Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

On the Road with Rutherford B. Hayes: Oregon's First Presidential Visit, 1880

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

On the Road with Rutherford B. Hayes: Oregon's First Presidential Visit, 1880

Article excerpt

WHEN PRESIDENT RUTHERFORD B. HAYES became the first president to visit Oregon, he was figuratively following in the footsteps of his predecessors George Washington and James Madison. Like them, Hayes toured the country, using the power and prestige of the executive office to promote national harmony and prevent regional alienation. Hayes's main goal for his Oregon visit, and indeed for his presidency, was to rebuild national harmony, still shattered eleven years after the Civil War. When he left Columbus, Ohio, on February 29, 1877, to move into the White House, Hayes gave a short farewell speech from his train. He recalled, as one historian paraphrased, "how he marched off the war in 1861 to do what he could to restore the union. Now he was leaving again, not to save the Union by force of arms but to seek a union of people's hearts by works of love and peace." (1) Today, "promote national harmony" might sound like abstract rhetoric, but for Hayes, the catastrophic results of regional alienation were as real as the battle scars crisscrossing his body.

Regional sectionalism--allied sections of the country putting their own needs ahead of the needs of the nation at large--permeated politics of the era, infecting decisions such as choosing railroad routes, granting statehood to western territories, and establishing or abolishing tariffs. It even affected international affairs, such as the annexation of Cuba. During the Civil War, the western states' and territories' allegiance to the federal government had been shaky at best. California Volunteers, for example, marched to Utah in 1862 to protect mail and telegraph lines, which some federal officials believed "were not safe in Mormon hands." Throughout the Civil War, several California newspapers advocated that the state form an independent Pacific Republic with Oregon. (2) Retracing Hayes's 1880 trip through Oregon shows that he successfully combined the power of the presidency with personal diplomacy to strengthen Oregon's ties to the union--with time left over for impromptu rock-throwing contests on the Columbia River, teasing Oregonians about having web feet, and whale watching.

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Hayes is best remembered today for the way he became president. The disputed election of 1876 forever saddled him with the nickname "Rutherfraud." On November 7, 1876, early presidential election returns indicated Hayes had lost by about 250,000 votes to Democratic New York governor Samuel J. Tilden. The next day, polling officials in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana raised accusations of voter fraud. All three states sent two conflicting certifications of election returns to Congress, as did Oregon. One of Oregon's three electors, Republican John W. Watts, was a deputy postmaster in Lafayette. Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution states no "Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector." Oregon's Democratic governor, La Fayette Grover, declared Watts ineligible to be an elector and declared E.A. Cronin, a Democrat who supported Tilden, the legitimate third elector. The three-person Oregon canvassing board sent a certification of election to Congress attesting that all three Oregon electors voted for Hayes. Grover sent a certification of election saying two of the electors voted for Hayes and the third, Cronin, voted for Tilden. (3)

The Hayes-Tilden election was the first time Congress had been faced with deciding which of an individual state's certifications of election was valid. Weeks of dithering and uncertainty stressed the nation. On January 29, 1877, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Electoral Commission Act, passed by both houses of Congress, authorizing a panel of five senators, five representatives, and five U.S. Supreme Court justices to decide which certificates of election from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon were valid. (4)

As the weeks of bickering in Congress dragged on, southern congressmen stalled and delayed the Electoral Commission's progress. …

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