CONTENT WARNING: the following may contain some mild language, crude humor, alcohol, and commentary on American politics.
19 – RUTHERFORD B. HAYES
Presidential Years: 1877-1881
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: William A. Wheeler
Ran Against: Samuel J. Tilden
First Lady: Lucy Webb
Quote: “Must swear off from swearing, bad habit.”
Best known for: One of the most contested elections in history (technically lost)
Random Fact: Was shot five times during the Civil War!
Bio: Raised by his uncle and his widowed mother, Rutherford was one of 2 surviving siblings out of 4. They were of Scottish descent and his great grandfather fought during the American Revolution. Born in Ohio, Hayes went to prep school in Connecticut where he studied Latin and Ancient Greek. He later studied law at Harvard before moving to Cincinnati where he became a criminal defense attorney. Hayes was a Whig member prior to the formation of the Republican party. As a die-hard abolitionist, he immediately joined the (liberal) Republicans. Even so, Hayes was against the Civil War. When the southern states began to secede, Rutherford said, “Let them go.”
Despite his personal feelings, after the attack on Fort Sumter, Hayes signed up with a volunteer regiment for the Union. Throughout the war, Hayes fought in over 50 engagements! He was quickly promoted to major, with future President William McKinley serving under him as a Private. McKinley once said about Hayes, “from the sunny, agreeable, the kind, the generous, the gentle gentleman … he was, once the battle was on … intense and ferocious.” Hayes may have been tough, but he was also pretty unlucky. His list of injuries during the war was… um, extensive.
In 1862, after sustaining a knee injury during a raid against rebel forces, Hayes was shot through his left arm! The bullet shattered his bone! After he stopped the bleeding with a handkerchief, Hayes pushed through the pain and lead the charge anyway. He didn’t go to a hospital till after the battle. Later on, in 1864, Colonel Hayes took another bullet, to the shoulder. Then he had his horse shot from under him during the battle of Kernstown. His army was defeated and they barely made it out alive.
Next, Hayes once again managed to get himself injured at Cedar Creek when he was thrown from his horse! If a sprained ankle wasn’t enough, as he got on another horse, a stray musket ball struck him in the head! He slumped over and his men assumed he was a gonner! There was even an obituary written before anyone noticed that he was still alive!
But Rutherford B. Hayes’s claim to fame wasn’t his death-defying antics in the Civil War, nor was it his presidency, it was how he *became* president. The Election of 1876 isn’t just one of the most controversial presidential elections in American history, Hayes straight up lost.. and yet, he became President?!
(Also see: 2000 and 2016)
Hayes ran as a Republican against Democratic Governor Samuel J. Tilden from New York. It seemed as though Tilden had it in the bag and Hayes went to sleep contemplating his concession speech. Turns out though that as the numbers were coming in, it looked a lot closer than anyone was expecting. Here’s what’s crazy though: there was suspected voter tampering by the southern Democrats and intimidation tactics used against black voters in the states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina – so the election board simply voided their votes!
This swung the vote in favor of Hayes, but then he lost Oregon’s vote. That’s when things really got messy. Conflicting voter reports started pouring in. Republicans called for a recount while the Democrats wanted Congress to decide who really won. The Electoral Commission Act was passed which assembled 5 supreme court justices, 5 senators, and 5 congressmen to decide which votes to count. It was supposed to be made up of 7 Republicans, 7 Democrats and 1 independent, but after some meddling on both sides, the independent ended up getting replaced by a Republican. All of them voted along party lines so the disputed states went to Hayes.
The Compromise of 1877 was reached and Hayes won by 1 electoral vote. The compromise officially ended reconstruction and pulled American troops out of the south. Rutherford lost by 250,000 votes and he still became President! (Democrats of the time affectionately called him “Rutherfraud”.)
President Hayes may not be known for much, but he did establish a lot of firsts. Rutherford was the first President to visit the West Coast. Hayes’s wife, Lucy Webb, became the first college-educated First Lady. He was also the first President to use both a type writer and telephone in the Oval Office. Unlike every other President before him, Hayes was not an alcoholic. In fact he banned alcohol on the White House grounds, with very few exceptions, including a visit from the sons of the Russian Czar.
In his later years, he once said, “free government cannot long endure if property is largely in a few hands and large masses of people are unable to earn homes, education, and a support in old age.”
20 – JAMES A. GARFIELD
Presidential Years: 1881-1881
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Chester A. Arthur
Ran Against: Winfield S. Hancock
First Lady: Lucretia Rudolph
Quote: “The Truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
Best known for: Being the second President assassinated…
Random Fact: Once dated three women at the same time!
Bio: James A. Garfield was born and raised on a farm in Ohio. He went to Williams College and entered politics as a Republican. He served nine terms in the House of Representatives before becoming President. Like Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant before him, James A. Garfield fought in the Civil War. As a Major General in the Union, Garfield saw the war as a Holy Crusade and fought in the battles of Shiloh, Middle Creek and Chickamauga. He later served on the Electoral Commission that got President Hayes elected. Garfield’s own run for President was described as a low-key “Front Porch” campaign that narrowly won him the Presidency.
Before President Garfield’s 4 year term was cut to 4 months, he managed to improve education, reform foreign policy, and fight corruption in… the Post Office?! Yeah, it turns out that the United States Postal Service was pretty corrupt in 1881. He didn’t really get to do much else though, because on July 2nd, 1881, Garfield was shot at a train station by a whack job named Charles J. Guiteau. Once in the back and once in the arm. I guess you could say, he went postal…? *crickets*
If there’s one thing that defines James A. Garfield, it’s that he was extraordinarily unlucky. He was so clumsy in fact that he once accidentally hit himself in the leg with an ax! During a 6-week stint on a boat, he fell overboard a total of 14 times! And then there’s the assassination…
The man who shot Garfield was a completely delusional nut case who was convinced that he was the sole reason Garfield was elected and that he deserved to be chosen as the ambassador to France in return, despite never having been to France and didn’t speak French. Here’s the really unfortunate thing, Garfield probably would’ve survived the shooting, if it wasn’t for the careless surgeons, who tore open his liver and infected the wound in attempt to get to the bullet…
11 weeks later, Garfield died in New Jersey and his Vice President, Chester A. Arthur was sworn in.
21 – CHESTER A. ARTHUR
Presidential Years: 1881-1885
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: <Vacant>
Ran Against: <N/A>
First Lady: Ellen Herndon (deceased)
Quote: “I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business.”
Best known for: One of the most corrupt politicians to ever become President
Random Fact: Was accused of being born in Ireland (or Canada)
Bio: Chester A. Arthur never wanted to be president. Arthur only ever wanted to be *Vice President*, because he wanted the power without responsibility. He specifically manipulated and wormed his way into the office through bribery! And then President Garfield was shot… Suddenly this lazy but greedy scumbag now had the weight of the world on his shoulders – and then he surprised everyone by going after the very corruption that got him elected in the first place!
Chester, a Vermont native, became a New York lawyer in 1859. During his time in school, he once got into a fight with a group of James K. Polk supporters. Not long after, the Civil War broke out, so he joined up as a Brigadier General and was assigned as the state militia’s quartermaster. He did his best to avoid combat, even turning down promotions to stay in New York and never once saw combat at the front. When he returned to his practice, his firm did better than ever after making numerous contacts in the army.
It was during this time that Arthur first made connections with several prominent party bosses (such as notorious criminal, “Boss” Tweed) that were deeply entrenched in the spoils system, a political machine that essentially allows politicians to buy their way into key positions through the use of bribes and favors. At the time, the New York custom house was so entrenched in corruption that an elite ring of obscenely wealthy old guys basically ran all of New York City. They were mobsters before the mafia was even a thing.
In 1871, Senator Roscoe Conkling, a party boss for the ‘Stalwart’ Republicans, pulled a few strings to get President Grant to select Chester A. Arthur as the customs collector for the Port of New York. In return for this prestigious appointment, Arthur handed out government jobs to Senator Conkling’s friends who then donated a portion of their earnings to the party. The Customs Collector was a federal position to oversee import tariffs (taxes on imported goods). As New York’s Collector, Arthur controlled over a thousand jobs, charged enormous fees on imports, and made at least $50,000 a year! – which in the 1800’s was more like a million. Arthur was living the good life.
Then, in 1878, President Hayes decided to tackle government corruption. While reforming the Federal Patronage System, Hayes fired Arthur as New York’s collector. In response, when Garfield won the nomination, Conkling worked with the Stalwart Republicans to get one of their own on the ticket, which ended up being Chester A. Arthur himself. During the campaign, Arthur P. Hinman attempted to suggest that Arthur was born in Ireland and therefore couldn’t become the Vice President, despite a complete and total lack of evidence to such a claim. (sound familiar?)
When Arthur took over, no one quite knew what to expect from him, but no one quite expected him to turn on the very people that had gotten him elected. In his first Presidential address, Chester A. Arthur, the same dude who had manipulated the system to become President, made Civil Service Reform his number one goal! Arthur had a change of heart and immediately started selling out the corrupt party bosses that helped him buy the nomination. In 1883, President Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which made it illegal to promote government officials on anything other than merit and forbade the firing of certain federal positions for politically motivated reasons.
During his time in office, President Arthur also earned a reputation for a number of other things: Arthur was constantly staying up till 3AM, he once caught an 80-pound bass while fishing off the coast of Rhode Island, and was always dressed in his finest clothes at all times and is reported to have had over 80 pairs of dress pants!
According to a journalist, Alexander McClure, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.” Towards the end of his term, Arthur’s health was rapidly in decline, so named Secretary of State James Blaine as the Republican nominee. However, he lost to Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland…
22 / 24 – GROVER CLEVELAND
Presidential Years: 1885-1889 / 1893-1897
Political Party: Democrat
Vice President: Thomas A. Hendricks, Vacant (1st term) / Adlai Stevenson (2nd term)
Ran Against: James G. Blaine (1st term) / President Benjamin Harrison, James B. Weaver (2nd term)
First Lady: Frances Folsom (married in office)
Quote: “Though the people support the government; the government should not support the people.”
Best known for: The only President to run two non-consecutive terms.
Random Fact: Grover Cleveland’s face is on the $1,000 dollar bill.
Bio: Despite being related to the founder of Cleveland, Ohio, Stephen (Grover) Cleveland was born in New Jersey. After working as an assistant teacher to his brother at a school for the blind, he moved to New York state where he practiced law. During the Civil War, Cleveland paid someone to take his place in the Union. He later ran for District Attorney, but lost to his friend and roommate, Lyman K. Bass, so in 1870, he decided to become Sheriff instead. (more on that later)
Grover furthered his career in 1882 when he became the Mayor of Buffalo. During his short time as mayor, Grover took on corruption and soon secured the Democratic nomination for Governor. As Governor of New York, Grover Cleveland took on the political machine of Tammany Hall, which earned him national acclaim. With the help of a young Teddy Roosevelt, Cleveland gained enough support in Congress to pass reform legislation. Then in 1884, Governor Cleveland became the Democratic nominee for President.
To say the Election of 1884 was a heated one, would be the understatement of the century. Mud slinging is practically an American past time (see Jefferson v Adams), but the campaigns of James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland were about as friendly as those of the 2016 presidential race, which is to say not at all.
So much dirt was dug up on both candidates that it really made neither one look like a viable choice. Grover’s campaign pointed out that Blaine had a back door deal with the Union Pacific Railroad, but Blaine’s campaign had something even more juicy. While Blaine, the Republican nominee, had taken cash bribes for congressional favors as the Speaker of the House, it also came to light that Grover Cleveland, a bachelor, had a son out of wed lock that he walked out on.
Supporters of Grover shouted, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine!” While Blaine’s camp chanted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”
You see, in 1874, Cleveland had an ‘illegitimate’ son (named Oscar Folsom Cleveland) with Maria Crofts Halpin. This was kind of a big deal in the 1880’s, when divorce was unheard of and you just didn’t have kids if you weren’t married. But it goes waaay deeper than that. It turns out, Grover Cleveland was involved in one of the most notorious sex scandals and cover ups in American politics.
On December 15th, 1873, Grover Cleveland (a sheriff at the time) invited Maria Halpin out on a date and wouldn’t take no for an answer. After dinner, Cleveland walked her back to her place, where he.. um, forced himself on her – according to her report of the incident: “[b]y use of force and violence and without my consent.” Halpin threatened to call the police, but Grover threatened to ruin her life. Which is all kinds of messed up.
But it gets worse…
Nine months later, Maria gave birth to a son. What happened next is horrible. Grover had her baby taken from her and placed into an orphanage. He then had her thrown into Providence Lunatic Asylum! She was later released once they realized that she wasn’t actually crazy. A few years later he became the Governor of New York and ran for President on a campaign of honesty as “Grover the Good”.
Despite all the baby mama drama, Grover Cleveland narrowly won the election against Blaine (by just 23,000 votes) and became the first Democratic President since James Buchanan, before the Civil War. Grover Cleveland’s first term as President was pretty mediocre all in all. On one hand he furthered the fight against the Spoils system and corruption in government, on the other hand he signed the Scott Act into law which further discriminated against Chinese immigrants.
One interesting note is that Cleveland became the first President to get married while in office, when he married his best friend’s daughter, which isn’t super weird at all. Francis Folsom was also the youngest first lady at just 21 years old, making her a good 27 years younger than Grover…
By 1888, Cleveland’s unpopular stance on tariff reductions cost him a second term during the election against Benjamin Harrison. (see more below) But then, after a 4-year hiatus (which he spent fishing), Grover Cleveland made a surprise come back in the election of 1892! (Something that hasn’t happened before or since, in America – although Putin did something similar in Russia) President Cleveland gained way more votes during his second election, but his second term was much less successful. Between his complete mishandling of the Pullman Railroad Strikes and the Economic Panic of 1893, Cleveland’s approval rating dropped significantly.
The Pullman Railroad Strikes soon became a nation-wide debacle that halted transportation across the country for months. The labor union had every right to be upset and even made sure to not halt military / government trains. Unfortunately, instead of sending in a mediator, Cleveland responded in the worst way possible, with force. Grover made the strike illegal, then sent in martial law to violently put down the peaceful protesters. This of course only escalated things. Some of the laborers started sabotaging trains and began causing collisions. 12,000 troops were deployed in Illinois. The Marines went in and started firing on the rioters. Ultimately at least 13 civilians were killed and another 57 injured.
Years later, on his death bed, Grover Cleveland’s last words were, “I have tried so hard to do right.”
Meanwhile, Maria Halpin died with only $200 to her name and completely ostracized by society because of what Grover Cleveland did to her.
Thanks for reading! If you’re a fan of the blog, be sure to listen to the Epik Fails of History podcast and check out my all new “EPIC FAILS” book series – available now wherever books are sold! “EPIC FAILS: Not-So-Great Presidents” hits shelves on January 15th, 2019.
American Presidents: Life Portraits (C-SPAN)
Confluence of Events – podcast: “Presidents Behaving Badly”