Republican presidential hopeful Rutherford B. Hayes went to bed on election night of 1876 thinking that he had lost the contest. But charges of ballot-tampering led to prolonged investigations of the vote count in several states. Out of this inquiry, itself marked by backstairs chicanery, Hayes finally emerged triumphant by a single electoral vote.
All of the irregularities surrounding his election led some to view Hayes as "His Fraudulency." But questions about his legitimate right to office did not prevent this former Ohio governor from being an able chief executive. Among his presidential accomplishments were the termination of the harsh policies that had been imposed on the South since the Civil War and the first significant steps toward curbing rampant corruption in the civil service.
His first important act in office was to end Reconstruction by removing the last of the federal troops from the South, which won over his Democratic critics, but alienated many within his own party. Hayes attacked the corrupt patronage system, personally firing future 21st president Chester A. Arthur from a powerful position he had been rewarded with.
The sweeping revolution of the entire labor system of a large portion of our country and the advance of 4,000,000 people from a condition of servitude to that of citizenship, upon an equal footing with their former masters, could not occur without presenting problems of the gravest moment, to be dealt with by the emancipated race, by their former masters, and by the General Government, the author of the act of emancipation. That it was a wise, just, and providential act, fraught with good for all concerned, is not generally conceded throughout the country. That a moral obligation rests upon the National Government to employ its constitutional power and influence to establish the rights of the people it has emancipated, and to protect them in the enjoyment of those rights when they are infringed or assailed, is also generally admitted.
I ask the attention of the public to the paramount necessity of reform in our civil service--a reform not merely as to certain abuses and practices of so-called official patronage which have come to have the sanction of usage in the several Departments of our Government, but a change in the system of appointment itself; a reform that shall be thorough, radical, and complete; a return to the principles and practices of the founders of the Government. They neither expected nor desired from public officers any partisan service. They meant that public officers should owe their whole service to the Government and to the people.
At a meeting in February 1877 at Washington, D.C.'s Wormley Hotel (which was operated by an African American), Democratic leaders accepted Hayes's election in exchange for Republican promises to withdraw federal troops from the South, provide federal funding for internal improvements in the South, and name a prominent Southerner to the president's cabinet. When the federal troops were withdrawn, the Republican governments in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina collapsed, bringing Reconstruction to a formal end.
In the election of 1876, the Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio, while the Democrats, out of power since 1861, selected Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York. The initial returns pointed to a Tilden victory, as the Democrats captured the swing states of Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, and New York. By midnight on Election Day, Tilden had 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed to win. He led the popular vote by 250,000.
Hayes refused renomination by the Republican Party in 1880, contenting himself with one term as president. In retirement he devoted himself to humanitarian causes, notably prison reform and educational opportunities for Southern black youth.
In many ways, the Civil War and Hayes's part in it became the experience of which he was most proud--more so than the presidency. Though at first opposed to warfare, he did so well during the conflict that his principal biographer, Ari Hoogenboom, entitled his life, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. His characterization was correct; Hayes's military career was most successful.
After graduating from Kenyon College at the head of his class in 1842, Hayes studied law at Harvard, where he took a bachelor of laws degree in 1845. Returning to Ohio, he established a successful legal practice in Cincinnati, where he represented defendants in several fugitive-slave cases and became associated with the newly formed Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Hayes had met Lucy Ware Webb. They soon fell in love and were married on December 30, 1852. The Hayeses had eight children. Sadly, three died when they were young. Their surviving children were Birchard, Webb, Rutherford, Fanny, and Scott Russell.