Keith Ian Polakoff. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Rutherford Birchard Hayes entered the White House when the powers and prestige of the presidency were at a particularly low ebb. During the term of Andrew Johnson, Congress had reclaimed the initiative, previously exercised by Abraham Lincoln, in shaping Reconstruction policy. It had restricted the president’s authority over appointments and removals of officeholders. It had even seized upon Johnsons’ attempt to replace one of his own cabinet advisers as a pretext for impeaching him and almost removing him from office. Then the eight years of the Grant administration that followed were so frequently marked by scandal that in December 1875 an overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the principle of a third term.
Hayes himself was, in an unusual respect, beholden to his fellow Republicans in Congress. The outcome of the 1876 presidential election was the subject of a prolonged and potentially dangerous dispute. Democrats were sure they had elected Samuel J. Tilden. Republicans were equally certain that their opponents had carried several southern states by fraud and intimidation. In three of these states—Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina—local Republicans used their control of the canvassing boards to throw out questioned Democratic votes and declare both the Hayes electors and the Republican state tickets elected, while the Democrats in turn cried foul.
Normally, the presidential electors met in their respective state capitals long after the actual result was known. Their votes were then transported to Washington and routinely tallied by the president of the Senate before a joint session of Congress. It was strictly a ceremonial occasion. This time the existence of rival sets of electoral votes from the three southern states and the ambiguity of the constitutional language describing the official counting procedure led a bipartisan majority in Congress to create a special electoral commission to determine which votes should be counted. The commission was supposed to be politically balanced, consisting of five senators (three Republicans and two Democrats), five representatives (two Republicans and three Democrats), and five associate justices of the Supreme Court (two Republicans, two Democrats, and independent David Davis; but the one independent refused to serve and was replaced by a third Republican). Only after the commission had ruled—in a series of 8–7 party-line votes—in favor of the Hayes electors and the Republican minority had weathered the threat of a filibuster in the Democrat-controlled House was Hayes officially declared president—on 2 March 1877, two days before he assumed office.
To compound the situation further, Hayes had a limited base of support within his own party. He only emerged as the nominee of the Republican National Convention because a deadlock developed between the supporters of the front-runner, James G. Blaine of Maine, and various lesser contenders. Since Blaine’s opponents included men as disparate as machine politicians Roscoe Conkling of New York and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, and reformer Benjamin H. Bristow of Kentucky, they could only put their full strength behind someone else. That created an opportunity for Hayes, then in an unprecedented third term as governor of Ohio.
Hayes had been a lawyer, a Union officer wounded several times while leading his troops in battle, a dependable supporter of the Radical Republican plan during the early Reconstruction Congresses, and a staunch regular in the election of 1872—all of which reassured the likes of Conkling and Morton. At the same time, the reform elements drew encouragement from his advocacy of the gold standard, freedom from involvement in machine politics, and unquestioned personal integrity. And, of course, Hayes was a proven vote-getter in the pivotal Buck-eye State, which all Republicans believed they had to carry to retain the presidency. He was, in short, supremely “available.”
Hayes was the very model of a Victorian gentleman. A native Ohioan (born 4 October 1822), he was a graduate of Kenyon College in his home state. After attending Harvard Law School, he built a solid reputation as an attorney in Lower Sandusky (later Fre-mont) and, after 1850, in Cincinnati. Already prosperous, in 1875 he inherited the substantial estate of the merchant uncle who had provided for him since infancy. Hayes was by no means a scholar, but he enjoyed reading, mostly American history and biography, and welcomed the company of scholars. Above all, he hungered for respectability. His diary plainly reveals the ambivalence he felt when his political ambition clashed with his strict sense of morality, which told him that a man might gladly accept high office but should not actively seek it. In the White House, Rutherford and Lucy Webb Hayes would decline to serve alcoholic beverages, even at state functions.
That same hunger for respectability helps explain the alacrity with which he accepted the advice of former Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri, whom he had never met, regarding his formal letter of acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination. Schurz was the acknowledged mastermind of the Liberal Republican revolt of 1872 and the foremost spokesman of the “best men,” as the highly educated, upper-middle-class reformers modestly thought of themselves. Schurz urged Hayes to express himself boldly on the need for a sound currency, southern reconciliation, and civil service reform. On each issue Hayes did so, even employing some of Schurz’s suggested language. He was especially blunt in his denunciation of the spoils system, which, he said, “destroys the independence of the separate departments of government, … tends directly to extravagance and official incapacity, … [and] degrades the civil service and the character of the government … It ought to be abolished. The reform should be thorough, radical, and complete.” The reformers were impressed, but party regulars were not. Senator Conkling sat out the rest of the campaign at his home in upstate New York.
A Contentious Beginning
Throughout his presidency Hayes adhered to the policies enunciated in his letter of acceptance. He also demonstrated a political independence that regained for the presidency some of its lost authority and prestige. Furthermore, he set the tone for his administration right at the outset, when he named the men he wanted in his cabinet. For postmaster general (the richest patronage-dispensing position), he chose David M. Key of Tennessee; for secretary of the interior, Carl Schurz; and for secretary of state, William M. Evarts—respectively, a southern Democrat, a Liberal Republican, and the attorney for the defense in the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Blaine, Conkling, and the other Republicans were outraged. Only the certainty that the Democrats would supply the necessary votes to confirm these choices if the Republicans did not gained their grudging acquiescence.
Almost immediately Hayes prepared to kick over another hornet’s nest by implementing his pledge of civil service reform. He ordered an inquiry into the management of the New York Customhouse, the central component of Senator Conkling’s machine. The resulting report described a pattern of overstaffing, incompetence, and petty bribery and sharply criticized the collector, Chester A. Arthur, and other officials. This faultfinding was not entirely fair: Conkling’s allies in the customhouse were honest and capable, and Arthur had actually improved overall efficiency. When President Grant’s short-lived Civil Service Commission proposed regulations to govern the appointment of civil servants, Arthur put them into effect, even though he still required custom-house employees to perform political services in addition to their regular jobs and continued to assess them 2–6 percent of their salaries for partisan purposes. On the whole, New York’s merchants were satisfied with Arthur’s performance. It was the patrician reformers who complained, because the existing system enabled the Conkling organization, and not them, to control the Republican party in New York.
After reading the report on the customhouse, Hayes wrote his secretary of the treasury, fellow Ohioan John Sherman, in May 1877:
The collection of the revenues should be free from partisan control, and organized on a strictly business basis … Party leaders should have no more influence in appointments than other equally respectable citizens. No assessments for political purposes, on officers or subordinates, should be allowed. No useless officer or employee should be retained. No officer should be required or permitted to take part in the management of political organizations, caucuses, conventions, or election campaigns.
Hayes did not specify that employees should not be required to be Republicans, but only that they should not be allowed to use their official positions as a base from which to manage state and local politics. He aimed his blow at the Conkling type of organization, not against the Republican party itself. Moreover, he later made it clear that he did not object to the collection of “voluntary contributions” from officeholders, only forced assessments. In practice, this proved to be a distinction without a difference. Accordingly, Hayes’s reforms, even when extended throughout the executive branch, represented no more than a modest beginning.
The Southern Question
Simultaneously with his civil service initiative, Hayes set about charting a new course in regard to the South. The “southern question,” as Republicans were apt to refer to it, actually had two distinct components: Could the black people be protected in the enjoyment of the economic, legal, and political rights they had won as a consequence of the Civil War, and could the Republican party prevent the South from being made over into a Democratic monolith?
Few, if any, Republicans believed the two components could be separated. The Democrats had fought the granting of civil rights to blacks with every means at their disposal. In Mississippi and elsewhere they had regained power by instituting a virtual reign of terror. Neither were Republican charges of fraud and intimidation in 1876 without foundation; in a completely free election Hayes would have carried several southern states and his party would have elected at least a score of additional congressmen. Moreover, if the Democratic party succeeded in the future in establishing a “solid South,” it would need to carry only New York and either Indiana or Ohio to recapture the presidency. By concentrating their campaign resources in those three northern states, the Democrats could conceivably relegate the Grand Old Party to minority status.
The trouble was that by early 1877 the two surviving southern Republican governments, in Louisiana and South Carolina, were mere shadows of their former selves, able to preserve an illusion of authority only because of the presence of federal troops outside their respective statehouses. And, as President Grant publicly acknowledged near the end of the electoral dispute, “the entire people are tired of the military being used to sustain a State Government.” Was there, then, an alternative approach to the South, one that abjured direct federal intervention, that would ultimately bring an accretion of strength to the Republican party by somehow splitting the white vote?
Hayes had given this matter some thought prior to the election and appeared resigned to a negative answer. Schurz had wanted him to include in his letter of acceptance the dual declaration “that the equality of rights without distinction of color according to the constitutional amendments must be sacredly maintained by all the lawful power of the government; but that also the constitutional rights of local self-government must be respected.” Hayes immediately recognized the flaw in Schurz’s reasoning, objecting to the use of the phrase “ ‘local self-government,’ in that connection. It seems to me to smack of the bowie knife and revolver. ‘Local self-government’ has nullified the 15th amendment in several States, and is in a fair way to nullify the 14th and 13th.” But he could find no alternative solution.
In the end, his letter restated Schurz’s thoughts in his own words:
The moral and material prosperity of the Southern states can be most effectually advanced by a hearty and generous recognition of the rights of all by all—a recognition without reserve or exception. With such a recognition fully accorded, it will be practicable to promote, by the influence of all legitimate agencies of the general government, the efforts of the people of those states to obtain for themselves the blessings of honest and capable local government. If elected, I shall consider it not only my duty, but it will be my ardent wish, to labor for the attainment of this end.
During the electoral dispute several friends of Hayes, mostly journalists rather than politicians, explored the possibility of an accommodation with various southern Democrats. They persuaded themselves that many antebellum Whigs, Douglas Democrats, and others with business interests felt straitjacketed by the rigid economic policies of the laissez-faire-minded Democracy. These supposedly disgruntled Democrats could be influenced not only to acquiesce in Hayes’s inauguration, but in time perhaps even to change their partisan allegiance. What was needed to bring about this shift was the restoration of home rule, a generous share of the federal patronage, and liberal support for internal-improvement projects, especially an enlarged subsidy for the Texas and Pacific Railroad. In fact, Hayes’s friends were pursuing a chimera. The southerners’ overriding concern was the withdrawal of the soldiery from the statehouses in Columbia and New Orleans so that the Democrats could install their own governments. It was Hayes’s belated confirmation that he would take such a step that brought the filibuster in the House of Representatives to an end on 2 March 1877.
Nevertheless, the notion of a realignment of southern politics along other than racial lines died hard. It was the dream that inspired Hayes’s appointment of Key, a Confederate colonel who had voted for Tilden, as postmaster general. Key became a loyal member of the administration, defending Hayes’s policies and advising the president on the appointment of other southern Democrats to lesser positions. But none of the men appointed publicly adhered to the Republican party, so no lasting strength was gained by this new departure. Besides, the majority of southern offices necessarily continued to go to Republicans. For example, nearly all of the state officials who had helped secure southern electoral votes for Hayes were taken care of. The Republican party could not simply turn its back on the past.
Even the promised withdrawal of the troops required careful handling. Republicans Daniel H. Chamberlain of South Carolina and Stephen B. Packard of Louisiana claimed to have been elected governors of their respective states on the basis of essentially the same returns that had placed Hayes in the White House. As one presidential adviser remarked, “You cannot dismiss those gentlemen with a wave of the hand.” In particular, Hayes could not afford to alienate the half-dozen southern Republican senators whose terms had not yet expired by appearing too readily to consign them to certain political oblivion; his working majority in the upper chamber was very tenuous.
Proceeding cautiously, Hayes invited Chamberlain and Wade Hampton, the Democratic claimant in South Carolina, to Washington for separate visits in late March. Chamberlain was told frankly what was coming. Hampton was pressed for assurances that black rights would be protected and responded in the desired manner. After both men returned to Columbia, Hayes ordered the soldiers to their barracks. On 10 April, Chamberlain quietly turned over his official papers and effects to Hampton, and the Reconstruction era in South Carolina was over.
Louisiana took a little longer, given its violent history, including a bloody Democratic coup d’état attempt in 1874. Hayes sent a commission to New Orleans to report on the state of affairs there. The commission members understood that the president was seeking more than information. He needed a means to break the impasse created by the existence of two complete rival governments. Hayes’s emissaries arranged for local businessmen to provide the inducements that lured enough Republican lawmakers to join the Democratic legislature to give it a clear majority of members whose election was conceded by both sides. Thus, when Hayes finally withdrew the federal troops on 24 April, Packard had no choice but to capitulate.
Amos T. Akerman, a Georgia Republican who had served for eighteen months as President Grant’s attorney general during the struggle to suppress the Ku Klux Klan, took a dim view of the new conciliatory approach to southern affairs. “I really wish success to the effort of Mr. Hayes to win the good will of the Southern Democrats to his administration,” he wrote, “but I see no signs of success.” And he went on to predict, “They will give him some surface compliments and accept office from him and then laugh at him for his folly (as they will deem it) in letting them take him in.”
Akerman was right. In May, James M. Comly, one of the journalists who had helped conjure up the vision of a conservative-led, business-oriented southern Republican party, visited Louisiana and reported back to his friend in the White House, “The ‘old Whig’ sentiment I spoke of petered out before we reached New Orleans. There is nothing to hang an old Whig party on. The truth is there does not seem to be anything except the Custom House to hang anything on.” Hayes at first refused to believe it. In September, accompanied by a sizable entourage, he traveled to Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia. Everywhere he went he was warmly received by local political and business leaders. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he was granting official recognition to the southern Democrats, not they to him. Back in Washington, he boasted to his diary, “The country is again one and united! I am very happy to be able to feel that the course taken has turned out so well.”
But reality could not forever be denied. In March, Hayes had been confident that enough southern Democrats would break with their party’s leadership in the House to choose a Republican as Speaker. In fact, with this prospect in mind he fairly insisted that the House Republican leader, James A. Garfield, withdraw as a candidate for the Senate from Ohio. The Democratic party was hardly free of sectional tensions, but no one should have been surprised that the southerners joined in reelecting Samuel J. Randall to the speakership when Congress reconvened in the fall. Garfield was left empty-handed.
During the Hayes administration, as in the years preceding it, no substantial effort was made to establish the kind of infrastructure that would be needed to sustain a southern Republican party, regardless of the nature of its leadership. No newspapers were founded to disseminate Republican ideas. No Republican speakers of national stature ventured southward. Offices were bestowed now on Republicans, now on Democrats, but the two were not required to work together in the interest of revitalizing the party machinery. Most damning of all, only Democrats shared the platform with Hayes on his southern tour. No one remembered how President Jefferson had extended his party’s organization into the New England bastion of Federalism at the beginning of the century.
In the fall elections of 1878 the Republicans paid the price for their lack of foresight. In the entire South only six Republican congressmen survived the Democratic onslaught. The Democrats retained their majority in the House and took control of the Senate. Hayes finally had to admit, “By State legislation, by frauds, by intimidation and by violence of the most atrocious character colored citizens have been deprived of the right of suffrage—a right guaranteed by the Constitution, and to the protection of which the people of those States have been solemnly pledged.”
The Depression and Its Effects
Hayes took office in the midst of one of this nation’s longest and most severe depressions. Farm prices were low, unemployment was high, manufacturing was stagnant. As always in such conditions, the railroad industry, with its high fixed cost of operation, was particularly hard hit. Long-distance lines engaged in rate wars as they competed for the reduced volume of passenger and freight traffic. In time, weaker companies were forced into receivership when they could not maintain interest payments to bondholders. Inevitably, the railroads sought to re-trench their costs by further reducing wages that were already meager. Brakemen in early 1877 received $1.75 a day for twelve hours of exceedingly hazardous work; at the end of a run, moreover, they often either had to lay over at their own expense or pay full passenger fare to return home. Firemen, conductors, and engineers were paid little better. No wonder, then, that when the Baltimore and Ohio declared another 10 percent wage reduction for 16 July of that year, spontaneous strikes began in Baltimore and in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and quickly spread throughout the states of the Middle Atlantic, the Midwest, and the West, bringing much of the nation’s freight transportation system to a halt. Worse, the pent-up anger of the strikers and unemployed workers erupted in widespread destruction of railroad property. In Pittsburgh alone a roundhouse, depot, 125 locomotives, 2,000 freight cars, and other equipment were burned. Except in the Civil War, violence on such a scale had never been witnessed in the United States.
State militiamen were too poorly trained and organized to control the situation. In Pittsburgh they fired on people indiscriminately, killing and wounding scores. Immediately, panicky governors appealed to the president for help in restoring order. To his credit, Hayes refused to be stampeded. Without direct precedents to guide him, he checked the language of the Constitution and insisted that the governors specify both that their legislatures were not in session and could not be speedily summoned, and that they were confronted with domestic violence they were powerless to suppress. In every instance the mere appearance of federal troops was enough to halt any continuing disorder.
Yet, the administration inexorably assumed the role of strikebreaker. Postal authorities tried to negotiate an agreement under which the mails in strike-bound areas would be carried on special trains that the workers would allow to move unimpaired. The companies refused. In the end, the government declared any passenger train carrying mail to be a mail train and threatened to prosecute anyone who interfered with it, and the railroad workers acquiesced. Even more one-sided was the action of the judiciary. Federal judges ruled that railroad workers could not strike against lines in receivership without damaging property interests under the custody of the courts. They authorized federal marshals to use military force if necessary to execute their orders. And so the great railroad strike was broken.
In retrospect, the railroad workers did not suffer a total defeat. Once the burning and looting stopped, public opinion was generally favorable to them. The losses sustained by the struck companies were so tremendous that they henceforth treated their employees more respectfully. Within a few years the wage cuts of the depression years were rescinded. Long after he left the White House, Hayes reflected, “Free government cannot long endure if property is largely in a few hands and large masses of people are unable to earn homes, education, and a support in old age.” At the time he was not so sympathetic. Still, his handling of the strike had probably kept the government in as neutral a position as the circumstances would permit.
The depressed state of the economy also greatly complicated the task of managing the interrelated issues of the currency and the national debt. During the Civil War the debt had increased forty times over, soaring from less than $2.50 per capita to $75 per capita, or a staggering total of $2.8 billion. Most of this debt was in the form of bonds, but a portion was composed of legal-tender notes (the so-called green-backs, in practice very much like today’s paper currency in that they were non-interest bearing and not explicitly backed by specie). After the war, the government undertook to refund the immensely burdensome bonded debt at a lower rate of interest and over a longer repayment schedule. To make the new terms attractive, treasury officials had to be able to offer firmer assurance than they had in connection with the original bond issues that both principal and interest would be repaid in gold. Making such a promise credible in turn required that the country move toward the resumption of specie payments, whereby citizens holding paper currency could exchange it for gold at full face value.
The question that haunted the postwar years was whether specie payments could be resumed without reducing the volume of legal-tender notes in circulation. Contraction of the currency would make credit tighter and exacerbate the problem of falling prices brought on by the depression. Debtors (who might be farmers, workingmen, shopkeepers, manufacturers, or railroad magnates) quite naturally objected to repaying loans in dollars that were worth more than those they had borrowed. Many of them, in fact, wanted some degree of currency expansion to stimulate higher prices, like the ones they remembered from the prosperous war years.
Hayes was fortunate in this situation to have a secretary of the treasury who well understood both the politics and the economics of these matters, fellow Ohioan John Sherman (who, incidentally, had also been the first politician of national importance to endorse Hayes for the presidency). Sherman was a moderate who cared more for practical results—not least among them, the preservation of the Republican party’s political majority—than for abstract principles. As a senator in 1875, he had authored the Specie Resumption Act. This complex measure had been designed, above all, to maintain Republican unity until after the approaching presidential election. Among other things, it authorized the treasury to stockpile a substantial gold reserve by direct purchase or by the sale of additional bonds, in order to cushion a resumption of specie payments on 1 January 1879, a date that was regarded as safely distant.
Meanwhile, the stagnant economy and the continuing downward spiral of commodity prices and wages created growing public pressure for moderate currency inflation. Advocates of an enlarged green-back currency presented the most sophisticated proposals, reasoning that such a flexible circulating medium could be more readily adapted to changing economic conditions and yet would have sufficient strength because it was backed by the collective confidence of the nation in its government and economic system. Neither was the idea lacking in popularity. Independent Greenback and Greenback-Labor candidates for Congress in 1878 captured better than 10 percent of the national vote and ran especially well in the midwestern and southern states. But the simple remonetization of silver was easier to comprehend and quickly outstripped the appeal of greenbackism as an inflationary device.
Sponsored by Democrat Richard P. Bland of Missouri, a bill that provided for the free and unlimited coinage of silver dollars at their traditional ratio of 16 to 1 with gold sailed through the House of Representatives in November 1877. This measure deeply alarmed creditors because a standard silver dollar contained only about 90 cents worth of silver at the metal’s current market price. Treasury officials fore-saw a flood of silver pouring in upon the mint, resulting not in increasing the currency but rather in driving gold into hiding. Private obligations would then be repaid in cheapened dollars, and specie resumption and refunding of the national debt would be indefinitely postponed. Accordingly, in the Senate, Republican William B. Allison of Iowa amended the Bland bill to restrict the issuance of new silver dollars to between 2 million and 4 million per month. Secretary Sherman recognized that in this form the measure was responsible in its content and beneficial to the Republican party in its principal effects. In view of the overwhelming congressional support, he wondered whether Hayes should not sign it, but Hayes sided with the gold monometallists, such as Schurz, and vetoed the bill on 28 February 1878, calling it “a grave breach of the public faith.” Both houses easily overrode the veto the same day.
Hayes reassured investors that the government would continue to meet its obligations in gold, while Sherman concentrated on amassing a gold reserve that reached $130 million. Signs of economic recovery, combined with the growing likelihood that the treasury would in fact be able to redeem any legal-tender notes presented, increased public confidence in the use of paper currency. Two weeks before 1 January 1879, greenbacks at last achieved par with gold in private transactions. On the day set by law, more gold was presented to treasury offices in exchange for paper than paper for gold. Resumption of specie payments was thus achieved without disrupting the economy. Four months later, the refunding of the last Civil War bonds was also completed. Although hardly spectacular, the Hayes administrations’ handling of these abstruse problems had certainly been effective.
The Reassertion of Presidential Prerogatives
The long congressional session that began in October 1877 was also marked by the first of two struggles between Hayes and members, now of his own party and then of the opposition, over the prerogatives of the presidential office. Because Hayes prevailed in each instance, the executive branch regained ground that had been lost during the two previous administrations in the perennial power struggle with the legislative branch. The immediate issues of contention were of limited consequence in their own right, but as with so much of what happened during Hayes’s term, the implications for the future were considerable.
Hayes initiated the first of these tests of will when he decided that changes had to be made in the management of the New York Customhouse. Grant’s appointees continued to take an active part in Senator Conkling’s political machine. Alonzo Cornell, in particular, clung to his post as chairman of the New York Republican party even as he served as a naval officer, a direct violation of Hayes’s instructions concerning reform of the civil service. So, in October 1877, Hayes nominated Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., Edwin A. Merritt, and L. Bradford Prince to replace collector Arthur, surveyor George H. Sharpe, and Cornell, respectively. Conkling allowed Merritt to be confirmed by the Senate, but he invoked “senatorial courtesy” to block the appointments of Roosevelt and Prince. (“Senatorial courtesy” was the notion, found nowhere in the Constitution, that a nomination to office in one of the states should not be made until after it had been cleared with that state’s ranking senator of the president’s party.) By a vote of 31 to 25, a majority of the Senate sided with Conkling on this point.
The imperious New York senator and his supporters did not reckon with Hayes’s stubbornness in support of a principle—in this case, “the divorce of the Legislature from the nominating power,” which he considered “the first step in any adequate and permanent reform” of the civil service because it would keep the offices involved out of politics. After Congress finally adjourned in June 1878, he suspended Arthur and Cornell in accordance with the terms of the almost forgotten Tenure of Office Act and replaced them on an interim basis with Merritt and Silas W. Burt. Finally, in the lame-duck session of the Forty-fifth Congress, Democratic senators, availing themselves of the opportunity to fish in troubled Republican waters, joined a minority of Hayes’s own party to end Conkling’s obstructionism. Their motivation was frankly partisan, but their action nevertheless had the effect of upholding the principle Hayes repeatedly enunciated.
The Democrats provoked the second battle by attempting to repeal or restrict the president’s power to enforce the Federal Elections Law of 1871. This statute provided for the appointment of federal supervisors in congressional districts where there were allegations of irregularity in the conduct of elections. To guarantee that the supervisors would not be impeded in the performance of their duties, they could call on the local United States marshal to deploy as many deputies as the situation required. The law had been invoked not only in the South but in various large northern cities, notably New York, where Tammany Hall had engaged in massive vote fraud in 1868.
The Democrats’ strategy was to attach riders to needed appropriation bills in the House of Representatives in the belief that they could then compel the Republican Senate to accept their terms. They first tried this ploy during the hectic last days of the electoral dispute. The House added to the army appropriation bill a rider that prohibited the use of any funds to support the claims of the Republican state governments in Louisiana and South Carolina. The Senate removed the rider, necessitating a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the two houses. The Democratic members of the committee refused to modify their version, and Congress adjourned without the appropriation being approved. This forced Hayes to call a special session in October 1877. By then, of course, the matter of the state governments had been resolved, and an appropriation was more easily adopted.
In the short lame-duck session that began in December, after the elections of 1878 had assured the Democrats control of both houses in the next Congress, they renewed their attempt to destroy the last vestiges of Reconstruction. The House appended to several fiscal 1879 appropriation bills riders repealing the elections law, a measure that permitted the president to employ the army to maintain order at the polls, and the jurors’ test oath that barred former Confederates from service on federal juries. The Senate refused to concur, and again Congress adjourned without breaking the deadlock.
Hayes immediately called a special session of the new Forty-sixth Congress for March 1879. With the Senate no longer Republican, the president himself became the key to resisting the Democratic effort to turn back the clock. The Democratic majorities were slender, so it was certain that a veto could not be overridden. But would the Democrats then force parts of the government to shut down in order to get their way?
Hayes readily admitted that the jurors’ test oath had outlived its usefulness and that the other statutes in question might legitimately be revised. However, he opposed outright repeal of the elections law and insisted that the federal government had the same obligation to safeguard the polls in congressional elections that the states had in other contests. The Democrats countered that the Constitution made the conduct of all elections primarily a problem for state regulation. Above all, Hayes was determined never to yield to the Democratic scheme to coerce him into accepting provisions of which he disapproved by holding hostage the appropriations needed to operate the government.
In late April, Congress passed an army bill with a rider barring any civil or military official from protecting federal elections from fraud or violence. Hayes returned the bill with a strongly worded veto. Two weeks later, Congress made the same objectionable provisions the subject of a separate bill, which Hayes also vetoed. At the end of May the Democrats in Congress tried again, using an omnibus bill appropriating funds for the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. This time they attached riders that permitted federal supervisors and deputy marshals to observe the conduct of congressional elections but denied them the authority either to prevent fraud and violence or to punish violations of the law after they had occurred. Again, Hayes responded with a veto.
During the last week of June, with the new fiscal year only a few days off, the logjam finally began to break. Congress sent Hayes a bill for the judicial branch alone that repealed the jurors’ test oath and forbade any payments to deputy marshals for enforcing the elections law. Refusing to back down, Hayes fired off another veto message. In the meantime, the Democrats passed separate bills for the executive and legislative branches and for the army. They contained no riders, and Hayes signed them into law. Next he signed a revised bill for the judiciary that repealed the jurors’ oath and simply omitted any appropriation for the marshals. He had already indicated his willingness to see the oath dispensed with, so the element of coercion was no longer involved.
In a last defiant gesture before adjourning on 30 June, Congress adopted a separate appropriation bill for the federal marshals that again restricted their use in connection with elections. Once more Hayes vetoed it. As late as May 1880, Congress passed the same bill for the marshals, and Hayes predictably sent it back. Only then did he get an unrestricted appropriation. In the end, the president obtained everything that he wanted, demonstrating that it was possible, by being steadfast, to uphold the independence of the executive branch.
Rethinking Indian Policy
When Hayes was in the White House, the northeastern quarter of the United States was entering the period of its most rapid urban and industrial development. By contrast, the western half of the country was still being staked out. Settlement by ranchers and farmers inevitably meant clashes with nomadic Indians. The annihilation of Custer’s regiment at the Little Big Horn dominated the news soon after Hayes’s nomination for the presidency. His first year in office witnessed the defeat of the Sioux, mostly by starvation, and the long pursuit of Chief Joseph and his Nez Percé across a thousand miles of the northern Rockies in desperate flight toward refuge in Canada. The next fall the northern Cheyenne slipped away from the army in the Indian Territory in a futile effort to return to their ancestral hunting grounds.
Hayes and Secretary of the Interior Schurz inherited the policy of concentrating the western tribes on compact reservations, but soon came to believe that more humane methods of dealing with the Indians had to be found. Their sympathies were aroused in part by the disaster Schurz unwittingly inflicted upon the eight-hundred-member Ponca tribe. The Grant administration had, by mistake, given the agricultural Ponca’s land in Dakota Territory to the Sioux. Schurz ordered the forcible removal of the Poncas to a small tract in the Indian Territory. Numerous members of the tribe died en route. Upon arrival at their strange destination, the survivors found both the climate and the land unsuitable. They, too, tried unsuccessfully to return home.
Genuinely committed to better treatment of Indians, Schurz appointed a commission to investigate the conduct of the Indian Bureau (now Bureau of Indian Affairs). The commission predictably found a pattern of cheating the Indians by unscrupulous agents, compounded by sloppy accounting and inadequate supervision. Schurz moved quickly to remedy the situation. He instituted a code of regulations for bureau employees, revised reporting and accounting systems, ordered unannounced inspections, and for the first time required traders to be licensed and bonded. Because Schurz was the most vigorous of the cabinet secretaries in implementing Hayes’s civil service reforms, the caliber of bureau personnel improved. Schurz also supported the experiments in Indian education conducted at Hampton Institute by Richard Henry Pratt, which led to the establishment of the Carlisle Indian School in 1879. When opponents of the new peaceful emphasis sought to transfer the bureau back to the War Department, Schurz helped organize the coalition in the Senate that staved off the move. Thereafter the Interior Department was unquestionably preeminent in determining policies toward the Indians.
In 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson published her stirring protest against American mistreatment of the Indians, A Century of Dishonor. Her interest in the subject had first been awakened by the plight of the Poncas, and Schutz fared badly in her interpretation. Her criticism was largely undeserved. Schurz had long been in correspondence with many of the eastern humanitarians who preceded Jackson in their concern. In 1879 and 1880 he undertook two lengthy inspection tours of western reservations to ascertain firsthand what he was dealing with. But it was easier to see the shortcomings in federal policies than to know how to change them. Schurz deserves credit for initiating the process of reform. President Hayes supported him throughout and used his annual messages to Congress to lobby for Indian citizenship, individual farm ownership, and the education of Indian children in American methods of agriculture. Hayes and Schurz thus pointed the way toward the positive, nonexpropriatory aspects of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. At the same time, they did not foresee, and probably would not have understood, the negative effects of acculturation.
A Limited Diplomacy
Hayes’s presidency was a quiescent period in American foreign relations. The State Department employed only fifty-one people in Washington, from assistant secretaries to clerks. The armed forces were maintained on a similar scale. Congress in 1877 imposed a limit of twenty-five thousand officers and men on the army and seventy-five hundred on the navy. The largely wooden fleet would have been ill matched against some Latin American nations. The country felt so secure behind its ocean frontiers that Hayes used the secretaryship of the navy for his only fully political cabinet appointment: Richard W. Thompson of Indiana, derided as “the ancient mariner of the Wabash,” although a decent executive, knew nothing of ships or strategy. Secretary of State Evarts devoted his energies principally to upgrading the quality of the foreign service and improving its efficiency in handling routine matters. He required consuls to study the language and history of their host countries. He also instructed them to gather detailed economic statistics, which were then made available monthly to American merchants and manufacturers in hopes of stimulating increased exports of American products to Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
Only three diplomatic issues of consequence arose in the late 1870s. The most serious dispute was with Mexico. Shortly before Hayes became president, Porfirio Díaz seized power in Mexico City but was unable immediately to extend his control throughout the country. Marauding Indians took advantage of the situation to conduct raids into western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. As a consequence, Evarts and Hayes refused to recognize the Díaz government, while Secretary of War George McCrary authorized army units in Texas to pursue bandits across the border. Unfortunately, no action was better calculated to awaken Mexican fears of further territorial aggrandizement by the United States. Not until April 1878 did Evarts reverse himself and recognize Díaz. Even then, it took another year for Díaz to suppress the border raids and two years for McCrary to withdraw his offensive order. Thereafter, a mutual interest in the economic development of Mexico gradually drew the two countries closer together.
A similar truculence characterized the American response to Ferdinand de Lesseps’ French Panama Canal Company. This time Hayes himself set the tone, telling Congress in a special message of March 1880 that “the policy of this country is a canal under American control.” He explained that the canal would be “virtually a part of the coastline of the United States,” which was emerging as a two-ocean power. Yet Hayes simultaneously opposed any attempt by the American government to build an isthmian waterway, preferring that it be strictly a private undertaking. Because the French government also declined to involve itself directly, that is what de Lesseps’ project became. In need of vast sums of capital, the French promoter then began to sell stock to American investors. To this end he hired Navy Secretary Thompson as the chairman of the American Committee of his Panama Canal Company. A chagrined Hayes was forced to dismiss his wayward cabinet adviser. The staunch nationalism Hayes displayed in this episode was at once a logical extension of past American continental expansion and a forerunner of the more active involvement in world affairs that future Republican presidents would pursue.
Hayes devoted many of his official addresses to the need to overcome sectional and racial prejudices. The problem did not extend just to the South. In 1876, in response to growing agitation in California and Oregon, both major party platforms demanded strict limitations on Chinese immigration. Chinese laborers had built most of the railroads on the west coast and were currently employed in diking and draining the Sacramento delta to create some of California’s richest farmland, but that did not endear them to workers of European descent. In 1879, Congress passed a law setting a limit of fifteen Chinese immigrants on any single ship, thus directly contravening the terms of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which permitted unrestricted immigration. As he did on other occasions when Congress overstepped its bounds and intruded upon presidential authority; Hayes vetoed the bill. Evarts then sent a commission to China to negotiate both a commercial treaty and an agreement under which the Chinese regulated the immigration of laborers to the United States according to American wishes. Both compacts were ratified shortly before Hayes left office. The effect, of course, was to uphold the sanctity of treaties rather than to protect the equality of peoples.
Considered altogether, the achievements of the Hayes administration were not dramatic. Hayes had not previously been involved in national politics in an important way. He accepted the Republican presidential nomination more as a rare personal honor than as an opportunity to carry into effect a particular agenda. Once elected, he assumed the leadership of a government that, following the failure of Reconstruction, had already retreated to playing a more limited role in the lives of the American people, and he saw no reason to reverse that trend. As he noted in his diary, “We are in a period when old questions are settled, and the new are not yet brought forward.” Rather, he contented himself with enhancing the efficiency with which the government carried out the limited functions of the past. Thus, he appointed a strong cabinet loyal to his own views and devoted his attention to such matters as reforming the civil service, resolving the conflict over the southern state governments, and battling for his own understanding of a sound currency. Limited government did not imply a passive presidency, as the many clashes with Congress over the respective prerogatives of the executive and legislative branches showed.
Hayes characteristically pledged in his letter of acceptance to serve only one term. At the end of four years he was satisfied that his performance as chief executive had strengthened his party and enhanced public esteem for the office he held. After James A. Garfield had been nominated by the Republican party to succeed him (Hayes approved of this choice, although he had personally preferred Secretary of the Treasury Sherman), he embarked upon a two-and-a-half-month cross-country excursion to California, Puget Sound, and Santa Fe via railroad, steamship, stagecoach, army ambulance, ferryboat, and yacht. This was the grandest by far of a series of tours, designed to promote national unity, that had taken the president into the Deep South, up to northern New England, and across the Midwest as far as the Dakota Territory to see the wheat harvest.
He returned from the west coast just in time to cast his vote for Garfield. His fellow Ohioan was elected in another close contest, and the Republicans regained control of both houses of Congress—a result for which Hayes rightly believed he deserved some credit. Hayes retired to the life of a private citizen in Fremont, Ohio, as comfortable with his term in office as perhaps any president since. His health was still excellent, and he became the most active former chief executive prior to Jimmy Carter, devoting himself to civic affairs—higher education, prison reform, and veterans reunions—until three days before his death, of a heart attack, on 17 January 1893.