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Commentary: A day for all presidents, even Hayes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 18, 2013 - Although Presidents’ Day is set aside to honor all U.S. presidents, the day is usually associated with Lincoln and Washington, two of our better known leaders. This is because the holiday is celebrated in February right around their birthdays, plus historians tend to rank them as our best presidents.

But we need to be remember all of our presidents including such forgotten former leaders as Rutherford B. Hayes, our 19th president. Time magazine recently included Hayes in its 10 forgettable presidents list. (I don’t remember who else made the cut.)

This may have something to do with the fact that little of significance happened during his administration. OK, the first telephone was installed in the White House but he had few people to call. Hardly anyone else had one. And the first White House Easter egg roll took place during his administration although that was more his wife’s doing.

What Hayes is most remembered for is his “victory” in the election of 1876.

That contest pitted the Republican Hayes against the Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden who had been nominated at his party’s convention in St. Louis.

Tilden was the odds on favorite to win.

But the election turned out to be very close. Tilden actually won the popular vote and was leading in the electoral college with South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida in dispute. (Florida often seems to be a problem.) To resolve the controversy, a 15-member special election commission was established. It voted 8-7 along party lines, and Hayes was awarded all three states. That gave him an electoral college victory of 185 to 184.

It is widely believed that a secret “Compromise of 1877,” enabled Hayes to win in exchange for his withdrawing the remaining federal troops from the South. He did, thereby ending Reconstruction.

Hayes’ detractors took to calling him “Rutherfraud” after the election. The Republicans then lost the midterm elections and Hayes effectively became a lame duck president, which ensured that history would forget his time in office.

But don’t tell that to the people of Paraguay. They love the guy.

Paraguay is a landlocked little nation in South America that is best known for harboring Nazis after WW II and for ... well that’s about all it’s known for. But in the time of Hayes it was ruled by a dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez, who had ambitious dreams for his small country as well as big worries regarding his much larger neighbors, Argentina and Brazil.

In the early 1860s, Lopez was in the process of westernizing his country while striving for economic self-sufficiency. He was also expanding and modernizing his military to block expansionist ambitions that Argentina or Brazil had toward Paraguay or its ally Uruguay. In 1864, Lopez warned Brazil to stop meddling in Uruguayan affairs, saying he could not accept a Brazilian invasion of Uruguay.

Brazil invaded anyway and Paraguay declared war on it in October 1864. I’m not sure if Lopez had completely thought this through, because to help Uruguay the Paraguayan army would have to march through Argentina. That country was historically suspicious of Brazil but decided to ally with it this time. Therefore, Argentina refused to allow the Paraguayan army to cross. So Lopez declared war on Argentina, too. In May 1865, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which was now reduced to puppet status, formed the “Triple Alliance” and vowed to destroy Lopez’s army and government.

This hardly seemed like a fair fight, after all it was three against one. Paraguay had a population of only 500,000 at the time -- less than one-twentieth the size of the Triple Alliance. And it had a much smaller industrial base and no way to import weapons. But Lopez’s army was the most powerful in Latin America scored impressive victories in the first phase of the war.

But the Triple Alliance’s significantly greater resources wore the underdog down and by the end of the five-year struggle Paraguay was destroyed. The “War of the Triple Alliance” was the bloodiest conflict in the Western hemisphere after the American Civil War. It is estimated that Paraguay lost two-thirds of its people during the war, the largest percentage loss in modern history.

After the war, the Brazilian army occupied Paraguay until 1876. During the lengthy occupation, treaties were signed that gave large portions of territory to Argentina and Brazil. But they couldn’t come to an agreement over who should own Paraguay’s Chaco region, which is approximately the size of Florida. So they asked the United States to mediate the dispute.

The U.S. awarded the land to Paraguay and it now comprises more than one-third of that country’s territory. President Hayes may not have had anything to do with the decision. But it was he who signed the mediation agreement on Nov. 12, 1878, and for that the people of Paraguay are eternally grateful.

To this day Rutherford B. Hayes is a hero of Paraguay. There is a province, and a city named after him as well as numerous buildings and streets. There is also a football  (soccer) club named after him. Its nickname is Los Yanquis (The Yankees). You can even purchase “Hayes, the Hero of Paraguay” T-shirts ($17.95) and coffee mugs ($13.95) on the internet.

So,  we should still remember Hayes on Presidents' day because he, like all of the men who have led our country, were interesting and accomplished individuals. They all played a role in shaping the world and in making our nation the great country that it is today. All of the U.S. presidents deserve a special place in our history and our hearts.

Viva el Presidente Hayes.

John C. Wade, Wildwood, is a chief financial officer, amateur historian and self-proclaimed expert on the U.S. presidents. Wade is on a number of not-for-profit boards in St Louis including the World Affairs Council and Meds & Foods for Kids. He is a Churchill Fellow and on the board of governors of the National Churchill Museum.