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Who is Rutherford Hayes?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
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  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2014
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Rutherford Hayes born in Ohio, on 4 October 1822 was the 19th President of the US, serving one term only after a hotly contested race in which he did not win the popular vote. He is known for his insistence on civil rights reform at the tail end of Southern Reconstruction. He’s also been considered one of the first significantly educated presidents, with a taste for literature. His wife, Lucy Webb Hayes was the first First Lady to have a college education.

As a college student Rutherford Hayes won extraordinary distinction. He graduated first in his senior class at Kenyon College in Ohio, and finished Harvard Law School in a scant two years. Rutherford Hayes didn’t enter politics until 13 years after he began his law practice in 1849. His first elected position was as a city solicitor in Cincinnati, Ohio, serving for only one year.

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True to his roots in education, when Rutherford Hayes moved to Cincinnati, he joined the Cincinnati Literary Club. When the Civil War began the club created a military unit from its members and Hayes began military service as a Major. His war service was distinguished, and he quickly rose in rank due to his frequent acts of bravery. While still serving in the Union Army, he was first elected to the senate, a position for which he refused to campaign. He served in the US Senate for two years from 1865-1867, and then resigned his post to become Governor of Ohio for four years.

The political career of Hayes had its ups and downs. After his four-year stint as governor, Hayes thought to rejoin the senate but was not elected. However he did hold the position of governor again from 1876-77. As a Republican nominee for President for the 1876 election, Hayes was not considered a leading candidate. Nevertheless, Republicans were trying to shed the image of corruption that had marked the Grant Administration, and Hayes was known as exceptionally honest.

The election of Hayes was still unsavory, with accusations of voter tampering and pressure on both sides of the political spectrum. Hayes lost the popular vote by 250,000 votes to Democratic frontrunner, Samuel J. Tilden. Since neither candidate garnered enough electoral votes for a clear win, the US House and Senate formed a commission to determine the winner of the election. The key decision of Rutherford Hayes for president was based on a series of commitments to withdraw troops from the South and to officially end Reconstruction. Still many contended that Hayes’ victory was obtained primarily through fraud.

Hayes’ largest political decision in office was to end Reconstruction. One of his most unpopular decisions was enlisting federal troops to break up the riots caused by supporters of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad employees who initiated a company wide strike. 70 people were killed when troops arrived, and Hayes' decision to bring in troops was not received well by the workers or even the administrators of the railroad.

His educated wife perhaps influenced one interesting decision made by Hayes during his presidency. In 1879, he signed a bill allowing women to practice law in court, or present causes in court. This was definitely a step forward in promoting women’s rights, though most people are unfamiliar with the bill because of Hayes’ much more noticeable act of ending Reconstruction.

Hayes had no interest in being re-elected and instead went back to the work that he was perhaps best designed for. He had help foster and begin the University of Ohio as a governor, and served on the Board of Trustees for the university after his presidency. He was certainly content to be a member of the board, and served for 13 years until his death in January of 1893. His wife preceded him in death in 1881, as did three of his children (he had eight total) who died in early childhood.

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