Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th U.S. president, doesn’t get much respect. He’s remembered, if at all, for losing the popular vote in 1876 but winning the presidency through Electoral College maneuvering. That gave rise to his nickname, “Rutherfraud.”
But there’s one place where Hayes stands as a historical heavyweight: in the tiny South American nation of Paraguay.
In fact, an industrial city on the banks of the Paraguay River is named Villa Hayes – Spanish for “Hayesville” – in his honor.
Here’s why: Hayes took office in 1877 in the aftermath of the Triple Alliance War, a conflict that nearly destroyed Paraguay. The country lost huge chunks of territory to victorious Brazil and Argentina. Later, Argentina later tried to claim the Chaco, the vast wilderness region of northern Paraguay.
At the time there was no United Nations or World Court. So the two sides asked the United States to settle the dispute — and President Hayes sided with Paraguay. The decision gave Paraguay 60 percent of its present territory and helped guarantee its survival as a nation, says Maria Teresa Garozzo, director of the Villa Hayes Museum.
“Hayes is a giant,” Garozzo says. “He is a spectacular, immortal figure for us.”
At the museum, Garozzo shows me Hayes’ portrait and a copy of his handwritten decision favoring Paraguay that was announced on Nov. 12, 1878. That day is now a holiday in Villa Hayes, which is the capital of a state called Presidente Hayes.
Next, some of the townsfolk lead me to the local elementary school where a bust of Hayes adorns the courtyard.
There is also a Paraguayan soccer team named after Hayes, while a postage stamp bears his likeness. Hayes is such a big deal that people here find it a little disappointing that most Americans are clueless about him.
Ricardo Nuñez, mayor of Villa Hayes, recalls a recent trip to Washington, D.C., and how people responded when he asked them if they knew about his city’s namesake.
“They say, ‘Who?'” he says, laughing. “‘Hayes? Who is Hayes?'”
Nuñez is even more surprised when I tell him about Hayes’ derogatory nickname.
“Rutherfraud? Wow!” he exclaims. “Amazing!”
After his controversial election in 1876, Hayes served just one term and usually comes in slightly below average in rankings of U.S. presidents. He and first lady Lucy Hayes are best remembered for the changes they brought to the White House, says Nan Card of the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.
“He was the first president to have a telephone in the White House. They banned liquor from the White House, and they began the Easter Egg Roll,” she says.
Although Hayes’ territorial decision was crucial for Paraguay, the issue occupied very little of his time, says Card.
“We’ve looked at his diaries, his letters. There are some Paraguayan books in his collection,” she says. “But I think he depended pretty much on the secretary of state and people on the ground there and then he made the final decision.”
For Garozzo, the museum director, none of that matters.
“We are Paraguay because of him,” she says. “Hayes will never be forgotten.”