Lucy Webb was born to parents James Webb and Maria Cook in Chillicothe, Ohio, on August 28, 1831. As a teenager, she took classes at Ohio Wesleyan University and later enrolled in Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College; her graduation in 1850 makes her the first first lady to graduate from college.1
Webb first met lawyer Rutherford B. Hayes on Ohio Wesleyan University’s campus, and the two later married on December 30, 1852.2 Their family grew in the following decades, as the Hayeses welcomed eight children to the world: Birchard, Webb, Rutherford, Joseph, George, Fanny, Scott, and Manning. Sadly, only five of them survived to adulthood.3
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lucy encouraged her husband to enlist in the Union Army. He went on to serve in the Twenty-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry.4 Lucy often visited him in camp and assisted wounded or ill soldiers. After the war, Lucy and the children stayed in Ohio while Rutherford pursued a career in politics, serving as a U.S. representative before returning to his home state to serve as governor. Following the turbulent election of 1876, the Hayeses moved into the White House on March 5, 1877.5
A long-time supporter of the temperance movement, Mrs. Hayes banned alcohol in the White House.6 She also took interest in the historic nature of the home, bringing old furnishings stored in the attic downstairs for display and lobbying congressmen to commission a Martha Washington portrait to match Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of President Washington.7 Mrs. Hayes also expanded the White House Conservatory, requesting the addition of a rose house and a violet house.8 As first lady, she also emphasized the importance of charity, donating time and money to fight poverty, encourage education, and promote social reform.
Throughout her life, Lucy Hayes supported African-American rights. Prior to emancipation, she and her husband supported the abolition of slavery, and while in the White House, they invited many more African-American guests than their predecessors, including U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia Frederick Douglass, Senator Blanche Bruce and his wife Josephine, and soprano Madame Marie Selika Williams.9 As one newspaper wrote: “The time has come when negroes are admitted—nay, invited to the White House as guests, equals, visitors…we note the change that fifteen years has wrought.”10
At the end of President Hayes’s term in 1881, Lucy and her family returned to their Fremont, Ohio home, Spiegel Grove. She worked with the Woman’s Relief Association and the Woman's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church. On June 25, 1889, she passed away after experiencing a stroke.11 Lucy was only fifty-seven years old. She is buried alongside her husband at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum at Spiegel Grove.
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JAMES ARCHER ABBOTT is the Executive Director of the Lewes Historical Society in Lewes, Delaware. His publications include JANSEN, JANSEN...