President Rutherford B. Hayes, National Hero Of… Paraguay?!
The US President More Celebrated in South America than in the United States of America
In Paraguay, a poor landlocked nation in South America, just north of the capital city of Asuncion, is a town called Villa Hayes (or Hayesville). It is the capital of the Department (state) of Presidente Hayes. Though Paraguay has a long and fascinating history, they have never had a president named Hayes. The town, department, professional soccer team, elementary school, and various statues, are all dedicated to US President Rutherford B. Hayes.
It would be difficult to imagine a US president less likely to be a celebrated hero. Rutherford B. Hayes, also known as “Rutherfraud,” became president in 1877, after a hotly contested election against Democrat Samuel Tilden. Tilden won the popular vote, and had 184 electoral votes, just one short of the majority that would give him the election. Hayes had 165 votes, with 20 disputed votes spread across four states. The country was ill-equipped to recount ballots in states as far apart as Florida and Oregon. The investigation soon became mired in competing corruption schemes.
With no clear resolution in sight, and the country in need of a president elect, the next President of the United States was chosen in the most undemocratic way possible: Democrats consented to allow the 20 remaining votes to go to Hayes, giving him a 185-184 victory in the Electoral College. In exchange, Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the south, effectively ending Reconstruction.
Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, federal dollars and federal troops flooded the south, trying to rebuild the infrastructure, and protect the political and social rights of over four million newly freed former slaves. The compromise that gave the presidency to Hayes ended any efforts by Republicans to continue to act on behalf of freedmen. This left the south in the hands of Redeemer Democrats who lost no time in codifying and institutionalizing racist and segregationist policies that effectively barred Black Americans from participating in the social, economic, and political life of the nation until the Civil Rights movements of the mid-20th century.
Meanwhile, Paraguay was suffering an even worse fate. For decades after winning independence from Spain, landlocked Paraguay pursued an isolationist policy. While all of their neighbors did their best to emulate European nations, racking up European debt and falling ever deeper under European influence, Paraguay blazed its own path, creating a remarkably stable society, and achieving economic independence. For 26 years, the eccentric but effective José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia strove to create a utopian society. Upon his death in 1840, the López family continued his policies, until Francisco Solano López gained power in 1862. Fancying himself a second Napoleon, Solano López provoked a war with much larger neighbors Argentina and Brazil, over Brazil’s invasion of Uruguay. Far from showing gratitude, Uruguay joined Brazil and Argentina in what became known as the Triple Alliance.
What followed was a systematic extermination of the Paraguayan populace. Funded and supplied by Great Britain, which saw this as an opportunity to increase its economic domination of the region, the Triple Alliance pushed slowly into Paraguay. For their part, Paraguayans, fiercely loyal to their president, fought with fanatical intensity. The war cost Paraguay over half of its population, and led to the deaths of over 90 percent of adult male Paraguayans. It also led to massive territorial losses to Brazil and Argentina.
And this is where President Hayes steps in. Though the War of the Triple Alliance ended with the death of Solano López in 1870, the cession of territory remained in dispute for years. Finally, in 1877, President Hayes was asked to arbitrate. Hayes found in favor of Paraguay, securing what now constitutes over half of Paraguay’s national territory. This would prove to be the only mitigation of the nearly complete disaster for the nation of Paraguay. Though it kept its territorial integrity, Paraguay lost nearly its entire male population, and though it nominally kept its independence, it would spend the next several decades dominated politically by Argentina and Brazil, and economically by Great Britain.