Official Presidential Portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes is the first in my new series of frequently forgotten U.S. Presidents.
Like President Grant, Hayes had personal integrity, but his presidency was tainted by the very corruption he deplored. During the 1876 presidential election Hayes’ Republican supporters disputed the electoral votes in a few southern states. Republicans promised that Hayes would withdraw federal troops in those states if elected, which he did.
The southern states did not keep their promise to grant civil rights to blacks, however. Though he made other reforms, Hayes’ troop withdrawal delayed the civil rights movement until the 20th century.
The circumstances of his election caused some to label Hayes as “His Fraudulence.” Hayes did gain some support from the public by promoting civil service reform. He signed an executive order that stated that people in public office would be fired only in the best interest of the government regardless of their political affiliations. Hayes followed through on this by firing future Republican president Chester Arthur who used his position at the New York Customs House to help other Republicans.
Though he had pledged to serve only one term, he couldn’t have run again if he wanted to because so many Republicans were angered by his efforts to root out corruption. He managed to accomplish some changes, however.
He had the first telephone installed and was the first president to have a college-educated wife. He and “Lemonade Lucy” banned alcohol from White House dinners. After leaving office he became one of the most active ex-presidents, supporting causes like black education and prison reform.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson was self-educated. He was the only senator from a state that left the Union (Tennessee) to stay in Washington. Because of his loyalty he was chosen as Lincoln’s vice-president in 1864. It was soon obvious that the choice was a mistake. Johnson showed up drunk to the inauguration and harangued Lincoln’s cabinet in his acceptance speech.
The main reason the Democrat Johnson stayed a Unionist was because he hated plantation owners whose wealth and resources hurt opportunities for small farmers. Unfortunately for the newly freed slaves, Johnson hated them just as much. After Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson took over, he stated, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”
Official Presidential Portrait of Andrew Johnson
Yet Johnson proved that he couldn’t get along with many white men either, at least not if they happened to be Republicans. His policy towards the former Confederate states was so liberal that these states elected Confederate leaders to Congress. Furious Republicans refused to seat the delegates.
Johnson especially fought with Radical Republicans who favored equality for blacks. He vetoed the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which stated that everyone in the U.S. should have “full and equal benefit of all laws.” Congress overturned this veto and several others during Johnson’s presidency. During his fights with congressional leaders Johnson was nicknamed “The Grim Presence.”
Johnson is best known for being the first president to have an impeachment trial. Fortunately for him, a few Republicans thought that his disagreements with Congress did not add up to the “high crimes” required by the Constitution to oust a president. He escaped impeachment by one vote.
Though his presidency was a failure, Johnson later became the only former president elected to the U.S. Senate. After hearing the news, Johnson said, “Thank God for the vindication.”