Rutherford B. Hayes Comments on the 1877 Railroad Strike

In this 1877 excerpt from Rutherford B. Hayes' diary, the President notes the positive qualities of the railroad men who are on strike, but sees their actions as detrimental to those who wish to work. He also wonders what actions could be taken to "end or dimish the evil" of strikes.

August 2, 1877. Soldiers' Home. — On our return from our Boston and Harvard trip, the last of June, we came out to the Soldiers' Home for our summer residence. It is an agreeable abode for the hot weather. Our month here has passed away swiftly. Ruddy and Fanny went with Emily and Ruddy Platt to Ohio just as the strike was breaking out, about the 18th of July. They passed through Pittsburgh only about twenty-four hours before the dreadful events of that awful Sunday. Fanny will stay with Laura during the hot weather, either at Columbus or Gambier.

August 5. Sunday. Soldiers' Home. — Brown, a good artist, who painted General Clingman for the Corcoran gallery, finished a bust portrait of me Friday. It is, perhaps, the best yet painted. He painted [it] as a study for a full-length portrait for the Corcoran gallery. Thus far the best portraits have been painted by Witt (several), by — (three), Andrews of Steubenville, one, full-length, and now this, perhaps the best, by [Carl] Brown.

The strikes have been put down by force; but now for the real remedy. Can't something [be] done by education of the strikers, by judicious control of the capitalists, by wise general policy to end or diminish the evil? The railroad strikers, as a rule, are good men, sober, intelligent, and industrious. The mischiefs are: —

  • 1.Strikers prevent men willing to work from doing so.
  • 2.They seize and hold the property of their employers.
  • 3.The consequent excitement furnishes an opportunity for the dangerous criminal classes to destroy life and property.

Now, "every man has a right, if he sees fit to, to quarrel with his own bread and butter, but he has no right to quarrel with the bread and butter of other people." Every man has a right to determine for himself the value of his own labor, but he has no right to determine for other men the value of their labor. (Not good.)

Every man has a right to refuse to work if the wages don't suit him, but he has no right to prevent others from working if they are suited with the wages.

Every man has a right to refuse to work, but no man has a right to prevent others from working.

Every man has a right to decide for himself the question of wages, but no man has a right to decide that question for other men.

I grow more conservative every day on the question of removals. On ex parte statements, I have made mistakes in removing men who, perhaps, ought to have been retained, and in appointing wrong men. Not many removals have been made. Less than by any new Administration since John Q. Adams. But I shall be more cautious in future; make removals only in clear cases, and appoint men only on the best and fullest evidence of fitness.

There are some points on which good men, North and South, are agreed — generally are agreed, — for it is not given to men that allgood men should be agreed on any question relating to public affairs.

  • 1.We agree that it is not well that political parties should be formed on sectional lines.
  • 2.That it is not well that parties should divide on color lines.
  • 3.That we should not divide on any line or principle of division which inevitably leads to (contest) conflict, which can only be settled by the bayonet.

August 8, 1877. Soldiers' Home. — A common slang word is "polafox" —to deceive, to swindle, or the like. In the Hayne debate I see that Holmes and Barton speak of Polafox (perhaps a character in Don Quixote). Is not this the origin of the word?

MY DEAR S —:— I have yours. If anything can be done to remove the distress which afflicts laborers, and to stimulate enterprises, I am ready and not afraid to do my share towards it. Let me have your views.

Mr. Smith had written August 8: — "A new phase is given to the financial question by the labor troubles. . . . Capital is more timid than ever, and all enterprise seems to be dead. . . . It is claimed that the doubt as to the financial policy of the Government has much to do with this. The business men generally do not advocate inflation, nor do they favor resumption under the law. They want some sort of stability for a definite period, so they can know what to calculate on. Then they can go into business with confidence. How shall this end be reached? If capital is not employed, what will become of artisans, mechanics, and laborers of all kinds? . . . Here is presented to you a problem of greatest difficulty, involving the happiness of the people."

Sherman wrote to Jones [collector of the port at Chicago, asking his resignation] last Monday. Nothing from him yet. I shall be at White Mountains and Vermont next week—[to be] absent about ten days.


R. B. Hayes.

About this Document

  • Source: Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Nineteenth President of the United States
  • Author: Rutherford Birchard Hayes
  • Editor: Charles R. Williams
  • Publisher: The Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, Press of the F. J. Heer Printing Company
  • Published: Columbus, OH
  • Citation: Volume III 1865-1881
  • Date: 1924