Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 135

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 135


This is the grave of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Born in 1822 in Delaware, Ohio, Hayes attended Kenyon College and graduated in 1842. He attended Harvard Law beginning in 1843 and opened his own law practice in Fremont, Ohio in 1845. That wasn’t so successful and he moved to Cincinnati in 1850, where he found greater success and entered into what passed for high society in Porkopolis. Hayes was an abolitionist and frequently defended slaves who had fled north to escape the hell of their lives. He was a Whig initially and then became a Republican when that party replaced the Whigs in 1854. He rose within the Ohio Republican Party and was named city solicitor to fill a vacancy in 1858 and then was elected to a full term in 1859. Although initially Hayes believed it might make more sense to just let the South secede over their treason in defense of slavery, Hayes quickly changed his mind and joined the 23rd Ohio Volunteers. He was named a major; one of the privates in the regiment was a young William McKinley. He served for the entirety of the war and rose to brigadier general.

He was destined for politics after the war. In 1864, he was asked to resign from the military to run for Congress, but he refused. Instead, he ran from the front lines, sending letters to explain his positions. He was elected and began service in December 1865. He became a moderate Republican who did not particularly like the radicals but was a quintessential party man and he staked out an important place in the convoluted world of Gilded Age party politics–no one really hated him. He left Congress in 1867 to run for governor of Ohio and won a very narrow win against an Ohio Democratic Party that was full-throated for white supremacist extremism. He didn’t really have much to do in the role. He had no veto power and the legislature was controlled by Democrats. He endorsed the Fifteenth Amendment and generally was good on civil rights. That would change.

He left the governorship in 1872 and wanted to retire. But he was drawn back into another term in 1875. The next year was the notorious 1876 election. James Blaine was the initial favorite to be the Republican nominee but he couldn’t get a majority and Hayes rose up as the alternative, in part because the powerful John Sherman was behind him and in part, again, because no one hated him. Both sides engaged in different forms of corruption to steal this election. Democrats used organized white violence to ensure they controlled most southern states. Republicans, embracing the corruption that would come to define the Gilded Age, engaged in all sorts of shenanigans in various states. In any case, when the Compromise of 1877 was finally hashed out, Hayes was given the Oval Office in exchange for the end of Reconstruction. Hayes was fine with this. Despite a pretty good record on civil rights as governor, his main concern was party loyalty. By 1877, most white Republicans were sick of caring about black people anyway. Hayes was happy to serve as a president that would unite whites from both regions. He pledged to serve only one term anyway, so was free from having to care about running again in 1880.

After he entered the Oval Office, Hayes took something of a reconciliationist tour of the South. In Atlanta, he gave a speech that basically told white supremacists, go for it! He stated that, and this is in 1877 mind you, that in no time since the Civil War had the races gotten along so well as since he won the Oval Office. He said this despite the fact that blacks had been overwhelmingly denied the suffrage through the wrong end of a gun in 1876. Or maybe because of that. I apologize; I have the text of the speech in my office, but I am on sabbatical and I am 2000 miles from my office and can’t find it online. In any case, Hayes was all about letting the South do its own thing on race. He decided to leave race relations to the states. How brave and leaderly! The white South was ecstatic. A Republican could let them lynch and rape after all! The game of Jim Crow was on! And while that would be constantly contested, by 1900, a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees would give segregation official approval.

It seems, and I know this is hard to fathom for you liberals today, that Hayes actually believed southern rhetoric in 1877 that they would treat African-Americans fairly. Too bad there was no ocean front property in Arizona to sell the president at that time. After all, the U.S. hadn’t fully committed genocide against the Apache yet! There is evidence that by 1878, he was disabused of his illusions about the white South and race relations, but I admit I have a hard time getting my mind around the idea that said positions were not crystal clear (or perhaps krystal krystal klear is more accurate) in 1877, but then as a historian, I know that northerners were really ready to believe southern lies about race so to absolve themselves of doing anything about it by then. He wrote in his diary about the Exodusters that this was a good thing for African-American farmers to leave the South for the Plains, now free of indigenous people thanks to genocide against the nation’s indigenous population, but he didn’t do anything to encourage it. He did veto a measure passed by the Democratic Congress in 1879 to bar the use of the Army to monitor the polls. Not that he was going to use the Army that way.

In fact, Hayes had a more destructive way to use the Army. He notoriously started a good long tradition in American life to use state military forces as private armies for corporations suppressing workers. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which took on an element of protest against the power of railroads over everyday life and drew a lot of people in who never worked for the railroads but whose lives were deeply affected by them, such as running their relatives down in the streets and raising prices through their monopolies, Hayes called out the Army to end the strike. Given the context of how abolitionists turned with a vengeance against labor unions after the Civil War, this isn’t that surprising; both slavery and unions undermined their fetish for contracts and their fantasies about white free labor. Even before Hayes took office, Republicans were responding to mild worker protests by proclaiming the next Paris Commune and demanding the busting of heads. Again, this makes sense if you look at Republican ideology but it does not make sense if your understanding of the early Republican Party is that they were the good guys for opposing slavery, a point which is not untrue but is really simplistic. But that hardly gets Hayes off the hook for his despicable actions. I described the strike in a very early labor history post, so you can read about the details here. In his diary, Hayes wrote, “The strikes have been put down by force; but now for the real remedy. Can’t something [be] done by education of strikers, by judicious control of capitalists, by wise general policy to end or diminish the evil? The railroad strikers, as a rule, are good men, sober, intelligent, and industrious.” I don’t know, how about expropriating the wealth of Jay Gould?

Other than these minor things (How was the play Mrs. Lincoln?), Hayes’ presidency was meh. He was for civil service reform but didn’t get much of value done about it; it took Garfield’s assassination for that, an act perhaps 0.1% redeemed considering how it framed English Bob’s introduction in Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The failure of civil service reform really wasn’t his fault, as the Republican Party was nakedly corrupt with vested interests who wanted more corruption. But Hayes certainly lacked the gravitas or influence to do anything in the face of party opposition. There was the usual debate over currency issues. Hayes actually vetoed the initial Chinese Exclusion Act in 1879 because he thought it violated a treaty with China, but had no particular opposition to it in principle. He seems popular in Paraguay, but really who isn’t? And of course he continued the genocide against Native Americans in the West, although he was slightly less genocidal than Phil Sheridan or William Tecumseh Sherman, mostly following Grant’s “Peace Policy,” which is only not a misnomer if you understand just how badly white Americans of the Gilded Age wanted to kill Indians.

Anyway, Hayes did not stand for reelection in 1880. He happily retired to Ohio, and really, who hasn’t wanted to retire to the Buckeye State? He lived as a sort of elder statesman of the nation until his death in 1893.

Rutherford Hayes is buried at the Hayes home, Fremont, Ohio. I thought about touring the home and the attached museum, but decided that I profoundly did not care enough to do so. Maybe the next time I am in Fremont.

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