Excerpt from his Inaugural Address
Given on March 5, 1877; reprinted on Bartleby.com (Web site)
The winner of a controversial election officially greets the nation as president
"Only a local government which recognizes and maintains inviolate the rights of all is a true self-government.…"
Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) went to bed election night believing he had lost the 1876 race for the presidency. Hayes, a Republican, seemed to hopelessly trail Democratic New York governor Samuel J. Tilden (1814–1886) in the electoral college, the group of state-selected delegates who actually pick the president. But Hayes's strongest supporters were not ready to give up. One of them, former U.S. congressman Daniel E. Sickles (1819–1914) of New York, sent urgent telegrams that night to Republican leaders in South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and Oregon, historian Ari Hoogenboom wrote in The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. "With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state," the telegrams read. By three o'clock in the morning, Sickles heard back from Daniel H. Chamberlain (1835–1907), governor of South Carolina, where federal troops had been stationed for the past month to prevent the intimidation of African American voters. "All right," Chamberlain responded. "South Carolina is for Hayes. Need more troops. Communication with interior cut off by mobs."
So began the contested election of 1876, an unusual chapter in American political history that would bring an end to Reconstruction (1865–77), the difficult efforts to re-shape the South after the American Civil War (1861–65) with equal rights for ex-slaves. It would take months to untangle the election controversy, amid allegations of voter intimidation, ballot box-stuffing, and other charges (see box). In the meantime, Southern leaders used their votes as bargaining chips, offering their support in exchange for a new Reconstruction policy that would allow Southern whites to resume control of their states. Ultimately a panel of Supreme Court justices and congressmen would vote 8-7, along party lines, to reward the disputed votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and Oregon to Hayes, giving the Republican the exact number of votes he needed to clinch the presidency.
Born and raised on an Ohio farm, Hayes graduated from Harvard Law School and defended captured runaway slaves during the 1850s. He joined the Union army when the Civil War broke out, and he was wounded five times before his honorable discharge as a major general. After the war, he spent two years in Congress supporting the Radical Republican Reconstruction efforts to rebuild the South with equal rights for African Americans. Later, as governor of Ohio, he helped establish Ohio State University and secure the approval of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing African American men had the right to vote (see Chapter 16).
At the 1876 Republican Party convention, Hayes originally ranked fifth among the men seeking the presidential nomination. But he became the compromise candidate, an acceptable second-choice among the party's various factions. Ethical and reform-minded, Hayes promised to be an improvement over the scandal-ridden administration of President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77), a fellow Republican (see Chapter 17). As part of his campaign, Hayes promised to give white Southerners greater control over their governments once it was clear the rights of African Americans would be respected.
Reconstruction was a bitter period for many in the South. Under the Reconstruction Act of 1867 (see Chapter 10), Congress gave Southern African American men the right to vote and hold office, but barred certain ex-Confederates from doing the same. Carpet-baggers, the name for Northerners who entered Southern politics, became hated figures as they pushed for African Americans' rights (and, according to suspicious Southerners, manipulated African American voters for their own gain; see Chapter 14). Some angry whites joined groups like the Ku Klux Klan (see Chapter 15), a group endorsing white supremacy, to intimidate African Americans from voting or holding office. This only lengthened the stay of federal troops sent to the South to try to maintain peace.
By 1876, much of the country had grown weary of Reconstruction. Most white Southerners still resented the federal presence in their states, and a growing number of Northerners felt the policy was too harsh. Hayes wanted a "peaceful Reconstruction" that would give white Southerners a greater hand in rebuilding their region while protecting the hard-won equal rights for African Americans. But the contested election of 1876 sped up his plans: In a behind-the-scenes deal referred to as the Compromise of 1877, the contested states threw their votes behind Hayes in return for promises that federal troops would be removed from the South.
John Mercer Langston (1829–1897), an ex-slave from Virginia who served one term in the U.S. Senate, believed Hayes's peaceful Reconstruction plan would be an "inestimable [countless] blessing" for African Americans, according to an 1877 speech reprinted in
But that feeling was hardly universal. Chamberlain, the South Carolina governor who pledged his state to Hayes, only to lose his own reelection, called Hayes's compromise an "overthrow" of the Reconstruction state governments, according to an 1877 speech reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. "It consists in the abandonment of … the colored race to the control and rule … of that class at the South which regarded slavery as a Divine Institution, which waged four years of destructive war for its perpetuation [continuation], which steadily opposed citizenship and suffrage [voting rights] for the negro.…"
Hayes knew the plan would be controversial. But after a decade of Reconstruction efforts that saw increasing resentment and violence, he was convinced it was time for a change. In his Inaugural Address, delivered three days after the contested election was officially called in his favor, Hayes hoped to reassure the South of his friendly intentions. He believed everyone would benefit under a government that made African Americans and whites equal partners, without the weight of federal intrusion. He hoped the rights of African Americans would remain protected under such an arrangement.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Hayes's Inaugural Address:
- After the Civil War, the South went through a tense Reconstruction period. Congress gave Southern African American men the right to vote and hold office, but barred certain ex-Confederates from doing the same. The presence of federal troops to enforce these changes only added to the feeling that the North was forcibly imposing a new order on the South.
- Hayes, a major general in the Union army during the war, opposed slavery and supported equal rights for African Americans. He wanted to make sure African Americans' rights to vote, hold office, and participate in society remained intact.
- A dispute over all the votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, as well as one vote in Oregon, threw the 1876 election into chaos. While Hayes and his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, both claimed the electoral college votes from those states, local leaders used the votes as bargaining chips. In a behind-the-scenes deal known as the Compromise of 1877, those states threw their support behind Hayes in exchange for a promise to remove federal troops from the South.
Excerpt from Hayes's Inaugural Address
We have assembled to repeat the public ceremonial, begun by Washington, observed by all my predecessors, and now a time-honored custom, which marks the commencement of a new term of the Presidential office. Called to the duties of this great trust, I proceed, in compliance with usage, to announce some of the leading principles, on the subjects that now chiefly engage the public attention.…
Many of the calamitous efforts of the tremendous revolution which has passed over the Southern States still remain. The immeasurable benefits which will surely follow, sooner or later, the hearty and generous acceptance of the legitimate results of that revolution have not yet been realized. Difficult and embarrassing questions meet us at the threshold of this subject. The people of those States are still impoverished, and the inestimable blessing of wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government is not fully enjoyed. Whatever difference of opinion may exist as to the cause of this condition of things, the fact is clear that in the progress of events the time has come when such government is the imperative necessity required by all the varied interests, public and private, of those States. But it must not be forgotten that only a local government which recognizes and maintains inviolate the rights of all is a true self-government.
With respect to the two distinct races whose peculiar relations to each other have brought upon us the deplorable complications and perplexities which exist in those States, it must be a government which guards the interests of both races carefully and equally. It must be a government which submits loyally and heartily to the Constitution and the laws—the laws of the nation and the laws of the States them-selves—accepting and obeying faithfully the whole Constitution as it is.
Resting upon this sure and substantial foundation, the super-structure of beneficent local governments can be built up, and not otherwise. In furtherance of such obedience to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, and in behalf of all that its attainment implies, all so-called party interests lose their apparent importance, and party lines may well be permitted to fade into insignificance. The question we have to consider for the immediate welfare of those States of the Union is the question of government or no government; of social order and all the peaceful industries and the happiness that belongs to it, or a return to barbarism. It is a question in which every citizen of the nation is deeply interested, and with respect to which we ought not to be, in a partisan sense, either Republicans or Democrats, but fellow-citizens and fellowmen, to whom the interests of a common country and a common humanity are dear.
The sweeping revolution of the entire labor system of a large portion of our country and the advance of four million people from a condition of servitude to that of citizenship, upon an equal footing with their former masters, could not occur without presenting problems of the gravest moment, to be dealt with by the emancipated race, by their former masters, and by the General Government, the author of the act of emancipation. That it was a wise, just, and providential act, fraught with good for all concerned, is not generally conceded throughout the country. That a moral obligation rests upon the National Government to employ its constitutional power and influence to establish the rights of the people it has emancipated, and to protect them in the enjoyment of those rights when they are infringed or assailed, is also generally admitted.
The evils which afflict the Southern States can only be removed or remedied by the united and harmonious efforts of both races, actuated
But at the basis of all prosperity, for that as well as for every other part of the country, lies the improvement of the intellectual and moral condition of the people. Universal suffrage should rest upon universal education. To this end, liberal and permanent provision should be made for the support of free schools by the State governments, and, if need be, supplemented by legitimate aid from national authority.
Let me assure my countrymen of the Southern States that it is my earnest desire to regard and promote their truest interest—the interests of the white and of the colored people both and equally—and to put forth my best efforts in behalf of a civil policy which will forever wipe out in our political affairs the color line and the distinction between North and South, to the end that we may have not merely a united North or a united South, but a united country.…
What happened next …
Not long after Hayes's speech, federal troops left the South. The move signaled "the peaceful lapse of the whole South into the control of whites," as noted in Reconstruction in Retrospect: Views from the Turn of the Century. While African American men still had the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, Southern states came up with clever ways tokeep African Americans away from the polls. Sometimes they put the polling places twenty or forty miles away from African American communities. Or they put the polling place in an area only reachable by boats, and had all boats out for repair on election day. Or a group of whites would stage time-consuming arguments at the polling places, ending just in time for the whites to cast their ballots before the precinct closed to the African Americans waiting in line behind them.
Southerners quickly learned these tricky methods worked. Unlike Klan violence against African American voters, these methods sparked little outrage in the North. In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (see Chapter 18), which had required restaurants, hotels, railroads, and other businesses to treat African Americans the same as whites. Reconstruction was unraveling, but there was little agreement in Washington about what—if anything—to do about it. By the late 1870s, Democrats and Republicans split control of Congress and the White House, and neither one had enough power to push through a new policy. As noted in Reconstruction in Retrospect: Views from the Turn of the Century, "the legislative deadlock had for its general result a policy of noninterference by the national government, and the whites were left to work out in their own way the ends they had in view."
Thousands of African Americans decided to try their luck elsewhere. In A Narrative of the Negro, Leila Amos Pendleton (1860–c. 1930) wrote that about sixty thousand African Americans left the South in 1879. Many went to Kansas, where the Kansas Freedman's Relief Association helped provide food, clothing, and other supplies until the newcomers got settled. "With the end of Republican power came the end of anything like justice to the Negro," Pendleton wrote. Nearly a century would pass before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s would resume the push for racial equality.
Did you know …
- First lady Lucy Webb Hayes (1831–1889) was a devout Methodist who believed strongly in temperance, or the avoidance of alcohol. She refused to serve alcohol at any White House functions—earning her the nickname "Lemonade Lucy"—which was applauded by other members of the temperance movement. The movement achieved its goal in 1919 with the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor. The unpopular amendment was repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution.
- Ballot box–stuffing was a common practice in the late 1800s because there were no rules about the size or shape of ballots. This allowed dishonest voters to make a dozen or so mini ballots out of tissue paper, then slip them into the large folded ballot they dropped in the ballot box. Officials had an impossible task of identifying the fake ballots, as some people claimed the tissue ballots were given to African American men so they could vote for the Democratic ticket without drawing attention to themselves. As noted in "The Undoing of Reconstruction," one South Carolina precinct saw 1,163 ballots cast in an 1878 election where only 620 voters existed. The first 620 ballots pulled out by a blindfolded man determined the winner.
- Daniel E. Sickles, the Republican who sparked the 1876 disputed election with his late-night telegrams to several key states, earned one other eyebrow-raising spot in history. In 1859, Sickles murdered Philip Barton Key (1818–1859), the son of "Star-Spangled Banner" lyricist Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), after learning the younger Key was having an affair with his wife. A jury found Sickles not guilty of murder, however, after his attorney argued Sickles was "temporarily insane"—the first successful use of that controversial defense.
Consider the following …
- What did Hayes hope to accomplish by "peaceful Reconstruction?" Do you think his hopes were realistic?
- How did some whites prevent African Americans from voting?
- What kind of a Reconstruction policy would you recommend for the South after the Civil War?
For More Information
Dunning, William A. "The Undoing of Reconstruction." In Reconstruction in Retrospect: Views from the Turn of the Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961.
Hoogenboom, Ari. The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
Pendleton, Leila Amos. A Narrative of the Negro. Washington, DC: Press of R. L. Pendleton, 1912. Also available at Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Stalcup, Brenda, ed. Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.
Wallace, John. Carpet-Bag Rule in Florida. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1964 [a facsimile reproduction of the 1888 edition].