Last HLS president stole election, helped usher in Jim Crow


Rutherford B. Hayes

Amid all the campus iconography of noted jurists, dashing politicians, and civil rights leaders illustrating the long line of famous Harvard Law alumni, there is only one portrait of a U.S. president. Hanging above the northernmost printer in Langdell Library’s main reading room is the oily visage of Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President of the United States, member of the class of 1845. The painting’s presence is a reminder that Barack Obama ’91 is only the second Harvard Law School alumnus to become president – a surprising fact in and of itself. Still, a glimpse back at Hayes’ life and times reveals that Obama will, in fact, be the first HLS alum to have been unquestionably elected to the position.

Hayes arrived at Harvard Law School after graduating at the top of his class at Kenyon and reading law for two years in his native Ohio. He sailed through HLS in another two years, at a time when the rigors of Christopher Columbus Langdell’s case law curriculum had yet to be imposed on the school – a passage in his diary boasts of discovering a reading shortcut in an “outline to all of Aristotle’s works”.

After a stint in local politics and service in the Civil War, he entered Congress as a member of the newly formed Republican Party. Shortly thereafter, he was elected Governor of Ohio. Hayes received national attention for his sweep of what was, at that time, a heavily Democratic state. In 1876, the Republicans nominated him their choice to run for the presidency – a dark horse candidate who just beat out favored contender James G. Blaine.

Until 2000, the 1876 election was widely considered the most controversial in U.S. history. The candidates, Hayes and popular New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, needed 185 electoral votes to win. Tilden came up short by just one, and four undecided states had twenty votes between them. Election fraud was widespread, and the Republicans under Hayes were suspected of many of the shenanigans.

In order to break the deadlock, Congress set up a bipartisan electoral commission, represented by a balance of party members and a tie-breaking vote to be cast by an independent judge. The judge, however, soon resigned, and was replaced by a Republican. Predictably, he cast his ballot for Hayes.

Behind the scenes, a more insidious deal had taken shape. Top Democrats and Republicans met at a D.C. hotel and hammered out a compromise. If they allowed Hayes to become president, Republicans promised, they would end their support for military Reconstruction in the South. For over a decade, the old Confederacy had been occupied by Union troops, who had, for the most part, helped to ensure the full exercise of freed slaves’ civil rights. Under the agreement, local control was restored to Southern states – all in exchange for a Hayes presidency.

To his credit, Hayes worked in the first years of his presidency to shape decisive civil rights legislation, vetoing several versions of a bill outlining greater protections until he got the one he wanted. Hayes also signed legislation allowing female attorneys to argue before the Supreme Court.

Hayes faced a complicated political balancing act, however, in a United States that was as politically and geographically divided as it has been in recent decades. Bringing in Southern Democrats for civil service positions to shore up support in their party, Hayes alienated Republicans and appeared to contradict his previous position in favor of civil service reform. More controversially, he made the decision to use federal troops to break up the riots of striking railroad workers. Industrialists felt the move would incite revolution.

There was never a popular verdict on the Hayes presidency – proposing that presidents should only serve for one term, he stepped down in 1880. His domestic legacy, however, was felt for nearly a century. The end of Reconstruction allowed Southern states to legislate Jim Crow laws – and to tolerate many de facto acts of discrimination and segregation. However much Obama’s win vindicates HLS’ status as a law school that can finally produce an elected president, his win is all the more poignant in embodying the freedom from restraints that African-Americans have endured since Hayes made his corrupt ascent to power.

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