The misconception about Hayes, Reconstruction and Jim Crow

A common misconception that President Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction and began the era of Jim Crow laws has again been brought to the national conversation.

The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums would like to take this opportunity to clear up misunderstandings of the history of Hayes’ involvement in these issues.

After a comment made this week by Maine Gov. Paul LePage, statements have again surfaced that Hayes made a deal to win his disputed election and helped usher in the era of Jim Crow.

By the time Hayes became president, Reconstruction was mostly over. Jim Crow laws were not widespread until the 1890s, and they were legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, three years after Hayes’ death.

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums’ point is not to absolve Hayes. He was part of the process of ending Reconstruction, but to make the leap that he was solely responsible for ending it and ushering in the Jim Crow era is false.

When Hayes took office, federal troops remained stationed at statehouses in two states, Louisiana and South Carolina. Hayes ordered them to be relocated to their barracks in those states, but they were not removed from the South.

In April 1880, he indicated in his diary that he felt his decision was, in a way, ending the Civil War, after 12 years of military occupation of those two statehouses.

He wrote: “My judgment was that the time had come to put an end to bayonet rule. I saw things done in the South which could only be accounted for on the theory that the war was not yet ended. Many Southern people evidently felt that they were justified in acts which could only be justified in time of war towards the common enemy.

      “The Republicans, the North, the colored people, if active in politics, were regarded and treated as the public enemy. My task was to wipe out the color line, to abolish sectionalism, to end the war and bring peace. To do this, I was ready to resort to unusual measures, and to risk my own standing and reputation with my party and the country. . . My object was to end the war; to restore confidence in the South in the justice and good will of a Republican Administration. The army was withdrawn because I believed it a constitutional duty and a wise thing to do.”

Hayes, a Republican, was elected president in 1876 after one of the most contested elections in history. His opponent, Democrat Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote. Part of the dispute involved the belief that African Americans who were intimidated from voting in the South likely would have voted for Hayes because the Republican Party was seen as the party of the North and the Union at that time.

A special commission appointed by Congress decided Hayes was the winner by one electoral vote.

Democrats filibustered Congressional proceedings in order to keep Hayes from being determined the winner. During the dispute, there was a series of meetings between the Republicans and Democrats, one of which took place at the Wormley Hotel in Washington, D.C., to try to work out a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

This was later referred to as the Compromise of 1877. What was discussed was not documented, and what impact those meetings had on succeeding events is unclear.

Racism, intimidation and crimes against African Americans took place during and after Hayes’ presidency. However, to attribute Jim Crow laws, which came years after his presidency, to him would be incorrect.

Throughout his life, Hayes showed support for African Americans. Long before his presidency, Hayes, then a lawyer in Cincinnati, fought multiple times in court to successfully win the freedom of individuals who had escaped slavery in the south. 

Within the first few weeks of his administration, Hayes appointed Frederick Douglass to be the marshal of Washington, D.C.  This was the first ever confirmation of an African American for a presidential appointment by the U.S. Senate.    

Later in life, Hayes served as the president of the Slater Fund in New York, a foundation that funded graduate-level education for African Americans.

For more information on the Reconstruction issue, please see: “By One Vote: The Disputed Election of 1876” by Michael Holt, “The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction” by Keith Polakoff and “Was There a Compromise of 1877?” by Alan Peskin in “The Journal of American History, Vol. 60, No. 1.”

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is America’s first presidential library and is located at Spiegel Grove at the corner of Hayes and Buckland avenues. The facility is affiliated with the Ohio History Connection.

For information, call 419-332-2081, or visit rbhayes.org. Like HPLM on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hayespresidentialcenter and follow on Twitter at @rbhayespres and Instagram at rbhayespres.