Rutherford B. Hayes became the 19th President of the United States in a hard won battle that many historians say was one of the most controversial elections in the nation’s history. He pulled troops out of the Southern states in what many anti-slavery advocates considered a betrayal. His intention to bring peace and return the power back to the local governments was indeed necessary to the health of the country.

Early Years

Rutherford Hayes was born in Ohio in 1822. He earned his higher education at Kenyon College and Harvard Law School. After practicing law for five years in Lower Sandusky, he moved to the larger city of Cincinnati, where he exceeded expectations as a Whig lawyer.

He fought with the Union in the Civil War, but was wounded in action. His final rank when he left the Army was brevet major general. While he was still in the Army, Cincinnati Republicans campaigned for him to have a seat in the House of Representatives. He accepted the nomination, but he would not campaign while fulfilling his duties to the Army, explaining, “an officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer… ought to be scalped.”

Rutherford Hayes was elected by a significant majority and entered Congress in December 1865. He found himself unnerved by the “Rebel influences … ruling the White House.” He served three full terms as Governor of Ohio following his short tenure in Congress.

Safe liberalism, party loyalty, and a strong personnel record from the Army made Hayes a solid Republican candidate for the American President in 1876. His opposition was Governor Samuel J. Tilden from New York.

The Controversial Election

Many famous Republican speakers, including Mark Twain, supported the election of Hayes; he believed the Democrats would carry the election. When the first returns confirmed what he already assumed, Hayes went to bed, knowing in his mind that he didn’t win the election.

Republican National Chairman Zachariah Chandler, aware of a loophole, told the Party leaders to wait before conceding victory saying, “Hayes has 185 votes and is elected.” Hayes’s election depended upon two conflicting sets of electoral votes that Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida each submitted. If all the disputed electoral votes went to Hayes, he would win; a single one would elect Tilden.

It took months for the controversy to be decided by an Electoral Commission established solely for this fiasco. The commission consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. The final report was in favor of Rutherford Hayes by eight to seven and he was officially the American President. The final electoral vote was 185 to 184.


Northern Republicans promised southern Democrats key positions in Hayes’ Administration. They also vowed the South would receive Federal patronage, money for internal improvements, and troop withdrawals from Louisiana and South Carolina.

Rutherford Hayes, however, refused to keep promises he had not made and instead made appointments based on merit. He appointed an ex-Confederate to his Cabinet and made many of the Republicans angry. He added to their ire when he also appointed someone who left the party as a Liberal Republican earlier in 1872.

Hayes promised the southern Negroes protection of their rights, but then supported the restoration of “wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government” by withdrawing the troops that were there to keep the peace. Hayes hoped such policies designed to keep peace would then lead to the building of a “new Republican party” in the South.

Many leaders of the newly formed South did indeed favor Republican economic policies and approved of Hayes’s fiscal conservatism, but they faced total devastation at the polls if they were to join the party of Reconstruction. Hayes and his Republican successors were persistent in their efforts, but they could not win over the “solid South.”

Rutherford Hayes had announced in his Inaugural Address that he would not seek re-election and serve only one term as American President. He retired to Spiegel Grove, his home in Fremont, Ohio, in 1881. He died in 1893.

The graphic reveals highlights and accomplishments during Rutherford B. Hayes’ life:

Rutherford B. Hayes


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