The Rutherford B. Hayes Family

By Emily Apt Geer

A recent emphasis in historical research has been the study of people and the institutions affecting their lives. One way to bridge the gap between history and everyday life is to analyze and compare families from different periods of time.

Considering the problems facing family life today - one out of three marriages ends in divorce, limitations placed on size, generations alienated from one other, youth worrying about nuclear holocaust, couples more interested in individual fulfillment than a family development - prophets of doom claim the family as an institution faces extinction. Others, not so pessimistic look back with nostalgia to a less complex age and wonder whether the ninteenth century was not after all the "golden age" of the American family.  An interesting upper middle-class family of the ninteenth century is that of Rutherford and Lucy Hayes. Until they became President and First Lady of the United States in 1877, their family life was typical of politically active, upper middle-class families of their age. To compare the Hayes family with our own, we can use factors such as health, familial affection, living conditions, educational and recreational opportunities, religious training, and individual development. Fortunately for this kind of study, the culture of the greater society affects the levels of expectations from one age to another more than it does the basic values.

Health probably is the area of greatest disparity between then and now. On a visit to Kentucky in 1883, Dr. James Webb, father of Lucy Hayes, died from cholera. His mother, father, and brother also perished during this sickness. Serious epidemics of cholera broke out in Ohio in 1823-3 and again in 1849. The latter caused the first Ohio State Fair to be postponed for a year.1 And not until after the isolation of the cholera micro-organism in 1883 could effective measures by taken to prevent recurrences of such cholera outbreaks.

President Hayes was the posthumous son of Ruddy Hayes who had left his native Vermont to settle in Delaware, Ohio, only to die there of a local fever. Of Sophia and Ruddy Hayes’ five offspring, only Rutherford and his older sister Fanny survived the vicissitudes of childhood.2 Lucy Hayes suffered all of her life from severe headaches and died in 1889, just before her fifty-eight birthday, from a massive apoplectic stroke - probably the result of undiagnosed high blood pressure.

Three of the Rutherford B. Hayes family of eight children died during the second summer of their lives. Hayes sadly recorded in his diary the death of little Joseph from teething and dysentery in 1863, of George Crook from scarlet fever in 1866, and of Manning Force, eighth and last child, in 1874, from summer complaint.3

There is strong evidence that James A. Garfield, who followed Hayes as President, would have survived the bullet wound inflicted by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker, if proper sanitation measures had been taken by doctors probing for the bullet. Garfield died from a secondary infection.4

A striking quality of the Hayes’ family life was their love for one another. Not long before his death in 1893, Hayes referred to his marriage with Lucy as "the most interesting fact of his life."5 Lucy’s love for her husband is very evident in her letters, although she never expressed it quite so well as Rutherford did on his forty-eighth birthday when he wrote to her, "My life with you has been so happy - so successful - so beyond reasonable anticipations, that I think of you with a loving gratitude that I do not know how to express."6

Letters between Lucy and Rutherford and their children are filled affectionate phrases. A letter written by Webb Hayes, soon after his mother’s death, expressed the way her children felt: "My mother was all that a Mother could be and in addition was a most joyous and lovable companion".7

Few wives of the twentieth century have moved more often during their married life than Lucy Hayes. Except for the years between their wedding in 1852 and the Civil War era when they lived in Cincinnati, Lucy followed Rutherford to army camps in West Virginia, lived in rooming houses and hotels in Chillicothe and Cincinnati, occupied a rented house in Columbus during his three terms as governor,8 lived briefly in Fremont in the home Hayes’ uncle Sardis built for them in Spiegel Grove, savored life in the White House, and finally, returned to the lovely grove.

Like families of the nineteenth century in similar circumstances, Lucy Hayes had house-hold help most of her life. But she knew how to cook, sewed extensively for her children and mended uniforms for the soldiers in Hayes’ Civil War regiment, and even nursed her husband back to health when he was wounded in the Battle of South Mountain in 1862. A letter she wrote in 1860 sounds like the lament of any weary housewife: "Sick children - then cross children - poor house girl - and all the usual household troubles..."9 The three generations of the Hayes family seemed to exist in reasonable harmony although a notation in Rutherford’s diary one Christmas indicated that his mother’s long visit was creating tensions within the house-hold.10

Education was very important to the Hayes family. Partly through the help of his uncle, Rutherford was able to graduate from both Kenyon College and Harvard Law School. Because of her sex, Lucy Webb, however, could not qualify for a degree at Ohio Wesleyan University, so instead she attended classes with her brothers, and received credit for work in both the preparatory and college departments. In 1847, she enrolled at Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College and graduated there in 1850. Eventually Lucy Webb Hayes would have the distinction of becoming the first President’s wife to hold a college degree. Lucy and Rutherford’s sons were educated at Cornell, Harvard Law School, and local academies. Their daughter, Fanny, attended Miss Porter’s Finishing School in Connecticut.

During the early years, the Hayes children and their mother spent long, happy vacations with relatives on farms in the Chillicothe-Circleville, Ohio area. In 1860, Rutherford and Lucy made a long deferred trip down the St. Lawrence River and thence overland by rail to Vermont where they visited with his relatives. Hayes, often accompanied by Lucy, traveled extensively during his four-year term as President. The most dramatic occasion was the trip to the Pacific Coast in 1880 - "making the first time any President had crossed the continent while in office."11

The Hayes sons, particularly Birchard and Webb, were very interested in sports. A youthful letter from Birchard lamented that he dreaded growing up because he would be unable to play baseball!12

Lucy Hayes was an active church member, and se served as national president of the newly-organized Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church from the end of Hayes’ term as President of the United States in 1881 until her death in 1889. In Washington, the family worshipped at the Foundry Methodist Church, rather than attend the more fashionable Metropolitan Church frequented by the Grants. Harry Barnard notes in Rutherford B. Hayes and His America that Hayes regularly attended and supported churches but never joined a denomination. Upon his return to Fremont in 1881, he became especially active in the religious life of the local community, serving as a trustee of the Methodist Church and as a vice-president of the county Bible Society.13

In the nineteenth century as in the twentieth, the desire for self-fulfillment at times clashed with accepted patterns of family behavior. From a survey of women’s magazines of 1820-1860, Barbara Welter drew the conclusion that the attributes of "True Womanhood," by which an American woman judged herself and was judged by society, were divided into four cardinal virtues - piety, purity, submissiveness to her husband, and domesticity. Religion or piety was regarded as the core of her virtue and the source of her strength. A popular poem of the period, "The Triumph of the Spiritual Over the Sensual," emphasized the belief that woman’s "purifying, passionless love" brought erring man back to Christ.14

In a society where men had little time to spend with families (many men worked 12-16 hours a day six days a week) and fortunes rose and fell with frightening rapidity, a "true woman" seemed essential for the stability of the family. Rutherford Hayes’ attitude is defined in a letter written near the end of his life: "My wish for the American woman is that she may always be an elevating influence- man’s inspiration. Let him go forth to duty while she weaves the spell which makes home a paradise to which he may return, ever welcome..."15

Generally Lucy Hayes, in keeping with her husband’s sentiment and the social thinking of the time, regarded her role as that of a supportive wife and busy mother, but occasionally there were signs of suppressed feelings. A theme written when she was still in college indicated an interest in Women’s Rights. Lucy wrote, "It is acknowledged by most persons that woman’s mind is as strong as man’s... Instead of being considered the slave of man, she is considered his equal in all things, and his superior in some."16 A few years later this interest was renewed when she heard Lucy Stone speak in Columbus. She told her husband afterward that she was pleasantly surprised by the logic of Miss Stone’s arguments and came home "Woman’s Rights in some things."17 Lucy Hayes, however, did not dispute her husband’s position on woman suffrage. While Governor of Ohio, he had written in his diary that the exercise of political duties of citizenship were inconsistent with the demands of maternity.18

Charles Richard Williams notes in The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes that after his retirement from the Presidency, Hayes had time to devote to his earlier interest in education and prison reform. He also became convinced that growing unrest among the laboring masses and the tremendous concentration of wealth in the hands of a few were proof that society and government must work to bring about a larger measure of social justice.19

There are some similarities between the Hayes family in the White House, and the Ford and Carter families of recent times. While Hayes was President, his oldest son, Birchard, graduated from Harvard Law School, the second son, Webb, served as his father’s personal secretary, and young Rud spent pleasant interludes home from college at the White House. Visitors to the Mansion might find six year old Scott’s toys on the lawn, or dollhouses claimed by Fanny, who was nine, in the corridors. Mrs. Hayes did not have a staff of social assistants but instead invited nieces, cousins, and daughters of friends to help with her social duties. Mrs. Hayes, like Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Carter, was quite popular with White House reporters, particularly "ladies of the press."

The decision to bar liquor from White House entertaining subjected Mrs. Hayes to considerable criticism. A full quota of wine was served at the first State dinner but after that occasion Hayes announced there would be no more alcoholic beverages served at White House functions. Many factors probably entered into the first family’s decision: a desire to set an example of moderation after the exuberant social events of the Grant administration, Lucy’s life-long abstinence from liquor, a desire to keep temperance advocates in the Republican Party, and most of all Hayes’ firm conviction that government officials should conduct themselves at all times with discretion and dignity.20

The upper middle-class family described here led a reasonably happy life. But one questions whether a comparable modern family would want to turn the clock back again to an age when epidemics and illnesses decimated families. Such living conditions would not satisfy the modern family, and certainly an Ohio governor’s wife would not enjoy moving from one rented house to another in Columbus. The farm vacations, however, that delighted the Hayes children so much retain an appeal for urban dwellers in the twentieth century.

Education for women has shown significant improvement since the nineteenth century - a college-educated First Lady is no longer a novelty in the White House. It is doubtful whether men or women would want to return to an age that limited their time and opportunities for self-expression, and regarded woman’s sexuality as more spiritual than man’s.

Religious fervor of the two eras is difficult to compare. A sociologist writing in the 1960's argued that many modern families join a church for social rather than religious reasons.21 The viewpoint of the noted author and professor of religion at the University of Chicago, Martin E. Marty, is optimistic about the future of religion in American life. In a recent article in American Heritage, he quoted results of a Gallup Opinion Poll of 1976 as evidence that Americans "are a religious people".22

Rising divorce statistics in our age may be misleading since the majority of divorced persons do remarry later. Lifelong companionship may be receding as an ideal, but not the notion of remaining with one person for a considerable length of time. Margaret Mead suggests that Americans should start working for a new version of the family, one that is more appropriate for the contemporary world.23

While a comparative study of families in different time periods is a fascinating and effective way to associate history with everyday life, most of us today would reject the notion of the nineteenth century as the "golden age" of the American family.


End Notes

1 Francis P. Weisenburger, The Passing of the Frontier, 1825-1850, volume III of The History of the State of Ohio (Columbus: the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941), 73. go back

2 Harry Barnard, Rutherford B. Hayes and His America (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1954), 32. go back

3 Hayes Diary, June 25, 1863, May 24, 1866, August 25 and 28, 1874. Rutherford B. Hayes Library, hereinafter cited as RBHL. go back

4 H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969), 137-140; Otto L. Bettmann, The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible (New York: Random House, 1974), 144. go back

5 Kenneth E. Davison, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), 69. go back

6 Hayes to Lucy Webb Hayes, October 4, 1870. RBHL. go back

7 Webb C. Hayes to Elizabeth Tod, July 5, 1889. Draft in RBHL. go back

8 The following article describes living conditions for the Hayes family in Columbus: Emily Apt Geer, "Lucy Webb Hayes: A Governor’s Wife a Century Ago" in Marta Whitlock (ed.), Women in Ohio History (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1976). go back

9 Lucy Webb Hayes to Laura Platt Mitchell, March 9, 1860. RBHL. go back

10 Hayes Diary, December 24, 1860. RBHL. go back

11 Davison, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, 213. go back

12 Birchard A. Hayes to Rutherford B. Hayes, January 19, 1873. RBHL. go back

13 Barnard, Rutherford B. Hayes and His America, 504. go back

14 Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860," American Quarterly, XVIII (Summer 1966), 151-152. go back

15 Rutherford B. Hayes. Unaddressed letter, November 1890. RBHL. go back

16 Lucy Webb, original compositions. RBHL. go back

17 Lucy Webb Hayes to Rutherford B. Hayes, April 24, 1854. RBHL. go back

18 Hayes Diary, April 27, 1870. RBHL. go back

19 Charles R. Williams, The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1928), II, 381-381. go back

20 Hayes Diary, February 28, 1879. RBHL. go back

21 M. F. Nimkoff, "The American Family" in M. F. Nimkoff (ed.), Comparative Family Systems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 336.
go back

22 Martin E. Marty, "God’s Almost Chosen People," American Heritage, XXVIII, no. 5 (August 1977), 4. go back

23 Margaret Mead, "Can the American Family Survive," Redbook, volume 148, no. 4 (February 1977), 161. go back

go to top of page

go back to Hayes Historical Journal - Volume II No. 1