Facts About President Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes is often overlooked among America’s presidents, overshadowed by the more famous, popular, or controversial occupants of the White House. However, his presidency from 1877 to 1881 was marked by several noteworthy accomplishments, challenges, and controversies that shaped his legacy and impact on American history. Here are some interesting facts about President Hayes that you may not know.
- He won the presidency in a disputed and controversial election.
Hayes, a Republican governor of Ohio, faced a tough opponent in the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, a former governor of New York. The election of 1876 was plagued by allegations of fraud, voter intimidation, ballot tampering, and claims of electoral misconduct in four states: Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon. Both parties claimed victory, and the outcome remained uncertain for months. A special commission appointed by Congress eventually awarded Hayes the disputed electoral votes, by a narrow margin of 185 to 184, in exchange for ending Reconstruction policies in the South.
- He was the first president to take the oath of office in the White House.
Although Hayes was not the first president to occupy the newly built White House in Washington D.C., he was the first to be inaugurated there. Previously, presidents had been sworn in at other locations, such as the Capitol building or the White House entrance, due to logistical or weather-related reasons. Hayes took the oath of office on March 5, 1877, in a private ceremony, because March 4 fell on a Sunday that year. He also delivered his inaugural address from the White House’s East Room, which became a tradition for many presidents.
- He implemented civil service reforms.
Hayes is often credited with initiating the civil service system, which aimed to replace the patronage and spoils system that awarded government jobs to political supporters and donors. Hayes signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883, which established a merit-based system for hiring and promoting federal employees based on their qualifications and performance, rather than their political loyalty. The system is still in place today and is overseen by the Office of Personnel Management.
- He made substantial improvements to the White House.
During Hayes’s presidency, the White House underwent several renovations and upgrades, thanks to his wife, Lucy. She oversaw extensive repairs, redecorations, and modernizations that included adding indoor plumbing, gas lighting, and new furniture. She also installed the first telephone in the White House in 1879, which connected the president’s office to the Treasury Department. These improvements made the White House more comfortable, convenient, and prestigious as a symbol of American power and elegance.
- He opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Hayes was a vocal opponent of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882 and prohibited Chinese immigration to the United States and denied citizenship to Chinese residents already in the country. Hayes vetoed a similar bill in 1879 and argued that it violated American principles of justice, equality, and openness to diversity. He also criticized the anti-Chinese sentiment that fueled the legislation and the negative stereotyping of Chinese immigrants as a threat to American jobs and culture.
Despite these achievements, Hayes faced several challenges and limitations during his presidency, including a divided Congress, a struggling economy, a surge in labor strikes, and difficulties in foreign affairs. He chose not to seek re-election in 1880 and retired to his estate in Ohio, where he remained active in public life and philanthropy. Hayes died in 1893 at the age of 70, leaving behind a complex legacy as an underrated president who advanced some progressive causes, but missed some opportunities and faced some setbacks.