“A Respectful Deference”: President Rutherford B. Hayes Visits Los Angeles, 24 October 1880

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club inaugurated its sixth year with the first discussion of a three-part series of books about American presidents.  With all of the high drama going on lately with the impeachment of the current chief executive, this is a particularly interesting time for the club to have this theme.

The book under discussion is Michael Wolraich’s Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics and his work examines a fascinating period of division in the G.O.P. as the nineteenth century yielded to the twentieth and Gilded Age economic disparities and Wall Street influence in national politics led to the rise of Progressive Republicans.

Theodore Roosevelt, who became vice-president when President William McKinley was inaugurated in March 1901 to his second term, ascended to the high office when McKinley, who took a victory lap around the country, including a high-profile visit to Los Angeles in May, was assassinated in Buffalo in September.  Roosevelt, as most presidents have to do, walked a tightrope between competing interests in his party and more broadly, but, after years of weak presidents, he and McKinley made inroads in developing a strong executive branch.

Los Angeles Herald, 13 October 1880.

My discussion today concerned McKinley’s trip to the City of Angels, which included his participation in a reviewing stand during the featured parade during the La Fiesta de los Flores event, a celebration of the region held between the mid-1890s and the World War I period.

Several photographs of the event, specifically concerning the president, as well as one showing McKinley’s trip to the National Soldiers Home in modern Westwood, were displayed for book club participants to see, while I shared some of the coverage of the presidential visit from a post on this blog.

McKinley, however, was not the first president to come to Los Angeles.  Just over two decades prior, the City of Angels was a stop on another extensive tour by the nation’s chief executive.  But, whereas McKinley’s tour was to celebrate his reelection, the trip to several western states and territories undertaken in fall 1880 by Rutherford B. Hayes was something of a farewell tour.

After the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who wielded immense power and remains one of America’s most popular presidents, the office went through a succession of chief executives who were either considered weak and insubstantial or headed administrations rife with controversy and corruption.

Herald, 23 October 1880.

Andrew Johnson, the vice-president who succeeded Lincoln and whose reconstruction policies for the South were vigorously contested by the “Radical Republicans,” was subjected to the nation’s first impeachment in 1868 and survived by just one vote when Senate tallies on three of eleven articles put forward by the House of Representatives were recorded.

Ulysses S. Grant, an immensely popular figure for his role in bringing victory for the Union during the Civil War, served two terms after Johnson, but his administration was tarnished by massive corruption and the effects of the Depression of 1873.

Then came Hayes, a native of Ohio and graduate of Harvard Law School who had a thriving law practice in Cincinnati.  Hayes distinguished himself on the battlefield during the Civil War, being wounded several times and achieving the rank of brevet major general.  He was even elected to the House of Representatives while still in the military and served a single term during the difficult postwar period.

He returned to Ohio and became the state’s governor during three terms between 1867 and 1876 and his war service, loyalty to the G.O.P. and what has been called his “safe liberalism” propelled him back in the national political spotlight during the 1876 presidential campaign.  He became the nominee of the Republican Party and squared off against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York.

Herald, 24 October 1880.

Given Republican dominance since 1860 and the scandals of the Grant Administration, Tilden won the popular vote by just shy of 300,000, but the chair of the Republican National Committee exploited a loophole in the electoral college system as there was uncertainty about votes in three southern states: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

Amazingly, Hayes had to get every single vote to win the election, which seemed all but impossible, but the matter droned on into the new year with no resolution until Congress created a special commission to resolve the matter.  Composed of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, a party-line vote delivered all of the electoral college votes in the three states to Hayes, giving him 185 votes to Tilden’s 184.  Backroom dealings involving promises of a cabinet post to a Southern Democrat, more federal jobs to Democrats, federal subsidies to southern states and the removal of federal troops installed during Reconstruction in Louisiana and South Carolina, sweetened the deal.

With the election controversy over, Hayes turned to the task of phasing out the incredibly complicated and emotion-laden Reconstruction.  He promised to protect southern blacks, but also pledged to restore self-rule to the readmitted states.  The withdrawal, moreover, of federal troops kept in the south for years to keep some semblance of order further made the situation more untenable.  Ultimately, black southerners were subject to racist and highly restrictive Jim Crow laws and southern Democrats tightened their political control in the region.

Hayes also tried to introduce more of a system of merit for federal jobs, rather than patronage, but his civil service reforms met with growing hostility, including from a New York senator whose machine included a plum job as port collector for Chester A. Arthur, who later served as a particularly undistinguished president after the assassination of James Garfield.

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Herald, 24 October 1880.

Finally, the nation’s economy, badly battered after the onset of the Depression of 1873, did not improve markedly during the second term of Grant nor during the Hayes years.  The president battled with Congress over an issue of minting silver coins, which had been discontinued, with Hayes promoting a gold standard for currency.  Though he vetoed legislation allowing for silver coinage, Congress overrode it.

Upon his inauguration in March 1877, Hayes pledged to serve just a single term and honored that promise, though any attempt at securing his party’s nomination in 1880 may well have been futile.  So, his tour of the western states just prior to the election allowed the president to enjoy some badly needed respite from the hornet’s nest of politics in Washington and whatever positive feeling he could reap from his trip among the populace out west.

Initially, the plan was for Hayes to reach Los Angeles on Monday, 18 October 1880, and then the following day, but one of the organizers of the excursion, General William Tecumseh Sherman, another Civil War hero whose brother was Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury and who spent time in California early in his military career, telegraphed on the 18th to the reception committee’s chair, John E. Hollenbeck, that there was a late change to the itinerary to allow for the president and first lady to see Yosemite, the country’s first national park.

Sherman added that the presidential party would “reach Los Angeles early Saturday morning” so that it could “spend say six hours in driving about to go to the orchards, gardens, etc., then go in our car to San Gabriel to make a hasty visit to General [George] Stoneman and Mr. Rose, leaving that night for Yuma [and] Tucson.”  Stoneman was another Union general during the Civil War and Leonard J. Rose, among the most prominent citrus growers and citizens of the region through his Sunny Slope ranch, is the namesake of modern Rosemead.

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Herald, 24 October 1880.

This was a grave disappointment for many in Los Angeles, including the organizers of the Los Angeles County Horticultural Fair, held in a recently built pavilion on Temple Street atop the hills west of downtown, who planned for the president to open the fair.  Plans for a parade, a formal public reception and other elements were also scotched.

It was decided that a delegation of city officials, including Mayor James Toberman, members of the city council, among them William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and mayor in 1887-88, and ex-governor John G. Downey, would greet the president at the train station at 9 a.m.

A two-hour carriage ride through the city, to see orange groves and gardens, would end at “the Park,” this being Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park, for a “parade of stock,” apparently cattle, sheep and horses.  At 1 p.m., President Hayes and the First Lady were to greet citizens, including a short speech from Hayes from the balcony of their hotel.

Herald, 28 October 1880.

Following this, the party would proceed to the Horticultural Pavilion to visit the fair, after which the Hayeses “will then taken in carriages to the Mission and places in that neighborhood, or will be escorted to his car, as he may prefer.”  Almost petulantly, the Los Angeles Herald, a Democratic newspaper, added, “there will be no procession, no reception by the schools, and no attempt at display.”

This was the same paper that, on 13 October, sniffed that “President Hayes thought it expedient to show that his presence is not necessary to any movement of the administration, by coming out to the Pacific Coast, and spending a couple of months here,” a fact that, the Herald claimed, demonstrated “that he is only a fifth wheel to the governmental wagon.”  If a President Tilden, though, had made the trip, who knows how differently the paper would have felt?

In its coverage of the visit, the Herald reminded readers of all the scrapped plans and added that the train arrived two hours early, with the first greeter “a native Californian,” the mention of which seemed intended to show how poorly planned the whole affair was, as if meeting a Latino first was a grand disappointment.  There was a sizable crowd to greet Hayes, however, by 9 a.m. when city officials and dignitaries rolled up and entered the president’s rail car for introductions.

Los Angeles Express, 22 October 1880.

Disembarking and climbing into carriages, the party then headed into the city followed by Conterno’s Band, as the caravan made its way into “the southern suburbs.”  As the procession moved through town, the paper stated,

a respectful deference was paid to the President on every hand, the gentlemen mostly doffing their hats and some of the ladies waving their handkerchiefs.  The President bowed to the right and left, and a portion of the way down Main Street stood up in his carriage uncovered.

A stop was made at the orange grove of the Wolfskill family, the first commercial orchard in California when it was planted in 1841 and which, during the Boom of the Eighties, was sold and subdivided (it is now in a gritty industrial area).  At 10:30, having stopped briefly at a newly opened Methodist college called the University of Southern California, the party arrived at Agricultural Park, where, it was said, “less than 200 people” were waiting.

Express, 23 October 1880.

There, the president went inside to meet the Agricultural Society board, headed by James de Barth Shorb, whose property includes today’s Huntington Library, and their wives.  After a review of cattle and horses, the president and first lady went for a short rest at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and much was written about the decor in the hostelry in honor of Hayes and his party.

At 1 p.m., the president spoke from a balcony at the Baker Block, an ornate French Empire structure where the El Palacio adobe of Abel Stearns long stood before it was torn down by the second husband of Stearns’ widow, Arcadia Bandini.  The block sat where U.S. 101 goes under Main Street, just south of the Plaza, today.  Hayes cut short his remarks to allow Secretary of War Alexander Ramsey and Sherman to give addresses, though cheers from the assembled encouraged him to say a little more about California and its place in the Union.  Then the visit to the Horticultural Fair was made and lunch was taken there, as well.  At 3 p.m., the party headed out to San Gabriel to see the mission and visit Stoneman and Rose and then departed for Arizona from there.

While the paper reported that Ramsey earned prolonged cheers for his praise of the greater Los Angeles area and California broadly, it had something quite different to say in its edition of the following day, Sunday the 24th:

Secretary Ramsey put his foot into it yesterday . . . in the course of his remarks he said that California “needs water and better society.”  “So does h-ll,” yelled someone in the crowd.  The supposed to be humorous Secretary of War then started in to qualify and smooth over his clownish speech, with very poor success.  We can assure Secretary Ramsey that California society is a huckleberry above the fraud persimmon of which he is a representative.

Later, the Herald hurled raspberries at the Los Angeles Commercial, a short-lived paper, for making reference to Hayes’ visit in terms of a ruler surveying his dominions and excoriated “the slavishness” of the account.  The Herald concluded that “there is something luscious in the complete surrender of all Republican simplicity and manhood involved in such a way of speaking of the President and of the country.”

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Express, 23 October 1880.

Lastly, the paper couldn’t leave Hayes out of its ironic and sarcastic editorializing, noting that 500 Chinese listened to his speech at the Baker Block and insinuating that this made Hayes a friend of the Chinese, and further opining that

Now that the fashion has been set of having de facto Presidents visiting California it is to be hoped that future Presidents, who will be de jure as well as de facto, will in that single respect imitate the example of President Hayes.  Then there will be a regular groundswell of cordiality.

Notably, the coverage of the Los Angeles Express of the day’s events was the same as that of the Herald, but the former, being an evening paper, published first on the 23rd, with the latter appearing the following morning.  The editorial from the Express, however, is interesting in several ways.  After noting the disappointment in the delays of the president’s visit, the paper observed that Hayes could only get the briefest exposure to the “natural attractions” and “historical interest” of greater Los Angeles.  It added, however, that:

He can here see, in striking contrast, a picture of two civilizations—one rapidly passing away on American territory, and the other, young, vigorous, progressive and looming up into giant proportions.  Nothing so deeply arrests the attention of the stranger as to take his position at the plaza and behold on one hand the relics of the period when Los Angeles was a little Mexican village, and on the other the monuments of a rising, busy handsome American city . . . the President will be enabled to appreciate the great forces that are now propelling our country onward when he compares the grim quiet of “Sonora’ [Sonoratown, north of the Plaza] to the restless activities of new Los Angeles . . . as it is the first time this section was ever honored by the visit of a President of the United States, we only regret that, for his own sake, he cannot remain with us long enough to enjoy all the surprises in scenery and improvement of which our country can so justly boast.

The Express was a Republican paper, so its view of Hayes and his visit to the City of Angels was, naturally, far more benign, though its coverage of the presidential excursion was much more about promoting the region than showing enthusiasm for a chief executive whose popularity in his own party was lukewarm at best.

Express, 25 October 1880.

So, for a first presidential trip, the Hayes excursion was hardly the celebratory expression that would be found two decades later when William McKinley came to Los Angeles and was the subject of adoration by the city’s residents (it is also noteworthy that the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times, which was launched the year after the Hayes trip, was a native Ohioan who hosted McKinley and the first lady at his home).  It is worth concluding, though, the McKinley was something of a protege of Hayes, who recognized the younger man’s gifts as a politician and orator.

It is strange, however, that there appears to have been no photographs taken of the Hayes visit, unless someone out there happens to know of one?

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