How do you lead a nation when half the country thinks you were fraudulently elected? I'm not talking about 2021, I'm talking about 1877, when Rutherford B Hayes emerged the winner of an election that was so vigorously contested, he wasn't even officially declared the winner until two days before inauguration day. But what did Hayes win? A nation that didn't fully accept him, and a party so rife with corruption that the longest daggers were in his fellow Republicans' pockets.
Follow along as Hayes fights in the Civil War, becomes governor of Ohio, wins the craziest election in American history, and then faces down corrupt bosses within his own party and a violent crescendo of labor unrest triggered by the rampant inequalities of the industrial revolution.
1. Rutherford B. Hayes – Hans. L. Trefousse
2. Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President - Ari Hoogenboom
3. Grant – Jean Edward Smith
4. T.R. the last Romantic – H.R. Brands
5. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur – Scott S. Greenberger
6. Destiny of the Republic – Candice Miller
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19.) Rutherford B. Hayes 1877-1881
Welcome to the Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 19, Rutherford B. Hayes, his Fraudulency.
Here’s a question that may sound eerily contemporary, but is actually more than a century old.
How do you preside over a democratic country when half that country thinks you didn’t actually win the presidential election.
Yeah, I know. It sounds like I’m talking about 2021, but I promise, I’m actually talking about 1877 when the GOP’s Rutherford B Hayes reached the white house after an election that was so vigorously contested that Hayes wasn’t even official declared the winner until two days before inauguration day.
But he had been declared the winner! And now he had to lead. And half the country didn’t accept it. These Rutherford B Hayes opponents, call them Rutherford B Haters, they nicknamed HAyes, “His fraudulency,” and some were polishing their guns.
What do you do?
Do you assert your authority, come in strong and dare the opposition to rise against you, risking a second civil war in less than 12 years?
Or do you give the other side whatever it asks for, even if it’s abandoning some of your supporters to the horrors of racial violence, if it’s in exchange for a promise of national peace.
There will be no easy answers for Rutherford B Hayes. But he’ll do his best to bring peace, and then he’ll wield whatever power he can muster against a rising corruption inside the American government – a corruption that threatens to make a mockery of Democracy itself.
Rutherford B. Hayes was born on October 4, 1822, in the town of Delaware, Ohio, where he was raised by his mother and uncle - his father having died just before he was born. Hayes applied himself and worked his way into Harvard Law, which he graduated in 1845 at the age of 23.
Four years later, a 27-year-old Hayes moved to Cincinnati, a growing Ohio town of 120,000, to open a law practice, and this is when we get to see a sense of his moral compass. This is right around the time President Millard Fillmore signed the Compromise of 1850, which means its time for the hated fugitive slave act. You remember, we covered this in episode 13. The fugitive slave act was the law that forced northerners to help southerners recover escaped slaves, and paid judges twice as much if they ruled the accused had to be returned to slavery.
Seeing this bullcrap, Rutherford B. Hayes basically became a volunteer lawyer for the underground railroad, representing between as many as 40 African Americans for free and helping to secure their freedom.
A few years into Hayes’ Cincinnati law career, he married Lucy Ware Webb – a staunch prohibitionist who would later be nicknamed “Lemonade Lucy” over her refusal to serve alcohol at White House parties. Lemonade Lucy and Rutherford had eight children together, five of whom survived to adulthood.
The 1850’s are also when Hayes began to take an active role in local politics. He’d always been attracted to the American pastime, supporting whigs like William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott. When the Whig party died, he drifted to the growing Republican Party and, in 1858, was elected Cincinnati City Solicitor – basically, the city’s lawyer. And this is a busy job. Hayes tried 187 cases in two years working for the city.
And then… the civil war interrupted everything.
In 1860, Hayes was one of 1.8 million northerners who cast a vote for Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln won, southern states started seceding. And Hayes’ response was basically ‘good riddance.’ What Hayes did not want was another compromise, like the one that had created the fugitive slave act, to entice the south to stay. As he wrote at the time, “Civil War and disunion are at hand, and yet I fear disunion and Civil War less than compromise.”
When it became clear there would be no compromise and fighting was inevitable, he still expected disunion to be the outcome. Why fight to force the south to stay? But then the confederacy attacked the union troops at Fort Sumter, and like many other northerners, that changed Hayes’ view on the war. Hayes started to see the war as a fight to preserve the union, and he volunteered to join the Northern army. Hayes right here is showing us why the south firing on fort Sumter was such a big deal. One day, he’s ready to let them go. The next day, he’s enlisting for the fight.
Hayes spent much of the war stationed in Western Virginia, which wasn’t one of the major theaters of the war, but which was considered the first line of defense for his home state of Ohio. So folks back in Ohio were getting a steady stream of news reports about how he was keeping them safe from Confederate raiders, which, you know, might be convenient if he ever runs for public office there. Hayes has a pretty commendable service record during the war. He enlisted as a major, had three horses shot out from under him, and was wounded four times, most seriously at the battle of south mountain in 1862, which was basically a prelude to the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest battle in American history. Hayes only missed that battle because of his injury at South Mountain.
The most famous campaign Hayes participated in came at the end of the war, when his men joined general Sheridan’s invasion of the Shenandoah valley. The Shenandoah valley was a bread basket of the Confederate capital, Richmond, and General Grant, who was launching his final campaign against Richmond, wanted it taken to deplete his enemy of much-needed food. Hayes again served admirably in this campaign, helping to fend off a major confederate counter attack, and was promoted to Brigadier general for his service.
In 1864, Hayes learned that his home congressional district in Ohio had nominated and elected him to Congress, all despite him staying with his men in the field for the entirety of the campaign. As the war wound down in early 1865, he began to think of a career in Congress and how he’d help the great Abraham Lincoln bring peace to the nation and reconstruct the conquered south.
And then the unthinkable happened. Lincoln’s assassination. A mournful Hayes wrote that Lincoln would be, quote “The darling of history evermore,” with life and achievements that gave him “Titles to record second to those of no other man in ancient or modern times.” In other words, Hayes saw Lincoln being remembered as the greatest man in history.
And so, in 1865, a saddened Hayes resigned his military commission and reported to Washington D.C., where the troubles of reconstruction awaited him.
Politically, Hayes was a progressive man. But he wasn’t necessarily a lock for belonging to the GOP’s radical wing – the wing of politicians most dedicated to protecting the south’s freedmen and punishing the confederate plantation class. But then, well, President Andrew Johnson’s abrasive actions went and pushed him into that camp. For Hayes, the breaking moment came when Johnson vetoed the freedman’s bureau in 1866. Hayes gave a speech after this where he said the country had to choose between two paths on reconstruction, Lincoln’s path or ex-confederate president Jeff Davis’s path, and he saw Johnson’s plan of white power and black codes as far close to Davis than Lincoln. When Johnson faced impeachment a couple of years later, Hayes was asked what Ohio Republicans desired, and he replied with one word – “conviction.” He was no friend of Johnson’s.
But, he didn’t vote in those proceedings. Because, In 1867 – after one term in Congress – Hayes went home to Ohio to run for governor, and he brought his progressive ideology with him. One of his central planks in this race was support for impartial manhood suffrage in Ohio. In other words, giving the vote to African American men. Ohio, while part of the union, was still pretty dang racist, so the Democrats attacked him relentlessly on this point. They’d have young white girls walk around in white dresses carrying signs that read, “Fathers, save us from negro equality.” Wow! Hayes responded to this in speeches by saying, “Honest colored men are preferable to white traitors.”
This race went down to the wire. In the end, Hayes won the governorship by 3,000 votes… and the Democrats won the state legislature, where they defeated his amendment to give black men the right to vote.
Over the next eight years, Hayes would serve three terms as Ohio governor with a nice little four-year break in the middle to focus on law and his finances. As governor, Hayes established the Agricultural and Mechanical College, which would later became known as “Ohio State.” Sorry, buckeyes, I’m not saying the “THE.”
He also secured for funding Soldiers’ Orphans homes, succeeded in winning male African Americans the right to vote, and he advocated for and free schools for whites and blacks, though not together, because nobody was that progressive yet.
All in all, he was becoming a bit of a republican star. And, in 1876, he started to think he might just make a damn good president.
Which means it’s time for the presidential campaign of 1876!
Ok, so this is going to be arguably the craziest presidential election in U.S. history.
First, Hayes will have to upset a more popular rival to win the nomination. Then, he’ll have to overcome the strongest democratic presidential candidate in 20 years.
And after that, well, he’ll have to stare down the threat of basically another civil war.
Let’s start with that nomination fight. The GOP favorite going into the election of 1876 was a Maine Congressmen, and 3-term speaker of the house, named James G Blaine. And Blaine is a big deal. To give you a sense of how charismatic this guy was, they nicknamed him “The magnetic man” and “the plumed knight.” Blaine will run for president three times in the course of his life: 1876, 1880, and 1884, and then the party will attempt to nominate him against his wishes in 1888 and 1892. He’s basically the “Mr. Republican” of the late 19th century and we’re going to see him a lot in the episodes ahead.
In this first run at president, 1876, Blaine started hot. He won a plurality of the vote on the first six convention ballots – because, remember, we’re still in an age before primaries and caucuses - but he never could quite win the majority he required to synch the nomination. And the thing is, Blaine may have been stalling near the finish line, but nobody else was anywhere close. And then, on the 7th ballot, the Hayes camp got an assist from an unexpected source – Roscoe Conkling, the powerful republican boss of New York, and another rival for the 1876 GOP presidential nomination.
Now, we’re going to learn a LOT more about Lord Roscoe later this episode, because he’s going to play a huge role not just in this episode, but in our next two. But for now, just know that he’s incredibly powerful, incredibly arrogant, incredibly smart, and he HATES James G. Blaine.
Why? Because, when Blaine and Conkling were two up-and-coming congressmen a decade earlier, Blaine had verbally attacked Conkling on the house floor, mocking his, quote, “turkey-gobbler strut.” And Conkling wasn’t the forgiving or forgetting type.
So now, 10 years after that insult, at the 1876 GOP presidential convention, Conkling decided that blocking Blaine from the presidency was more important than winning it himself. And, after six deadlocked ballots, he ordered his delegates to swing behind Hayes, sparking an avalanche that made Hayes the Republican nominee on the 7th ballot.
Blaine has suffered his first of three straight presidential defeats, and Conkling was delighted.
But Hayes was hardly in the clear as far as the presidency was concerned. Sure, no Democrat had been elected since James Buchanan 20 years earlier, but they were getting stronger with every election cycle, especially in the south, where white supremacists could be counted on to suppress the black republican votes through terrorism and trickery, even as the region’s weight in the electoral college was expanded because African Americans now counted as full persons instead of the 3/5 of a person they had counted as during slavery. So, in a crazy way, ending slavery expanded the national power of southern white supremacists, so long as blacks were being counted in the census, and kept from the ballot box. When the Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden, the popular anti-corruption governor of New York, as their presidential candidate, Hayes knew he’d have a heck of a fight on his hands.
Let the contest begin.
The campaign season for the election of 1876 was … largely about corruption. Remember, this election is coming in the final year of the Grant administration, which had been rocked by numerous high-profile scandals. You’re also starting to see a growing divide between the rich and poor as the industrial revolution increasingly takes hold in America, and that’s creating an agitation among the poor against any politicians or businessmen who was getting rich at the public’s expense.
And so Tilden and Hayes both presented themselves as the best man for the job of cleaning up Washington and introducing civil service reform, and, on Nov. 7, 1876, the country had to choose.
The initial returns on election night were alarming for the Hayes camp. Hayes had lost New York, Indiana, Connecticut, New Jersey, and early results suggested he’d lost the whole south as well. There was no clear path to victory. He went to bed thinking he’d lost, only to be told in the morning that several of those southern states had flipped his way and he was going to win the electoral college by a single electoral vote.
So, had a miracle happened? Had Hayes pulled it off?
Nobody could tell.
Seriously. The nation’s democratic newspapers declared Tilden the winner. And Its republican papers declared Hayes the winner. And the discrepancy came down to three southern states that were still under military occupation related to Congressional reconstruction – South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.
In these three states, Republican-controlled returning boards were empowered to guarantee safe and honest elections. They were authorized to toss out votes if they suspected fraud. So, if you had a county where it looked like one side cheated, you could throw out all of that county’s votes, which can make for some pretty wild swings. And there-in lay the quandary, what to make of the results when they started throwing out votes?
First off, it is 100% true that southern democrats had used terrorism to suppress the republican black vote in this election. For example, one Louisiana Parish that had cast 1,688 republican votes in 1874 cast only a single republican ballot in 1876 – that’s a clear sign of African-American voter suppression. In South Carolina, two counties bordering Georgia cast 4,000 more democratic ballots than they even had residents, that’s a clear sign of ballot stuffing. When the returning boards saw the results like these in a county, they responded by throwing out all the county’s votes. So, if ballot boxes were clearly being stuffed, no votes were counted, and if white people were clearly blocking black votes, then white votes were blocked as well.
And once you started throwing out all the counties where this was suspected, the vote tilted in Hayes’ favor. And each of these states were being determined by razor thin margins. In Florida, a Tilden majority of 68 votes turned into a Hayes majority of 922 votes. In Louisiana, a Tilden majority of 6,400 votes turned into a Hayes majority of 4,807 votes. In south Carolina, a Tilden majority of 1,134 votes turned into a Hayes majority of 833 votes.
And the crazy thing is, this double checking of the election results very nearly didn’t happen.
The whole process was triggered on election night, after Hayes had gone to bed thinking he was a loser, when one of his supporters at RNC headquarters in New York noticed how narrow the margin in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana were and telegrammed each state’s party bosses with the message, “With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state." Which, woah that’s a bold telegram. An then they started doublechecking the numbers.
On December 6, when the state’s submitted their electors to the electoral college, these returning boards submitted republican electors for Hayes.
But then… southern democrats said screw you, we’re rejecting this process, and they submitted democratic electors of their own for Tilden. And so Congress, which is supposed to certify the electoral results by certifying the electors, had to decide which slate of contested electors to certify. The Republican ones? Or the Democrat ones? And, well, what do you think happened?
Each party’s congressmen wanted to certify their party’s electors, reject the other party’s, and hand the presidency to their candidates. No compromise could be reached, no winner could be certified, and the constitution didn’t offer jack in way of guidance on what to do next.
Seriously. Our constitution actually has quite a few holes in it. It’s kind of like trying to play a new board game if you only have 80% of the rule book. Every now and then you hit a conflict the constitution doesn’t cover, and then it’s up to everyone to get along and figure it out.
But, in 1876, the Democrats and Republicans were not getting along.
This is where things start getting really hairy. Both sides were positive they were in the right, and both sides began to get paranoid that their rivals were going to take up arms and seize the capital in Washington D.C. if their side didn’t grab it first. And, I mean, there was validity to these fears. In the south, Democratic rifle clubs began drilling and rumors abounded they’d soon march on D.C. How do you diffuse that before the nation descends into Civil War again?
And that’s where outgoing president Ulysses S. Grant began to get involved.
Grant said, look, nobody is going to seize the capital. I’m not going to let it happen. Calm down, and let’s find a way out of this. And the Democrat and Republican party leaders sat down and hashed out a plan.
They would create a 15-man commission that would look at each state and determine which slate of electors to certify, democrat or republican, and the commission’s verdict would settle the matter.
But who would sit on this commission?
The two sides again agreed. There would be five congressmen, five senators, and five supreme court justices.
Seven members would be republican or republican-appointed justices; and seven would be democrat or democrat-appointed justices. The 15th member would be David Davis, a supreme court justice who had been nominated by Lincoln, but who was respected by all as neutral in party politics.
With this compromise in place, the commission was selected and gathered and both parties pledged to abide by its rulings.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.
Before the commission could get to work, the Illinois state senate threw a curveball at it. Remember justice David Davis? That neutral 15th commissioner who was the lynchpin of this whole idea? Well, the Democratic state legislature of Illinois got this crazy idea that if they elected Davis to the senate, they’d effectively buy his support for Tilden and swing the commission their way. This backfired bigly when Davis accepted the senate seat and then recused himself from the commission! Meaning someone had to find a replacement. Davis was no dummy. He realized how corrupt this looked and he wasn’t going to be part of it. The four remaining supreme court justices on the commission picked the most independent-minded of their peers to replace him, and they landed on a guy who was still pretty Republican. And this is all terribly ironic, because most of the Historians I’ve read thought Davis was going to support Tilden anyway.
When the new-look 15-member commission got to work deciding which disputed slates of electors to accept, democrat or republican, it voted 8-7 in Hayes favor every, single time.
And that reshuffling of the election commission threw everything back in doubt. Outraged democrats filibustered the election’s certification in Congress, blocking the process by which Hayes’ victory could finally be made official, and possibly putting the country on the course for another civil war – I mean, what do you do if the two parties refuse to acknowledge the other side might have won? That “Civil War” thought scared the hell out of northern democrats, who quickly abandoned this filibuster effort, but southern Democrats clung on like Major Kong riding the a-bomb, and, deep into February now, time was ticking down on Grant’s term in the white house as chaos threatened.
Worried Republicans began reaching out to southern democrats and offering concessions if they’d allow Hayes to win. Hey Congressman so-and-so, your district sure could use a new federally-funded railroad, don’t ya think? Hey Justice what’s-your-face, I bet it would make some mutual friends of ours very happy if you voted for Hayes, don’t you agree?
All of this backchanneling culminated on February 26, 1877, just six days before Grant was scheduled to leave office, when Hayes’ supporters and prominent southerners met at Wormley’s hotel in Washington D.C. to negotiate an end to the impasse. Hayes’ men put an offer on the table: If the southerners let Hayes win… and if they promised to respect the freedmen’s rights… Hayes would withdraw union troops from the last occupied southern states and end military reconstruction as soon as he’d entered office.
And both sides said ok.
The southern democrats abandoned their filibuster and allowed the election results to be certified on March 2, 1876 – two days before Grant’s term was set to expire. Hayes was on a train to DC for what he hoped would be his inauguration when he learned he had officially won.
Despite losing the popular vote 4.3 million to 4 million, Hayes had won the closest electoral college victory in the nation’s history: 185 – 184. It was a victory that would come at a hell of a cost.
AND SO! On March 3, 1877, 54-year-old Rutherford B. Hayes, the three-time governor of ohio, lawyer of escaped slaves, and distinguished Civil War veteran, was sworn in as the 19th president of the United States of America at a private ceremony just days after Democratic opposition to certifying his win had collapsed. He had a daunting challenge ahead of him – how do you heal a nation, when half that nation thinks you’re an illegitimate president?
Before we dive in, let’s take a look around the nation and the world to see the times Hayes inherited.
Internationally, the times were a changing. The Suez canal had opened in 1869, cutting travel from Asia to Europe by 10 days; In 1870, the so-called Iron Chancellor of Prussia, Otto Von Bismarck, had launched the Franco-Prussian war and crushed the French empire in six months, heralding the fall of the French empire and the rise of a German one; As France fell, Parisians attempted to strike it out on their own by establishing the Paris Commune, an independent democratic socialist city-state that governed itself for two months before the armies of France’s national government crushed it and reabsorbed it into the French Republic.
These were seismic world events. We will hear a lot from this new Germany empire in the decades ahead, and the boogeyman of the Paris Commune will be seen in every labor strike for generations to come.
Domestically, Reconstruction was failing. By 1877, the entire south had been readmitted to the union and federal troops had been withdrawn from every former confederate state except South Carolina and Louisiana. But that didn’t mean the south was a peaceful land. Grant had done what he could to break to the Ku Klux Klan, and other paramilitary white power organizations, but he had not eradicated them. Whether by violence, terror, or ever more restrictive laws, white southerners had driven blacks out of the voting booths and away from political power. The 1876 Cruikshank case cemented the freedmen’s fate, when it ruled the U.S. constitution only applied to the federal government and not to private citizens or state governments. As in, domestic terrorists and southern state governments could lawfully restrict the free speech of black men and deny them a right to bear arms. A position that the supreme court has gradually backed off of in the 150 years since.
As the supreme court made it more difficult to defend the freedmen… The rest of the country largely abandoned them as well. I kind of get the impression that, while folks in the north may have wanted the freedmen to get a fair shake, it wasn’t their highest priority issue anymore, and they were tired of fighting that fight. Whereas, for the white powers of the south, denigrating the freedmen was far and away their most motivating issue, and their passion for African American subjugation was winning out over northern indifference.
In April, 1877, Hayes closed the book on reconstruction, and basically any last hope of support for the freedmen, when he fulfilled the promises that had been made at Wormley’s hotel and withdrew the final union troops from South Carolina and Louisiana, abandoning the south to so-called “home rule.”
I’ve seen quite a few historians argue that Hayes didn’t have a choice here. That national public opinion favored withdrawing the troops, and he was bound to go along with it, but I think that sells short the persuasive potential of the president. There was a vast republican press he could have leaned on, there were patronage positions he could have used to empower African American and progressive voices, I think there was a potential to relight the fire of progressive equality if the spark had been struck, but Hayes didn’t strike that spark. Either because the issue wasn’t a high enough priority for him, because he feared the south would secede again, or because he lacked confidence in his ability to save the freedmen. Given how narrowly he’d won his office, I can understand him fearing another Civil War if he tried to force the issue. But I still wish he’d tried.
As the final union troops withdrew, conservative democrats nicknamed “Bourbons” completed their return to power. They weren’t named for the American Whiskey, but rather for the former French Bourbon monarchs who were said to “never learn nor forget anything.”
From here until well into the 20th century, the former confederate states will vote reliably Democratic in basically every election until the 1950’s due to black voter suppression laws and terror techniques. During that stretch, the solid south will be a bedrock of support for Democratic presidential ambitions.
As if the political setbacks weren’t bad enough, many freedmen were blindsided by the collapse of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Bank during the Panic of 1873. This was a bank set up to specifically help the freedmen, who thought their deposits were guaranteed by the federal government. But it turns out, they were wrong. At the time of the bank’s collapse, it owed $2.9 million dollars to 61,000 african american depositors, and it had just $31,000 on hand to pay out. Almost all of those 61,000 depositors, freedman who were just now earning money for the first time and getting on their feet, had their life savings entirely wiped out.
As the nation tragically and sadly turned its back on the freedmen, two other struggles entered the national conscience that would dominate the late 19th century; the struggle of labor vs. management, and reform vs. corruption.
Both would have big moments during the Hayes presidency.
Let’s start with labor vs. management, because that’s the one that really whallops Hayes right out of the gate.
The whole American social structure has changed greatly since independence. The United States had once been a nation of yeoman farmers where just about anyone could find their own little patch of land if they were willing to look just a little farther out west. By the 1870’s, it was turning into a nation of railroads, factories, and cities. Evolutions in sanitation and building methods made larger cities possible, and factories gave those city residents places to work. But that didn’t mean it was very nice. Child labor laws and the minimum wage won’t be introduced until 1938, and the 40-hour work-week won’t come around until 1940.
Ever since the economic panic of 1873 – the one that walloped President Grant – management had been cutting wages, and not by a little bit. Furniture makers saw earnings drop 40 to 60% from 1873 to 1877. Textile workers saw incomes drop 45% from 1873 to 1880. One textile mill instituted fines for being late, eating at the work station, washing hands, sitting down, or even drinking water.
There was nothing to stop unscrupulous business owners from exploiting their workers with long hours, low pay, and deadly work conditions. I’m getting a bit ahead of the date, but I’ve seen one source claim 35,000 Americans died in factories or mines every year of the 1880’s, the highest rate of industrial accidents in the world. It was bad.
And by the mid 1870’s, laborers were getting sick of it.
They started organizing, unionizing. Sometimes they’d go on strikes, sometimes they’d sabotage equipment or get violent. When that happened, business owners met force with force. There were countless confrontations like this all over the country, but none were bigger than the one that demanded Hayes attention – the great train strike of 1877.
The great train strike of 1877 would effectively shut down 6 to 7,000 miles of railroads, witness 100,000 laborers being confronted by 45,000 militia, and result in the first ever deployment of federal troops against striking laborers.
It started when the B&O railroad – yup, just like in monopoly – announced a 10% wage cut for its workforce, the second wage cut in 8 months. Workers at one of its stations in West Virginia responded by basically impounding 600 trains in their station and declaring no trains would leave unless the cuts were reversed. The governor of west virginia sent in the police, who couldn’t free the trains, then he sent in the militia, who couldn’t free the trains, then he asked Hayes to send in the army. By that point, the strike had spread nation-wide. More and more governors were deploying police and militia against the strikers, and things were getting violent. In Maryland, militia killed 10 strikers who were attempting to stop and block trains on the track. In Philadelphia, militia mounted a bayonette charge that resulted in 20 deaths. Major riots occurred in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, and other cities. In some regions, other industries like iron or steel production joined the strike. The New Orleans Times wrote, “War between capital and labor has begun in earnest.”
Faced with this spreading disaster, which had managers screaming, “Look! It’s a communist uprising! Just like in Paris!” Rutherford B. Hayes approved the deployment of federal troops against the strikers. And people really were scared a communist revolution was about to overthrow the United States government. But then, before it could get any worse, and just as management was about to start giving in to striker demands, the strikers ran out of steam. They hadn’t worked in days, they couldn’t buy food! Their families were hungry and they needed to eat. Kist As the soldiers were being deployed, but before they could get caught in any fighting, the riots and strikes collapsed. The army never fired a shot, but an important precedent had been established. Never before had a president deployed troops in a labor dispute. Now, the lords of industry will demand it. From this point forward, the federal government will largely have management’s back in labor disputes, and federal troops will be deployed 100s of times well into the 20th century to either temporarily replace striking workers or violently force a strike to end.
Oh, and as for the laborer’s who had launched the great strike of 1877? More than 100 of them lay dead, slain by militia and police, and their grievances had not been addressed. Before the end of the century, we’ll see another great railroad strike that will rival the strike of 1877.
So, that’s the great railroad strike of 1877. It’s important because it really marks the beginning of large-scale conflict between labor and management, it established the national precedent of management accusing oppressed laborers of being communists, and it established the precedent of federal troops being deployed against labor on management’s behalf.
The next big thing to talk about from Hayes’ presidency is the struggle of Reform vs. Corruption. And this tale really demands the reintroduction of a man I mentioned in passing earlier this episode – Roscoe Conkling, the GOP boss of New York State.
Ok. So. I have to admit. I’m kind of really excited to introduce Roscoe Conkling to the narrative, because he’s kind of the Marvel or DC comic book Villain of corrupt gilded age politicians. His personality is just so huge, and he’s such an over-the-top prick, but he’s not evil. It’s not like he’s racist or fascist or anything like that. He’s just this super smart, super charismatic, power hungry jerk. A Lex Luthor of 19th century America. Like, when Conkling was practicing law before he entered politics, he’d mock the other lawyer’s arguments as they were making them and still whip them in court. And then, when he became a senator, he struck up a very public affair with a woman who was married to a fellow senator and the daughter of the chief justice of the supreme court! Who IS this guy?
And when I say Conkling was corrupt, I don’t mean he was personally enriching himself from the racket he oversaw. From what I can gather, he wasn’t interested in money. He was interested in power. He directing all the dirty money in politics to others so they’d owe him favors. Conkling dreamed of becoming president someday, and he thought the best way to get there was to fill the republican party with stooges who owed their federal jobs or their political offices to the Conkling machine, so they’d be bound to do as he bid or he’d cut them loose.
The thing is, when you’re as brazenly corrupt as Conkling, you kind of make yourself a target. And when you run for president on a reform platform as Hayes had, well, you kind of have to go after corrupt party bosses like Conkling. So, despite Conkling helping Hayes win the nomination, it didn’t take long for the two to come into conflict as Hayes attempted to pull some gears loose from Conkling’s machine.
So, what was Conkling’s racket? Well, we’ll be talking about it a lot the next two episodes, so I’ll touch on it lightly here, but it centered around the New York City customs house. At this point in U.S. history, a huge amount of trade passed through the port of New York City, and the NYC customs house was responsible for collecting vast dollars in tariffs and fees on all that trade. Conkling, like any decent comic book villain, had a lackey who served as his enforcer. A guy named Chester Arthur. Arthur ran the customs house for Conkling and made sure that everyone who worked there paid a kickback to the Conkling machine, he made sure that shipping companies were regularly overcharged giant fines that padded Lord Roscoe’s political coffers, and he made sure all custom house employees contributed portions of their paychecks and personally campaigned for Conkling at party conventions.
And if anyone didn’t go along with all of that, Arthur would kick them to the curb.
So, how does Hayes take this on. First, in 1877, he barred all federal employees from playing any roles in party conventions. Which was a decent start. Nobody could force government employees to work conventions for them anymore. Conkling was irritated, but it was hardly a mortal blow, and loyal stooges like Arthur just ignored the legislation anyway.
But then Hayes really crossed the line. In September, 1877, he asked Arthur and two others to resign their top jobs at the customs house so Hayes could appoint a New York Philanthropist named Theodore Roosevelt to clean house. And I know what you’re thinking. No, not that Theodore Roosevelt. You’re thinking of the future president, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. This is Theodore Roosevelt Sr. – his father. And Roosevelt sr. was as good and as honest a man as you could find in New York city, which is to say, he was scary as hell to men like Roscoe Conkling.
So Conkling ordered Arthur to dig in and put up a fight.
Over the next three months, Conkling and Hayes duked it out in Congress where they deployed all their powers of persuasion, and called every favor they’d saved, to line up senators behind keeping Arthur or replacing him with Roosevelt Sr. And Conkling pulled some real peachy tricks. For example, when the senate was scheduled to go into recess, which would have granted Hayes the presidential authority to make the swap without Congressional approval, Conkling arranged for the senate to forego its planned recess and stay in session just to thwart Hayes. Whenever Roosevelt’s name came up in congressional committee, Conkling beat it down. And Conkling wasn’t just playing defense. He went on the offense, too, attacking Hayes publicly and calling his election into question. He even saddled Rutherford with a new nickname – Rutherfraud. It’s just cartoonish.
As 1877 turned to 1878, it became clear Hayes was fighting a losing battle, and then the battle drew its first casualty.
Roosevelt Sr. was not a political animal. He was not used to being the rope in a game of tug-a-war between two master politicians, and he was not used to being in national headlines. As the senatorial battle wore on, it began to break him down, and then he got sick. In December of 1877, Roosevelt Sr.’s nomination was official defeated 31-25 in the senate – Conkling had won. And then, two days later, Roosevelt sr. collapsed. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but he kept it secret from his family. In February, he took a sudden turn for the worst, dying just before his son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr, could get home from college to see him. We’ll talk more about this when we get to episode 25 on President Theodore Roosevelt, but the death of his father and his defeat at the hands of a corrupt political machine would have a tremendous impact on young Theodore and through him the future of the country.
Conkling won the first battle in 1877, but he couldn’t keep the senators in Washington D.C. forever. When they finally took a recess the following year, Hayes used his presidential powers to make a recess appointment and remove Arthur from the customs house. Conkling had been dealt a mighty blow, but, like any good comic book villain, Conkling and Arthur will return in our next episode … when Arthur is made vice president to James Garfield, and Conkling attempts to bend Garfield’s administration to his will.
That’s next time in, REFORM VERSUS CORRUPTION.
Yeah, it’s only going to get crazier from here, folks.
So that wraps up the two major events of the Hayes presidency. There was the great railroad strike of 1877, when Hayes established the precedent of using federal troops to support management in its conflicts with labor, and the start of civil service reform, when Hayes confronted Conkling by banning federal employees from playing roles in party conventions and cleaning up the New York customs house – a political battle that may have hastened the death of Theodore Roosevelt Sr., who got caught in the middle of it.
As Hayes neared the end of his first term, he stuck to a campaign promise he’d made four years earlier by declining to seek a second term. He left the white house on March 4, 1881, he was 58 years old.
So how had America changed during the four years of the Hayes administration? Territory-wise, no new states were added, and no new territory was gained. But American scientist Thomas Edison did introduce two major inventions – the phonograph, an early music player, was in 1877, and the incandescent light bulb in 1879.
Also – this actually happened during the Grant administration – Chicago Businessman Aaron Montgomery Ward introduced the first mail-order catalog in 1872, which was a big deal. He basically launched the Amazon of his time. Think of it. By 1883, this single catalog sold more than 10,000 items, delivering anything anywhere thanks to the nation’s expanding rail system. Ward’s later catalog rival, Sears, even sold mail-order houses! Montgomery Ward also invented Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for a company marketing campaign in 1939. That’s right. Ol’ Rudolph is an American marketing play. You’re welcome for ruining your childhood.
Internationally, the Russo-Turkish war was fought from 1877 to 78. This resulted in Russian expansion, Ottoman retreat, and the creation of new independent countries in the Balkans. Independent countries that would, in 45 years, help trigger the start of World War 1. So yay, we’re starting to lay the groundwork for that.
In 1878, Hayes arbitrated a dispute between the south american nations of Argentina and Paraguay in Paraguay’s favor, giving the nation 60% of its current territory. It is for this reason that Paraguay named one of its provinces after him: If you’re ever in Paraguay, check out Villa Hayes in The Presidente Hayes department, celebrate Laudo Hayes Firm day on Nov. 12, and check out the local soccer team “Club Presidente Hayes,” also known as “Los Yanquis.”
In south Africa, two colonial wars were fought by the British, who were moving into the neighborhood. The Anglo-Zulu war was fought in 1879 – if you’ve ever seen the Michael Caine movie Zulu, this is that war and it ended in a British victory; Then, in 1880, the first Boer War was fought between the recent British colonists and the descendants of earlier dutch colonists known as Boers who waged a successful guerilla campaign.
Oh, and on the invention front, the British Perforated Paper company debuted toilet paper rolls in 1880. I… did not look up what everyone was doing before this date.
Oh! And one other cool thing. On Nov. 23, 1880, Hayes was presented the Resolute Desk by Queen Victoria of Great Britain – this is the desk Jackie Kennedy first placed in the oval office in 1961, and which every president has used since Jimmy Carter in 1977. The story of the desk is pretty cool. In the 1850’s, a british ship named the HMS Resolute was sailing in the frigid waters north of Canada when it became trapped in ice and had to be abandoned by its crew. An American ship discovered it a year later and salvaged enough of the vessel that it was able to be rebuilt and returned to the Royal Navy as a gift of amity from the Americans. The ship sailed the home waters of the British Islands for another 23 years before it was decommissioned and some of its wood was made into the resolute desk, which Queen Victoria presented to Hayes as a thank you for the Americans’ role in saving the ship all those decades before.
So, the next time you see a picture of the Oval Office, you now know the history of that desk.
Anyway, those are some of the other domestic and global highlights of the Hayes years. As for Hayes himself, he lived another twelve years and seemed like a pretty good guy. He supported education initiatives, prison reform, further civil service reform, addressing runaway wealth inequality, and uplifting African Americans.
On that runaway wealth inequality bit, Hayes began to look downright progressive in his older age. He bemoaned the United States turning into, quote “A government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.” And advocated a limit on inheritance with the public becoming the beneficiary of the remainder of the estate when someone passed away. Estate taxes like this now exist, but they aren’t as strong as Hayes thought they should be.
Hayes’ wife Lucy suffered a stroke in June, 1889, and died soon after with Hayes holding her hand as she passed. Four years later, on January 18, 1893, Hayes suffered a heart attack while traveling home and was laid to bed, where he died. His last words were, “I know that I am going where Lucy is.” Which, I’m not crying, your crying.
Ok, so, what can we learn from the presidency of Rutherford B Hayes?
How about, it’s never over ‘til it’s over. Don’t give up prematurely. Remember election night, 1876? Hayes went to bed that night thinking he had lost. Had he given a concession, it might all have been over. But, when he woke up the next morning and was told there’s a chance, he stayed in the fight and led the GOP back to the white house.
So, don’t give up too easily. As my dad told me when I was a kid, persistence persistence persistence.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Rutherford B. Hayes, by Hans L. Trefousse
In our next episode, I’ll talk to historian Dustin McLochlin, of the Rutherford B Hayes Presidential Library and Museums, about Hayes’ evolving views on slavery and reconstruction.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.