Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, is too often remember only as the teetotaling White House hostess who banned all alcohol from being served in the presidential mansion. Others portrayed her as almost saintly, the model of modern womanhood concerned only with the betterment of humankind. However, Lucy Hayes was much more than these caricatures.
Lucy Webb was born in Ohio in 1833 and was only two when her father died. Her parents were active abolitionists. In fact, her father contracted the cholera that caused his death after going to Kentucky to free slaves he had inherited. Not only did her family support the abolition of slavery, but as good Methodists, they supported the temperance movement.
When she was thirteen, Lucy’s family moved to Delaware, Ohio so her two older brothers could attend Ohio Wesleyan. Lucy’s intelligence so impressed the professors that she was invited to sit in on classes at this all-male institution. Eventually she attended Cincinnati Wesleyan College for Females where she graduated at age eighteen.
About the time of her graduation, she met a young attorney, Rutherford B. Hayes. After two years of courtship, the couple married in late 1852. The bride was twenty-one. The groom was thirty. The couple eventually had eight children, five of whom reached adulthood.
Lucy’s opposition to the institution of slavery influenced her husband who began to defend runaway slaves who had crossed from Kentucky into Ohio. In many ways their values were aligned, although Lucy was a stronger supporter of women’s rights than her husband ever was, but her support was limited. Because of his opposition to slavery, Hayes was an early member of the newly formed Republican party. He and his wife actively campaigned in 1856 for Charles Fremont, the Republican Presidential candidate. Lucy believed Jesse Benton Fremont would have made a wonderful White House hostess.
Both Lucy and Rutherford believed the abolition of slavery could be occur without going to war, but once the Civil War broke out, both supported the Union cause. Lucy was heard to say that had she been at Fort Sumter, she would have refused to surrender.
Rutherford volunteered for military service and was appointed to the 23rd Ohio Volunteers as a Major. Ultimately, he rose to the rank of Major-General. As often as she could, Lucy joined her husband on his campaigns and even worked with her brother, a doctor, in caring for sick and injured soldiers. She also spent time cooking for her husband’s troops, sewing, and helping them in anyway she could earning her the nickname ‘Mother of the Regiment.’
In 1864, without campaigning and while still on the battle field, Rutherford Hayes was elected to the House of Representatives and then reelected in 1866. He did not actually take his seat until after the war was over in 1865. While he served in DC, Lucy spent time there and in Ohio with their children. Often found in the visitor’s gallery, Lucy was well-informed on the political and social issues of the day and became her husband’s confidant and unofficial advisor.
At first impressed by Andrew Johnson, she eventually sided with the more radical Republicans in opposition to Johnson’s reconstruction policies. On one trip to the south with her husband and a congressional delegation, she attempted to explain the importance of ‘Negro Suffrage’ to southern women. Her arguments fell on deaf ears.
In 1868, the couple returned to Ohio where Hayes was installed as the Governor of Ohio. Lucy then publicly and actively began her work for the welfare of children and veterans. She set up a home for children orphaned by the Civil War. Although funded with private monies, the orphanage was run by the state. Her concerns about ‘institutions’ expanded to include working for improvements in facilities set up for the deaf and the blind.
Lucy Hayes continued to support these causes after her husband was elected to the White House. The election of 1876 marred by charges of voter suppression, ballot tampering, disputed electors was only resolved on March 2nd 1877, two days before the new President was to take office. No inaugural ball was held, the normal festivities had been curtailed. The Hayes were escorted into Washington with a group of special agents protecting them—the first such use of the Secret Service.
Lucy stood by her husband’s side as he took the oath of office on March 4, 1877. What the public did not know was Hayes had actually been sworn in two days before on March 2nd in a private ceremony held in the Red Room of the White House. Lucy was to stand by her husband’s side throughout his one term in office.
Hayes had idealistic dreams of bringing the country together, emphasizing the importance of the Constitution in history. He pulled federal troops out of the south believing the promises of the southern states that they would no infringe of the rights of the newly freed slaves. This ushered in the era of Jim Crow. He did institute sound money policies which made business and industry stronger; he was an opponent of ‘greenbacks,’ paper money issued by the government with nothing to back the currency. In his attempt to reach his goals, he managed to make almost every political faction in the country angry.
As First Lady (and she was the first or one of the first women to be given that title, historians are divided on the issue), she continued to work for the causes close to her heart—the welfare of children and those unable to care for themselves. She visited schools for the deaf and blind. She established scholarships for African-American children to attend schools and was interested in programs to help Native American children. Education was a priority for her. Lucy Hayes was the first wife of a president to graduate from college.
Too often she is remembered only as Lemonade Lucy, the woman who kept alcohol out of the White House and held hymn sings on Sunday night. This is a very distorted picture of Lucy Hayes. True, there was only one dinner where alcohol was served and that was when the Grand-Duke Alexis came to dinner. The decision about beer, wine and hard liquor was not made by Lucy, but by her husband who sought to placate the avid temperance wing of the Republican Party. He made the decision. She took the blame. The couple did hold Sunday evening hymn sings for family and friends, but she also hosted many musical evenings, often inviting people of color to perform at those events.
Lucy’s long-lasting contributions to the White House include the introduction of the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn. She ordered a set of china for the mansion to be decorated with the flora and fauna of the United States. A portrait of Martha Washington was commissioned to hang opposite that of George Washington. Lucy, in fact, ordered that an Ohio artist paint the portraits of all the presidents who were not yet represented in the White House collection. As First Lady, she was present at the dedication of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History in New York city. One final cause Lucy Hayes took up was advocating for the completion of the Washington Monument.
It was also under her tenure as First Lady that bathrooms with running water were installed in the White House. However, money needed for refurbishing the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave was denied by Congress. Lucy disguised holes in the carpet by moving furniture and scoured the attics for useable furniture to replace pieces that had broken over the years.
Often pressured by various groups to be their spokesperson or advocate, Lucy avoided siding with any specific group. She traveled throughout the United States including a seventy-one day cross-country tour in 1880 where she went down into a silver mine, visited the new University of Southern California, and toured Yosemite.
Hayes had promised when running for election in 1876 that he would only serve one term. Even if he wanted to change his mind, the Republican Party refused to renominate him. Lucy and her husband returned to Ohio in 1881 where she continued to advocate for causes she felt strongly about—children, education, improving conditions for former slaves.
In 1889 at the age of 57, Lucy Webb Hayes died after suffering a stroke. She was surrounded by her beloved family, her gardens, and her animals. While she was First Lady, the White House was home to a mockingbird, two dogs, a goat, and what may have been the country’s first Siamese cat. In many ways she was a transition between the First Lady’s role of just being a hostess to being political activist. She was a loving wife and mother.
While she was First Lady, Lucy Hayes was considered to be a model for other women to follow. She was aware of that responsibility and did her best to put her values into practice. She was so much more than the sobriquet of Lemonade Lucy.