his arm, neck, ankle and knee. He rose to the rank of major general in the U.S. Army. And that’s how he identified himself in retirement: In the circa 1880 phone directory on display at his house, he is not listed as president or governor or congressman but as “general.”

But most people don’t remember Hayes for his war record. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the national struggle was no longer a battlefield war over slavery but a complex legal and social battle over civil rights — one that African Americans would wage for another 100 years.

Reconstruction

Clever historians say the Civil War never really ended — that the South was “conquered but
not convinced.” 

For a brief time, the ex-slaves had military protection and equal political power in the South, and with that power they elected African Americans into Congress and state political office. “No other post-emancipation societies in the world moved that quickly toward realizing these visions of equality,” McNair said. 

But ex-Confederates formed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to terrorize African Americans away from voting, and Southern towns passed local laws to restrict the rights of former slaves. There was bitterness between Northerners who controlled Congress and President Andrew Johnson, a Southerner, over how to blend the Southern states and ex-Confederate soldiers back into the nation. The U.S. House of Representatives impeached Johnson in 1868 after his proclamations of amnesty for ex-Confederates and after his vetoes of legislation to bolster civil rights and financial support for ex-slaves. 

The Northern public grew tired of that political tangle in D.C. and of the military commitment to police white Southerners. The Civil War was over — why were the sons of Maine and New York still standing guard on streets in Southern cities? Today, when McNair asks Kenyon students what they would have done in this era of complex choices, some say the U.S. Army should have stayed in control of the South, similar to the U.S. military occupation of Japan and Germany after World War II.

“So that’s decades of occupation. I tell students that I don’t know if that will get them what they want. There’s no peaceful arrangement for that because what the former slaveholders wanted and what the freedmen wanted was just diametrically opposed,” McNair said.

Hayes participated in the political fight for civil rights. While in Congress in 1866 he voted for the 14th Amendment and worked to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which sought to protect blacks’ lives and civil rights in response to Johnson’s policy, which allowed Southern whites a free hand in controlling the South’s recently freed blacks. Hayes voted for the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and endorsed the Republicans’ impeachment of Johnson — brought in part because Johnson tried to fire another Kenyon alum fighting for Southern blacks’ status, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Hayes ran for Ohio governor in 1869 specifically on a platform to guarantee the vote to black men in Ohio, and after he won that election Ohio ratified the 15th Amendment guaranteeing that vote.

So how did he become the president who ended those efforts for equality?

The Backroom Deal

An economic panic in 1873 set off a worldwide depression. Some economists track this “Long Depression” through 65 months — much longer than the 43 months of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Between 1873 and 1879, about 18,000 American businesses and 10 states went bankrupt, and modern economists estimate the unemployment rate ran as high as 14 percent.

Northerners turned their attention to economic survival. President Grant had sent Army troops to fight the KKK, but the economic slump exposed corruption throughout Grant’s administration. Seven federal departments were eventually involved in charges of swindles and conspiracies. Northern voters came to mistrust Republican officials, from the White House to the Southern statehouses.

So even though some textbooks say Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1876, McNair thinks the true Reconstruction activity was only five of those years: 1867 to 1872. By the election of 1876, no one in the Republican leadership was urging more Reconstruction. They were trying to hold government together in the face of Democrats in Congress and in many Southern states actively unraveling Reconstruction policies.

Hayes became a part of this struggle as a compromise candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876. The delegates in a messy Republican convention couldn’t agree on a candidate through six votes. On the seventh ballot they picked Hayes (and a vice presidential candidate Hayes had never met named William A. Wheeler). 

“He is chosen because he’s not radical,” McNair said. “He’s not a guy you would expect to change the American landscape in any way.” 

Hayes and the Republicans feared battlefield warfare as much in 1876 as in Lincoln’s 1860 election. Hayes wrote in his diary on October 22:

Another danger is imminent. A contested result. And we have no such means for its decision as ought to be provided by law. This must be attended to hereafter. We should not allow another presidential election to occur before means for settling a contest is provided. If a contest comes now it may lead to a conflict of arms. 

In November's voting, there were widespread claims of fraud. The Democratic candidate Tilden won the popular vote nationally — and even beat Hayes in Knox County."

In November’s voting, there were widespread claims of fraud. The Democratic candidate Tilden won the popular vote nationally — and even beat Hayes in Knox County — and amassed 184 electoral votes, one short of a majority. Hayes had 165 electoral votes. In dispute were one elector from Oregon and the 19 electoral votes of three Southern states still under Reconstruction governments: Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina.

One of Hayes’ close friends from Kenyon, lawyer Stanley Matthews, Class of 1840, stepped in to broker a solution. Matthews successfully argued Hayes’ case before a special commission that then voted on party lines — eight Republicans to seven Democrats — to award the disputed electors to Hayes.

Democrats howled about “Rutherfraud Hayes” and threatened filibusters in Congress to block the commission’s decision. But Cleveland State University history professor Allan Peskin wrote in the Journal of American History in 1973 that Republicans should have been able to overcome this because they still held control of the U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Army and the legal governments in the three disputed states. “The Democrats held only two low cards: the threat of revolution and the House of Representatives. Neither of them could take a trick,” Peskin wrote. 

And yet Hayes sent Matthews to a D.C. hotel to bargain with Democrats. The reason why has bedeviled historians for generations. Was it simply Hayes’ compromising nature to seek agreement instead of a brash walk into the White House based on a partisan vote? Was he naively hoping that compromising Democrats would later cooperate with a new Republican Congress? How important to the deal were plans to build a Southern transcontinental railroad, which Matthews had an interest in?

For whatever reason, a deal was struck: Hayes accepted Democratic governments in Southern statehouses and pulled federal troops off the streets in South Carolina and Louisiana. The brokered deal was a mess that tarnished all involved. Hayes actually got an electoral vote from the Republican governor of Louisiana and then let that governor’s administration collapse. White Southerners were left free to pass poll taxes and other local laws that kept African Americans away from the ballot box for generations. Violence against blacks increased. The Southern economy returned to a system that was essentially slavery in every way but name. 

“By withdrawing the federal troops, Hayes was telling the South that his administration would not be the one to commit those resources, and in so doing he gave them the green light to step up their efforts to control blacks politically, economically and socially,” McNair said. “Hayes could not have saved Reconstruction, but he did make clear that he would not try to save it and that it was over.”

Looking back on this, Matthews justified the deal by telling the crowd at Kenyon’s 1880 Commencement, “It is always easy to destroy. To reconstruct is more difficult.”

Hayes also tried to justify the deal by continuing to advocate for civil rights: As president, five times he vetoed an Army budget bill that Congressional Democrats tried to pass as a way to undo federal efforts to stop the KKK; Hayes finally got a budget that did not erase the laws protecting black voters — but Southern Democrats still cut funding to the federal marshals who would enforce those laws.

During his presidency, Hayes appointed Frederick Douglass to be U.S. marshal of Washington, D.C. — the highest government post held by an African American to that point. 

In his last year in office, Hayes nominated Matthews to the Supreme Court. Not surprisingly, Democrats in the Senate opposed Matthews and adjourned without voting on the nomination. It was left to the next president, Republican James A. Garfield, to re-submit Matthews for the court. The Senate confirmed him by one vote. From the bench, Matthews was a steady voice for the protection of African American civil rights.

Legacy

Hayes’ hope that Southerners would compromise on civil rights now seems hopelessly naive. He maintained that hope after he left the White House, but the emerging modern world was moving quickly beyond his sense of compromise. In 1890, he called for and chaired the Lake Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question, but the gathering of white leaders could come to no dramatic solutions — only ones that reinforced the ex-Confederates’ control of blacks. In “W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919,” David Levering Lewis wrote that “no one left Lake Mohonk in doubt as to the new emphasis upon rudimentary education ‘of heart and hand,’ intended to turn out subservient farmers, cooks, seamstresses, maids, carpenters, and masons.”

Du Bois himself challenged Hayes’ administration of the Slater Fund scholarships for black students. The 22-year-old graduate student wrote several letters — “I think you owe an apology to the Negro people” — and met with the former president in person before Hayes would grant Du Bois funds to seek his Ph.D.

Hayes sought solace in many visits to Kenyon’s campus after his presidency, the last time for the 1892 Commencement less than a year before his death. And Kenyon President William Foster Peirce spent years trying to make Hayes into an admirable symbol of reconciliation, not political failure. But by 1933 students had heard enough: That year’s edition of the “Reveille” included a mocking note: “May 11, 1933: Dr. Peirce lectures on Rutherford B. Hayes until further notice.” The drama of a world war and the Great Depression made Hayes seem ancient. And so he has remained for decades.

The Dealmaker

Kenyon’s tradition of legal scholarship includes not only the first U.S. president to hold a law school degree but also the lawyer who brokered the deal to put that man in the White House.

Stanley Matthews was a close friend of Rutherford B. Hayes when they attended Kenyon; he was the legal key to Hayes getting disputed electoral votes in the 1876 election; and he served as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court from May 1881 until his death in 1889.

Matthews was born in Cincinnati in 1824 and returned there to practice law after he graduated from Kenyon in 1840. Cincinnati was a boom town — “the Queen City of the West” — and it attracted several Kenyon graduates, including Hayes after he graduated from Harvard Law School. Matthews and Hayes even tried to learn German to acquire clients from the city’s large immigrant community. From 1851 to 1853, Matthews served as a judge of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. He was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1856, and in 1858 he was appointed U.S. attorney for Southern Ohio.

When the Civil War broke out, Matthews served in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry with Hayes and later commanded a brigade in the Army of the Ohio.

Matthews was in private practice when the 1876 election deadlocked over 20 disputed electoral votes. Hayes called on Matthews to argue his claim before a special commission that would award the votes. Matthews was successful, and when Democrats cried foul and filibustered the commission’s ruling, Matthews met with Democratic dealmakers in a Washington, D.C., hotel to hammer out a compromise. Matthews and the Democrats agreed that Hayes would become president and then withdraw federal military enforcement of civil rights laws from Southern states. Matthews was rewarded a few months later with an appointment to be U.S. senator from Ohio.

Hayes nominated Matthews to the Supreme Court on Jan. 26, 1881, but Southern senators refused to act on the nomination — in part because of Matthews’ role in the deal to make Hayes president. The next president nominated Matthews again, and this time the Senate confirmed him 24-23 — the narrowest confirmation for a successful U.S. Supreme Court nominee in history.

On the court he was a consistent voice for civil rights. In 1886 he wrote the unanimous opinion in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, a case about a San Francisco ordinance used to target Chinese immigrants operating laundries. The court ruled that the prejudicial administration of a law that is race-neutral in its language can still be found to violate the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment. It was an expansive reading of the amendment that would, after Matthews’ death in 1889, be overcome by the court’s infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowing local laws to discriminate against people of color. 

Matthews is memorialized at Kenyon in a bas-relief by American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens that is displayed in the Norton Room of Ransom Hall.

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