Study Guide

Rutherford B. Hayes in Chinese Exclusion Act

By Chester A. Arthur

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford Hayes only has a peripheral connection to the Chinese Exclusion Act, but he's a bit of a hero in the story. And we desperately need one of those.

Much like Chester A. Arthur, who was the second president after him (James Garfield was first, but was killed within two hundred days of inauguration), Hayes tends to be forgotten. If anything, he should be remembered for his awesome hipster beard.

When Hayes' father died, his mother took over to raise the family. Incidentally, all those people in the family tree named "Rutherford" isn't a typo. These folks really liked the name Rutherford. Go figure. So Hayes' mom Sophia stepped up and did the hard job of raising herself a future president.

Hayes was a lawyer by trade, but the Civil War changed that. When Confederates shot at Fort Sumter, Hayes signed up. He served honorably in the war, was wounded, and rose to the rank of general.

Hayes started his political career while he was still in the army. In 1864, Republicans nominated him for Congress. Hayes refused to leave combat to campaign—he instead wrote letters stating his political positions from the front. That's pretty much the most baller move ever: "Sorry, can't do a speech. I'm busy being a war hero, thanks."

Hayes tried to retire, but Republicans pulled him back into politics, first to be Governor of Ohio, then to be president, running against Samuel J. Tilden. The election was controversial, coming down to confusion over the electoral college. So that's nothing new at least. Hayes won, but the nickname "Rutherfraud" is fallout from that. (Source)

His relationship with Chinese immigrants was far more acceptable than the later presidents. Initially, the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the U.S. and China allowed as many immigrants as they wanted, but an economic downturn in 1873 cut down on the work available. Now the Chinese immigrants were competing with white Americans for jobs.

An attempt a Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress, but Hayes vetoed it. His reasoning was that Congress shouldn't be able to overturn treaties. He's not wrong, but history probably would have liked it better had he just said, "Really? Chinese Exclusion? That ain't right."

In his inaugural speech, Hayes promised to serve only one term, and he did. He retired from politics, but not from service. He served as a trustee for three colleges, as well as president of a charity dedicated to providing a Christian education to free African Americans. That's pretty cool, right?

Hayes lived to the ripe old age of seventy, having done more in his life than most people can imagine. And yet not many people remember him. That's weird.

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