The Search for the Hayes Administration
By KENNETH E. DAVISON
Volume II, Number 2
Spiegel Grove, the twenty-five acre wooded estate of Rutherford Hayes, is one of America's most beautiful and interesting presidential properties. Here, a century ago, visited generals and admirals, Senators and Representatives, newspaper correspondents and literary figures, and old soldier friends of the President. They came to enjoy the generous Hayes hospitality.
Today Spiegel Grove is a popular Ohio historical attraction, a mecca for scholars and tourists alike who are fascinated by its Victorian period charm. To pass through the iron gates of the Grove is to recapture part of the late nineteenth century American world. None can leave this place without gaining a deeper and richer understanding of American history. But what surprises most people is how much of Rutherford Hayes' time survives, faithfully preserved in his home, and the adjoining library and museum devoted to his memory, and yet how little they really knew about him before their visit.
Hayes has remained obscure to most Americans - a lost figure among American presidents, a bearded gentleman often confused with the other bewhiskered chief executives of his era. Even professional historians admit to fairly limited information concerning Hayes.1 Teachers and textbooks usually deal only with Hayes in terms of the disputed election of 1876 or his removal of the remaining federal troops still occupying the South in 1877. Meanwhile, Hayes' wife is commonly presented as "Lemonade Lucy," a reference made more to enliven a classroom than to enlighten its students.
Why is the public's knowledge about Hayes so sparse? First, the generally poor reputation of the years in which Hayes lived, a period long called "The Gilded Age" (after the title of a novel2 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner) has made it difficult to dispassionately evaluate either Hayes or the events of his day. He has suffered, until recently, from the stigma of materialism and sordidness long attached to his era. The recent and great revival of interest in all aspects of the Victorian age has helped to dispel much misunderstanding, and the current centennial of the Hayes presidential administration is certainly helping to make him better known, and a more creditable personality.
Second, the biographical series called American Political Leaders, which began in the 1930s under the editorship of Allan Nevins, set a fashion of historical interpretation which has persisted until the present generation, in which Republican leaders like Hayes appear less worthy than Grover Cleveland, the only Democratic President of the Gilded Age. Nevins himself wrote a masterful and massive biography for the series on Grover Cleveland, A Study in Courage, which won the author a Pulitzer Prize.3
By contrast, the Hayes volume by Hamilton J. Eckenrode, Rutherford B. Hayes: Statesman of Reunion,4 was very poorly researched and written. Despite its excellent title, the work suffers from a lack of immersion in the Hayes Papers, it is prone to factual errors, and it is not documented. Eckenrode did not do his basic research and writing in Ohio, and his research assistant spent only a few days in Fremont examining the large Hayes manuscript collection. Furthermore, the collection was far less organized then, and not at all item-indexed as it is today.
Third, the circumstances of Hayes' singular victory over Samuel J. Tilden in the contested election of 1876 are so extraordinary, so strange, that they have overshadowed serious study of the Hayes presidency. The fact is, of course, that Hayes, and not Tilden, occupied the Executive Mansion for four eventful years, and we need to know about each presidential administration in its own right. It is also true that a detailed reappraisal of the 1876 disputed election, updating the 1906 monograph of Paul L. Haworth,5 needs to be written, certainly a formidable, albeit academic, task for some author.
Fourth, adequate information about first ladies and White House social history during the Gilded Age has been rather limited. The social side of the Hayes Administration is not well enough known. Lucy Hayes was the first of the "new women" in the White House, and the Hayes family set a very high standard for frequent and expensive entertainment.6 Her history-book nick-name of "Lemonade Lucy" simply does not appear in contemporary references to her.7 Furthermore, Mrs. Hayes never belonged to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and it was the President, not the First Lady, who instituted a temperance policy at White House dinners, and this he did to gain political advantage. Since elections were decided then by extremely close margins, he did not wish to forfeit any good Republican votes to the minor Prohibition Party, and thus give victory to the Democrats. Privately, Hayes was not a tea-totaler. He often ordered whiskey for his troops during the Civil War, and the mansion at Spiegel Grove contained a good wine cellar.8
Many unflattering contemporary observations on the Hayes Administration social policy may be traced back to Mrs. James G. Blaine. Her particular animus toward Lucy Hayes is well documented.9 Mrs. Blaine was virtually never in the White House either socially or officially during the Hayes term. She missed a good chance of becoming first lady herself when Hayes narrowly defeated her husband for the 1876 Republican nomination.
The truth is that Lucy Hayes was one of the more "gifted" first ladies of the nineteenth century, the first of them to be a college graduate, and the first one to travel extensively with her husband on state tours. An excellent hostess, her outgoing personality complemented her husband's more reserved manner. She was, incidentally, the first President's wife to be referred to by the phrase "the first lady."
Some house guests, usually young ladies in their teens or early twenties, stayed at the White House for weeks or months at a time to assist Lucy with her social duties, and virtually became part of the family. Some were favorite nieces or daughters of old friends; others were daughters of close associates in the Administration. Thus, a bevy of attractive young girls who, by common consent, helped Mrs. Hayes stage some of the handsomest and most lavish receptions in Washington, compensated for state dinners without wine.
My own interest in the Hayes story goes back to 1960. I was then searching for a research project that could be accomplished near my home in Ohio, and one which would also satisfy my special interest in American Presidents. I knew about the Hayes Museum and Library in Fremont, Ohio from some work I did there on my doctoral dissertation in the early 1950s. I was also aware of the presidential poll conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. among fifty-five experts in 1948.10 What intrigued me about it was the fact that Hayes ranked thirteenth - right below the "Great" and "Near Great" categories and yet no book had ever written primarily about his presidency, although there were several more general biographies in print. I went to see Watt Marchman, the director of the Hayes Library, and he encouraged me to undertake a presidential study of Hayes.
At first, I just read a lot of political history and biography to get acquainted with the period and its people. Next, I carefully read and edited Hayes' Diary for the years, 1875-1881. This prepared me for further investigation. I travelled to see all sorts of places associated with the President's life and career - his birthplace, his college, his Cincinnati, Columbus, and Washington, D. C. connections. This procedure added a valuable third dimension to my study and gave me a feel for the work. Gradually, I read the extensive Hayes Papers at Fremont, and in other repositories. I took many notes. Meanwhile I examined picture files and collected glossy prints of the best or more unusual ones. I enrolled in two summer institutes on genealogy and archival research to improve my skills in the use of source materials.
During 1967, I proposed to the Ohio Historical Society that a special issue of Ohio History, devoted to Hayes, be planned and published in connection with the dedication of remodeled and greatly enlarged facilities at the Hayes Library and Museum, scheduled to take place on October 4, 1968. The magazine project succeeded and was published a few days ahead of time.11 Up until then, very few articles had appeared on any facet of Hayes' life. Now, ten essays, by various specialists, were issued at one stroke. Five of these articles dealt directly with the Hayes presidential period. In retrospect, publication of these articles marked the beginning of a research and publication program which has been one of the major functions of the Hayes Library for the past decade.
Assisted by several research grants and two sabbatical leaves-of-absence, my own study of The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes was published by Greenwood Press in the fall of 1972. My purpose, as stated in the preface, was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the President's birth in Delaware, Ohio, by offering a fresh interpretation of Hayes the man and Hayes the President.12
I deliberately chose to concentrate upon the period from his nomination through his retirement from office. To round out the volume I added brief chapters at the beginning and end to summarize the rest of Hayes' life both before and after his term as President. I did, however, study his entire career so that I might put the selected presidential years in proper perspective.
I made other conscious choices. I never intended to reopen the academic controversy over who won the 1876 election. This was simply not the book I wanted to write. Instead, I preferred to stress the less familiar circumstances of Hayes' nomination for the presidency, and his performance in the office of President. This I felt was the book most needed about Hayes.
In the course of my research, however, I did reach certain conclusions concerning the disputed election:
1. Hayes was entitled to the disputed electoral votes of Oregon, Louisiana, and South Carolina awarded to him by the Electoral Commission.
2. Tilden probably was entitled to the four electoral votes of Florida which the Commission gave to Hayes.
3. Hayes probably was entitled to the electoral votes of some other southern states which were in fact counted in favor of Tilden. These were more than enough to offset the loss of Florida by Hayes.
4. In a completely fair election, Hayes would have won easily.
5. Hayes' legal title to the office was clear. He was selected as the victor by the Electoral Commission, an extra-constitutional device, designed for the express purpose of settling the disputed election, and supported by the Democratic majority in Congress. Although expected to guarantee Tilden's victory, the plan boomeranged on the Democrats when Justice David Davis, an "independent" presumed to favor Tilden's cause, was unexpectedly elected to the Illinois Senate. This paved the way for his Republican replacement, Justice Joseph Bradley, there being no other Independents or Democrats then serving on the Supreme Court of the United States.
6. Hayes was far better qualified by personality and temperament to be President of the United States in 1877.
Once I had decided to concentrate upon the presidential years of Hayes as my primary focus, it was fairly easy to determine what the chapter content and emphasis would be. I wanted to write a good basic summary and balanced treatment of Hayes as President, incorporating the recent research of other investigators with my own findings. As it stands, the particular value of the book rests, I believe, on the following special features:
1. A detailed account of the Republican Convention of 1876 which nominated Hayes.
2. A survey of executive, congressional, and judicial leadership during the Hayes era.
3. A resume of presidential staff procedures and personnel during the Hayes Administration.
4. A similar treatment of the President's cabinet.
5. A discussion and summary of Hayes' use of executive power.
6. A description of Hayes' travels as President, especially his Great Western Tour of 1880.
7. A profile of White House and Washington social life during the 1870s.
8. A study of Hayes' Indian policy.
9. A fresh appraisal of Hayes the Man.
One of the major side benefits I derived from my Hayes research was a better understanding of the Gilded Age. For a long time, the 1865-1890 era was largely ignored and even despised by historians, except for the importance placed upon the economic revolution. I was taught and accepted this version of events until further study convinced me otherwise.
Today the Gilded Age is pictured far differently. The old labels have been discarded, and we refer to this era now as an "age of energy" and a "cultural epoch" signifying the "emergence of modern America." "Victorian American" is another more positive phrase replacing the less complimentary designation of the era as a Gilded Age.
Why has the interpretation changed so dramatically? Certainly the centennial of these years is a factor. Historical anniversaries do revive interest in events and personalities long forgotten or neglected. New research spawns fresh insights and perspectives. The recent bicentennial helped too by reawakening an interest in America's past generally. The historic preservation movement along with the return to favor of the small town has put Victorian architecture and the decorative arts in vogue again. There is even a Victorian Society in America, and an elite magazine called Nineteenth Century which caters to the new taste. Meantime, we have the results of much new and excellent scholarship in many areas of Victorian art, literature, and social history, besides long awaited biographies and new political histories.
Hayes, it develops, lived and was President at an exciting moment in American history. Science and technology were coming to the fore - Edison was reaching the peak of his inventive genius, and the telephone and the typewriter were coming into practical use by government and business. It was also a time of expanding cultural horizons - the founding of major museums, the organization of the American Library Association, the creation of graduate degree programs, and the formation of professional groups like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. Meanwhile, immigration patterns shifted fundamentally, recreation assumed a standardized, commercialized, and professional character, cities grew in geometric proportions, and an economic revolution catapulted America into world prominence. It was a time of great change and transition for all of America. President Hayes sensed much of what was happening and commented upon it in his letters and diary.
A few of the scholarly adventures I experienced while working on my book will suggest why public understanding of him has improved so slowly.
Many of the figures who were prominent in the Hayes Administration are hard to track down by traditional historical methods. Only through genealogical techniques, for example, could I find basic facts about certain Hayes cabinet officers like Secretary of War George McCrary, Attorney-General Charles Devens, or Postmaster-General Horace Maynard. The same was true of long-time White House aides like O. L. Pruden, nicknamed "the Sphinx," because of his extraordinary reticence concerning all matter of government business. Genealogy also revealed what little I could find out about the Hayes domestic staff - cooks, valets, and maids. We still lack a good modern biography of the most prominent Hayes cabinet official, Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman of Mansfield, Ohio.13 We finally have, in 1978, two fresh biographies of James A. Garfield (Hayes' floor leader in the House of Representatives) based upon thorough use of primary source materials.14
Very little has been published about the Supreme Court in the Hayes era.15 Even a group portrait of the Hayes Court is very hard to find. One justice is always missing. No full-length biography of Hayes' most important judicial appointee, the first John Marshall Harlan, has as yet appeared. Some excellent and very specific material about the Court of this period lies buried in law school journals of limited circulation and access.
While a good deal has been written about the presidential election of 1876, comparatively little, until the 1970s, has been published concerning the exciting 1876 Republican National Convention which nominated Hayes.16 After five years of searching, I discovered a fine picture of the Convention in session, a seating diagram for each state delegation, and an excellent eye-witness account of the proceedings.
Other phases of my detective hunt were less successful. One of the most unusual events of the Hayes presidency was the Great Western Tour of 1880, the first time any President had travelled to the Pacific Coast while in office. I expected to find an official map of the historic journey by combining daily newspaper dispatches with post office route maps of the period. The original map was uncovered in storage at the Hayes Library late in 1978, nearly a century after the event.
Mrs. Hayes owned the first Siamese cat in the United States which she appropriately called "Siam." After Siam died in the White House, the first lady's pet was sent to a government taxidermist to be preserved. On a hunch, I contacted the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum but they have no record of it. Nothing further is known about the cat.
In other respects, the approach through the use of material culture artifacts helped to supplement the written records. Among the objects I examined were the Hayes White House desk (later used by President Kennedy), and the Hayes carriage (now handsomely restored) in which the President conducted many confidential conversations and made important policy decisions. Books from the private library of President Hayes, often marked in his handwriting with penciled impressions or page references, helped to reveal the man's interests and thoughts. Behind-the-scenes private tours of rooms in the White House and the Capitol building, where major events of the Hayes period occurred, provided both a third dimensional perspective, and a feeling for the Gilded Age through the aura of authentic period decorations and furnishings.
Meanwhile special indexes were prepared: a log of the President's daily activities; separate files for his social visitors and official guests. This data became part of a giant puzzle which gradually filled in and revealed new and additional relationships.
In the National Archives I searched for details of the Hayes inauguration. I was especially interested in the circumstances surrounding the President's secret oath of office taken two days prior to his public oath ceremony on the steps of the Capitol. I was not disappointed. In a tray, beneath many other official papers, I found Hayes' signed secret oath of office.17 I knew of the verbalceremony in the Red Room of the White House on Saturday evening, March 3, 1877, but the discovery of a signed secret oath was something new, and probably a document unique among American presidential papers. It offered further evidence of government action to forestall public uncertainty, and to prevent the danger of an interregnum or civil war in the immediate aftermath of the Electoral Commission's finding for Hayes.
At the White House Curator's Office, I found rare pictures, newspaper clippings, and descriptions of rooms and furniture as they were in the Hayes Administration. I also examined the White House China Collection for samples of the Hayes set. A more complete collection of Hayes China is on display in the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology. Additional pieces belong to the Hayes Museum in Ohio, including plates especially designed for fried oysters, one the President's favorite foods.
The Smithsonian also owns the surviving exhibits first featured at the great Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. I found it of interest to view some of these artifacts, such as early sewing machines and typewriters, which Hayes probably also saw during his visit on Ohio Day in June, 1876. Later the same day, at the Architect of the Capitol's Office, I uncovered rare pictures, and contemporary data on Hayes' congressional career.
Another adventure took me to the Harvard Law School to find a full-length portrait of Hayes delivering a speech, painted by the well-known New York art teacher and artist, William Merritt Chase. My limited information suggested that the size of the painting required it to be hung in a stairwell. I searched the law building from top to bottom, and asked several people for help. Finally, I gave up, and went to the Fogg Museum across the campus, thinking that perhaps the picture had been moved there. Again unsuccessful, I felt I could not go back to Ohio without one last effort. I returned to Langdell Hall, climbed again to the splendid third-floor law library reading room, and by great good luck, discovered the stairway leading to the roof. I had no sooner mounted a few steps, and turned a corner, when suddenly I found myself facing a huge portrait of President Hayes - the surface covered with dust and grime from some repair work in progress nearby. This is the very same painting later borrowed by the Hayes Museum, and used by Professor Sam C. Gholson in planning his own fine portrait of Hayes.
Paintings of President Hayes are quite rare. On another occasion I attended a splendid banquet in the dining room of the Philadelphia Union League headquarters. Around the room were various portraits of Presidents of the United States who had dined there. I sat near a Hayes painting by William Garl Browne. Actually this portrait was a substitute for one previously commissioned and painted by the great Philadelphia artist, Thomas Eakins. The Eakins portrait of Hayes, now lost, was the painter's first important commission, and earned him a $400 fee from the Union League, whose members then rejected the portrait due to its realism.18 Tradition says that the heat of an August day in Washington made President Hayes appear florid while he was working in his executive office. This painting, could it now be found, would command a high price, both because of Eakin's popularity today, and the likelihood of its faithfulness to the real Hayes at work at his White House desk.
As my work progressed, I gained the satisfaction of understanding Hayes and his period far better than I had ever known before. The trials and triumphs of Rutherford Hayes became part of my own experience. I recognized him as an unusual Ohioan in many respects. As a student he won firsts in two subjects at Kenyon College, and was valedictorian of his class. Later he received Phi Beta Kappa recognition, and to the very end of his life kept up his scholarly and library interests. He was the first American president to attend a formal law school and one of the nation's first "technical lawyers," possessing the knowledge and skill to win cases on appeal to a higher tribunal. He volunteered for Civil War duty, exhibited courage and leadership on the battlefield, and was wounded three times and injured on another occasion in the service of his country. In politics, he had the ability to win close elections, a characteristic termed by some of his colleagues "the Hayes political luck." He was Ohio's first elected three-term Governor, the first lifelong resident of the state to become President, and he remains the only President to die in Ohio.
For twelve years, following his retirement from the presidency, he was exceptionally active in humanitarian crusades and philanthropic causes, working on behalf of educational and penal reform; minority rights for Indians and Blacks; and as a trustee for several colleges and organizations.19 The older he became, and the longer he reflected upon American society, the more he became a dedicated opponent of privilege and the exploitation of any group. He began to read works of social criticism by Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, and especially Henry George's Progress and Poverty.20
Hayes possessed great strength of character and moral purpose. He epitomized the best middle-class, moderate Victorian standards of his America. He was not brilliant or colorful, but he was kind, high-principled, public-spirited, unaffected, loyal, and singularly decent and honest, a man without pretense, without egotism. A strong sense of duty guided his actions.
As President, Hayes entered the White House under extremely great handicaps. His unhappy inheritance included: a disputed title; a hostile Congress with a Democratic majority; little respect for presidential authority; a cumbersome bureaucracy and an entrenched patronage system to resist civil service reform; a business depression; powerful opposition to a "sound" dollar; intense sectional hatred; and racial unrest involving Black, Indian, and Chinese minorities.
He did not resolve all the issues confronting the country, but he definitely pointed the government in new directions, and made several significant departures from the policies of his predecessors. He absolutely refused to be put down by attacks upon his person and high office based upon charges of having accepted a fraudulent election. Instead he remained remarkably cool, and demonstrated he was more than equal to the occasion, until his opponents were finally compelled to withdraw their accusations.
Not only did Hayes stoutly defend his legal right to the presidency, he recovered and strengthened the power and prestige of the executive branch after it had fallen to a very low ebb under Ulysses Grant. By naming his own cabinet, by successfully resisting legislative riders to appropriation bills, by besting the United States Senate in a struggle over patronage appointments in New York State, and by elevating the tone of official life, President Hayes restored confidence in presidential leadership, and redressed the balance of power among the three branches of government. Unable to function as a legislative leader without a working majority, he resorted to administrative action to win respect for his office.
He struck the first effective presidential blows for civil service reform, ably assisted by his brilliant Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz. Meanwhile, John Sherman, the financial wizard of the Republican party, effectively promoted the President's economic policy. Business revived, and the economy moved out of depression into prosperous times.
Of all the causes Hayes believed in, the one closest to his heart was national unity. His administration served a very useful purpose in the transition from sectional antagonism to greater harmony, and from the old method of dealing with the public service as party spoils to the new method of placing merit and fitness about party service or requirements.
He served his party best because he served his country best. Of the five Republican Presidents from 1869 to 1890, Rutherford Hayes most deserved to be reelected, but he did not wish to be known as just another successful party politician. Characteristically, in his July, 1876 letter accepting the Republican presidential nomination, he inserted a self-denying proclamation of his "inflexible purpose" to serve only a single term. While this was a political error, it at the same time freed his hands to work for the greater goal of healing a strife-torn nation. He became the President whose administration symbolized the birth of a new union.
Rutherford Hayes may have entered the White House in the wake of a bitterly contested election, but four years later, he retired with the honor and the respect of his countrymen.
1See: Gary M. Maranell, "The Evaluation of Presidents: An Extension of the Schlesinger Polls," Journal of American History, 57 (June 1970), 112, Table 8. Historians responding to a questionnaire used by Maranell admitted knowing more about twenty-six other presidents than they did about Hayes. Only Tyler, Arthur, Taylor, B. Harrison, Fillmore, and Pierce ranked below Hayes in degree of familiarity among the experts.
5Paul Leland Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Cleveland: The Burrow Brothers Company, 1906). One important aspect of the contested election is re-examined by Norbert A. Kuntz, "The Electoral Commission of 1877" (Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1969). The role of Secretary of War J. Don Cameron in creating the electoral deadlock and the influence of House Speaker Samuel J. Randall in peacefully resolving the conflict is detailed in Frank B. Evans, Pennsylvania Politics, 1872-1877: A Study in Political Leadership (Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1966), 286-309. See also: Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia; the Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), passim.
9Harriet S. Blaine Beale (ed.), Letters of Mrs. James G. Blaine (New York: Duffield & Co., 1898),, passim. Thomas C. Donaldson, "Memoirs," December 9, 1880. pp. 144-147, typescript in Rutherford B. Hayes Library, Fremont, Ohio.
15The best recent publication is Leon Freidman and Fred L. Israel (eds.), The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789-1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 4 vols. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1969). Relatively little space, however, is devoted to the years, 1877-1881.
16See especially the essay in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred L. Israel (eds.), History of American Presidential elections, 1789-1968 (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1971), II, 1379-1487, and Chapter 2 of Davison, Presidency of Hayes, 19-39.
19See chapter 15, "The Squire of Spiegel Grove" in Davison, The Presidency of Hayes, 227-234. Hayes explained to the people who welcomed him back to Fremont his idea of what a former President should do as a private citizen; "Let him, like every good American citizen, be willing and prompt to bear his part in every useful work that will promote the welfare and the happiness of his family, his town, his state, and his country. With this disposition he will have work enough to do, and that sort of work that yields more individual contentment and gratification than belong to the more conspicuous employments of life from which he was retired." Cited in Charles Richard Williams, The Life of Rutherford Birchard Hayes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), II, 335-336.
20R. B. Hayes Diary, March 18, 19, 1886; December 4, 1887: March 11, 1888, original in Hayes Library, Fremont, Ohio. See also the very fine article by David P. Thelen, "Rutherford B. Hayes and the Reform Tradition in the Gilded Age," American Quarterly 22, no. 2, pt 1 (Summer 1970), 150-165.