Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and miniseries and sketches. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country. The 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes, is a member of the latter camp, but it’s still worth learning a bit about him.
1. HE WAS WOUNDED MULTIPLE TIMES DURING THE CIVIL WAR.
Seven U.S. presidents served in the Civil War, and Hayes was the only one who was wounded in action. Hayes was nearly 40 years old and had no military experience at the start of the conflict—he had spent his life up to that point as a lawyer. After five years of practice at a Lower Sandusky, Ohio law firm, he moved to Cincinnati in 1849, where his opposition to slavery drove him to the Republican Party. Outraged by the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, Hayes joined the Burnet Rifles, a “volunteer home company,” and was named a major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The unit also included fellow future president William McKinley, who noted that Hayes’s demeanor would change markedly in battle, “from the sunny, agreeable, the kind, the generous, the gentle gentleman … he was, once the battle was on … intense and ferocious.”
Hayes may have had the eye of the tiger, but his list of wounds and ailments was lengthy: A wounded knee at Pearisburg in 1862; a gunshot wound in the left arm during the Battle of South Mountain in 1862; a hit from a spent musket ball and having his horse shot out from under him at the Second Battle of Kernstown in 1864; a severe ankle injury when another of his horses was shot at the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864. In this final incident, Hayes then weathered a shot from a spent musket ball upon mounting a second horse, leading his men to assume he’d been killed. His death was erroneously reported in the press, and Cedar Creek was his final battle.
2. HAYES AND THE FIRST LADY WERE UNUSUALLY WELL EDUCATED.
Although a number of previous presidents were lawyers, Hayes was the first to actually graduate law school. He attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio and was valedictorian of the class of 1842. Hayes then put in a “vexatious and tedious” 10 months at a Columbus, Ohio firm, after which he earned a degree from Harvard Law School in 1845. His wife, Lucy Webb Hayes, was the first first lady to be a college graduate; she received a degree in liberal arts from Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College in 1850 at the age of 18.
3. HIS ELECTION WAS ONE OF THE TIGHTEST AND MOST HOSTILE IN HISTORY.
Hayes became the 19th president of the United States in 1877, but that’s the easy part. After the Civil War, Hayes served in Congress for two years before returning home to become a three-term Governor of Ohio from 1867 to 1876. In 1876 he ran for president against New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, and the Democrat Tilden appeared to have locked up the White House as the early returns rolled in. Hayes went to bed on election night convinced he would soon be making a concession speech, though he had predicted if he lost it would be “by crime—by bribery and repeating” in the North and by “violence and intimidation” in the South. But Hayes awoke the next day to learn that he had won the Pacific Slope and would need to claim the southern states of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana in order to ensure the 185 electoral votes needed at that time to win.
The election boards in those three states, citing intimidation of black voters, voided Democratic votes and declared Hayes the winner, which appeared to swing the election to Hayes. However, Hayes then lost Oregon when it emerged that one of the state’s Republican electors held a government job and could not cast his vote for Hayes, and the Democratic governor certified a new Democratic elector.
The disputed states cast conflicting votes, and that’s when things got messy. Senate leadership was inundated with requests from Republicans to decide which votes to count, while Democrats wanted a joint session of Congress to determine the winner. The two sides forged a compromise when the Electoral Commission Act was passed in January 1877. The act established a commission of five senators, five congressmen, and five Supreme Court justices who would decide what votes to count, a decision that would, in turn, ultimately decide the election.
The commission was meant to consist of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one Independent, Justice David Davis. But before the commission could make their decision, the Illinois legislature attempted to buy Davis’s support by appointing him Senator. Davis instead resigned from the commission and a new justice, Republican Joseph Bradley, was appointed instead. So this new commission consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, who voted along party lines in a series of votes in February to award Hayes the disputed states. But the Democrat-controlled House filibustered the results until March 2, when Hayes was finally awarded the disputed states, just days before the inauguration. These votes gave Hayes a 185-184 advantage in the Electoral College and the presidency. Hayes was elected with about 250,000 fewer popular votes than Tilden and was sneeringly referred to as “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency” by angry Democrats.
4. HE ELIMINATED BOOZE AT THE WHITE HOUSE.
Although the first lady was a lifelong teetotaler who became known as “Lemonade Lucy” after her death, it was Hayes himself who initiated a ban on beer, wine, and liquor at the presidential residence. Hayes would have the occasional drink before he moved into the White House, but the ban was an attempt to curry political favor with anti-alcohol Prohibitionists and maintain the dignity of the office. Even then, there were certain exceptions to the rule. The White House served wine when the adult sons of Czar Alexander II of Russia visited, but the first couple didn’t drink any.
5. HE SIGNED LEGISLATION ALLOWING WOMEN TO ARGUE BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT.
In 1879, Washington, D.C. attorney Belva Lockwood lobbied Congress to be admitted to the Supreme Court’s bar and argue cases. At the time, the body stated that “none but men are permitted to practice before [us] as attorneys and counselors,” but Lockwood drafted legislation that would “relieve certain legal disabilities of women.” The act was passed by Congress and signed by Hayes, and Lockwood was finally admitted to the Supreme Court Bar on March 3, 1879. She argued Kaiser v. Stickney before the court a year later.
6. THE HAYES WHITE HOUSE MADE SIAMESE CAT HISTORY.
The American consul in Bangkok knew Lucy Hayes loved cats and arranged in 1878 for the delivery of the first Siamese cat in America. David B. Sickels wrote to Lucy to tell her that he had read about how much she loved felines and then introduced a new pet, writing, “This pussy goes to Hong Kong whence she will be transshipped by the Occidental & Oriental line, in charge of the purser, to San Francisco and then sent by express to Washington.” The Hayeses named the cat, which arrived in 1879, Siam.
7. HE WAS A PRESIDENT OF FIRSTS.
As commander in chief at a critical period in U.S. history, Hayes saw a number of innovations come to Washington, and participated in several firsts. Hayes was the first (and only) President elected by a congressional commission, and because of the disputed election results and the fact that Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, Hayes became the first president to take the Oath of Office at the White House, which he did privately in the Red Room, on Saturday, March 3, 1877 before taking a public oath two days later.
In 1880 he became the first president to visit the West Coast, writing in his diary after the 71-day trip that took him past the Rocky Mountains, “A most gratifying reception greeted us everywhere from the people and from noted and interesting individuals.” Hayes also started the tradition of the Easter Egg roll on the White House lawn, which has been run on the Monday after Easter since 1878. And Hayes was the first president to have both a telephone and a typewriter in the White House.