Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893), the 19th president of the United States, won a controversial and fiercely disputed election against Samuel Tilden. He withdrew troops from the Reconstruction states in order to restore local control and good will, a decision that many perceived as a betrayal of African Americans in the South. He served a single term, as he had promised in his inaugural address.

Childhood and Education

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born in Delaware, Ohio, on October 4, 1822, to Sophia Birchard Hayes (1792-1866). His father, Rutherford Hayes Jr. (1787-1822), was a farmer who died shortly before his son’s birth. The young Hayes, known as “Rud,” and his sister Fanny (1820-56) were raised in Lower Sandusky (later called Fremont), Ohio, by their mother and their uncle Sardis Birchard (1801-74), a successful businessman.

Did you know? In 1879, President Rutherford Hayes signed the Act to Relieve Certain Legal Disabilities of Women, which cleared the way for female attorneys to argue cases in any U.S. federal court. In 1880, Belva Lockwood (1830-1917) became the first female lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hayes was educated at schools in Delaware and Norwalk, Ohio, and Middletown, Connecticut. In 1842, he graduated at the top of his class from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Three years later, in 1845, he earned a law degree from Harvard University.

Upon his graduation from Harvard, Hayes was admitted to the Ohio bar and began practicing law in Lower Sandusky. Hearing that there were greater opportunities in Cincinnati, Hayes moved there in 1849 and eventually developed a successful law practice. An opponent of slavery, he also became active in the newly formed Republican Party, which was organized in the 1850s to oppose the expansion of slavery to U.S. territories.

In 1852, Hayes married Lucy Ware Webb (1831-1889), a graduate of Cincinnati’s Wesleyan Women’s College (she would be the first presidential wife to graduate from college). The couple went on to have eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. In 1858, the Cincinnati City Council appointed the up-and-coming Rutherford Hayes to fill the position of city solicitor. The following year, he was re-elected to the post, which helped boost his public profile across Ohio.

Shortly after the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Hayes signed up to fight for the Union. He became a major in the 23rd Ohio Regiment and was seriously wounded during the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland. By the end of the war, Hayes had been promoted to the rank of brevet major general.

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Early Political Career

In 1864, when Hayes was still on the battlefield defending the North, the Republican Party in Cincinnati nominated him for Congress. He accepted the nomination but refused to campaign. In a letter to his friend Ohio Secretary of State William Henry Smith (1833–96), Hayes explained, “An officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.” Hayes left the army after the war ended in 1865, and in December of that year, having won the election, took his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hayes was re-elected to his congressional seat in 1866 but resigned in 1867 to run for governor of Ohio. He won the race and was re-elected in 1869. At the conclusion of his second term as governor in 1872, he wanted to retire from politics altogether, but the Ohio Republican Party had other plans. The party nominated Hayes to run for Congress in 1872, a race he lost. At that point, Hayes and his growing family moved from Cincinnati back to Fremont, where he had begun his law career. Hayes practiced law for three years before again receiving his party’s nomination for governor.

Hayes was elected governor for the third time in 1875 on a platform focused on the procurement of voting rights for blacks and on economic plans calling for a strong gold-backed currency.

A Controversial Presidential Election

At the Republican national nominating convention in 1876, the party was split between one faction who supported a third term for President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85) and another faction who supported the nomination of Speaker of the House James G. Blaine (1830-93) of Maine. As a compromise candidate, Hayes earned the party’s nomination on the seventh ballot. His reputation for being honest, loyal and inclusive offered a departure from the charges of impropriety in Grant’s administration.

In the 1876 presidential election between Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York, Tilden won the popular vote by approximately 250,000 votes. However, the Democratic and the Republican parties in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina each sent their own conflicting ballot results to Washington. Because there were two sets of results from each state—with each party’s tally declaring its own candidate to be the victor—Congress appointed a 15-member commission to determine the winner of each state’s electoral votes.

The commission, which had a Republican majority, chose to award the disputed electoral votes to Hayes. Southern Democrats agreed to back the decision if the Republicans would recall the federal troops that were supporting Reconstruction. At the urging of the Southern Democrats, the Republicans also agreed to appoint at least one Southerner to Hayes’ cabinet. 

When the commission voted to award all the contested electoral votes to Hayes, he tallied 185 electoral votes to Tilden’s 184. Hayes was declared the winner on March 2, 1877. He took the presidential oath of office in a private ceremony at the White House the next day; a public inauguration followed on March 5. Northern Democrats who were unhappy with the outcome declared that Hayes had stolen the election.

In the White House: 1877-81

As president, Hayes ended Reconstruction within his first year in office by withdrawing federal troops from states still under occupation. He made federal dollars available for infrastructure improvements in the South and appointed Southerners to influential, high-level government posts. While these actions satisfied Southern Democrats, they also antagonized some members of Hayes’ own party.

The Republicans who had opposed Hayes’ candidacy at the party convention were even more frustrated by the president’s plans for civil service reform, which focused on ending patronage in favor of appointing civil servants based on merit. Hayes wrangled with U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling (1829-88) of New York, who contested Hayes’ call for the resignation of two top bureaucrats in the New York customhouse, including the future 21st U.S. president, Chester Arthur (1829-86), who was then collector of the Port of New York. Hayes called for Arthur’s resignation in a symbolic attempt to undo Conkling’s political patronage. In addition to party politics, Hayes experienced policy difficulties that arose outside Washington. 

Because of the economic downturn following the Civil War, Western and Southern states sought to strengthen the dollar. They wanted to do this through the Bland-Allison Act (1878), sponsored by Representative Richard P. Bland (1835-99) of Missouri and Representative William B. Allison (1829-1908) of Iowa. The act allowed the federal government to resume minting silver coins, which had been halted five years earlier. With inflation a primary concern, Hayes and others who supported a gold standard for the nation’s currency stood against the measure. However, Bland-Allison passed over Hayes’ veto.

Hayes declined to run for the presidency a second time and retired from politics after his term in the Oval Office ended in 1881. He was succeeded by James Garfield (1831-1881), who was assassinated just six months into his term.

Post-Presidential Years

After leaving the White House, Hayes and his wife Lucy returned to their estate, Spiegel Grove, in Fremont, Ohio, and the former president devoted himself to educational issues and prison reform, among other humanitarian causes.

In addition to serving as a trustee of three universities–Ohio Wesleyan, Western Reserve and Ohio State–Hayes also became the first president of the board of the John F. Slater Education Fund for Freedmen in 1882. The Slater Fund was a $1 million endowment to provide Christian education for Southern blacks. Among the fund’s notable recipients was the sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963). In 1883, Hayes became the first president of the newly reorganized National Prison Reform Association. For nearly 10 years, he traveled around the country speaking on policy reform topics.

In January 1893, while on business in Cleveland, Hayes fell ill. The ex-president sent for his son Webb C. Hayes (1856-1934) to escort him back home to Fremont, where he died of heart failure at age 70 on January 17, three-and-a-half years after the death of his wife.

After Hayes’ death, Webb established a presidential library in his father’s name at Spiegel Grove, setting the precedent for the construction and dedication of post-term presidential libraries.