True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

Rutherford Birchard Hayes



A President by a Small Majority

There are men whose lives were full of incident and adventure, who had a hard struggle with poverty in their youth, or whose career was otherwise of great interest. Of such men there is much to say, and several of these have been Presidents of the United States. There are others who had no struggles and little adventure, and whose lives have moved calmly and quietly on. Such a man was Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the nineteenth President of this great Republic.

Mr. Hayes was of sound New England stock, for his family came from the Green Mountain State, where they had been earnest patriots in "the times that tried men's souls." Thence they went west and settled in the new State of Ohio. Here, in the town of Delaware, the future President was born, on the 4th of October, 1822.

No trouble or distress, no hard work or scant fare, no visions of poverty and want came to the growing boy, for his father owned and worked a large farm and kept a store as well, so that there was plenty for all, and the boy grew up in a comfortable and happy home. He was a stout, happy little fellow, so rosy of countenance that they gave him the pet name of Ruddy. His family had been one of soldiers, for some of its sons had fought in the Revolution and the war of 1812, and he grew up with the soldier spirit which they passed on to him.

His father died when he was a child, but all went well with the family, for he left them plenty to live on. Rutherford and his little sister Fanny went to a small school near their home, and their mother helped them with their lessons, so that they got on very nicely. He was a good scholar, and when he got older was sent to academies at a distance from home, and afterward to Kenyon College, in Ohio.

He was sixteen years old then, a hearty, strong boy, good at his books, but also fond of fun and sport, as all hearty boys should be, and he was strong and hardy, for we are told that once, when winter's snows lay deep on the ground, he walked all the way from college to his home and back again, a distance of forty miles. At college he had plenty of friends; all liked him, for he was very genial and sociable. He graduated in 1842, and his valedictory speech won him much praise.

The young student had made up his mind to take up the profession which so many of our Presidents have followed, that of the law; and after studying for a time at Columbus, Ohio, he went to the Law School of Harvard College, where he spent two years of close study. I think he must have worked a little too hard over the dry books of the law, for when he came home and tried to practice he found himself so weak and sickly that he had to go far down South and spend a winter there for his health.

He got quite hearty there. People often do, for the soft airs and the spicy odors of the far South are great healers. When he got to feeling well and strong again he came back and opened an office in Cincinnati. Here he was soon busy enough and he made hosts of friends, for he was very friendly and fond of good society. He met and married a very attractive young woman named Lucy W. Webb. She was the daughter of a doctor, and was a student at a college in Cincinnati when he got acquainted with her. She was young and pretty, of a fine character and very attractive in manner, and she proved to have a rare and lovely soul. The two were very happy indeed, and Mr. Hayes soon got a good practice in his profession, and became so popular that he was chosen to fill important positions in the city government. Such was the state of affairs in his life when 1861 came round and the Civil War broke out.

Now the soldier spirit in Rutherford Hayes showed itself. He was an earnest lover of the Union, and when he heard that Fort Sumter had been fired on by the secessionists, he was eager to fight for the old flag. When word came to Cincinnati that the flag of the stars and stripes had been insulted, a great mass-meeting was held, of which Mr. Hayes was made chairman. He was chosen because it was known that he was a warm patriot and one of the leaders of the war party. When men began to volunteer for the war he was quick to join them, and the Twenty-third Ohio Regiment chose him for its major. A few months after that he was made lieutenant-colonel, and he kept going up in rank, till he became a general.

There is a very interesting thing to be said about the Twenty-third Regiment. It had in it two men who were to become Presidents of the United States. One of these was Major Hayes, and the other was a boy who carried a musket in the ranks. His name was William McKinley. It is well to say here that the Major got to know and think a great deal of the boy private. They became in time very good friends, and as long as they lived they were close companions. When Hayes became President, McKinley was in Congress, and they kept up in Washington the old friendly feeling that they had felt on the battlefield.

Great battles were fought and the Twenty-third Ohio took part in them. Hayes was promoted to be colonel of the regiment, and at the famous battle of South Mountain he fought like a hero. He was wounded four times, and in one battle his horse was shot dead under him. This was in the Shenandoah Valley, where he fought in a number of severe battles. He did his duty so nobly that he was made a brigadier-general.

Mrs. Hayes showed herself to be a true soldier's wife. She left home and sought her husband's camp, where she brought a ray of brightness into his life and won the hearts of the wounded by her devoted services. She mended the torn clothes of the rough soldiers, she nursed the wounded with loving care, and showed a sympathy that did them more good than all their medicines. While he was fighting so bravely he was nominated for Congress.

General Hayes did not need to go home to electioneer. He was elected while he was in the field. The people at home liked him better as a fighter than they would have done as a politician. The next spring the war ended and he went home. He had now won the brevet rank of major-general, and his friend McKinley had risen from the ranks to his former grade of major. When the next Congress met, on the 4th of December, 1865, Hayes took his seat in the House.

He spent only two years in Congress. His services there were not as brilliant as on the field of battle. He was not a splendid orator, but he had good sense and sound judgment; he was fearless in his struggle for right and justice, and he won the respect and regard of his fellow members.

The people of his State must have thought very highly of him, for at the end of his term in Congress they chose him for Governor of Ohio, and twice afterward they re-elected him to that important and honorable post. That brought him on to 1873. Since 1861 he had been busily engaged in public duties, as soldier, Congressman, and as Governor. Now he thought he had earned a rest and made up his mind to go back to private life. So he sought a home in Fremont, Ohio, where he had lived for a short time after he left college, and settled down for a good long life in peace and quiet.

Little did he dream what was coming. It is not likely the modest lawyer ever thought of going higher than Governor of Ohio. But the people of the country thought differently. When the Republican National Convention met in 1876 to choose a candidate for the Presidency the names of many brilliant men were brought before it. But gradually the name of Governor Hayes rose above them all, and after a sharp contest he was chosen as the party's candidate for President. Samuel J. Tilden, of New York, was nominated by the Democratic party, and the fight was on.

It was a famous contest. It was so close that no one could be sure who was elected. The Republicans claimed that they had elected Hayes and the Democrats that they had elected Tilden, and both parties grew very angry. There was much bitter talk; men called their opponents frauds and cheats; the country was full of dread of the evil passions that had been raised, for even threats of civil war were made.

The trouble came from the election in the South, where the votes of some of the States were so close that it was hard to decide who was elected. In Florida and Louisiana the largest number of votes were counted for the Democratic candidates. But the Returning Boards, whose duty it was to count the votes, said that there were frauds in certain districts and would not count their votes. This gave the Republicans the majority.

The Democrats cried out that they had been cheated and that Tilden was elected. The Republicans cried out as loudly that the Returning Boards were right and that Hayes was elected. When the question came before Congress the fight was as severe there, and no decision could be reached. The House was for Tilden and the Senate was for Hayes. In the end the dispute had to be given over to an Electoral Commission, made up of five Senators, five Representatives, and five Judges of the Supreme Court. The Commission decided, by a majority of one, that Hayes was elected.

After his term of office was ended President Hayes went back to his home in Fremont, Ohio, where he settled down with hopes of a long and happy life. He was still less than sixty years old and was wide-awake to all the great questions of the day. He lived, respected by all who knew him, till January 17, 1893, when death took him away.

There is one thing more to be said. While Hayes was President, and his noble wife was mistress of the White House, no wine was ever put on the table, even when banquets were given and foreign ministers were invited. Mrs. Hayes was a very earnest temperance woman, and her husband supported her in this, though there were many severe things said about them. This was the first and only time in the history of the country that wine has not had its place on the White House table, at least in the great State banquets.