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Rutherford B. Hayes and African-Americans

Hayes biographer, Ari Hoogenboom.By Ari Hoogenboom
Rutherford Birchard Hayes, nineteenth president of the United States, was born in Delaware, Ohio, in 1822. He had little contact with African-Americans, until the winter of 1848 to 1849, when he visited a college friend, Guy Bryan, at his home on the Brazos River in Texas. Arriving after dark he was "met by a bushy-headed, fine-looking boy," whom Hayes, because the resemblance was so strong, mistook for Guy's brother Stephen and "shook him heartily by the hand." He was Guy's half-brother and a slave; Hayes literally had come to grips with slavery.1

On this visit Hayes appreciated the ability of slaves, but also the deleterious effect of slavery on blacks and whites. At a party in his honor he noted that: "Two little black girls for waiters pass everything possible around, and take the plates of the guests to the carvers, never failing to get the right name," and he admired Gus, a slave cowboy, as he performed the "somewhat perilous" task of lassoing a wild cow.2

Hayes saw "many finely improved sugar plantations" along the Brazos, but observed that the white men on them were "generally dissolute and intemperate," as well as "haughty and imperious" since they rarely met with any except their "slaves and minions." In contrast to Ohio, where free labor prevailed, there were "few villages, no mechanics, no public improvements." He was particularly critical of the inefficiency of slave labor. He observed that Bryan's mother had as much vexation in dealing with her help as did his mother, whom he accused of "changing 'girls' once a fortnight." In addition, Bryan's mother (who was weak from the ravages of tuberculosis), "instead of having to care for one family, is the nurse, physician, and spiritual adviser to a whole settlement of careless slaves."3

Upon his return to Ohio, Hayes moved to Cincinnati where he wooed and married Lucy Webb. Lucy's father, a native of Kentucky, was opposed to slavery, and when he inherited fifteen to twenty slaves he returned home to Lexington to free them. While there, and before he could manumit the slaves, he died in a cholera epidemic, leaving Lucy's mother with three small children and no substantial estate except those inherited slaves. When advised that she sell them down the river for a small fortune with which she could support herself and her children comfortably, Lucy's mother replied: "Before I will sell a slave, I will take in washing to support my family." The Webb family freed these slaves and frequently employed them and their children. Lucy Webb, the woman Hayes married, grew up knowing black people, was an abolitionist, and influenced her husband who, while never proslavery, had been antiabolitionist.4

In the first year of his marriage, Hayes began to defend the freedom of blacks. "My services," he later wrote, "were always freely given to the slave and his friends in all cases arising under the Fugitive Slave Law." He did not seek publicity for these acts, lest his practice suffer in a city that bordered on Kentucky and was filled with southern sympathizers. He was outraged when Judge Jacob Flinn, who relished sending runaway slaves back to slavery, "got into greater odium than ever by assaulting Mr. Jolliffe while passing in the street in company with his wife." John Jolliffe, Cincinnati's most conspicuous defender of fugitive slaves, had advocated that Flinn be impeached. A few days after the attack on Jolliffe, Hayes offered him his services in the defense of fugitive slaves. Although Lucy had sensitized Hayes on the antislavery issue, she was out of town when Jolliffe was attacked, and Hayes decided on his own to volunteer. A few weeks later, he defended Louis, a young runaway slave, who slipped out of the courtroom to freedom while judge and lawyers were engrossed in a passionate argument over his fate.5

Hayes's emerging antislavery credentials were enhanced when, with Sen. Salmon P. Chase and Judge Timothy Walker, he defended Rosetta Armstead, a young woman who allegedly was a runaway slave. Henry M. Dennison, a clergyman of Louisville, Kentucky, who was her owner, had placed her in the charge of a man traveling to Richmond, Virginia. Having left an Ohio River steamboat at Cincinnati, they were traveling by rail through Columbus, when alert antislavery activists had them detained. There, the probate court freed Rosetta Armstead on a writ of habeas corpus, and since she was a minor, appointed Lewis G. Van Slyke as her guardian. At Columbus, in the presence of Van Slyke and others, Dennison asked Armstead to choose between going with him or remaining free. When she chose freedom, he said goodbye after warning her that she would probably never see him again. Later changing his mind, Dennison procured a warrant for Armstead's arrest as a runaway slave, from U.S. Commissioner John L. Pendery of Cincinnati, and she was brought to Cincinnati, where her guardian sought a writ of habeas corpus from Judge James Parker of the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County. Because of Hayes's "clear head and good heart," Van Slyke wanted him, as well as Chase and Walker, to represent his charge.6

The Rosetta case, as it was called, attracted enormous attention. Not only was the slavery or freedom of a human being at stake, but intriguing legal questions were involved. Did a slave who was not a runaway become free upon touching the soil of Ohio? Did Dennison, by allowing Rosetta Armstead, a minor, to choose freedom and then acquiescing before witnesses in her choice legally manumit her? If the Ohio court entered into a conflict with a federal commissioner over the writ of habeas corpus, who would prevail? Judge parker ordered that Armstead be set free. He declared that "under the constitution of Ohio the alleged right of transit with slave property through the state did not exist" and ruled that on a writ of habeas corpus a state court could determine the legality of the imprisonment of anyone by a U.S. marshal.7

U.S. Commissioner Pendery would not let Parker's challenge to federal authority go unanswered; Rosetta Armstead was rearrested by a federal marshal. Before a packed courtroom, Pendery conducted a hearing at which Hayes made the major argument for the defense and, in Chase's words, "acquitted himself with distinction." Hayes attacked Dennison for "despising his pledged word," by trying to re-enslave Armstead after freeing her, and argued that even if she were not manumitted she was free because the Fugitive Slave Law did not apply to her case. Armstead did not run away; Dennison's agent brought her to Ohio. When Hayes finished, the courtroom burst into applause and fellow lawyers crowded about to congratulate him. After mulling over his decision for nearly a week, Pendery declared that Rosetta Armstead was free under U.S. law as well as Ohio law. Van Slyke and others credited the outcome to Hayes's "eloquent and masterly closing speech."8

Although Hayes was committed to the antislavery cause by 1855, he continued to regard blacks with a condescending, amused detachment. Neither contemptuous or hostile, he failed to take them seriously. Contributing to this attitude was his tendency to poke fun at everyone and everything and turn "the whole of life into a joke." Three months after arguing for Armstead's freedom, Hayes joined Lucy and her mother in meeting the former Webb slaves in Lexington, Kentucky, and revealed his condescending attitude: "Today we have been receiving calls from our 'people.' They all have complaints to make. We send them away with kind words and a dollar apiece. One chuckle-headed Cudjoe said to Lucy: 'Why, Miss Lucy, I'm so glad you have got such a pretty man!'"9

His condescending attitude towards blacks notwithstanding, Hayes opposed the extension of slavery. In 1855 he helped mold the disparate opposition to the Democrats into the Ohio Republican party. The nomination of John Charles Fremont on a platform opposed to the extension of slavery in 1856 committed Hayes irrevocably to the Republican party. He pasted a woodcut in his diary and noted: "Colonel Fremont. Not a good picture, but will do to indicate my politics this year. For free States and against new slave States."10

Reading the lives of British antislavery leaders and reliving their triumph over the slave trade and slavery gave Hayes confidence that "right" would prevail. It also enabled him to endure Fremont's defeat in "the first pitched battle." For Hayes, who had become a warrior, the imagery was reality. "However fares the cause," he declared, "I am enlisted for the war."11

Four years later, in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln's election on a platform that opposed the extension of slavery, Hayes was not afraid to confront southern threats of secession: "I feel as if the time had come to test this question. If the threats are meant, then it is time the Union was dissolved or the traitors crushed out."12

Hayes feared a compromise that would perpetrate slavery more than disunion and civil war, arguing, "We can recover from them." Twenty free states "in the temperate zone, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific" and their twenty million people-vigorous, inventive, educated, moral, and "above all, free-will form," he predicted, "a glorious nation," that will be "scarcely inferior in real power to the unfortunate Union of thirty Sates which we had on the first of November."13

South Carolina forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, and on 15 April Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. Welcoming the war, Hayes simply stated, "I like it. Anything is better than the state of things we have had the last few months."14

War seemed less of a lark when "a long friendly secession letter" from Guy Bryan forced Hayes to contemplate what a war could accomplish. Bryan's prediction, often repeated over the past fifteen years, that "the agitation of slavery" would break up the Union, Hayes admitted, seemed to be coming true. He had clung to a weakening hope that "we could live together notwithstanding slavery," but on 8 May 1861 he had "next to no hope of a restoration of the old Union" and "no hope whatever," if Guy were correct. Hayes doubted if the South could be conquered, and he did "not think it wise or desirable" to force any slave state to remain against its will.15

But thinking through Bryan's letter convinced Hayes that a war to save the upper South for the Union was "just and necessary." He was willing to shed his own blood declaring: "I would prefer to go into it if I knew I was to die or be killed in the course of it, than to live through and after it without taking any part in it."16

For Hayes, the war which he originally justified to round out the borders of a new Union, quickly became a crusade against slavery. On Forefathers' or Pilgrim Day, 22 December 1861, he declared, "We are at the same high call her today-freedom, freedom for all. We all know that is the essence of this contest." With the new year, Hayes believed that the runaway slaves of rebels ("contrabands") should not be returned to their masters-who had repudiated their rights under the Fugitive Slave law and the Constitution. But he reluctantly conceded that Union men were legally entitled to their runaway slaves. He did not want Congress to meddle with slavery because the war, "in a way consistent with eternal principles of justice," was dealing it "death-blows" and it was perishing.17

Some contrabands remained with the army, employed as cooks and servants, while others went to Ohio. They avoided Cincinnati, however, where they might be recognized and sent back to slavery. Hayes employed "a bright fellow" named Daniel Husk, who had escaped by traveling a hundred miles through the mountains by night, and urged his Uncle Sardis to employ or find work for a contraband couple, in his hometown of Fremont in northern Ohio. "Faithful, intelligent, and industrious," Allen would make an ideal house servant, while his "neat and orderly wife" was a cook. Hayes found contrabands more intelligent than the "Unenterprising, lazy, narrow, listless, and ignorant" poor-whites of western Virginia. He blamed their sorry condition on slavery. Under it, one class is "well-bred, brave, high-spirited. The rest are serfs."18

By the end of March, 1862, Hayes was "gradually drifting to the opinion that this Rebellion can only be crushed finally by either the execution of all the traitors or the abolition of slavery. Crushed, I mean, so as to remove all danger of its breaking out again in the future." Since the execution of all traitors was out of the question, Hayes advocated that the slaves of rebels be set free in "the disloyal States," but he would allow the loyal border state governments to "dispose of slavery in their own way." He predicted that abolition would come "if it is found that a stubborn and prolonged resistance is likely to be made in the cotton States."19

Convinced that "desperate diseases require desperate remedies," Hayes was optimistic that with emancipation "all will yet go well." After Lincoln on 1 January 1863 proclaimed freedom for slaves behind Confederate lines, Hayes feared he had expected too much militarily from the Emancipation Proclamation but was "glad it was issued." Before the war ended his hopes were fulfilled.20

There was no mistaking the effect of the proclamation on African-Americans held in bondage. In 1864, the army to which Hayes-the colonel of a regiment-was attached, destroyed part of a vital rail link deep in Virginia. Short of ammunition and rations, it had to return to West Virginia 140 miles of bad roads away. In the army's train, were two hundred wounded men, three hundred confederate prisoners, and between one and two hundred former slaves, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The Union commander did not turn away these African-Americans, even though they slowed his army and helped consume its dwindling food supplies. Some of them had wagons, but most of them were on foot, carrying their children and a few belongings on their trek to freedom.21

Continuing rain made the muddy, uphill road horrible, and Hayes, who on one day was the officer responsible for the wagon train, tried to "force it along." He was particularly affected by "the train of contrabands, old and young, male and female . . . toiling uncomplainingly along . . . with the army."22

Over a week, the army and its caravan pushed on, often in "driving rain over execrable roads" with little food. They kept off "starvation only . . . by energetic and systematic foraging." After a difficult crossing of the swollen Greenbrier River, the expedition, with everyone hungry and many without shoes, was finally safe within Union lines.23

Hayes emerged from the Civil War a brigadier general (he later was brevetted major general), a war hero who had been wounded five times, and a member of Congress. In Congress from 1865 to 1867, Hayes consistently supported Radical Republican Reconstruction measures including the Fourteenth Amendment and the setting up of Radical Republican regimes in the South. Disliking the long separations from Lucy and their children (they would rear four sons and a daughter), Hayes happily resigned from Congress to run for governor of Ohio. Elected in 1867 and reelected in 1869 he served from 1868 to 1872 and while identified with reform causes and the establishment of the Ohio State University, he was most conspicuous in the struggle for voting rights for black Americans and was primarily responsible for the ratification by Ohio of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Hayes retired from politics, moved to Fremont in 1873, and in 1874 inherited the bulk of his Uncle Sardis's estate. After Hayes left politics, the Republican party declined. Ohio Democrats triumphed in the 1873 gubernatorial race, and the financial panic that year, followed by a deepening economic depression, enabled the Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives in 1875. With Northerners tired of the Reconstruction issue and preoccupied with unemployment and falling incomes, Radical Republican governments collapsed in the South. Hayes also began to consider a policy that would allow local self-rule (without military intervention) for the South, if white southerners would respect the political rights of blacks. Despite these policy notions, Hayes was content to remain outside politics, but in 1875 Ohio Republicans, desperate to reverse their decline, nominated Hayes, their best vote-getter, for a third term as governor. When Hayes won in a close race supporters advocated his nomination for president in 1876.

Obnoxious to no one, Hayes received the 1876 presidential nomination. The ensuing campaign was difficult for Republicans, because of the severe depression, the reform reputation of the Democratic nominee, Gov. Samuel Jones Tilden of New York, and the violence Democrats employed to prevent black and white Republicans in the South from voting. On Election Day Tilden appeared victorious, and Hayes and Lucy consoled each other with the thought that their lives would be simpler.

Both of us [Hayes wrote] felt more anxiety about the South-about the colored people especially than about anything else sinister in the result. . . . There the amendments will be nullified, disorder will continue, prosperity to both whites and colored people, will be pushed off for years.

Nevertheless, they "soon fell into a refreshing sleep and the affair seemed over."24

The affair was not over. Republicans-in control of the official election returning boards in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina-citing intimidation, disqualified enough Democratic ballots to produce Republican majorities in those states, giving Hayes the electoral votes necessary for his election. Claiming they were defrauded, the Democrats sent rival sets of elector's votes to be counted, as the Constitution prescribed, by the president of the Senate in the presence of both houses of Congress.

To decide which votes to count the Democratic House of Representatives and the Republican Senate created an Electoral Commission-of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices-that balanced seven Republicans with seven Democrats and relied on Justice David Davis, a political independent, to make a nonpartisan decision. Davis, however, disqualified himself, after Democrats helped elect him senator from Illinois, and his Republican replacement sided with his party, giving the disputed votes to Hayes by an eight to seven vote. With the presidency lost, the Democrats delayed the count and threatened chaos unless Republicans removed the federal troops supporting Republican regimes in the South. When Grant and Ohio politicians close to Hayes agreed to the removal, if the Democrats in those states pledged to respect the civil rights of blacks-an agreement which did not go beyond Hayes's published letter accepting the nomination-enough Democrats voted with Republicans to complete the count, and on 2 March 1877 Hayes was declared president.

Harsh political realities, rather than any deal made during the count, determined Hayes's southern policy. When Hayes took office, southern Republican governments remained only in Louisiana and South Carolina, where they were challenged by rival Democratic governments. The legitimacy of these Republican governments was on a par with that of the Hayes presidency; the same Republican-controlled returning boards had declared them victorious. The problem was that the survival of these governments depended on the support of federal troops. Hayes knew that northern public opinion would not sustain these troops, for whom congressional Democrats had already blocked appropriations. The question was not whether troops should be withdrawn, but when they would be withdrawn. From this weak-bargaining position, Hayes extracted from the rival Democratic governments of Louisiana and South Carolina promises to guarantee the voting and civil rights of all black and white citizens. Hayes was naive in accepting these pledges at face value, but he had no viable option.

On the other hand, Hayes in 1879 defeated congressional attempts to force him to repeal the Election Laws. To necessary appropriation bills the Democratic Congress attached riders designed to destroy laws enforcing voting rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The Democrats believed that repeal of the election laws would bring them the presidency in 1880. "The practical object of the 'so-called' Democrats is very plain," Hayes heard from his friend Judge William Johnston of Cincinnati. "They want to kill with impunity so many negroes as may be necessary to frighten the survivors from the polls in the South; and . . . [they want] to stuff the ballot-boxes of New York after the manner of 1868."25

Sensing that northern public opinion would support the federal supervision of congressional and presidential elections, Hayes vetoed appropriation bills containing riders. Ultimately Congress-under the lash of public opinion-passed money bills without the obnoxious riders.

Although his southern policy failed to secure obedience to the Reconstruction amendments-because of congressional hostility-Hayes never abandoned his commitment to civil rights and to equal educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. He was conscientious, humane, and just, and worked to help the disadvantaged. He urged that federal subsidies be given to poor states and territories so that all children could receive a quality education.

Believing that education would ultimately cure most of the problems in American society, Hayes made it his "hobby." When president, he was a conscientious trustee of the Peabody Fund, which supported the education of southern blacks and whites. In retirement, he became the first president of the board of trustees of the Slater Fund, and worked diligently from its creation in 1882 to educate African-Americans. Hayes attended all meetings of these organizations, wrote numerous letters supporting them, made inspection tours, and continued to urge (without success) that the federal government subsidize the education of poor children.26

In the autumn of 1889, Hayes was a guest of Albert K. and Eliza P. C. Smiley at the Mohonk Lake House for the annual conference on improving the condition of Native Americans. Before leaving, Hayes proposed a conference to help six million Negroes "rise to the full stature of American citizenship," and Smiley agreed to one the next year if Hayes would preside.

Asked about his goals for this gathering, Hayes called it an "effort . . . to reach the truth on the Negro question and to assist in the formation of sound opinions among the people as to their duty on the whole subject." Hoping to attract members of "all sects and parties" to work for change, Hayes was determined to avoid anything that would needlessly "breed ill-will between the Negro and his white neighbor." For him, three questions were appropriate:

1. What is the actual condition of the Negro with respect to intelligence, morality, and religion?

2. How can public attention be attracted to the deplorable situation?

3. What additional aid can be given and what new agencies and methods can be employed to uplift the Negro?27

Among the 1890 Mohonk conferees, there were fewer representatives from the South than Hayes had "hoped for, but enough to leaven the lump." Hayes wanted the conference to offer concrete suggestions, programs, and solutions that would improve the lot of African-Americans and that would enlighten and inform public opinion which he recognized in the United States is "in fact, the Government." For three days, papers-primarily on education, housing, and crime- were read and discussed at this first of two influential Mohonk conferences that pricked public consciences and consciousness.

By nature a harmonizer and an optimist, Hayes closed the conference with words of hope. "Whether what we have said or done shall live or die, our impressions, our convictions are stronger than before, that the much injured race in whose behalf we have met has large possibilities-an important future-a part to play, in the history of our American society." Responding to the assertion that blacks "had no history," Hayes argued:

The gifts required to take a place in history . . . belong to them. We were told of their success in weighty tables of figures by Mr. [William T.] Harris [Commissioner of Education]. President [Andrew D.] White [of Cornell University] told of the great men he met in Santo Domingo, in Hayti, and other West Indian islands. Let me add a small item to that shining list of prophetic facts. . . . I was a few days ago in Bermuda. The entrance to its principal port is a long, intricate, difficult, and dangerous passage. The [black pilot] . . . who has charge of the ship, taking it in and out, can be no weakling.28

In October 1890, Hayes visited Johns Hopkins University, where he addressed the history class of Herbert Baxter Adams on "The Condition of Negroes in the Virginia Military Land District of Ohio." Hayes found that blacks born and educated between the Scioto, Little Miami, and Ohio rivers "show a considerable advance in the good qualities of civilization, and proper appreciation of citizenship," in contrast to the "not encouraging" situation of blacks in the South. Arguing that education made the difference, he was "rather hopeful" that southern blacks would do better in the future. To encourage them, Hayes made a promise:

If there is any young colored man in the South whom we find to have a talent for art or literature, or any especial aptitude for study, we are willing to give him money from the education funds to send him to Europe or to give him an advanced education, but hitherto their chief and almost only gift has been that of oratory.

Nationally reported, Hayes's lecture alerted talented blacks to write the Slater Fund for support.29

As 1890 drew to a close, Hayes read everything he could find "on the Negro." He was more than ever convinced "that education will help him wherever he needs help, will strengthen where he is weak, and will aid him to overcome all evil tendencies. The question then is how to best educate him." Hayes wanted the Second Mohonk Conference on the Negro, planned for the next summer, to help answer that question. In Cleveland, he discussed the conference with John C. Covert of the Leader, who suggested that Hayes involve John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil monopolist whom Hayes despised. Hayes, who would have enlisted the devil himself in the cause of good education, asked Smiley to invite Rockefeller, but he did not attend.30

Following Hayes's talk at Johns Hopkins University, a young Harvard graduate student in political science named William Edward Burghardt Du Bois applied for a Slate Fund grant to continue his studies abroad. Although impressed by his credentials, the Slater board, whose funds were limited, did not at its May 1891 meeting grant aid to Du Bois or other applicants. Hurt by his rejection and insisting that he had neither believed Hayes's offer or expected help, Du Bois unfairly castigated the former president.

You went before a number of keenly observant men who looked upon you as an authority in the matter, and told them in substance that the Negroes of the United States either couldn't or wouldn't embrace a most liberal opportunity for advancement. That statement went all over the country. When now you finally receive three or four applications for the fulfillment of that offer, the offer is suddenly withdrawn. . . . I think you owe an apology to the Negro people. We are ready to furnish competent men for every European scholarship furnished us. . . . But we can't educate ourselves on nothing and we can't have the moral courage to try if in the midst of our work, our friends turn public sentiment against us by making statements which injure us and which they cannot stand by. . . . I find men willing to help me thro' cheap theological schools, I find men willing to help me use my hands before I have got my brains in working order, . . . but I never have found a man willing to help me get a Harvard Ph.D.31

Understanding Du Bois's disappointment, Hayes did not take umbrage at his criticism but encouraged him to renew his application the following year. Du Bois requested a grant or a loan to obtain "training in a European University for a least a year." With Hayes supporting his application, Slater Fund trustees in April 1892 voted Du Bois a $350 grant plus a loan for the same amount. On hearing the good news, Du Bois immediately thanked Hayes for his support. To a member of the Slate Board, Hayes noted that Du Bois was "sensible, sufficiently religious, able, and a fair speaker, " and added, "I hope he will turn out well."32

When Hayes died in January 1893, he received many impressive tributes. Most came from expected sources-president and Congress, governor and legislature, university boards and educational funds, reform organizations and military societies, but those that emanated from less obvious quarters-Democrats and priests, for example-would have given Hayes special pleasure. Almost all of these statements celebrated his character and accomplishments, but one promised the ultimate fulfillment of his work and dreams. From Berlin, W. E. B. Du Bois, who would become an outstanding scholar and a militant agitator for equality, wrote to the trustees of the Slater Fund: "I am especially grateful to the memory of him, your late head, through whose initiative my case was brought before you, and whose tireless energy and singleheartedness for the interests of my Race, God has at last crowned. I shall, believe me, ever strive that these efforts shall not be wholly without results."33