"Hayes and the Southern Question: An Interpretation"

Prepared by: Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums at Spiegel Grove Staff  

January 24, 1995

Throughout Rutherford B. Hayes's life, he consistently supported in words and actions the rights of Black Americans. His views are boldly stated in a radical speech given during the 1867 Ohio gubernatorial campaign. He said of Blacks: "Whether we prefer it or not, they are our countrymen, and will remain so forever. They are more than countrymen -- they are citizens . . .. Our government has been called the white man's government. Not so. It is not the government of any class, or sect, or nationality, or race. It is a government founded on the consent of the governed . . .. It is not the government of the native born, or the foreign born, or the rich man, or of the poor man, or of the white man, or of the colored man -- it is the government of the free man." In public and private life, he never deviated from these principles.

As a young attorney in Cincinnati in the 1850s, Hayes freely gave his services in the defense of fugitive slaves. In 1855, he successfully ensured the freedom of accused runaway slave Rosetta Armstead by defending her before the U. S. Commissioner in Cincinnati. Despite the unpopularity of his actions in pro-southern Cincinnati, he continued to accept fugitive slave cases. Speaking of these days, Hayes said, "My services were always freely given to the slave and his friends, in all cases arising under the Fugitive Slave Law from the time of its passage."

At the outset of the Civil War the 38-year old Hayes volunteered. Ohio Governor William Dennison appointed him to the rank of Major in the Twenty-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He served with distinction, receiving four wounds and rising to the rank of Brevet- Major General. Hayes believed slavery was founded upon the denial of the Declaration of Independence and was the ultimate cause of the war. In 1864, local Republicans from Ohio's 2nd Congressional District elected Hayes to Congress, but he refused to take his seat until the successful conclusion of the war and the eradication of slavery. As a congressman, Hayes enthusiastically supported the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. He consistently voted for the Congressional Reconstruction plans, including military controls in the South.

Although reelected to a second term, Ohio Republicans on June 19, 1867, nominated Hayes for governor. His Democratic opponent, the popular Ohio Chief Justice Allen G. Thurman, was favored to win the contest. Throughout the campaign, Hayes challenged Ohio's prevalent anti-Black sentiment by championing Black voting rights. Although Hayes won the election by less than 3,000 votes, the state constitutional amendment guaranteeing Black suffrage, which he earnestly supported, lost by 38,000 votes. Renewing his stand for equal suffrage, Hayes, in his inaugural address of January 13, 1868, squarely opposed a Democratic proposal to repeal Ohio's assent to the Fourteenth Amendment. A year later, Governor Hayes reasserted his firm belief against voting restrictions. In his second annual message, he called for the repeal of these measures against "citizens having a visible mixture of African blood." He also urged Ohioans to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, which was accomplished in 1870.

Having been elected governor for an unprecedented third time in 1875, his party chose Hayes as their presidential standard bearer in 1876. In the election that saw widespread fraud and intimidation throughout the South, Hayes appeared to receive fewer popular votes than Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. But, if Blacks had been allowed to vote freely Hayes undoubtedly would have won. Reacting to charges of Caesarism, and firmly believing in civilian control of the military, President U. S. Grant had refused to use federal troops in the South to ensure fair balloting. The Congressional will to support Grant's earlier use of troops to guarantee full and free elections in the South had begun to wane. As a result, conservative whites, through intimidation and bribery, drove Blacks from the polls. In the three southern states of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, where Republicans still controlled the state returning boards, Democratic intimidation kept enough Blacks and their Republican allies from the polls to preserve a Democratic victory. Even so, the Democrats had a slim majority of 94 votes in Florida. Clearly, the returning boards acted properly in rejecting fraudulent Democratic votes. A Tilden victory would have been an endorsement of Black disfranchisement. Commenting about the election, Hayes noted in his diary that he and Lucy "felt more anxiety about the south -- about the colored people especially -- than about anything else sinister in the result." Several months later, he reflected, "I have never had any doubt as to the legality or the fairness of the final result in 1876. . . . one of the ablest and most influential Democrats in the country [Winfield Scott Hancock], who was perfectly familiar with the inner history of the whole affair on the Democratic side, told me that no intelligent or candid man of his party could claim the election for the Democratic party if he conceded the validity of the Fifteenth Amendment. Said he, 'If the negro vote is entitled to be considered, you should have had more States than were counted for you.' No doubt this is true." By nominating Winfield S. Hancock in 1880, the Democrats admitted Hayes had not stolen the 1876 election.

As President, Rutherford B. Hayes continued to support the cause of Black Americans. By the time of his inauguration, March 5, 1877, Hayes recognized that northern public opinion no longer supported Radical Reconstruction. Owing to a loss of Congressional will to support a more vigorous enforcement of the Reconstruction acts, President Grant had already eliminated military control in all but two southern states, South Carolina and Louisiana. Hayes realized that Congress no longer supported the enforcement of equal rights (if it ever had). Under the circumstances, President Hayes created a new southern policy based on conciliation rather than confrontation. He envisioned a new Republican order in the South composed of old line southern Whigs and Blacks. He convinced himself that the country and most white southerners would welcome a policy of moderation and react by assuring rights heretofore granted only grudgingly. Consequently, he issued orders transferring the few remaining federal officers and soldiers still stationed in those two states to the nearest army barracks. By so doing, he hoped, "to get from those States by their governors, legislatures, press, and people pledges that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments shall be faithfully observed; that the colored people shall have equal rights to labor, education, and the privileges of citizenship. I am confident this is a good work. Time will tell." Because Hayes believed "universal suffrage should rest upon universal education", he called for "liberal and permanent provision . . . for the support of free schools by the State governments, and, if need be, supplemented by legitimate aid from national authority."

Hayes's southern policy envisioned full rights for all citizens. It embraced four main tenets. First, he wanted to eliminate acts of violence committed against Blacks in the name of politics. Secondly, Hayes believed that the "best white southerners" would adhere to the three amendments relating to Black rights. Thirdly, he advocated education and federal aid to bolster the southern economy. Lastly, he endorsed strong, honest local self-government in the region. He believed that by making Black votes necessary for office, white southerners would work vigorously to protect Black voters.

Obviously, President Hayes placed too much faith in southern whites. As early as November 1878, he recognized that, "By state legislation, by frauds, by intimidation, and by violence of the most atrocious character, colored citizens have been deprived of the right of suffrage -- a right guaranteed by the Constitution, and to the protection of which the people of those States have been solemnly pledged." But Hayes's ability as President to change circumstances were effectively negated by a Democratically controlled Congress. Congressional Democrats in 1878 and 1879 made a concerted effort to repeal laws protecting federal Black voting rights by attaching riders to army appropriation bills. Standing his ground, Hayes vetoed seven consecutive Army Appropriations Acts because of these anti-Black provisions. Eventually, Congressional Democrats gave way and permitted the election laws to remain.

Hayes further demonstrated his commitment to Black rights by appointing Frederick Douglass as U. S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. He willingly faced white disapproval in his actions involving a Black West Point cadet named Johnson C. Whittaker, who had been unfairly dismissed from the Military Academy. Hayes intervened by reinstating Whittaker and by removing General John M. Schofield from the superintendency. He appointed General Oliver O. Howard, founder of the Freedman's Bureau, as the new commandant. He took these steps even though they infuriated General William T. Sherman and other high ranking Army officers.

As ex-President, Rutherford B. Hayes continued his efforts to help Black citizens, both North and South. A firm believer in universal education, he served on the board of trustees of the Peabody Education Fund and as president of the John F. Slater Fund. Through Slater scholarship funds, he assisted W. E. B. DuBois, a distinguished scholar and founder of the NAACP. Convinced that Blacks should have an equal place in American life, Hayes in the early 1890s actively participated at the Lake Mohonk Conferences, where the conferees sought to find ways to promote the full participation of African and Native Americans in the mainstream of American life.