Rutherford B. Hayes: A misunderstood president?

Thursday marks the birthday of the one of the most controversial U.S. presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, who took office by debatable means and left office defending his reputation.

Historians rank Hayes in the middle of the pack when it comes to overall performance in office, but it was how Hayes was elected, in the midst of a constitutional crisis, that will be forever linked to his legacy.

In 1876, Hayes was a Civil War hero and Ohio governor who was selected as a dark horse candidate by the Republicans, instead of another controversial figure, James Blaine.

The Democratic contender, Samuel Tilden of New York, was widely expected to win the general election against Hayes. The nation had been in crisis under the outgoing Republican president, Ulysses S. Grant.

However, when Election Day came, neither candidate had a majority of the electoral votes. Tilden had easily won the popular vote, but he needed one more electoral vote.

The crisis came when four states submitted different slates of electoral votes, a Democratic version and a Republican version, to be counted. If the Democratic versions were accepted, Tilden was president. If the GOP versions were official, Hayes was the president.

The Constitution didn’t take this scenario into account: There was no provision for settling a dispute involving rival electors. An additional problem was that the vice president needed to certify the election. But Henry Wilson had died a year earlier, and there was no sitting vice president.

In a direct connection to the 2000 election, the electoral votes from Florida were in dispute, as were votes from Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina.

A special Electoral Commission of senators, house members, and Supreme Court justices was appointed by Congress to settle the dispute and avert a constitutional crisis in March, when a new president was set to take office.

The commission awarded the four states to Hayes in an 8-7 vote, and the Democrats allegedly agreed to the decision, in exchange for the end of Reconstruction in the South, in what is called the Compromise of 1877.

The second part of Hayes’ legacy was the fallout from Reconstruction’s end and the dawning of the Jim Crow age in the South.

Hayes did remove the last federal troops from the South, which has hurt his reputation with some historians. But others said Hayes had no choice and most federal troops had already left the South during the Grant administration.

So why isn’t Hayes ranked at the bottom of most historians’ lists, along with Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan?

No one has ever doubted Hayes’ character. He was a genuine war hero who stood against slavery, and he was also a reformer.

Hayes also kept his promise to be a one-term president, and he attacked patronage in the nation’s civil service system. Hayes succeeded in firing the powerful Collector of the Port of New York, Chester Arthur, in 1878, in an epic battle with New York power broker Roscoe Conkling. (Arthur would become president in 1881.)

The American economy also recovered under Hayes from the disastrous Panic of 1873.

Today, Hayes is little remembered in the United States, but he is treated as a national hero in one nation: Paraguay.

Hayes agreed to negotiate a long-held border dispute between Argentina and Paraguay, and the decision gave the nation 60 percent of its land.

So if you go to Paraguay, there is a state named after the 19th president called Presidente Hayes. The region celebrates Presidente Hayes day on November 12 annually and even has a soccer team named for Hayes as well as a Hayes museum for visitors.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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