Born in Delaware, Ohio October 4, 1822, a few months after his father’s death, Rutherford Birchard Hayes and his sister Fanny Arabella were raised by their mother Sophia and her younger bachelor brother Sardis Birchard.
Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the nineteenth President of the United States, was born in the small central Ohio town of Delaware on October 4, 1822. Five years earlier, his parents, Rutherford and Sophia Birchard Hayes, had migrated from Dummerston, Vermont, to a farm they acquired on the Ohio frontier. Several months before the future president’s birth, his father died from a fever, leaving an expectant wife with two young children, Lorenzo and Fanny Arabella.
The presence of her bachelor brother, Sardis Birchard, eased Sophia’s task of raising a family in the West. He supplied paternal influence and guidance in the absence of Rutherford’s father, but, in 1826, Sardis left the Hayes household in Delaware to become a prosperous pioneer merchant and Indian trader in Lower Sandusky, now Fremont, Ohio. Over the years, he would continue to help Hayes in his education, legal career, and business ventures. Sardis also would develop the beautiful wooded Spiegel Grove estate, which Hayes inherited upon his uncle’s death in January 1874.
Hayes grew up in the village of Delaware, Ohio, in a two-story brick house on the northeast corner of William and Winter Streets. Because of Rutherford’s sickly nature and a drowning accident in 1825 which claimed the life of his older brother Lorenzo, Sophia attempted to protect her surviving son by shielding him from the outside world. This atmosphere engendered very close family ties for all concerned. From his mother, “Ruddy” received his intense pride and special connection to his Yankee or New England heritage. This sentiment prompted him years later to make several journeys to his ancestral home and to trace the lineage of his family. His sister Fanny was a constant companion during childhood. Rutherford’s earliest recollections of her were as a nurse and protector when he was three or four years old. Always a personal confidant until her death in 1856, Fanny, more than anyone else, was responsible for directing her brother down the path which ultimately led him to the presidency.
Sophia supplied the basic essentials of her son’s education by teaching him to read, write and spell. From 1830 to 1835, he attended as district school in Delaware. At Sardis’ insistence, Hayes entered Norwalk Seminary in 1836. After spending a year at this Methodist boarding school in Norwalk, Ohio, Rutherford did not want to further his education, but desired to emulate his uncle’s adventurous life in Lower Sandusky. Sardis thought differently, however, and enrolled his nephew at Isaac Webb’s Maple Grove Academy in Middletown, Connecticut. Hayes completed his preparatory studies in 1838, and at the urging of his mother, attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, instead of Yale, which his uncle had chosen. During his four years there, the future president developed many important lifelong friendships with classmates, such as Guy M. Bryan of Texas, Stanley Matthews, and William K. Rogers of Ohio. The young scholar manifested an interest in politics, displaying Whiggish sentiments and enthusiastically engaging in political debates as a member of the Philomathesian Society. He culminated his college career by delivering the valedictory address at his commencement exercises in August 1842; Hayes would later would become a member of Phi Beta Kappa, twenty-two years after Kenyon College was granted a charter in 1858.
While at Kenyon, Hayes developed an interest in pursuing a legal career. In the fall of 1842, he began to study law by reading Blackstone’s Commentaries in the office of Sparrow and Matthews in Columbus, Ohio. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the aspiring attorney decided to complete his preparations by attending law school. Consequently, he enrolled at Dane Law School of Harvard University in the fall of 1843. Here, the Kenyon graduate spent three terms studying under some of the most distinguished jurists of the day, including Simon Greenleaf and Justice Joseph Story.
Hayes returned to Ohio in early 1845, and was admitted to the bar at Marietta, Ohio on March 10. He then established a law practice in Lower Sandusky at his uncle’s home. Although Sardis was in need of constant legal advice, his nephew could not secure enough work to keep himself busy. Hoping to rectify this unfortunate situation, he formed a partnership, in early 1846, with Ralph Pomeroy Buckland, a prominent attorney in the town. Even with a partner, Hayes did not find practicing law in Lower Sandusky to his liking. Routine legal matters could not compete with the excitement generated by the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Mexico. Thinking that a soldierly life would strengthen his constitution, in June of 1847, he traveled to Cincinnati in hopes of securing an appointment as an officer in some volunteer company. During the course of his journey, he stopped in Delaware and Columbus to visit with his mother and sister. It was on this brief sojourn that he met Lucy Ware Webb, who in 1852, would become his wife.
In Cincinnati, local physicians advised him against going to Mexico for reasons of health. Instead of joining the army, he made a lengthy trip to New England with his cousin John Rutherford Pease. Hayes returned to Lower Sandusky in the fall of 1847 with his health much improved, and immediately involved himself with matters relating to civic improvements and politics. A Whig like his uncle, he helped campaign for Zachary Taylor in 1848, and was placed on that party’s central committee for Sandusky County in 1847.
During December 1848, Rutherford Hayes and Sardis Birchard set out for Texas to visit the former’s Kenyon College classmate, Guy M. Bryan. They did not return to Lower Sandusky until the end of April 1849. The three and one-half months Rutherford spent in Texas had a profound impact in shaping his views towards the South and would prove important in later years. Southern society fascinated the Ohio Whig, and his reception in Texas convinced him that honorable men could overcome sectional differences.
Several trips to Cincinnati had prompted Hayes to consider moving to the West’s largest and most active city, where the prospects seemed brighter for a promising young lawyer. Upon his return from Texas, he dissolved his partnership with Ralph P. Buckland, but the cholera epidemic of the summer of 1849 prevented his immediate removal to the Queen City. Before leaving for his new home, Hayes played an important role in changing the name of Lower Sandusky to Fremont in honor of the “Pathfinder,” John Charles Fremont.
Arriving in Cincinnati in December 1849, the young lawyer rented one-half of an office in the Law Building on Third Street. He spent his first years in Cincinnati building his law practice, appearing at social functions and making new friends. He soon became a member of the recently organized Literary Club of Cincinnati and the Odd Fellows. Hayes also attended meetings of the Sons of Temperance, frequently giving addresses there and elsewhere. He gained public attention in Cincinnati in 1852 when he was appointed to handle the criminal case of Samuel Cunningham, a young man accused of grand larceny.
Even though the court sentenced Cunningham to three years in prison, Hayes performed well enough to win an appointment to assist in the defense of the accused murderess Nancy Farrer. His approach to this case was a claim of insanity for the defendant, and he won a new trial and eventual acquittal on the grounds that Farrer was of “unsound mind.” The woman was confined to a mental institution and Hayes’ reputation rose considerably. Concurrent association with the spectacular murder trials of James Summons and Henry LeCount further enhanced his standing in the legal profession.
Almost immediately after setting up his law practice, Rutherford began to call on Lucy Webb. The daughter of Maria Cook and Dr. James Webb, Lucy (1831-1889) was a devout and unusually well-educated young lady for her day. She had attended the female academy of Ohio Wesleyan College in Delaware before enrolling at the Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, from which she graduated in June 1850. Diary notations reveal his growing attraction to the young girl whom he had met several years earlier at the sulphur spring in Delaware, Ohio. After a courtship of nearly two years, Rutherford and Lucy married on December 30, 1852. Their union was blessed with eight children, five of whom lived to adulthood: Birchard Austin (1853-1926); Webb Cook (1856-1934); Rutherford Platt (1858-1927); Fanny (1867-1950); and Scott Russell (1871-1923). Three children, all boys, died in infancy.
Before the year 1853 was over, Hayes argued two cases before the Ohio Supreme Court, those involving Nancy Farrer and James Summons. In December of that year, he and his Kenyon College classmate, William K. Rogers, joined the law firm of Corwine, Smith and Holt. Under this new arrangement, Rutherford received one-third interest in and profit from the new firm of Corwine, Hayes and Rogers. Because of poor health, Rogers left the firm in 1856 to go to Minnesota. When he failed to return from his leave of absence, he was dropped from the firm.
Local events in Cincinnati inspired Hayes to become increasingly active in the legal aspects of fugitive slave matters; he freely offered his services in the aid of runaway slaves and their friends. In March 1855, he became involved in the case of Rosetta Armstrong, a black woman facing trial under the Fugitive Slave Act. His masterly defense resulted in the young woman’s freedom. Although he was looked upon as a defender of fugitive slaves, Hayes did not welcome the notoriety associated with these cases.
While advancing his legal career in Cincinnati, Hayes gradually immersed himself in local and national politics. In 1856, he enthusiastically campaigned for the Republican presidential candidate, John C. Fremont. By 1858, he had become strongly associated with the Republican Party in the Queen City. In December of that same year, there was a divided city council. His first public office came as a result of a compromise when a single Democrat joined forces with Republicans and Know-Nothings to provide the decisive vote on the thirteenth ballot. Shortly after his appointment, Hayes dissolved his partnership with Richard M. Corwine.
The new city solicitor served for two years, winning election in his own right in April 1859. His excellent record did not prevent him from being a victim of local reaction to the secession crisis. In April 1861, a coalition of Democrats and Know-Nothings defeated him and the rest of the Republican slate. He returned to private law practice in partnership with Leopold Markbreit, but the flow of national events made the association of short duration.