America’s Most Famous Forgettable President

Nelson Lewis Rutherford B Hayes

Rutherford B Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes isn’t a terribly memorable President.  Really, the most interesting thing about this one-termer was that he was one of the four Presidents in US history to lose the popular vote, but still win the electoral (the other three times being John Quincy Adams in 1824, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and, most recently, George W. Bush in 2000).  From the beginning, his Presidency was ill-fated; as part of the compromise that allowed him to take office, Hayes was only allowed to serve one term.  And during that time, he didn’t do a whole lot in the US, being reduced to nothing more than a footnote in the history books.

In another part of the world, however, Rutherford B. Hayes is a very big deal: the tiny South American nation of Paraguay.  They revere Hayes as a national hero, with cities, regions, postage stamps and even soccer teams being named in the former President’s honor.  I recently came across an article discussing this bizarre phenomenon, where a forgettable President received almost godlike adoration from a country most Americans rarely think about.

Back in 1864, the dangerously ambitious (and many would argue completely insane) President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López, led his country into a massive war that pitted the small country against Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina in a “War of the Triple Alliance”.  The war ended in 1870, with the death of López and the victorious Triple Alliance claiming massive chunks of the defeated country.  Paraguay was devastated by the conflict; an estimated ⅔ of the country’s male population was killed in the fighting, and it took decades for the country to recover from the war’s chaos and demographic imbalance.  In 1877, when Hayes took office, the country was still reeling from its losses.  Argentina tried to claim the Chaco, a vast wilderness region in northern Paraguay.  Since there was no United Nations or World Court at this time, the two sides asked Rutherford B Hayes to mediate the dispute.

When asked to mediate the dispute, Hayes sided with Paraguay, giving the country 60 percent of its current territory and, in the eyes of many Paraguayans, helped to guarantee this tiny South American nation’s survival.  Amongst Paraguayans, Hayes is now regarded as an immortal figure.  In the city of Villa Hayes, named in the President’s honor, there is a museum where his portrait hangs, and there’s a copy of his handwritten decision favoring Paraguay.  The day the decision was signed, November 12, 1878, is now a holiday in the city of Villa Hayes.  Many Paraguayans are astounded that in the US, so few people know (or care) about President Hayes.