7 Presidential Facts About Rutherford B. Hayes

Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and miniseries and sketches. Then there are the others, whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country. The 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes, is a member of the latter camp, but it’s still worth learning a bit about him.


Seven U.S. presidents served in the Civil War, and Hayes was the only one who was wounded in action. Hayes was nearly 40 years old and had no military experience at the start of the conflict—he had spent his life up to that point as a lawyer. After five years of practice at a Lower Sandusky, Ohio law firm, he moved to Cincinnati in 1849, where his opposition to slavery drove him to the Republican Party. Outraged by the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, Hayes joined the Burnet Rifles, a “volunteer home company,” and was named a major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The unit also included fellow future president William McKinley, who noted that Hayes’s demeanor would change markedly in battle, “from the sunny, agreeable, the kind, the generous, the gentle gentleman … he was, once the battle was on … intense and ferocious.”  Hayes may have had the eye of the tiger, but his list of wounds and ailments was lengthy: A wounded knee at Pearisburg in 1862; a gunshot wound in the left arm during the Battle of South Mountain in 1862; a hit from a spent musket ball and having his horse shot out from under him at the Second Battle of Kernstown in 1864; a severe ankle injury when another of his horses was shot at the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864. In this final incident, Hayes then weathered a shot from a spent musket ball upon mounting a second horse, leading his men to assume he’d been killed. His death was erroneously reported in the press, and Cedar Creek was his final battle. 


Although a number of previous presidents were lawyers, Hayes was the first to actually graduate law school. He attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio and was valedictorian of the class of 1842. Hayes then put in a “vexatious and tedious” 10 months at a Columbus, Ohio firm, after which he earned a degree from Harvard Law School in 1845. His wife, Lucy Webb Hayes, was the first first lady to be a college graduate; she received a degree in liberal arts from Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College in 1850 at the age of 18. 


Hayes became the 19th president of the United States in 1877, but that’s the easy part. After the Civil War, Hayes served in Congress for two years before returning home to become a three-term Governor of Ohio from 1867 to 1876. In 1876 he ran for president against New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, and the Democrat Tilden appeared to have locked up the White House as the early returns rolled in. Hayes went to bed on election night convinced he would soon be making a concession speech, though he had predicted if he lost it would be “by crime—by bribery and repeating” in the North and by “violence and intimidation” in the South. But Hayes awoke the next day to learn that he had won the Pacific Slope and would need to claim the southern states of South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana in order to ensure the 185 electoral votes needed at that time to win. The election boards in those three states, citing intimidation of black voters, voided Democratic votes and declared Hayes the winner, which appeared to swing the election to Hayes. However, Hayes then lost Oregon when it emerged that one of the state’s Republican electors held a government job and could not cast his vote for Hayes, and the Democratic governor certified a new Democratic elector.  The disputed states cast conflicting votes, and that’s when things got messy. Senate leadership was inundated with requests from Republicans to decide which votes to count, while Democrats wanted a joint session of Congress to determine the winner. The two sides forged a compromise when the Electoral Commission Act was passed in January 1877. The act established a commission of five senators, five congressmen, and five Supreme Court justices who would decide what votes to count, a decision that would, in turn, ultimately decide the election. The commission was meant to consist of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one Independent, Justice David Davis. But before the commission could make their decision, the Illinois legislature attempted to buy Davis’s support by appointing him Senator. Davis instead resigned from the commission and a new justice, Republican Joseph Bradley, was appointed instead. So this new commission consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, who voted along party lines in a series of votes in February to award Hayes the disputed states. But the Democrat-controlled House filibustered the results until March 2, when Hayes was finally awarded the disputed states, just days before the inauguration. These votes gave Hayes a 185-184 advantage in the Electoral College and the presidency. Hayes was elected with about 250,000 fewer popular votes than Tilden and was sneeringly referred to as “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency” by angry Democrats.


Although the first lady was a lifelong teetotaler who became known as “Lemonade Lucy” after her death, it was Hayes himself who initiated a ban on beer, wine, and liquor at the presidential residence. Hayes would have the occasional drink before he moved into the White House, but the ban was an attempt to curry political favor with anti-alcohol Prohibitionists and maintain the dignity of the office. Even then, there were certain exceptions to the rule. The White House served wine when the adult sons of Czar Alexander II of Russia visited, but the first couple didn’t drink any.


In 1879, Washington, D.C. attorney Belva Lockwood lobbied Congress to be admitted to the Supreme Court’s bar and argue cases. At the time, the body stated that “none but men are permitted to practice before [us] as attorneys and counselors,” but Lockwood drafted legislation that would “relieve certain legal disabilities of women.” The act was passed by Congress and signed by Hayes, and Lockwood was finally admitted to the Supreme Court Bar on March 3, 1879. She argued Kaiser v. Stickney before the court a year later. 


The American consul in Bangkok knew Lucy Hayes loved cats and arranged in 1878 for the delivery of the first Siamese cat in America. David B. Sickels wrote to Lucy to tell her that he had read about how much she loved felines and then introduced a new pet, writing, “This pussy goes to Hong Kong whence she will be transshipped by the Occidental & Oriental line, in charge of the purser, to San Francisco and then sent by express to Washington.” The Hayeses named the cat, which arrived in 1879, Siam.


As commander in chief at a critical period in U.S. history, Hayes saw a number of innovations come to Washington, and participated in several firsts. Hayes was the first (and only) President elected by a congressional commission, and because of the disputed election results and the fact that Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, Hayes became the first president to take the Oath of Office at the White House, which he did privately in the Red Room, on Saturday, March 3, 1877 before taking a public oath two days later.  In 1880 he became the first president to visit the West Coast, writing in his diary after the 71-day trip that took him past the Rocky Mountains, “A most gratifying reception greeted us everywhere from the people and from noted and interesting individuals.” Hayes also started the tradition of the Easter Egg roll on the White House lawn, which has been run on the Monday after Easter since 1878. And Hayes was the first president to have both a telephone and a typewriter in the White House.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

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On This Day in 1933, FDR Gave His First Fireside Chat
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On March 12, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first "fireside chat" on the radio. It was just eight days after his inauguration. He began: "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking." Citizens across the nation tuned in to listen.

During the depths of the Great Depression, FDR took to the airwaves to explain to Americans why there had been a recent, ahem, "bank holiday." After a series of bank failures, FDR closed all U.S. banks on March 6, to prevent them from failing as panicked citizens tried to withdraw their holdings. While the banks were closed, a program of federal deposit insurance was created in order to insure the stability of the banks when they reopened.

So imagine, if you will, that your bank has been closed for six days, banks are failing left and right, and the newly-inaugurated president gets on the radio to talk about the situation. You would likely listen, and you'd want a really solid answer. That's just what Americans got.

It was a stunning moment, a roughly 13-minute speech in which the American president spoke directly to the people and asked them to understand how banks work. As an extension of that understanding, he asked people to trust what he and Congress were doing to resolve the problem. While the chat didn't solve the country's financial problems overnight, it did create a remarkable sense of connection between FDR and the citizenry, and it helped prevent a complete collapse of the banking system.

FDR's "fireside chats" (the phrase was coined by press secretary Stephen Early, conveying the intimacy of communication) were among the best examples of a president using mass media to bring a time-sensitive message to the American people. He would go on to do 29 more chats over the course of his long presidency.

So if you've never heard that first "fireside chat," take a few minutes and listen. Here it is with slightly cleaned-up audio:

If you're not into audio, just read the transcript. The text is a model of clear communication.


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