Monday, March 2, 2009

Inauguration Day, 1877

The inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes on the east front of the U.S. Capitol, March 5, 1877. Library of Congress.

One hundred and thirty-two years ago, a new president took the oath of office promising an end to the tired politics of partisanship.

Standing on the east front of the U.S. Capitol on March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes vowed to govern in the interests of all, regardless of party.

“The President of the United States of necessity owes his election to office to the suffrage and zealous labors of a political party, the members of which cherish with ardor and regard as of essential importance the principles of their party organization,” Hayes conceded in his inaugural address. Then he added: “But he should strive always to be mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves the country best.”

Hayes, a principled and reform-minded Republican, outlined an ambitious agenda. He promised to pursue Civil Service reform after the rampant corruption that marred the Grant administration. He called for a constitutional amendment limiting the president to one six-year term. He urged greater state assistance, supplemented if necessary by the federal government, for education.

Most of his address, however, dealt with conditions in the South, where Reconstruction was coming to an end without having reconciled whites to the emancipation and enfranchisement of blacks. The people of the South, Hayes said, “are still impoverished, and the inestimable blessing of wise, honest and peaceful local self-government is not fully enjoyed.”

Hayes committed his administration to protecting “the rights of all by every constitutional means at the disposal of my Administration” while vowing to defer “in favor of honest and efficient local self-government.”

He could do little else. Hayes ascended to the White House after a bitterly contested presidential campaign against Democrat Samuel Tilden, the reform-minded governor of New York who earned national notice for his crusade against the Tweed ring. Hayes’s one-vote victory in the Electoral College came only after a special commission awarded him the disputed votes of three Southern states.

Democrats agreed to accept the panel’s findings in exchange for Hayes’s commitment to pull federal troops out of the South.

Despite the bargain, Democrats remained deeply hostile to the new president. As Hayes prepared to take the oath of office, House Democrats and the Democratic National Committee adopted a statement denouncing the commission’s decision and pledging unceasing hostility to the new president.

“Let no hour pass in which the usurpation is forgotten,” urged the declaration signed by Reps. Frank H. Hurd of Ohio, Randall L. Gibson of Louisiana, Josiah G. Abbott of Massachusetts, Otho R. Singleton of Mississippi and William P. Lynde of Wisconsin. “Let agitation be unceasing, that at every opportunity the people may express their abhorrence at the outrage. Let want of confidence be voted at every election in Mr. Hayes and his Administration.”

Not surprisingly, Hayes found himself embroiled in a bitter battle with congressional Democrats who attached riders to appropriations bills that would have barred the use of federal troops as peacekeepers at polling places in the South.

White-hot partisanship was only one of the problems Hayes confronted while in office. The lingering effects of the Panic of 1873 produced agitation for greater use of paper money and the first outbreak of the agrarian revolt that led to the rise, more than a decade later, of the Populist Party. Hayes called out federal troops to restore order after labor violence erupted along railroads lines.

Hayes never won the trust of Democrats, and tense relations with the Democratic-controlled Congress dominated his four years in office.

“Let the Democratic Party at once organize for the new contest to secure overwhelming victories, that conspirators may never again attempt the experiment which now humiliates the country and installed in its highest offices a usurper,” the House Democrats declared as Hayes prepared to take office.

In the end, partisan division carried the day.


McPherson, James M., ed. To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents.
London, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

The New York Times, March 5, 1877, p. 5.

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