Political victory in 1875 brought Hayes national attention as a possible presidential candidate in 1876. Not only did the governor-elect consider the possibility in his diary, but friends also started to work for his nomination. In the fall of 1875, he went to Pennsylvania on an extended political trip, and in January 1876, Senator John Sherman and William Henry Smith publicly began to promote him as the state’s favorite son. On March 29, the Ohio Republican Convention unanimously endorsed their Governor for President. At the 1876 Republican National Convention held in Cincinnati, Governor Hayes was one of nine candidates vying for the top spot on the ticket. His advisers let the forces of Benjamin H. Bristow lead the fight against the pre-convention favorite, James G. Blaine. This strategy allowed Hayes to edge Maine’s “Plumed Knight” on the seventh ballot as a compromise candidate. To balance the ticket, the convention selected William A. Wheeler, a New York Congressman, as the party’s vice-presidential choice.

In his letter of acceptance, Governor Hayes stressed the need for civil service reform in the federal government, reconciliation between the North and the South, sound currency, and a single presidential term. With remarkable confidence in his party’s prospects, the Ohio governor stayed in Columbus performing his normal duties and keeping in contact with both national and local Republican leaders. Consistent with the views expressed in his written statement, he took a strong stand against soliciting campaign contributions from party regulars who held government jobs. Although this stance alienated certain Stalwarts, it appealed to reform-minded citizens. The candidate maintained both his sound money principles and his temperance beliefs during the campaign, but refrained from using them as major issues in order not to offend potential Greenbackers and anti-prohibitionists.

In late October, Hayes recorded in his diary his concern over a contested election. The November results proved that these fears were well-founded. Although the Democratic candidates, Samuel J. Tilden and Thomas A. Hendricks, appeared to receive a plurality of the popular vote in excess of 250,000, the Republicans challenged the electoral count for nineteen votes in three contested states, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The Democrats responded by challenging one of Oregon’s electoral votes. The climax to one of the strangest and most controversial elections in our nation’s history came when a special commission, created by Congress for deciding the vote, resolved to award all the contested electoral votes to Hayes. 

The margin of victory was by one electoral vote, 185 to 184, and the final result was announced only two days prior to Inauguration Day. Governor Hayes was en route to Washington when he received the news. At the urging of the Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, he took the oath of office from Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite at a private dinner party given by the Grants on March 3 to forestall the dangers of an interregnum. Since the traditional inaugural day of March 4 fell on a Sunday, Hayes held the public inauguration on Monday, March 5, on the steps of the Capitol. Before a crowd of 30,000 spectators he became the nineteenth President of the United States.

Although Hayes occupied the Executive Mansion for only four years, 1877-1881, his Presidency signaled an end to the excesses of the Grant era. He followed his maxim, “He serves his party best, who serves his country best.” In many respects the new administration reversed the erosion of executive power which had occurred during the Johnson and Grant years. In advancing the cause of civil service reform and adhering to campaign promises of a single term, Hayes helped to restore people’s confidence in the Chief of State. The President jealously guarded the executive appointment and pardoning prerogatives in bitter clashes with the Senate. His relatively successful use of the veto, especially against legislative riders to appropriation bills, enhanced the power and prestige of the Presidency. Resistance to senatorial pressures for the appointment of party favorites allowed Hayes to assemble a distinguished and capable cabinet. His original cabinet officers included Charles Devens, Attorney General; William M. Evarts, Secretary of State; David M. Key, Postmaster General; George W. McCrary, Secretary of War; John Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury; Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior; and Richard W. Thompson, Secretary of the Navy. Nathan Goff, Jr., Horace Maynard, and Alexander Ramsey later joined the Hayes cabinet holding the respective posts as Secretary of the Navy, Postmaster General, and Secretary of War.

During his term of office Hayes not only had to contend with a hostile and largely Democratic Congress, but also had to face questions regarding the legitimacy of his title to the presidency. The most important challenge came from the Potter Commission of 1878. The President remained supremely confident of his position, and just as he expected, the investigation boomeranged on its Democratic investigators. Wholesale Democratic frauds were revealed and published in the press in the form of decoded cipher telegrams. The President interpreted the campaign of 1880 as a final vindication, since the Democrats passed over Governor Tilden; and the Republican victor, James Garfield, had been closely associated with the Hayes side of the election controversy.

“The Great Railway Strike” and the accompanying riots during the summer of 1877 presented a major test to the new administration. President Hayes had to exert his authority as commander-in-chief of the military forces by responding to requisitions for federal troops in states where the governors were not able to maintain order with state militia. His decision to answer governors’ requests by the use of federal force, where necessary, set a precedent for future federal strike policy where the national government assumed the protection of private property as well as public property. Hayes, while willing to limit the violent actions of the workers, also expressed the belief that “judicious control of capitalists” combined with “education of the strikers” might provide a “real remedy” to the emerging problems of industrialization.

Regarding Southern affairs, Hayes attempted to implement a program based on the principles of cooperation and conciliation, as expressly set forth in his inaugural address. As evidence of his good intentions, in April 1877, he withdrew military support from the two remaining carpetbag governments in Louisiana and South Carolina. Initially he favored a national program of internal improvements for the South. In hopes of broadening the Republican base of support in the South, he appointed several southern Democrats, such as David M. Key of Tennessee, to important federal positions, and made several well-publicized trips to Dixie. However, this much criticized departure from traditional Republican policy floundered.

The President devoted considerable time attempting to solve the nation’s economic and monetary problems. A staunch opponent of free and unlimited coinage of silver, he advocated a financial program embracing the economic doctrines of strict adherence to the gold standard and the resumption of specie payments. Hayes worked with his trusted friend and adviser, Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, to achieve these goals. Under Sherman’s astute guidance, specie payments were resumed in January 1879. Although overridden, President Hayes took pride in his veto of the Bland-Allison Silver Purchase Act in February 1878. He credited the economic upswing after the five-year depression of 1873 to his financial policies. 

Two other areas which claimed a major share of President Hayes’ attention were Indian relations and foreign affairs. With the aid of Carl Schurz, the Secretary of the Interior, the administration departed from traditional treatment of the American Indian. Hayes regarded all American Indians as citizens rather than “aliens” or “wards” and stressed the need for Indian education. Schurz, a fiery German-born liberal, initiated needed reforms in the Indian service, and thwarted a movement to transfer control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs back to the War Department. Hayes and Schurz laid the groundwork for future Indian policy. One serious difficulty in the administration’s Indian program was the removal of the Poncas to Indian territory. This problem, inherited from the Grant government, plagued Hayes throughout his term. 

In foreign affairs, President Hayes and his Secretary of State, William M. Evarts, tried to increase the professionalism of the diplomatic corps by reorganizing the Department of State and promoting career officers whenever possible. The administration actively encouraged American trade and commerce abroad and asserted the right of the United States to intervene in matters involving an inter-oceanic canal. Hayes and Evarts followed a generally conciliatory foreign policy, and finally recognized the Diaz regime in Mexico and received the first Chinese minister to the United States. Both actions relieved potential diplomatic problems, as did the veto of the Chinese Exclusion Act on March 1, 1879. An additional point of interest was Hayes’ service as arbiter of a boundary dispute between Paraguay and Argentina.

Another important facet of President Hayes’ four years in office was the amount of time he spent traveling throughout the United States. Called “Rutherford the Rover” by his detractors, Hayes made four extended trips and numerous shorter junkets while he was president. Included in his travels were official visits to New England, the South, the Midwest, and the West. His Great Western Tour of 1880 marked the first time a United States president had visited the West Coast while in office. Hayes looked upon these trips as an effective means for promoting unity, to dispel dissension, and to restore harmony in a nation which had been badly divided by the Civil War.

In his personal life as well as his political activities, Hayes offered something of a contrast to his predecessor. Despite their controversial abolition of wine in the White House, the first family managed to entertain with both elegance and variety during their four years in Washington. In fact, these functions highlighted the Washington social season. As part of his civil service reform, Rutherford Hayes refused to appoint relatives to government posts, and did not seek to turn any private profit from his political positions. The president personally displayed the model virtues of the best side of the Victorian era - hard work, modesty, sobriety, and integrity - as an example to the American people.