Hayes, Lucy Webb (1831–1889)

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Hayes, Lucy Webb (1831–1889)

American first lady (1877–1881), wife of the 19th president Rutherford B. Hayes, who is remembered primarily for her pro-temperance stand. Born Lucy Ware Webb on August 28, 1831, in Chillicothe, Ohio; died on June 25, 1889; the youngest of three children and only daughter of Dr. James Webb and Maria (Cook) Webb; graduated with high honors from Ohio Wesleyan Female College in 1852; married Rutherford Birchard Hayes (later president of U.S.), on December 30, 1852, in Cincinnati, Ohio; children: Birchard Austin Hayes (1853–1926); Webb Cook Hayes (1856–1935, who became the first presidential son to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his heroism during the Spanish-American War, and established the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio); Rutherford Platt Hayes (1858–1927); Frances, known as Fanny Hayes (1867–1950); Scott Russell Hayes (1871–1923); and three who died in infancy.

At the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, speculation about the new first lady went beyond her severe hair style, lack of makeup, and plain—though elegant—clothing, to questions of character and intent. Would her early interest in reform benefit the emerging women's movement? Would she exert special influence in the White House beyond that of her predecessors? For many, Lucy Ware Webb Hayes ushered in the era of the "new woman." No other first lady before her had finished college. For some, she was a great disappointment. Others understood the limitations imposed on her as a political wife.

Lucy Hayes graduated with high honors from Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a student, she was a member of the debate team and wrote her commencement essay on "The Influence of Christianity on National Prosperity." She met Rutherford Hayes, a rising young attorney, during a summer vacation. They married in a quiet ceremony in December 1852, and settled in Cincinnati, where Rutherford's law practice grew along with their family. The couple had eight children—seven sons (three of whom died in infancy) and one daughter—in the course of 20 years.

The early years brought the couple in contact with the city's art and literary set, and it is said that Lucy was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson. During this time, the burgeoning feminist movement caught the attention of Rutherford's sister Fanny Hayes , who took her sister-in-law along to a number of famous speeches on women's rights. Lucy Hayes was so moved by Lucy Stone 's lecture on improving women's wages that, in a letter to her husband, she defended "violent methods to achieve change."

When Rutherford put his law practice on hold to support the Union cause in the Civil War, Lucy followed when family demands allowed. She endeared herself to her husband's regiment, tending the wounded, sewing uniforms, and writing letters. The men referred to her as "Mother Lucy" and would present her with an inscribed silver platter on her 25th wedding anniversary, which was celebrated in the White House.

After the war, Rutherford reluctantly entered politics as a member of Congress, and his new career progressed steadily. Lucy sometimes left her children with relatives so she could join him in Washington. A staunch abolitionist, she sat in the gallery to watch the Congressional debates on Reconstruction. When her husband was elected governor of Ohio, she traveled throughout the state visiting prisons and mental hospitals, and collecting contributions for a home for children displaced by the war. During his 1876 presidential campaign, she was lauded for her ability to talk intelligently about politics and was compared favorably to Sarah Polk . Rutherford Hayes was elected president by a slim margin over Samuel J. Tilden as the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The race was so close that a commission had to decide the winner.

The temperance issue seemed to overshadow everything else in the Hayes administration. Although it was a way of life for the first family, the ban on alcohol in the White House was not easily downplayed. It captured the attention of press mills across the country, as did Lucy's early morning prayer meetings and Sunday evening hymn sings. Although Washington society may have found the Hayes administration dull, temperance was a popular issue of the day, and "Lemonade Lucy," as the first lady was dubbed, won as many friends as critics. She never officially joined the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), possibly due to their reputation for militancy, or maybe because she had slightly more tolerance for the opposition than did her husband.

Lucy's early support of equality for women evidently did not extend to suffrage, and her silence on that front angered leaders in the movement. It is said that when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to the White House to discuss issues with the president, Lucy's only participation was a house tour after the meeting. Despite her popularity and the countless requests made of her to promote women's issues, Lucy opted for a less controversial role. She began what is now an annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn, and aligned herself with social issues such as Native American welfare, veterans' benefits, and rehabilitation of the defeated South. She also kept an ornate scrapbook detailing official White House functions, including seating arrangements and menus. The book, now on display at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, was borrowed and duplicated during the Reagan administration.

Rutherford Hayes stuck to an earlier resolution to serve only one term as president, and he and Lucy returned to Ohio in 1881. During the subsequent Garfield administration, a portrait of Lucy Hayes commissioned by the WCTU was presented in a White House ceremony, with high praise of the former first lady. The Illinois Chapter also gave her six gilt-edged volumes containing autographs and tributes to her pro-temperance stand from celebrities throughout the nation.

In later years, Lucy continued to devote time to bettering prison conditions and aiding veterans of the Civil War. She also served as president of the Woman's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, formed to work for poor and destitute women in the United States. Lucy Hayes died suddenly in 1889, of a massive stroke, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Fremont, Ohio. Her husband died in 1893 and was buried beside her.

sources:

Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Wives. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.

McConnell, Jane and Burt. Our First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Lady Bird Johnson. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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