"Inaugurating a 'Most Successful Administration'"

By Ari Hoogenboom

Presented on the occasion of the 13th Hayes Lecture on the Presidency, February 17, 2002, in the Hayes Museum auditorium

On this day one hundred twenty-five years ago (February 17, 1877) the result of the presidential election was still not settled. The Electoral College had voted, but the counting of its votes on a state by state basis before a joint session of Congress had not been completed. The Electoral Commission, created by Congress to determine which sets of disputed votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina to count, had with a majority of one awarded Florida to Hayes on February 9 and on February 16 (one hundred twenty-five years ago yesterday) gave Hayes Louisiana. Since Louisiana had been the Democrats best hope of victory, there was little doubt that Hayes would be the next president. Anticipating that the Commission would give Hayes South Carolina, the Democrats delayed the count of electoral votes before the joint session by adjourning the House of Representatives, which they controlled. Some Democrats wanted to escalate the crisis into chaos by not having a duly elected president on March 4, 1877.

Most Democrats, however, were bluffing. The threat of chaos was for them a bargaining chip to secure concessions from the incoming Hayes administration. All Democrats wanted federal troops to cease protecting Republican governments in Louisiana and South Carolina. (Florida was no longer an issue, since a post-election state supreme court decision gave it to the Democrats as of January 1, 1877). In addition to withdrawing troops, some Southern Democrats wanted federal support for internal improvements--specifically a land grant for the Texas & Pacific Railroad.

Hayes was aware of negotiations between his supporters and Southern Democrats. There were overtures prior to the Electoral Commission Act of January 29, 1877, then a lull, followed by a renewal in late February as Democrats filibustered and delayed the count. Some southern Democrats even hinted that in addition to acquiescence to Hayes's inauguration they might switch parties and help elect James A. Garfield Speaker of the House of Representatives in the next Congress.

Although aware of talks, Hayes remained aloof. He had faith in Ohio Republicans in Washington, and told John Sherman "to speak in pretty decided terms for me . . . not by reason of specific authority . . . but from your knowledge of my general methods of action." He wished to avoid charges of "intrigue--bargain and sale" and saw the "true position to be `hands off.'" His lieutenants did not disappoint him. They conceded nothing beyond what Hayes had already promised in his letter of acceptance of July 8, 1876: that if all parts of the Constitution--including the Reconstruction Amendments--were "sacredly observed" and the rights of all--with no exceptions--be recognized by all, he would promote "honest and capable local government."

The count was completed at 4:10 A.M. on March 2, 1877 after one of the longest, stormiest sessions of Congress. And the negotiations which certainly did occur had little or nothing to do with the outcome. Even word that President Ulysses S. Grant would order troops to cease supporting the Republican regime in Louisiana did not stop the filibuster carried on by fifty-seven disorderly Democratic representatives. Despite C. Vann Woodward's intriguing hypothesis, neither the southern negotiators nor Tom Scott's Texas & Pacific lobby controlled the filibuster.

The key figure in prolonging and then ending the filibuster was the Democratic Speaker of the House Samuel J. Randall, who was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He delayed, but did not obstruct the count, in order to gain control of the entire South for his party and to retain his speakership by preventing any defection by southerners to the Republicans. After Louisiana was counted for Hayes and Republican victory seemed certain, Randall at the Democratic caucus delivered a "violent" speech accusing Southern Democrats of bargaining with Hayes men, predicting Hayes would continue bayonet rule, and calling for legislation installing Secretary of State Hamilton Fish as acting president until a new election was held. Randall's bluster frightened negotiators, but he was bluffing. He realized that the Republican Senate would not agree to a new election and that identification with chaos would be disastrous for the Democratic party. Two weeks later, in that long session that completed the count, Randall arbitrarily refused to entertain the motions of filibusterers to recess, to reconsider, to call the roll. At one point Representative George M. Beebe, Democrat of New York, "sprang up on the desk and screamed with all his voice" to no avail. In the end, Randall forced the House into line, the vote was completed, and Hayes was elected.

Hayes did not feel obligated to Southern Democrats for his election. Grant's notice to the Republican governor of Louisiana that public opinion no longer wanted troops to defend his government was delayed in the War Department and then countermanded by Gen. William T. Sherman, unquestionably with the approval of both Hayes and Grant. Hayes did not feel honor bound by any assurances extracted under duress from his friends by Louisianans, who claimed without foundation to have controlled the filibuster. If he were inclined to credit any Democrat with ending the filibuster, it was Randall in what Hayes called his finest hour. Before lifting the Army's protection of the Republican governments in Louisiana and South Carolina, Hayes wanted a stronger commitment by white southerners to the civil and political rights of black and white Republicans.

Hayes's inaugural address on March 5, 1877 (the fourth was a Sunday) was consistent with his letter of acceptance. It disappointed Democrats, who lobbied and bargained in the late electoral crisis, as well as Republicans, who hankered for the spoils of political warfare, but it gratified liberal reformers. Hayes discussed five topics: the South, civil service reform, the currency question, foreign affairs, and the recent election. He agreed that the South should have home rule, but insisted that it should obey the entire Constitution and respect the rights of all who were recently emancipated. He did not advocate any railroad subsidy, but did call for federal aid to southern schools, arguing that "universal suffrage should rest on universal education." Hayes called for a "thorough, radical, and complete" reform of the civil service and observed most memorably "he serves his party best who serves his country best." Blaming the severe economic depression, that had gripped the country since 1873, on the fluctuating value of Greenbacks (fiat paper money issued during the Civil War), Hayes called for the speedy return to the gold standard by redeeming them in specie. In foreign affairs, Hayes (who had four years of war on the front lines) would submit disputes to arbitration, as Grant had done. Finally, Hayes congratulated the nation on the peaceful settlement of the election and anticipated a conciliatory Southern policy by calling for a union based not on force but on freedom.

Hayes then took the oath of office and kissed the Bible somewhere in Psalm 118. Perhaps his lips landed on the sixth verse: "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?" The charmed life Hayes had led as a soldier and politician surviving battles and winning elections did not diminish his self-confidence. Rutherford and Lucy Hayes then rode with Ulysses and Julia Grant to the White House for lunch. James A. Garfield noted that there was "relief and joy that no accident had occurred on the route for there were apprehensions of assassination." After lunch the Hayeses bid the Grants adieu and that afternoon had a "grand reception" for members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, and the diplomatic corps.

That evening the Hayeses attended a reception at Willard's Hotel where jubilant Republicans--especially blue-capped Columbus cadets--celebrated into the night. "The city," Mary Clemmer Ames wrote for the Cincinnati Commercial, "is one blaze of light to-night. For miles on miles the torchlight's stream, and the air is all ablaze with red lights and rockets. The mottoes in the windows, the finest flag and streamer flying from housetops, are as clearly visible as at noon-day." Ames noted that "Ohio sails on the top wave, and is a little giddy with triumph." Hayes believed the triumph was deserved--that he was both legally and justly entitled to the presidency. If blacks had not been prevented from voting in the South, he was certain he would have carried Mississippi and North Carolina as well as the three disputed states. Nevertheless, he was also aware that more than half of those who actually cast ballots in 1876 did not believe he was elected fairly, that in their eyes his mandate was not merely shaky but fraudulent. In addition, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. Three factors accounted for their resurgence: foul as well as fair tactics in the South, the hard times following the Panic of 1873, which occurred on the Republican watch, and the political corruption that tainted the Grant Administration. Hayes realized that most Radical as well as spoils-minded Republicans had worked hard to put him in the White House, but he knew that they alienated reform-minded elements, and he believed that military reconstruction (which he had originally supported) had in the long run strengthened the Democrats in the South. To rejuvenate his party, Hayes rejected the views of those hard core Republicans, whom he called the "ultras," and tried to reactivate and reclaim disaffected moderates.

Hayes's course was determined by principles tempered by moderation and by pragmatism rooted in realism. He did not believe in a "quick fix," but was a patient reformer, content with small increments that ultimately, he believed, would depoliticize the civil service or gradually through education achieve racial harmony. With his idealism bounded by the parameters of the possible, Hayes proved to be a more shrewd and successful politician than the Roscoe Conklings and James G. Blaines who thought him inept. Hayes's cabinet appointments, which infuriated both Conkling and Blaine, aimed to counter the erosion of Republican power. To conciliate the civil service reform element he appointed Carl Schurz, the leader of the Liberal Republican revolt four years earlier, as secretary of the interior and added tone to his administration by naming as secretary of state, William M. Evarts, who as the grandson of the founding father Roger Sherman was eminently respectable. Evarts was not a reformer, but he had the ability and cultivation the reformers liked to see in those who held prominent offices. In an effort (which proved vain) to win back the support of white southern moderates, some of whom had supported the Republicans at the beginning of the Reconstruction period, Hayes named a former Confederate soldier David M. Key as postmaster general--a position that would enable him to utilize patronage to rebuild the Republican party in the South. And to help restore prosperity Hayes appointed John Sherman as secretary of the treasury. A leading expert on currency matters and a respected party man, Sherman with his standing in the business community, in Congress, and among rank and file Republicans brought political strength to the Hayes Administration.

Realistic politics, temperate idealism, and moderate reform also characterized most of Hayes's policies. His southern policy was realistic; he had virtually no room to maneuver and little chance to achieve his ideals of universal suffrage and education. Given the prevailing federalism in our system (it is erroneous to believe that the Civil War transformed a federal union into a centralized nation state) the entire South--with two tiny exceptions--was dominated by the Democrats when Hayes took office. Thanks to the deployment of small detachments of the U.S. Army, Republicans were in de facto control of a few acres surrounding the capital buildings in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Columbia, South Carolina. But the Democratic House of Representatives refused to appropriate money for the Army as long as it protected those Republican governments. In addition the Grant Administration recognized and the 1876 election demonstrated that public opinion no longer supported military intervention in the South. Even if Hayes wished to restore Republican control throughout Louisiana and South Carolina with federal bayonets, adequate troops were not available (small units of the minuscule army were scattered on the western frontier), and, with no appropriations, additional troops could not be raised. Hayes was in a no-win situation--the question was not whether the troops should be withdrawn, but when would they have to be withdrawn. From this bleak situation, Hayes tried to secure what he had called for in his acceptance letter--assurances from responsible white Democratic leaders in both Louisiana and South Carolina that the voting and civil rights of black and white Republicans would be respected. Upon receiving those assurances, he acquiesced to the de facto Democratic governments and withdrew the troops. Hayes was hopeful but not certain that these solemn promises from presumably honorable men would be kept. By the election of 1878, it was obvious that the promises were being broken. In reality, however, Hayes gave up nothing beyond what he had to give up. And, as it turned out, he received nothing in return.

Hayes's civil service reform policy was also realistic and moderate, but far more successful. To placate reformers, he ordered federal civil servants to cease managing political caucuses, conventions, and campaigns, but he did not attempt to reform the entire civil service, and he did not destroy Republican party machinery. He was content to introduce reform where it could best succeed, but did not attempt it elsewhere. Accordingly Schurz reformed the Department of the Interior, while Sherman was free to use the patronage of the Treasury Department to promote his unsuccessful bid for the 1880 Republican presidential nomination. Hayes's greatest contribution to reform was the successful application of open-competitive examinations in the New York Customhouse--the largest federal office (probably the largest public or private office) in the land. The success of reform in that office eased passage of the 1883 Pendleton Act. Reformers were unhappy that Hayes went no further, and spoilsmen cursed him for hampering the party work of their lieutenants in the civil service, but in the 1880 election reformers supported the Republican nominee James A. Garfield and the party organizations were still efficient enough to win. Hayes also demonstrated his moderation during the Great Strike of 1877. His Administration was only a few months old when railroad managers carefully orchestrated pay cuts while maintaining dividends on, in many instances, their watered stock. The strike broke out on the Baltimore & Ohio, and soon spread to the Pennsylvania, New York Central, and other major roads. As unemployed men and boys joined the strikers, violence broke out at several points, but conspicuously at Baltimore and especially at Pittsburgh. At Pittsburgh militia imported from Philadelphia killed ten to twenty people, before the militia was besieged in a locomotive roundhouse and run out of town, suffering five casualties. The mob then destroyed 104 locomotives, 2,152 railroad cars, and innumerable buildings belonging to the hated Pennsylvania Railroad.

Despite what historians have often repeated, Hayes did not break the Great Strike. He sent troops to quell disorders when troops were properly requested by state or local authorities. These troops invariably arrived after the violence had subsided and never fired a shot. Although Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania wanted Hayes to intervene on the pretext that strikers were obstructing the mail, Hayes refused to do so. When troops arrived in St. Louis, their commander, Jefferson C. Davis, announced that they were there to protect public property and not "to quell the strikers or to run the trains." The strikers and federal forces did not clash. The violent confrontations occurred between local police or state militia and strikers and mobs. Hayes had sympathy neither for mob violence nor for management. He thought the real remedy required education of the strikers, whom he thought were basically good men, "judicious control of the capitalists," and a wise general policy. But as the economy improved, neither he nor his administration came up with plans for education, controls, or policy.

Hayes's attitude toward liquor also illustrates how he mixed moderate idealism with shrewd politics. Contemporaries and subsequent generations made fun of his banning alcoholic drinks from White House functions (Evarts quipped that the water flowed like wine.) Before becoming president, Hayes had been literally temperate--that is he drank in moderation. To set a good example and to appease prohibitionists, he became a teetotaler on entering the presidency, and following embarrassing behavior by White House guests early in his administration stopped serving alcohol at state dinners and receptions. He did not stop serving alcohol to save money, since the Hayeses otherwise entertained lavishly, but banned it out of prudence (no drunkenness), idealism (alcoholism is an evil), and political calculation. The Prohibitionist party was attracting dry Republicans. Both Hayes and Lucy (who had always been a teetotaler) opposed prohibition, preferring to control alcoholic consumption by education and example rather than by force. Hayes knew that his public stand--and the derision he was willing to take for it--would keep dry Republicans from straying from the party while his stand would not interfere with the personal freedom of the wets--except when they attended White House functions. When Garfield brought liquor back to the White House, Hayes predicted that large numbers of drys would abandon the party with dire consequences. He proved to be both a shrewd politician and an accurate prophet. In 1884, after four years of drink in the White House, under Garfield and his successor Chester A. Arthur, Republican James G. Blaine lost New York and the presidency because of Republican defections to the Prohibitionists in that state. In one area, however, Hayes was inflexible. He regarded the currency issue as a moral question. Although large landholdings inherited from his uncle Sardis Birchard made him a debtor (albeit a wealthy one), he opposed inflation, whether by greenbacks or by silver, as dishonest. Although moderate on virtually every other issue, he denounced paper money, silver dollars, and any scheme of bimetallism, no matter what kind of political support these issues commanded. He therefore vetoed the Bland-Allison Silver Coinage Act of 1878, realizing it would be passed over his veto, and he fully supported Sherman's preparations for the resumption of specie payments and the return to the gold standard on January 1, 1879. In his immoderate stand for the gold standard, Hayes was lucky. A stunning business revival coincided with the return to the gold standard. That improvement was probably due to the latest cyclical swing in business, but his consistency in policy was also a contributing factor. Businessmen prefer certainty and calculation to inconsistency and guesswork, even if the latter results in windfall profits. The gold standard was a constant, and Hayes was constant in its defense.

Hayes was constant, consistent, predictable. His letter accepting the nomination, his inaugural address, and his cabinet choices foretold the course of his administration. Contemporaries realized its value. Mark Twain arrived at the conclusion that the "quiet & unostentatious" Hayes presidency achieved "real & substantial greatness." And Henry Adams, who in 1876 had dismissed Hayes as "a third-rate nonentity," by 1880 acknowledged that Hayes had conducted "a most successful administration."


Because of some similarities between the election of 1876-1877 and the recent election, comparisons are expected. Since I know something about the earlier election and have lived through the recent campaign, it is natural that I should be expected to see similarities and differences. I confess that I am a bit uncomfortable citing them. I am basically a nineteenth-century man and know little of today beyond what I scan in the New York Times after I do the crossword puzzle. I hesitate to make any pronouncements without the perspective of at least several, and preferably a hundred, years. Finally, I was as disappointed by the recent outcome as any Samuel Jones Tilden supporter was in 1877. I do not care for George W. Bush, and those of you who like him may call me unfair.

Here goes, despite the disclaimers:

Elections today are conducted entirely differently than they were in 1876. Hayes and Tilden said little beyond their letters of acceptance, and did not campaign. Their campaigns were largely in the hands of state committees and were conducted in large part by local, state, and federal civil servants or by those who aspired to their jobs.

The disputed election of 1876-77 was settled by a Commission, which Congress created, and on it the deciding vote was cast by a Supreme Court justice on the principle that the officially certified state returns should be accepted. The recent election was settled by the Supreme Court cutting short both recounting and litigation.

Hayes and George W. Bush are very different individuals. Hayes was an intellectual. He loved literature (both Shakespeare and Milton, and studied German to read Schiller in the original). He read a great deal of history. He was unconventionally religious, never had a so-called religious experience, and, though he attended services, he neither joined a church nor had faith in an afterlife. Hayes had a distinguished war record. After seeking opinions and advice from his cabinet and friends, he made up his mind and did not easily sway from his determination. He had enormous self-confidence and self-assurance.

Bush is obviously a bright man, but he is not an intellectual. Although he attended good schools, he seems to take a perverse pride in suggesting that they had little effect on him. He is religious, has experienced conversion, and is, I believe, a better man for it. His military record is only slightly better than Bill Clinton's, but remember Hayes had a noble cause to fight for, and they--in the eyes of their generation--did not. Bush apparently lacks Hayes's self-confidence and has depended, at least in the early days of his administration, heavily on the advice of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others.

Both Hayes and Bush entered the White House with shaky mandates. Both trailed their rivals in the unofficial total vote and both received a majority of Electoral College votes after a dispute was resolved, in the Hayes case by a congressionally created commission and in the Bush case by the intervention of the Supreme Court.

Hayes, as my talk this evening hopefully demonstrates, moved away from the hard core of the Republican party to woo back moderate elements both in the North and in the South. His attempts in the North were successful, but his attempts in the South failed to bridge the racial divide there. He was, however, blessed with good luck all his life, and lady luck did not desert him in his presidency. Not only did the economy turn around, but the Democrats blundered in two instances and enabled Hayes to rally public opinion and Republicans around him. Specifically, the Democratic investigation of fraud in Hayes's election led to the revelation that Tilden's nephew tried to buy his election. The Democrats also tried to force Hayes to agree to the repeal of laws enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, by attaching riders to appropriation bills (with the threat of shutting down the government). This effort failed, as Hayes aroused public opinion with ringing vetoes exposing that the Democrats were trying to remove the federal protection of black voters. When Hayes left office, he left a united party with a broader base.

Bush, in contrast to Hayes, has moved closer to the hard core right wing of the Republican party. He has gratified extremely wealthy supporters with enormous tax cuts, big donors to his campaign with reversals on environmental issues, and right-wing religious groups with attempts to breach the wall separating church and state in this nation. He has failed to reach out to moderate Republicans who in the past have seemed to personify fiscal responsibility and humane concerns in American politics.

Despite its toll on my city and our nation, September 11 and its aftermath has been politically lucky for Bush. Some would even argue that the War on Terrorism, and the attendant public support it has gotten, has given him a smoke screen cover to advance the agenda of the Republican right-wing, to retain irresponsible tax cuts, to employ budget wizardry, to persist in calling for oil wells in the Arctic, although oil there would be limited, expensive, and years in coming.

But George W. Bush has been president for little over a year. In his recent State of the Union Address he shows signs of following his own instincts, which might or might not be better than depending on the thinking of his handlers. He may grow in office. I might be underrating him, as Henry Adams did Hayes prior to his presidency. The Enron debacle--so close to home--may arouse in Bush a wariness of big fat cats. Time will tell. One thing, however, is certain and that is that my postscript will be obsolete in six months, and that is why I am a historian of the nineteenth century and not a commentator on the contemporary scene.