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Morton: Hayes owes political success to his wife

Published: Monday, Dec. 30, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

On this day (Dec. 30) in 1852, Ohio Whig lawyer and future Republican politician Rutherford Birchard Hayes married the “most attractive and lovable” Lucy Ware Webb (1831-1889) in a ceremony at the bride’s home.

Lucy, in the first 27 years of her 57-year marriage to Rutherford (or Rud as he was often called), gave birth to eight children, of which five (four sons and one daughter) lived to adulthood.

From all evidence, this marriage was a happy one. The vivacious and intelligent Lucy had received what was probably the best education available to women in the mid-19th century. Along with her two brothers, Lucy first matriculated at Ohio Wesleyan (a Methodist College), where she became the college’s first woman student.

This was followed by her enrolling at Wesleyan Female College. Interestingly, Lucy Hayes would become the first first lady to earn a college degree. As Rud wrote after her lamentable death, “Few men ... have been as blessed as I have been. From early mature manhood ... I have enjoyed her society in the most intimate of all relations.”

After her husband’s election in 1876 as the 19 U.S. president, Lucy became one of the most influential, reform-minded, sociable first ladies. Often criticized in the press for her imposing a ban on alcohol at White House functions, Lucy was often given, sometimes derogatorily, but also, somewhat, undeservingly, the cognomen of “Lemonade Lucy.”

This criticism, however, was not entirely warranted because she did provide at state dinners a “Life Saving Station” in the White House, where guests could go to satisfy their need or desire for “liquid refreshment.”

Many White House diners, especially foreign diplomats, often were reported to have taken advantage of Lucy’s “temperance concession.”

As first lady, Lucy was the perfect helpmate for her politician husband. After Rud’s entrance into politics in 1865, Lucy changed from being an early feminist and abolitionist, which would have sometimes been a detriment to her politically ambitious husband, to being a highly supportive politician’s wife.

Her sociability, charm, intelligence and good political sense were frequently noticed in the press and became almost legendary.

For his part, Rud served honorably in the Union Army during the Civil War and in the political arena thereafter. Among his many political positions were two years in the national House of Representatives and two terms as the governor of Ohio.

On March 2, 1877, he resigned as governor to assume the U.S. presidency. Born Oct. 4, 1822, in Delaware, Ohio, young Hayes received an excellent education – first at the Methodist Academy in Norwalk, Ohio, then at the Webb Preparatory School in Middletown, Conn., and at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, from where he graduated in 1842. He graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1845.

Although Hayes is, perhaps deservedly, one of the lesser known U.S. presidents, he should be remembered as an honest, hardworking, pious public servant who helped, with his demeanor and good common sense, to restore confidence in the U.S. government and the presidency after the widespread corruption and scandals of the Grant era.

When he is remembered at all, it is usually for winning the controversial, highly corrupt presidential election of 1876, when he prevailed, probably illegally, over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.

Although Hayes’ presidency was not overly noteworthy, it should be stated that many of his real and alleged political successes and accomplishments were due to his having as his spouse, “The Ideal First Lady.”

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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