Rutherford B. Hayes: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

Photographic portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes. Library of Congress

 After coming to the presidency in highly unusual circumstances, following the controversial and disputed election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes is best remembered for presiding over the end of Reconstruction in the American South.

Of course, whether that counts as an accomplishment depends on point of view: to southerners, Reconstruction had been considered oppressive. To many northerners, and for formerly enslaved people, much remained to be done.

Hayes had pledged to serve only one term in office, so his presidency was always viewed as transitional. But during his four years in office, in addition to Reconstruction, he dealt with issues of immigration, foreign policy, and the reform of the civil service, which was still based on the Spoils System implemented decades earlier.

Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President of the United States

Hayes and Wheeler 1876
Hayes and Wheeler, Republican ticket in 1876.  Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Born, October 4, 1822, Delaware, Ohio.
Died: At the age of 70, January 17, 1893, Fremont, Ohio.

Presidential term: March 4, 1877- March 4, 1881

Supported by: Hayes was a member of the Republican Party.

Opposed by: The Democratic Party opposed Hayes in the election of 1876, in which its candidate was Samuel J. Tilden.

Presidential Campaigns:

Hayes ran for president once, in 1876.

He had been serving as governor of Ohio, and the Republican Party convention that year happened to be held in Cleveland, Ohio. Hayes was not favored to be the party's nominee going into the convention, but his supporters created a groundswell of support. Though a dark horse candidate, Hayes won the nomination on the seventh ballot.

Hayes did not seem to have a good chance to win the general election, as the nation seemed to have tired of Republican rule. However, the votes of southern states that still had Reconstruction governments, which were controlled by Republican partisans, improved his odds.

Hayes lost the popular vote, but four states had disputed elections which made the outcome in the electoral college unclear. A special commission was created by Congress to decide the matter. And Hayes was ultimately declared the winner in what was widely perceived as a backroom deal.

The method by which Hayes became president became infamous. When he died in January 1893 the New York Sun, on its front page, said:

"Although his administration was disgraced by no great scandal, the taint of the theft of the presidency clung to it to the last, and Mr. Hayes went out of office carrying with him the contempt of the Democrats and the indifference of the Republicans."

More detail: The Election of 1876

Spouse, Family, and Education

Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy Webb Hayes
Rutherford B. and Lucy Webb Hayes.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Spouse and family: Hayes married Lucy Webb, an educated woman who was a reformer and North American 19-century anti-enslavement activist, on Dec. 30, 1852. They had three sons.

Education: Hayes was taught at home by his mother, and entered a preparatory school in his mid-teens. He attended Kenyon College in Ohio, and placed first in his graduating class in 1842.

He studied law by working in a law office in Ohio, but with the encouragement of his uncle, he attended Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received a law degree from Harvard in 1845.

Early Career

 Hayes returned to Ohio and began practicing law. He eventually became successful practicing law in Cincinnati, and entered public service when he became the city's solicitor in 1859.

When the Civil War began, Hayes, a devoted member of the Republican Party and a Lincoln loyalist, rushed to enlist. He became a major in an Ohio regiment, and served until resigning his commission in 1865.

During the Civil War, Hayes was in combat on numerous occasions and was wounded four times. At the Battle of South Mountain, fought just prior to the epic Battle of Antietam, Hayes was wounded while serving in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Hayes was not the only future president in the regiment at the time. A young commissary sergeant, William McKinley, was also in the regiment and was credited with showing considerable bravery at Antietam.

Near the end of the war Hayes was promoted to the rank of major general. Following the war he was active in veterans organizations.

Political Career

As a war hero, Hayes seemed destined for politics. Supporters urged him to run for Congress to fill an unexpired seat in 1865. He easily won election, and became aligned with the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Leaving Congress in 1868, Hayes successfully ran for governor of Ohio, and served from 1868 to 1873.

In 1872 Hayes ran for Congress again, but lost, probably because he had spent more time campaigning for the reelection of President Ulysses S. Grant than for his own election.

Political supporters encouraged him to run for statewide office again, so as to position himself to run for president. He ran for governor of Ohio again in 1875, and was elected.

Later Career and Legacy

Later career: After the presidency, Hayes returned to Ohio and became involved in promoting education.

Death and funeral: Hayes died of a heart attack on January 17, 1893. He was buried in a local cemetery in Fremont, Ohio, but was later reburied at his estate, Spiegel Grove, after it was designated a state park.


Hayes did not have a strong legacy, which was perhaps inevitable considering that his entry to the presidency was so controversial. But he is remember for ending Reconstruction.

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McNamara, Robert. "Rutherford B. Hayes: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo, Nov. 15, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, November 15). Rutherford B. Hayes: Significant Facts and Brief Biography. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Rutherford B. Hayes: Significant Facts and Brief Biography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).