Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born in Delaware, Ohio, on October 4, 1822, the son of Rutherford Hayes and Sophia Birchard. Hayes's father, a Vermont storekeeper, took the family to Ohio in 1817 but died ten weeks before his son's birth. Sophia took charge of the family, bringing up Hayes and his sister, Fanny, the only two of her four children to survive to adulthood.She never remarried. Sophia's younger brother, Sardis Birchard, lived with the family for a time. Always close to Hayes, Sardis Birchard became a father figure to him, contributing to his early education
Hayes attended the common schools in Delaware, Ohio, and enrolled in 1836 at the Methodist Norwalk Seminary in Norwalk, Ohio. He did well at Norwalk, and the following year transferred to a preparatory school in Middletown, Connecticut, where he studied Latin and Ancient Greek. Returning to Ohio, Hayes entered Kenyon College in Gambier in 1838. He enjoyed his time at Kenyon, and was successful scholastically, joining several student societies and became interested in Whig politics. Rutherford Hayes graduated with highest honors in 1842 and addressed the class as its valedictorian.
After briefly reading law in Columbus, Ohio, Hayes moved east once more to attend Harvard Law School in 1843. Graduating with an LL.B, he was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1845 and opened his own law office in Lower Sandusky (now Fremont). Business was slow at first, but he gradually attracted a few clients and also represented his uncle Sardis in real estate litigation.
In 1847, Hayes became ill with what his doctor thought to be tuberculosis. Thinking a change in climate would help, he considered enlisting in the Mexican–American War, but on his doctor's advice he instead visited family in New England. Returning from there, Hayes decided to move to Cincinnati.
Hayes moved to Cincinnati in 1850, and opened a law office with John W. Herron. Later, Herron joined a more established firm and Hayes formed a new partnership with William K. Rogers and Richard M. Corwine. Rutherford Hayes and Lucy Webb became engaged in 1851 and married on December 30, 1852, at the house of Lucy's mother. The couple went on to have three sons. Lucy, a Methodist, teetotaler, and abolitionist, influenced her husband's views on those issues, although he never formally joined her church.
When the Civil War broke out, Hayes was already nearly forty-years old and the father of three. Using his political connections, Hayes was appointed a major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteers. An officer with no military experience, he learned quickly, worked hard, and with his "intense and ferocious" demeanor on the battlefield gained the respect of the enlisted men and his superiors. At the Battle of Opequon Creek, for example, Hayes led the charge through a morass that turned the tide of battle. Wounded five times in the war, Hayes kept leading his men into battle, and by the end of the conflict he was a brigadier general, and later breveted major general for "gallant and distinguished services."
While campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 he was nominated in Cincinnati for the U.S. House of Representatives. Hayes refused to return to take to the stump, stating that "an officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped." That statement was worth all the speeches he could have made. Hayes was elected and the war was over before the first session of his Congress met on in December 1865.
Between 1867 and 1876 Rutherford Hayes served three terms as Governor of Ohio. Safe liberalism, party loyalty, and a good war record made Hayes an acceptable Republican candidate in 1876. He opposed Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York.
Although a galaxy of famous Republican speakers, and even Mark Twain, stumped for Hayes, he expected the Democrats to win. When the first returns seemed to confirm this, Hayes went to bed, believing he had lost. But in New York, Republican National Chairman Zachariah Chandler, aware of a loophole, wired leaders to stand firm: "Hayes has 185 votes and is elected." The popular vote apparently was 4,300,000 for Tilden to 4,036,000 for Hayes. Hayes's election depended upon contested electoral votes in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. If all the disputed electoral votes went to Hayes, he would win; a single one would elect Tilden. Months of uncertainty followed. In January 1877 Congress established an Electoral Commission to decide the dispute. The commission, made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, determined all the contests in favor of Hayes by eight to seven. The final electoral vote: 185 to 184.
Northern Republicans had been promising southern Democrats at least one Cabinet post, Federal patronage, subsidies for internal improvements, and withdrawal of troops from Louisiana and South Carolina. Hayes insisted that his appointments must be made on merit, not political considerations. For his Cabinet he chose men of high caliber, but outraged many Republicans because one member was an ex-Confederate and another had bolted the party as a Liberal Republican in 1872.
Hayes pledged protection of the rights of Negroes in the South, but at the same time advocated the restoration of "wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government." This meant the withdrawal of troops. Hayes hoped such conciliatory policies would lead to the building of a "new Republican party" in the South, to which white businessmen and conservatives would rally.
Many of the leaders of the new South did indeed favor Republican economic policies and approved of Hayes's financial conservatism, but they faced annihilation at the polls if they were to join the party of Reconstruction. Hayes and his Republican successors were persistent in their efforts but could not win over the "solid South." Hayes had announced in advance that he would serve only one term, and retired to Spiegel Grove, his home in Fremont, Ohio, in 1881. He died in 1893.