History has been rather unsympathetic to Rutherford B. Hayes. I get it and understand. But in research I’ve found, in President Hayes, a man emerging that is more layered, complex, and empathetic than history has portrayed. I am not a credentialed historian, but I have approached this effort as a historian as detective gathering evidence, as any journalist would do. Some of the information I’ve found on President Hayes shines new, and in some ways, contradictory light on our 19th President.
The below New York Times article, written by Sara Jane Lippincott under the nom de plume “Grace Greenwood,” describes an evening at Howard University where emotions were thick in the air. [ED Note: This 1,500 word excerpt is part of Greenwood’s larger “Views on Passing Events” column. The night was covered a week before by the New York Times with a much smaller article.]
The remarks of President Hayes and Marshal Douglass are quoted in places, but more directly paraphrased. Even so, the remarks of Marshal Douglass are stirring.
On Thursday last I accompanied a party of friends to Howard University, where we had some very interesting exercises. The ostensible occasion was the presentation to the college of a fine large engraving of Carpenter’s picture, but really it was a sort of memorial service for Abraham Lincoln – occurring as it did, a day or two after his birthday. The President and his amiable wife were present, with Marshal Douglass, Col. T. W. Higginson, the munificent Mrs. Thompson, that lady bountiful and beautiful and a few lesser lights of politics, literature, and patriotism. The speech of Frederick Douglass did not unbeseem his old reputation for eloquence, wit, and honest good sense. His talk to the students was paternal in spirit, and on the whole, cheery in tone, though unsparing in admonition and rebuke. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” and he did lay on right lustily. It was a plain talk, with all harshness and bitterness taken out of it by the genial humor so peculiar to that orator – and by the tact which caused him to use the pronoun “we” instead of “you.”
Col. Higginson told some wonderful stories of his war experiences in the South – of the solemn rejoicing of the negroes over the emancipation proclamation, which came to them like a new gospel, let down from the New Jerusalem. The freedmen of Georgia at that time would scarcely have echoed the doubts, the “buts,” and the “ifs” of Mr. Stephens as to the wisdom and beneficence of the act which metamorphosed them from chattels into men, and if hard after-experience has caused those poor, dispersed plantation laborers, those disbanded black volunteers to grow disheartened with their “free, unhoused condition,” and feel to hanker after the flesh-pots of Egypt, if they find that to “call no man master” is, after all, a costly luxury, that to sow ballots is to reap bullets, and that “the wages of politics is death,” up here the race is as strong in faith, if not in position, and as much enamored for freedom, if not of Republicanism, as ever. They still believe liberty is a good thing – they still sing, “We are rising,” and believe it, though the yeast of the Freedmen’s Bureau has given out. When I looked around on the African portion of the audience – representatives of every shade of that unfortunate people who have seemed to us born during an eclipse of Divine favor – when I noticed them, the students especially, listening eagerly and seriously to words both of sympathy and reproof – the darkest face touched with the mysterious light of thought and aspiration, and set with a brave resolve to struggle against the love of idleness and pleasure – the real “curse of Ham” – I felt that all the honest questioning in the mind of Mr. Stephens as to the wisdom and righteousness of Mr. Lincoln’s act, was abundantly answered.
If that act was a military necessity, considered in the councils of the President it was also a need of humanity, settled and decreed n the counsels of the Almighty. If the justice was compulsory, it was Divine coercion. The noble eloquence – the very appearance of an ex-slave on the same platform with the President of the United States, was a sufficient answer to the doubts of the ex-Confederate. I remember when Marshal Douglass was a young fugitive, in deadly fear of Marshals – when if he dared to show his face in Washington, or even in New-York or Boston, he was liable to be arrested and taken back to Maryland, “With gyves upon his wrists,”
I remember when hapless, and perhaps overzealous, philanthropists were imprisoned in the horrible old jail in Judiciary-square for helping such “discontented, demoralized darkies” as he out of bondage. I remember when between the Capitol and Georgetown was a slave prison; I remember how once a young slave girl escaped from that prison and took to the long bridge, hoping, perhaps, to hide herself in the woods about Arlington, but, being chased and headed off, leaped from the bridge into the Potomac and found there presently Patrick Henry’s alternative for “liberty.” About the bravest thing which our President has done since appointing Mr. Douglass Marshal of the District, and standing by his man, and one of the best things he has ever done, was to make this visit to the “Black University,” just at the time when it was being assailed. The present head of the institution, Dr. Patton, a man of rare intellect and culture and noble character, deserved this mark of respect and confidence – as I believe do all colored Professors. The words the President addressed to the students were wise, timely, and generous. As I could not wholly accept the assertion of Mr. Stephens that “among the whole Southern people there is not one who would change the state of things, resubjugate the colored man, and put him in the same state he was in before the war,” I cannot believe with President Hayes that “no one will deny the wisdom, the righteousness, and the grandeur of Abraham Lincoln’s act of emancipation,” but I honor the man for saying so, if he believed so, and for saying it so strongly. Mr. Garrison, the rugged Luther of these latter days could not have more stoutly championed the act for which we are all made to feel that the august shade of Lincoln is on trial to-day.
If the President by this visit gave happiness and encouragement to hearts not overfilled as the best with the wine of gladness, the presence of the President’s wife was received as an absolute benediction, her face as a soft light in a shadowy place. It is a most womanly and gracious presence – radiating gentleness and courtesy – a face whose character is best expressed by the word “lovely.” It was touching to note how, as Mr. Douglass pictured with master-strokes sad scenes before the war, and Col. Higginson, pathetic scenes during the war, her large dark eyes, “Sweetest eyes were ever seen,” mirrored every phase of feeling and often filled with sympathetic tears. The President’s wife may be a little quant and old-fashioned, but she is good – (perhaps, simple goodness is about as quant and old-fashioned a thing as we can see nowadays) – and when a woman has all the cardinal virtues, the coiffure is of little account – when she was the “ornament of a meek and quiet spirit” her “price is above rubies,” and diamonds are at a discount.
The University people received most gratefully the gift of Mr. Carpenter, looking with tender, not fault-finding, eyes, on the sad face of their great deliverer, and on the faces of his great associates. Since the original painting has hung in its place in the Capitol, I have been to see it, and trying to forget what all others have said, have made up my own humble estimate. I think it has merits of which the common people are perhaps the best judges. It has an air of rigid and homely fidelity, in its inception and execution, and in the portraits of that remarkable group, in all details of the picture. The fact that it was painted under the eye of Lincoln and his counselors, that the real costumes however commonplace, the customary attitudes, however ungraceful, of the men, all the actual accessories of the scene, were faithfully copied and preserved, certainly gives to it an exceptional value. The portraits are unquestionable likeness – that of Lincoln as his saddest, wannest, and weariest perhaps, but good, very good, as Lincoln portraits go; that of Seward is better; that of Stanton best. I do not like the color of some of the faces, and for that reason prefer the engraving to the painting. Mr. Carpenter was an absolute devout of Abraham Lincoln, and painted this picture in a most loving and loyal sprit. I think all that can be seen in his work, and, perhaps, it is not the worst atmosphere a picture of the kind can have. I have noticed that the painting has been much more severely criticized now that it has come to us as a gift than it was some four years ago when it was exhibited here and we understood that Government was negotiating for its purchase. I may be wrong, but I attribute much of this ungracious and harsh criticism to the change of feeling toward our sometimes foes, and a greater change of feeling toward our sometimes allies – toward both people conquered and the people emancipated by the means of that important aggressive document in the hand of that central figure of that picture – a light weapon, lightly held, but of 40-thunderbolt power.