"Did Rutherford B. Hayes End Reconstruction?"

By Thomas J. Culbertson

Director Emeritus Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center

Delivered at the Hayes Lecture on the Presidency, February 17, 2013

Thank for attending this annual event honoring our nation’s presidents. It is my honor to follow more than twenty distinguished historians who have shared their thoughts on some aspect of the American presidency. I have taken on the daunting task of attempting to answer the question “Did Rutherford B. Hayes End Reconstruction?” It should not come as a surprise to you that I will not give you a definite answer. You can draw your own conclusions once I lay out the case as I see it. In preparing these remarks I have read works by many of our previous speakers Brooks Simpson, David Blight, Les Benedict, Ari Hoogenboom, Charles Calhoun, and Mark Summers, as well as by historians who could be future speakers Heather Cox Richardson, Andrew Slap, Eric Foner, William Gillette, Allen Guelzo, and Michael Fitzgerald.

Why did I choose this particular topic? In my twenty-four years working at the Hayes Center, the two hot button topics concerning President Hayes have been the Election of 1876 and the ending of Reconstruction. Several prior talks in this series were about the election. So, I will take a shot at the Reconstruction question. Most of us here tonight are predisposed to liking Rutherford Hayes. We work here, give tours here, are members here, or are fellow Buckeyes. We believe that Hayes was a decent man who did his best to serve his country. We are a bit defensive about him because historians have not treated him very well. That wasn’t always the case.

From around 1900 until the 1950s, Hayes was praised as the man who reunited the nation and ended that awful period known as Reconstruction. He was hailed as the “statesman of reunion.” In the first survey of historians rating the presidents done in 1948, Hayes was number 13 of 29 presidents. He held the same position in 1962. That was very respectable for a one-term president who didn’t preside over a war. Since then, he has steadily declined - landing in the 33rd spot out of 42 in the latest C-SPAN poll.

Hayes’ fall from grace coincides with a shift in the way Reconstruction is perceived. Until the 1960s, most Reconstruction scholars were disciples of Professor William Dunning who taught history at Columbia University in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He and his followers viewed Reconstruction as a period when Southern Whites were exploited by Blacks, Northern Whites, and pro-Reconstruction Whites. By the 1950s, the Dunning School’s interpretation was replaced by the more accurate view that it was the Blacks and their supporters who were wronged.

The rating of presidents is a flawed process. Historians carry their own political biases and they tend to specialize in a very narrow time period. An historian specializing in the Revolution is generally not well informed about the World War I or the Depression. They fall back on what they learned in survey courses.

First let me make some pertinent comments about the life of Rutherford Hayes. He was a lifelong Ohioan, born and raised in Delaware, Ohio, by his widowed mother Sophia and her brother Sardis Birchard. Sardis introduced him to Whig politics. Rutherford’s idols were Daniel Webster, an abolitionist, and Henry Clay, a slaveholder. At Kenyon College some of Rutherford’s best friends were southern sons of slave owners. At college, he acted as peacemaker between the students from the North and South. At Harvard Law School his Constitutional Law professor Justice Joseph Story stressed the sanctity of the Constitution which permitted slavery. Rutherford, and Uncle Sardis, visited his best friend from Kenyon College, Guy Bryan, in Texas in 1849. The Bryans owned thousands of acres of land and dozens of slaves. Hayes wrote that he observed no “horrors” of slavery, but he had not changed his “Northern opinion” of slavery.

In 1852, Rutherford had the good fortune to marry Lucy Webb, an ardent abolitionist, who encouraged his anti-slavery activities. As a young lawyer in Cincinnati he helped defend runaway slaves on a pro bono basis. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Lucy supported her thirty-eight-year-old husband’s decision to join the military. From the start, Rutherford saw the war as a means of ending slavery. He wrote “I would prefer to go into it if I knew I was to be die or be killed in the course of it, than to live through and after it without taking any part in it.” He was wounded five times in battle and rose to the rank of Brevet Major General.

His military service prompted Republicans in Cincinnati to nominate him to run for Congress in 1864. He won despite refusing to leave his soldiers to campaign. As a back-bench congressman Hayes aligned himself with the Radical Republicans doing battle with President Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction policies. He resigned his seat in Congress midway through his second term in order to run for Governor of Ohio in 1867. He vigorously campaigned for voters to ratify an amendment to the Ohio Constitution allowing Blacks to vote in state elections. While he barely won the governorship, the amendment failed by about 50,000 votes. The defeat was clear evidence of Northern attitudes about the status of Blacks. But, I’m getting ahead of the story.

What exactly was Reconstruction? That in itself is a complex question. After four years of war the South was in ruin. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were dead, and there were four million newly freed people who needed to build lives. In political terms Reconstruction ideally would bring the eleven states that seceded back into the Union and secure legal and social equality for all citizens regardless of race. Some people, particularly Whites in the South, were content to stop at re-admission to the Union and to ignore the equality part. While Southerners could grudgingly accept the end of slavery, they could not embrace legal or social equality of former slaves. It was not only Southerners who believed that Blacks and other races were inferior to Whites. Even Abraham Lincoln advocated resettlement of Blacks to other countries because he doubted that the two races could coexist in peace.

It was President Lincoln who had the first go at Reconstruction - while the Civil War was still raging. He was willing to re-admit the conquered states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee if they would abolish slavery and have 10% of the voters from the 1860 election sign an oath of allegiance. He hoped that this lenient strategy would weaken the Confederate cause. Some of his own Republican Party members called the “Radical Republicans” objected to this plan. This started a fight between the President and Congress over who was to oversee the Reconstruction process. In July 1864, Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill that called for more stringent requirements for re-admission. President Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill and there were not enough votes to override the veto. At this point the war turned in favor of the North, Lincoln was re-elected, and as we saw in the movie “Lincoln” the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was passed by Congress in January 1865. At Lincoln’s behest in March Congress passed legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau that would provide food, shelter, education, work, and justice for freed slaves. This does not mean that all was well between the President and Congress. They certainly would have butted heads over Reconstruction, but we will never know. It is safe to say that he would have fared better than his successor Andrew Johnson. President Lincoln was a much more astute politician and he was not an out and out racist.

Andrew Johnson was a particularly unpleasant man. He grew up in poverty and despite having little education managed to work his way up in the Democratic Party in Tennessee. He was disdainful of the planter class in the South and he opposed slavery. At the onset of the Civil War he was a U.S. Senator. When Tennessee seceded, Johnson decided to remain loyal to the Union and keep his seat in the Senate – he was the only Southern senator to do so. In 1862, President Lincoln appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee. His loyal service led to Johnson’s selection to run in the second spot on the Union ticket behind Abraham Lincoln. He took office on March 4, 1865, and a month later ascended to the presidency after the assassination.

The new President had a free hand in the conduct of Reconstruction because Congress would not be in session again until December 1865. Johnson decided to implement what he believed was President Lincoln’s plan. Seceded states could be re-admitted if they would repeal secession laws, repudiate their war debts, amend their state constitutions to abolish slavery, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. There was no requirement for voting or other rights for freed slaves. Johnson hoped that the states would re-organize under the leadership of non-Confederates. He was dismayed to find that the states elected former Confederate leaders to the U.S. Congress including the former Vice-President of the Confederacy. To compound the problem, many of the states enacted “Black Codes,” that barred Blacks from voting, serving on juries, and owning firearms. They also instituted harsh vagrancy laws that forced Blacks to sign contracts to work on farms much as they had while enslaved. This enraged legislators and citizens of the North who viewed these actions as acts of defiance that would negate what was fought for during the Civil War. When Congress reconvened in December they refused to seat the Southern Congressmen.

At this point, it appeared that Congress and President Johnson still could work together, after all neither was pleased to see Confederates back in control of the states. Any illusions of cooperation disappeared when Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill intended to extend the life of the Bureau in January 1866. He then vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that conferred citizenship on all people born in the United States. Congress was able to override this veto. The battle for control of the conduct of Reconstruction was won by Congress. President Johnson did not go down without a fight. He continued to veto every major piece of legislation only to be overridden by Congress. He could not veto the Fourteenth Amendment passed by Congress in June 1866, but he urged states to reject the Amendment that would incorporate much of what was in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, along with equal protection of the rights of all citizens.

President Johnson’s belligerence and the imposition of Black Codes united the Republicans in Congress and ceded leadership to the Radical Republicans under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens in the House, and Charles Sumner in the Senate. Republicans gained strength in the mid-term Congressional Election when they picked up 37 seats in the House, giving them a veto-proof 77.2% of the seats. Of course the former Confederate states were not represented in Congress. The new Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts that were vetoed and quickly overridden. The acts placed the former Confederate States, except for Tennessee, in Military Districts each governed by an Army General. Now in order to be re-admitted, states would be required to ratify the 14th Amendment, grant voting rights to Black men, and draft a new state constitution subject to Congressional approval. Congress passed many more acts which were vetoed and overridden. One was the Tenure of Office Act that Johnson defied when he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This led to his impeachment and subsequent acquittal in May 1868.

The next week, Republicans selected General Ulysses Grant as their presidential candidate. He handily defeated New York Governor Horatio Seymour 214 to 80 in the electoral count. He even carried the former Confederate states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas. How was this possible? Most former Confederates were not allowed to vote and Blacks were able to vote for the first time in the states that were readmitted in 1868. By June of 1870, all of the seceded states would be back in the Union. Without the 700,000 votes cast by Blacks in the North and South, President Grant would not have won the popular vote.

The South sent many Republicans to Congress in 1869 and subsequent elections - some were Blacks. These representatives were elected by a coalition of Blacks, transplanted Northerners called “Carpetbaggers,” and native Southerners who supported Reconstruction called “Scalawags.” Carpetbaggers and Scalawags have been much maligned as opportunists who took advantage of the naiveté of Blacks in order to get elected. They and the Blacks elected to political office have been portrayed as corrupt men who lined their pockets at the public’s expense. Recent scholarship has shown that the majority of these men were capable legislators, though understandably some were corrupt. Bitter former Confederates did everything they could to turn these people out of office so that they could assume their rightful place as leaders.

These so-called “Redeemers” resorted to violence, intimidation, and trickery to achieve their ends. The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866, was the best known terrorist group operating in the South. These groups kept Blacks from the polling places and generally committed acts of terror against Blacks. Congress passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote in February 1869. Ratification followed on February 3, 1870. Rutherford Hayes was proud to have shepherded its ratification through the Ohio legislature. The Amendment made the Klan’s acts of intimidation federal offenses. Congress passed three enforcement bills authorizing President Grant to use the military to counter the terrorists. President Grant deployed troops to several Southern states and managed to quell the violence by arresting, prosecuting, and convicting many perpetrators. The President was in a no-win position. Democrats criticized him for imposing “Bayonet rule” on the South, while Radical Republicans accused him of withholding troops when they were needed.

President Grant was handily re-elected in 1872, but he was under siege from his own Republican party because of scandals and from Democrats due to his willingness to use soldiers to enforce Reconstruction laws in the South. Whites in the North generally supported Reconstruction until the economy failed with the Panic of 1873, that led to one of the nation’s worst economic depressions. Eight years after the war, the prevailing attitude of Whites in the North was that Reconstruction was a Southern problem and they should sort things out themselves. Northerners had read so many accounts from the South about how the Whites were oppressed by “Negro rule” and corrupt Republicans that they began to believe them. Violence perpetrated by Whites received little coverage. The Democratic press in the North and South did a masterful job of depicting the oppressed as the oppressors.

The Congressional election in 1874 was a total disaster for the Republicans. In the House of Representatives, Republicans went from a holding a majority of 103 seats to a minority of 73 seats. To make matters worse every state legislature in the South was in the control of Democrats, only three Republican governors remained in office, and most Southern Republican U.S. Congressmen were replaced by Democratic former Confederate soldiers. The huge turnaround in the South was due to Blacks being kept away from the polls by violence, poll taxes, and literacy tests. President Grant believed that there was a lack of will on the part people in the North to send troops to enforce voting laws. So, he did not deploy troops in 1875. The U.S. Army was down to only 17,000 soldiers with only 6,000 deployed in the South and half of those were in Texas guarding the Mexican border. That left 3,000 soldiers scattered among the other 10 former Confederate states - hardly a force capable of carrying out “Bayonet Rule.” The remaining soldiers were out West dealing with Indian problems. With the small-government Democratic Congress controlling the purse strings, there would be no more help from the Army.

The Supreme Court was not making Reconstruction any easier. In 1873 and 1876, it made a ruling that gutted enforcement of protections offered by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Republican-led Congress made one last ditch effort to keep Reconstruction alive by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1875 just before Democrats took over. They hoped that the Act would provide remedies negated by the Supreme Court. However, much of the Civil Rights Act was overturned by the Supreme Court in a series of rulings in 1883.

In 1875, Rutherford B. Hayes was happily retired at Spiegel Grove. He had served two successful terms as a governor, instituting many reforms to the state government. He remained loyal to the Republican Party, but he had doubts about the “ultra measures” being used to continue Reconstruction. His views of Reconstruction were undoubtedly shaped by his continued correspondence with his Kenyon College friend Guy Bryan and by press reports of corruption coming from the South. Ohio Republican leaders lured Hayes out of retirement in 1875 by telling him that he was the only man who could defeat the incumbent Democrat William Allen. They also suggested that a victory could put him in the running for the presidential nomination in 1876. Hayes won the governorship and did receive the nomination when the front-runners faded. He defeated another reform governor Samuel Tilden from New York in America’s strangest election. Anyone who thinks that Samuel Tilden would have been better for Blacks in the South is sadly mistaken. During the campaign, Tilden wooed Southern Democrats by explaining that any statements that he may have made opposing slavery could be put down to “youthful indiscretion.” Keep in mind that he was Rutherford Hayes’ age and had chosen not to fight in the Civil War.

By the time that Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the presidency, the South was back in the hands of the former Confederates except for two Republican Governors who were holding out in Louisiana and South Carolina. They were being kept in office by federal troops who protected the Statehouses where the Governors were holed up. It was Hayes’ withdrawal of these soldiers to their barracks in April 1877 that constitutes the end of Reconstruction in the minds of many people. He did not wantonly throw Blacks in the South to the mercies of Whites in the South. He wrongly expected the “good element” of Southern society to protect Blacks as promised by the incoming Democratic governors of South Carolina and Louisiana. His new Southern policy was intended to split White Democrats with the pro-Reconstruction element joining with Blacks to elect Republicans. The move gained no traction and Hayes realized that the policy was a failure. He underestimated the power of racism in the North and the South. The decision to cease propping up the last Reconstruction governors was praised by many newspapers and politicians in both the North and South. Black leaders adopted a wait and see position, but were not optimistic.

To say that Hayes did nothing to further the cause of Blacks would be wrong, but it was too little too late. In 1879, he vetoed a series of appropriations bills with riders attached prohibiting using federal officials to monitor polling places – both soldiers and federal marshals. Hayes insisted that the Constitution and its amendments required the federal government to ensure free voting in federal elections, while Democrats maintained that states ran the elections. Eventually, Democrats backed down and passed the appropriations without the riders. Hayes earned political points and managed to unify the Republican Party in anticipation of the 1880 presidential election. Hayes viewed the Republican victory in the 1880 as evidence that his term was a success. President-elect James A. Garfield did not carry a single state in the South and Black turnout was low.

I leave it to you to decide whether Rutherford Hayes ended Reconstruction. Not to minimize the gravity of the situation, I liken Hayes’ action to the ending of a baseball game. It is the bottom of the ninth inning. The home team is trailing 15-0 and there are two outs. The last batter strikes out to end the game and is blamed for losing the game. The game was over. In our heart of hearts we would love for Hayes to have done something different. But what options were available? The presidency was not as powerful as it is today. Democrats controlled Congress. The military was small. Popular opinion was against action. Hayes had to deal with what was possible, not what was wished for.

I will end with alternative ending dates for Reconstruction suggested by various scholars.

1870 - when the 15th Amendment was ratified.

1873 - when the Supreme Court handed down the decision in the Slaughter House Cases

1875 - when Democrats assumed control of Congress and President Grant did not send troops to ensure fair elections in Mississippi.

1883 - when the Supreme Court overturned much of the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

1890 - when the Republican Congress failed in an attempt to pass the Lodge Bill that would have closed loopholes that allowed Southern states to excluded Blacks from the polls.

1896 - when the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” would be the law of the land in Plessy v. Ferguson.

If you are looking for a positive ending you could try:

1954 - when the Supreme Court decision overturned “separate but equal” in US v. Board of Education Topeka

1964 and 1965 – when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act

2008 – when the American people elected Barak Obama as President of the United States

Or it still isn’t over.

Regardless of what ending date you choose to believe, there were no winners. Even the Redeemers who thought that they had won were losers. They doomed the South to decades of inferior schools, stunted economic growth, and a warped culture infused with hate and discrimination.


This is a forty-five minute presentation aimed at a general audience. No new ground has been broken in these remarks. I have drawn on 24 years of experience working at the Hayes Presidential Center, along with extensive reading of the works by many scholars. If you want to know more about this topic please consider examining the following works that I read:

Benedict, Michael Les. Preserving the Constitution: Essays on Politics and the Constitution in the Reconstruction Era. Fordham University Press, 2006.

Benedict, Michael Less. The Fruits of Victory: Alternatives in Restoring the Union. J. B. Lippincott Company, 1975.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001,

Calhoun, Charles W.Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869-1900. University of Kansas Press, 2006.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877. Harper and Row, 1988.

Guelzo, Allen C. Fateful Lighting: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hoogenboom, Ari. Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. University of Kansas Press, 1995.

Hume, Richard L. & Gough, Jerry B.Blacks. Carpetbaggers, and Scalawags: The Constitutional Conventions of Radical Reconstruction. Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

Richardson, Heather Cox. West From Appomattox: the Reconstruction of America After the Civil War. Yale University Press, 2007.

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Harvard University Press, 2001.

Slap, Andrew L. The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era. Fordham University Press, 2006.

Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. The University of Kansas Press, 1998.

Summers, Mark Wahlgren .A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction. The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin. Edited by Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States. Edited by Thomas J. Brown. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings. Edited by Kenneth M. Stampp & Leon F. Litwack. Louisiana State University Press, 1969.