This Day In History: March 3

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On March 3, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes is sworn in as the 19th president of the United States in the Red Room of the White House. Two days later, Hayes was again inaugurated in a public ceremony.

Some historical accounts claim that Hayes’ first swearing-in ceremony had occurred in secret due to threats made on the new president’s life. Other accounts say that since inaugural day fell on a Sunday, Congress decided to perform a private ceremony the Saturday before the official inauguration date and repeat the performance in public the following Monday.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Hayes’ life had been threatened, as his 1876 election had been hotly contested. For four months, competing factions in Congress as well as their like-minded countrymen argued over the election results. Hayes had lost the popular vote by a slim margin of 250,000 votes, yet appeared to have won a majority in the Electoral College. Accusations of fraudulent Electoral College vote counts in three southern states (including Florida, which would again play a major role in a contested election in 2000) led Congress to form an electoral commission to make the final decision. On March 2, the commission voted along party lines and put the Republican, Hayes, in office.

Hayes, a devout, honest and principled man, had earned the nickname “Old Granny” for his attention to manners and his teetotaling lifestyle. He and his family were ardent abolitionists and temperance reformers. (It was assumed that his wife Lucy insisted that he ban all alcohol from the White House—an act that appalled visiting dignitaries and earned her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.” However, it was originally Hayes’ idea to force temperance on White House visitors.)

Advisors and cabinet members would often join Hayes and his family in twice-daily prayer and singing hymns. As his presidency followed the notoriously corrupt terms of Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, supporters appreciated Hayes’ sense of fairness and willingness to please both parties. Detractors and cynics, jaded by years of dishonest administrations, meanwhile, derided him as a fraud.

Hayes’ presidency was notable for his role in presiding over the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction. In an effort to please southern Democrats, he agreed to pull the last federal troops out of the former Confederate States, mistakenly believing that southern Democrats would enforce civil rights for Black Americans. Hayes resisted partisan pressure in making federal appointments and fought legislation to prevent Chinese immigration into the United States. After campaigning on a pro-labor platform, Hayes disappointed workers when he used federal troops to quell the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, a move many saw as an abandonment of his reformist principles. He kept his promise to serve only one term and quietly left office in 1881.