In the postwar Rutherford B. Hayes was twice-governor of Ohio and retired to private life after his second term. In early 1875 Republicans encouraged the vain Hayes to run again for a third term, assuring him that it would not require him to give up his private business – and that he would be the most prominent candidate for president in 1876. Hayes viewed anti-Catholicism as a shrewd campaign strategy and it is interesting to note that the Republicans depended greatly upon German Protestants in their war against the South, with their anti-Catholicism being a plus. Also, the Republican party had absorbed the anti-Catholic Know Nothing party in 1854.
The Anti-Catholic Party
“The day after his nomination [for governor, Hayes] wrote of the approaching contest: “The interesting point is to rebuke the [Democrats] by a defeat for subserviency to Roman Catholic demands.” It need not be thought that Hayes himself was necessarily a bigot; but he certainly intended to exploit the bigotry of others.
Earlier in the year the Democratic legislature had adopted the so-called Geghan bill to permit Catholic priests to minister to the spiritual needs of inmates of the Ohio Penitentiary and other State institutions, whereas previously only the officially appointed chaplains, Protestants always, had possessed the privilege. Hayes proposed to capitalize on the situation by refocusing that fear onto an institution much closer to home than the State prison.
The strategy of the campaign was really quite simple. An ambitious lawyer in Canton, Ohio, named William McKinley, explained it best: “We have here a large Catholic population which is thoroughly Democratic, a large German element that hitherto have been mainly Democratic, they hate the Catholics – their votes we must get.”
Throughout the campaign Hayes adjured his supporters: “We must not let the Catholic question drop out of sight. If they do not speak of it, we must attack them for their silence. If they discuss it, refer to it, they can’t help getting into trouble.” Hayes personally supervised the preparation of leaflets on the subject.
Hayes was elected by a plurality of about five thousand votes out of half a million cast. The professional politicians of the Republican party promptly discovered the “Catholic question” in Pennsylvania and other northern States.
Just as his friends had prophesied, the new governor of Ohio was immediately spoken of as a presidential candidate.
(The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction, Keith Ian Polakoff, LSU Press, 1973, excerpts pp. 34-36)