The fact that the 1877 Inauguration fell on a Sunday was a pale factor in making it the most compelling stories of these historic occasions, compared to the drama leading up to it.
By the time the calendars had fated a third American President to begin his Administration on a Sunday, officials were fully prepared for the outdoor swearing-in ceremony to take place on a Monday, having the 1817 Monroe and 1849 Taylor ceremonies as examples. Which day of the week the President-Elect would assume power, however, was not now the problem.
Who the newly-elected President might be was the problem.
Woven into a disturbing narrative of what transpired to result in the inauguration of Rutherford Hayes is the lighter vantage point of a largely forgotten First Lady. While her attempts to influence the process proved inconsequential, the startling moxie she applied to retain her limited realm of power nevertheless illuminates the comparable extent to which her male contemporaries were willing to ruthlessly coerce the system to gain national power.
Usually, right after Election Day the uncertain nerves of investors begin to ease and water-cooler bets are collected among colleagues. Right after Election Day in 1876, however, the nation’s nerves only tensed further and all bets were off.
Democratic presidential candidate, New York governor Samuel J. Tilden had won a majority of the popular vote over the Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes.
Tilden, however, fell one vote short of the required number of electoral votes.
And the votes of twenty members of the electoral college in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were in dispute. Republicans controlled those states and claimed that their electors were the legitimate ones. Not so, said the Democratic Party leaders of those states – their electors were the legal ones.
Days turned into weeks as the next stage of arguing began, the subjective matter of certifying legitimate members of the electoral college.
Despite the snow flurries of December, the political landscape was not only rapidly darkening but there was also the threat of it soon being overrun in rivers of red.
Tilden had won more than 50 percent of the popular vote. If he was steamrolled and Hayes declared the winner, southern Democrats in Congress warned their northern Republican colleagues, the secession of southern states from Union again would be the least of their worries. Already, there were reports of a plan among ex-Confederates to systemically launch acts of terrorism against the federal buildings and employees in Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida.
Northerners knew what this meant. In those southern states which no longer had any federal troops stationed there, many black men who dared to vote or succeed in business or demand justice for legal infractions committed against them – as well as white men who supported their rights – often ended up being kidnapped, tortured and hung by white men who covered their faces with scarves.
For nearly all of his eight years as President, the former Union Army General who had crushed Dixie, Ulysses S. Grant, had kept Federal troops in firm control of southern states. The troops were enforcing the 14th amendment’s guarantee that black males could vote, and when they voted it was for Republicans. It was also no coincidence that the few southern states which still had federal troops stationed there by the 1876 Election were the only ones controlled by Republicans. In those states where federal troops were withdrawn, like North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, political control quickly returned entirely to the white southern Democrats. The subtext of the 1876 Election dispute was essentially the same old fight for power between Republicans and Democrats. Basically, the Republicans wanted to retain their national power of a President and the Democrats wanted to regain their state power of Governors in all the southern states.
In the White House, Grant knew it was improper for a President to become involved in the legal dispute but naturally favored his fellow Republican as a successor Despite the numerous scandals which had plagued his two terms, many believed he could have won a third term. A year earlier, however, his convening a sudden Cabinet meeting on a Sunday raised the suspicions of his overtly political wife.
Julia Grant became downright alarmed when he shut the door without telling her why he’d organized a work meeting on a weekend. Opening the door as it adjourned, Grant casually slipped a note to a waiting messenger, ready to face the First Lady’s inquisition. By the time he mumbled his confession that he’d decided not to seek another term, the messenger boy carrying his statement about it to reporters was well on his way. Julia Grant was livid. “Oh, Ulys! Was that fair to me? Was that just to me?” Grant shrugged; if he had talked it over with her first, he’d be running for a third term.
As the light of his freedom came increasingly into view, Grant wanted to end his second term on schedule at high noon on Sunday, March 4, 1877.
With a coiffure intricately twisted and massed beneath flowered hats and lace parasols, in bustles so busily beaded, embroidered, and tasseled that she could pass for one of her Victorian ottoman chairs, it was so hard to avoid caricaturing Julia Grant that even Mark Twain succumbed, barely veiling her as the First Lady in his novel, The Gilded Age.
If it was bad enough that Grant’s brother-in-law, private secretary and several Cabinet members were enmeshed in a series of Administration scandals, the congressional investigation over allegations that Mrs. Grant had profited by $27,000 in the Wall Street panic known as Black Friday was historically unprecedented for a First Lady. At that point, the fact that her favorite theater escorts were robber barons Jim Gould and Jay Fisk was redundant.
As always, there was another side to the story. After nearly thirty years of passionate loyalty to her husband through his poverty, depression, failed enterprises, their separations during military assignments, and her enduring a nomadic existence from one Civil War post to another, moving into the White House in 1869 had been not just “a bright and beautiful dream” for Julia Grant, but had begun “the happiest period of my life.”
And no matter how many guests snickered sarcastically about her furnishing the East Room in “Steamboat Revival style,” they ran fast to her lavish parties, headed straight for the never-ending flow of her punchbowl. There, they clasped holy grails of Mrs. Grant’s legendary, wickedly intoxicating Roman Punch, a concoction of the finest champagne and sweetest white rum.
This First Lady thumbed her nose at the uncompromising moral standards of temperance advocates who demanded that nothing stronger than Earl Grey be served at her tea parties. Over the course of the Grant Administration, however, they had begun to coalesce enough power to form their own Prohibition Party and even hold their first convention and nominate a presidential candidate to run against Grant. Within a dozen years, Prohibitionist Party presidential candidates would go from earning 2,100 votes to a quarter of a million. Within fifty years, they would achieve their ultimate goal of a constitutional ban on the manufacturing and selling of alcohol.
Temperance had fast become one of the contentious social issues interjected in the presidential campaigns. Gentle and witty Rutherford Hayes was also cagey. He wanted to avoid temperance from becoming a wedge issue and keep its Republicans advocates within the party rather than join the growing Prohibition Party. Yet he also didn’t believe that fighting for an outright ban on booze was the way to go. As he wrote in his diary some years later about the issue, “Personally I do not resort to force — not even the force of law — to advance moral reforms. I prefer education, argument, persuasion, and above all the influence of example — of fashion.” And that is where his wife, the very antithesis of Julia Grant, came in.
Not even the finest grape vintage had ever brushed the lips of sweet Lucy Hayes, eternally vigilant in maintaining her devout Methodist oath to never drink. While cautious to never insist that others conform to her own moral code, she assumed responsibility for how her own household was conducted.
If there were guests in her home, they would not be served any alcoholic beverage. And if her family home ended up being in the national house that rule would apply there as well.
In fact, as Julia Grant and the rest of the nation had read in the papers soon after Election Day, no guest in the Ohio Governor’s house had ever been offered spirits.
As 1876 neared its end, the Hayes home may have been safe from demon rum, but not from gunfire. Ridiculous threats had continued to be made against Hayes but when a bullet intended for him pierced through the window as he ate dinner with his family, all were reminded that there was still an election to be resolved. Fresh warnings of danger were issued: if Hayes left Columbus in early March intending to proceed to Washington and take the Inaugural oath, he would be kidnapped.
President Grant ordered federal troops to begin circling Washington – just as a precaution.
At the White House New Year’s Day Reception, official Washington came in droves for one last sip of Julia Grant’s Roman Punch. “Life at the White House was a garden spot of orchids,” she waxed on dreamily – before affirming an unbridled ambition at odds with the electoral process: “I wish it might have continued forever.”
The fact that Inauguration Day was barely two months away and there was still no resolution on the next president convinced Julia Grant that she had not made her last stand.
One nation’s unprecedented constitutional crisis was this First Lady’s opportunity.
The following week, Mrs. President went to Congress herself, crowds parting like the Red Sea as she made her way to a seat, front and center, to assess the heated legal arguments qualifying and disqualifying various electors.
She was there when, on January 29, 1877, Congress voted to finally form an Electoral Commission of fifteen members from both parties in the House and Senate, and five Supreme Court justices.
Two days later, legal counsel representing each political side began the long process of arguing for the validity of each party’s set of the twenty disputed electors.
Realizing that this legal process might not be over by Inauguration Day, the First Lady formulated her own practical solution, even though it would mean the personal sacrifice of a world tour her husband was planning for them after leaving office.
“My policy,” Julia Grant announced, “would have been to hold the fort until another election could be held.”
The President reacted to her with vague amusement, remarking only that,”I’m afraid you would.” While she knew he was eager to leave, he did not then disclose to her his own support of a verbal compromise which was being struck in private.
Naivete let Mrs. Grant accept gifts and consider the attached strings as lovely ribbons but it also guided her impulse for placing fairness above partisanship.
When the Electoral Commission voted to invalidate the Democratic electors chosen by Louisiana’s new governor in favor of the Republican ones, she angrily broke in on the President’s meeting with several Senators to declare it “wrong and incompatible.”
She was met with silence. “What does this mean?” she asked ominously. She looked around at each Senator until one finally coughed up, “As you say, Madame, the two seem incompatible.”
Julia Grant certainly heard the reports that Democratic Civil War veterans from both the North and the South were already organized and armed, poised to storm Washington during the Inauguration.
The Northerners would safely and secretly bring Tilden in and, at the show of weapons if necessary, force a Supreme Court justice to swear him in as President.
The Southerners, so the conspiracy went, were assigned the task of kidnapping or killing Hayes. This was apart from the retaliatory violence promised against African-American men and the remaining white federal troops in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. To the President and members of Congress and the Supreme Court, the specter of armed violence seemed palpable.
Raising the chances for trouble, Governor and Mrs. Hayes left Ohio on Thursday, March 1 and slipped into a closed carriage which took them to the rail station. In proceeding to Washington they seemed to be vulnerable targets for attack. While Hayes maintained that he was still unsure of the outcome.
The day his train pulled into the capital, however, the Electoral Commission announced that by a margin of one vote among its fifteen members, they had decided to give him the twenty electoral votes and thus victory. All that was legally necessary now to seal the deal was a House vote of approval.
Although they were not sure they had enough votes to begin a filibuster, southern Democrats began to talk of delaying the approval of the commission decision. and thus further delay the Hayes inauguration well past March 4.
Perhaps Julia Grant would get to linger as First Lady a bit longer after all.
All of the commissi0n’s high-minded public transparency along with the potential spite of further theatrical delay tactics, however, masked a more expedient closed-door deal which was never publicly divulged: House Democrats would agree not to filibuster and to let Hayes “win” if Republicans essentially relinquished power in southern states by withdrawing all remaining federal troops from there. Sure, okay – they agree and the so-called “Compromise of 1877″ was struck.”
For many Americans, it was really “The Great Betrayal,” as they called it. As part of the deal Republicans got southern Democrats to promise to uphold the rights of African-Americans. When federal troops left, the Reconstruction era abruptly ended and one of segregation, denial of voting rights and lynchings began.
Grant, with only forty-eight hours left as President, seemed so eager to get out into the world and get Hayes inaugurated on time, that, as good-faith proof his party would uphold their part of the bargain, immediately withdrew the federal troops in Florida and – wittingly or not – abandoned his previous commitment to ensuring the legal protection of vulnerable blacks in the South.
He also insisted that the newly-minted President-Elect-for-Two-Days and Mrs. Hayes come as his guests to a Saturday, March 3 farewell dinner he and Mrs. Grant were hosting for his Cabinet and their wives on his very last night as President. With room at the table, he also invited Chief Justice and Mrs. Waite for good measure. The more the merrier.
Hayes, who never sought to influence the outcome of the election dispute had not compromised his principals by following through on his agreement to complete the final troop withdrawal from South Carolina and Louisiana. In fact, it was a fulfillment of his campaign promise to restore “home rule” to southern states – on the condition that state laws maintain all legal rights and protections of African-Americans. One of the most personally honest of Presidents, he was guilty of lacking foresight or turning a blind eye to what federal troop withdrawal would mean for southern African-Americans. He also knew the Democratic-majority House refused to approve further federal funding of the troops there.
But he agreed to bring Lucy to dinner on Saturday night with Ulys and Julia.
When the morally pure couple arrived it must have felt like they’d stepped into the final orgy of Babylon. It was full-on Grant style. Above the heads of the thirty-six guests, ropes of roses swung from the ceilings. Bidding her guests to their chairs so they could all begin attacking what would be a twenty-course feast, the outgoing First Lady escorted the incoming First Lady over to a seat of honor, hoping her purposeful graciousness might prove she bore no spiteful resentment towards her overnight successor. There behind the chair set aside for Lucy Hayes, Julia Grant had placed a ten-foot high pink azalea arrangement.
And there, in front of her chair, on the table were six wine glasses.
Dinner was delayed for another three minutes, as the others waited for their host and his honored guest and successor. President Grant had coaxed Governor Hayes, along with the Secretary of State and Chief Justice into the Red Room, not an unusual custom following dinner so the men could all smoke cigars together.
If it seemed odd that the gentlemen would smoke before dinner, everyone knew how Julia’s husband loved cigars.
It must have dawned on Lucy Hayes rather quickly, however, that something strange was going on.
Her husband detested cigars.
In fact, fearing that an unrepentant band of enraged Tilden Democrats who had still come to town might succeed in preventing Hayes from taking the oath of office on Monday, President Grant arranged for Hayes to swiftly and quietly be sworn-in by the Chief Justice. It took all of about three minutes before they joined the others for dinner, making Rutherford Hayes not only the first man to become President in the White House itself, but the only one to be inaugurated before his term legally began.
Before the Hayeses left the Grants, sweet Lucy invited Julia to sit with her and watch Rutherford be sworn-in as President at his ceremonial public swearing-in.
Recalling that she “politely declined,” Mrs. Grant told Mrs. Hayes, “No, I have already witnessed two inaugurations.”
That was not necessarily unusual; other outgoing First Ladies before her had used the few hours time when their husbands’ successors were being inaugurated to bid farewell to the staff and be sure they had taken all their personal possessions.
Checking to be sure that she was, in fact, “going to vacate the house” during those interim hours, a brave usher got his answer. “No,” replied Mrs. Grant, “I am not.”
If the protocols of inauguration time could be bent by Ulys, they could be bent by Julia too. Despite his no longer being the legal President as of noon on Sunday March 4, Grant spent the night up at the Capitol signing in some final appropriations and pardoning some minor criminals.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Grant was busily directing the household staff in swiftly devising one final scheme to delay her leaving the White House until well past the very last possible minute.
On Monday, March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes again repeated the oath of office, this time before crowds which included New York Democrats yelling “Boo, Rutherfraud!”up at him, and making a uniquely offensive noise known as “the Bronx cheer.”
At least Lucy Hayes provoked gales of delight among the gaggle of women’s magazine reporters who hailed her for wearing none of Mrs. Grant’s wig pieces or doused in heavy makeup.
With her black hair simply parted in the center and pulled into a tight bun behind her neck, the angelic look on her face led one chronicler to rhapsody over the new First Lady’s resemblance to the Madonna.
There was to be no Inaugural Ball this time, there having been no time to plan one for Hayes. Highly domestic, focused on their children and enjoying nothing more than a Sunday supper with Methodist hymn-singing around the piano, the President and Mrs. Hayes must have been a little bit startled when they walked into their new home to find – Julia Grant.
This was her swan song, time-warping her tenure one last time to serve as First Lady – for the First Lady.
Mrs. Grant had organized an Inaugural Luncheon, the first of its kind. She had two chairs pulled together and waiting. Mrs. Hayes sank into one of them and beamed a silent smile as Mrs. Grant told her about her wonderful life in the White House.
“My house is yours,” she later admitted she had intended to tell Lucy, but ended up with the more prosaic, “I hope you will be as happy here as I have been for eight years.”
The Grant carriage and horses were waiting outside, under the North Portico porch. Julia walked through the rooms, one more time. “How pretty the house was…flowers on the table….sunlight falling through the lace curtains…..”
Finally, she left. Once on board the train with Ulys, headed west, she burst into sobbing, “Oh, I feel like a waif! Like a waif on the world’s wide common!”
Meanwhile, as dark descended on the White House, the new President hosted a small reception. Told that some Ohio Republicans were outside and expecting to meet him personally, Hayes told the ushers to invite them in. Soon after he came out to review a torchlight parade in his honor.
The crowd had grown massive in the dark of night and some non-Ohio Republicans got ornery, shouting that he was showing regional favoritism by limiting those allowed inside to Ohioans.
With the gentle warmth which characterized him, Hayes finally asked the guards to let everyone in. They did as they were told – but stopped a fellow with a lump in his jacket.
Led away from the mansion, he was carrying a gun.
Tilden, who had never bothered to make his way to Washington in case the commission sided for him, believed that he had really gotten the best of the deal.
“I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people,” he quipped, “without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.”
In truth, Julia Grant got the best deal. After touring the world with her beloved Ulys, they returned and settled in New York where he was swindled by a business partner and they fell for the second time in their marriage into dire poverty. The very man who had once caricatured Julia now ended up saving her. Mark Twain arranged for Grant to write his memoirs. The General died of throat cancer just days after completing the work, but once it was published it became a run-away best-seller. Mark Twain, on behalf of the publisher, presented Julia Grant with the largest royalty check in history, in the amount of $200,000. This was two months after Congress award her a $5000 a year presidential widow’s pension. Over time, the book would earn her another $250,000 and inspire her to write her own memoirs. Her book proved to be so “unladylike” with its blunt and astute political assessments, it was thought best to not publish it until 75 years after her death in 1901.
As for Rutherford Hayes and the role of “Lemonade Lucy,” as his wife would be derisively nicknamed by those resenting her ban on booze – that’s another story.
For those longing to hear some of these characters tell their version of the 1877 Inauguration, there is the well-researched “Duet For Two,” from the Leonard Bernstein theatrical musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with actress Patricia Routledge playing both Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes giving both sides of the story:
- The Double Rarity of Obama’s 2013 Sunday Second Inauguration, Part 1 of 7 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- A Day Without a President, A Day With Three Presidents, Ladies Gone Wild & Lincoln’s Lost Coat: Sunday Inaugurals, Part 3 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Monroe’s Inaudible Inauguration: Rain, Panic, A One-Day Prezzy & A Small Ball, Sunday Inaugurals, Part 2 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Almost 19th President (whatthegoddamnhell.wordpress.com)
- Election season: Remembering the strange election of 1876 (csmonitor.com)